The poet is dead; long live the poet

1.

At first sight Paterson seems to be a film dedicated to simply tell a story, in its somewhat peculiar way. There’s enough dramatic adherence to not alienate a recently re-captivated audience, despite the conversion being fruit of one of the director’s weakest films – Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). In this new fiction film (simultaneously, the director also released the documentary Gimme Danger), these traditional narrative devices are put on display, as seductive baits to a spectator the film knows very well, and who, on their own right, know every well what they’re looking for (or are willing to pay for): there are a few love stories intertwining; a markedly causal ordering of events; a point of view clearly anchored on a protagonist; a meta-irony that’s become prerequisite to the contemporary filmgoer; and a curious openness to an edifying sentimentality that is sometimes surprising in its self-aware delivery, yet succeeds in fulfilling the anxieties of a world in need of any spiritual healing, even if a fake one.

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Paterson (Adam Driver), the main character in the film, is a bus driver in a small town in New Jersey who scribbles the poetry he finds around him on notebooks he hides from the eyes of the world. He lives in a house with limited luxuries, but with enough space for his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who spends time coming up with new habits that will hardly survive the break of dusk, and their dog, who plays the role of the silent observer, imposing structure to that circular quotidian. That quiet and crushing routine towers over Paterson’s questionable talent, keeping him from being the new William Carlos Williams – the great poet who dedicated his life work to that very same city: an unfinished long poem divided in five books, also titled Paterson – in sync with a feeling that perpasses other films by the director, highlighted by the famous faces on the bar wall: what can an artist do with their own belatedness, their anticlimactic arrival in a world where other people have said everything before and better than they ever could?

Yet, something slightly disturbing bubbles under the surface, in the artificiality with which this routine is narrated and presented; something that permanently challenges the possibility of any “story” that isn’t inherently self-reflexive. This benefit of the doubt is soon confirmed: after the first match is struck, darker corners in the short fuse of memory leads the spectator to The Limits of Control (2009), a thesis-film starting with its title and that, despite the rather hostile reception, resists as the director’s best work in the past fifteen years – and which also circles around a matchbox.

In the 2009 film, the archetypical Lone Man played by Isaach de Bankolé is a hit man on a mission guided by nothing but abstract clues, which are open to the most diverse interpretations – a detail that contradicts the precision that’s the very principle of his job. This process mirrors the fruition of The Limits of Control as an irregular genre piece that carries an appearance of conventionality yet refuses the gluttony of self-satisfaction. Not unlike what João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist (2016) does with the adventure genre, the mystery film here is actualized as a film that is itself a mystery. With that, it becomes a reflection of its own reflection, a tool that transmits to the viewer an inevitable lack of control in the apparent control evoked by the cinematography of Chris Doyle, the extremely rigorous visual construction, the constant allusion to the white cubes that museum and art galleries have become, and by the misleadingly baroque structure of the plot.

Such a contrast raises questions that transcend the film: what are the limits of control not only of the artist, but also of the spectator over a work of art? Is Umberto Eco’s well-known concept of the open work of art a guarantee of more or less control for that same viewer? What is their vocation, after all: to decipher a puzzle or to experience an enigma?

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In Paterson, quite the opposite: everything here is openly presented as controlled, despite the main character’s search for lucky accidents that stand out of the usual sameness. In order to do that, the film starts with the most basic definition of poetry as foundation to its mise-en-scène of watching, listening and commuting, which in certain ways defies its narrative wallpaper. According to Wikipedia, “poetry is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language – such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre – to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.” This definition fits Jarmusch’s films quite neatly, with the difference that here the “prosaic ostensible meaning” (“prosaic” as in both ordinary and related to prose, to a narrative – as numbered on the opening paragraph) is too strong to allow poetry to find any room in daily life.

From the symmetry in Laura’s clothes and in the monochromatic patterns she applies to the walls of the house to the organized and predictable routine in the bus, passing by the several twins and pairs who inhabit the city, and the dog who, behind his owner’s back, knocks back the mailbox every single day, the film is indeed composed of rhymes and echoes. The difference is that each of these elements proudly displays the marks of the fingers of the mastermind controlling every single detail in all those apparent accidents, to the point they cannot be accidental at all. This funhouse-mirror-effect holds the advantage of humor: the small differences that escape the repetitions and the unusual quality of the circumstances (the scenes at the bar around the corner; the encounter with the little girl who writes poetry; Laura’s culinary adventures) lend the film a lightness which in the end is very deceiving, because it carries no real meaning.

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After all, laughter, here, is not the peristaltic balm that purges the angst of relatability. It is actually triggered by the discomfort that Tzvetan Todorov uses to define the fantastic: is this the real world, or something entirely different? “The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous”, he wrote in The Fantastic: a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1968). Paterson works to keep that uncertainty in balance from beginning to end, using the relatable potency of conventions to ground the spectator in that state of questioning. In the process, it finds an image that’s quite expressive of its own drama: a chess match one can only win or lose to themselves.

The instability of this abysmal construction can already be found in the textual mirroring generated by the title: Paterson is the title of the film, but also the name of the protagonist, the title of the book he fears to be incapable to write (and it’s worth noting that Paterson, the book, was a deliberate attempt to detach one’s self from an entire poetic tradition and come up with a language that was yet to be defined), as well as the name of the city – a real place, presented at the border of the surreal – where the movie takes place. This sequence of equalities consummates the original will of William Carlos Williams when writing his epic of the ordinary man: “a man is indeed a city, and for the poet there are no ideas but in things. (…) The poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity. The thought is Paterson, to be discovered there”, he wrote in his autobiography. The film is the man who is the city who is the thought, because a film – even more than a poem – can also only think through things, through the presences and absences imprinted on the movie screen.

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As a belated heir of Modernism, Jarmusch naturally won’t let the game end at that, stretching this playfulness until it crosses the screen: Paterson is embodied by Adam Driver, an actor who carries his character’s job in his last name – one of the many layers through which the film affirms the existence of a world outside that of the film (another poet; another Paterson) and whose authenticity is unreachable, yet profoundly desired. The twin elements, the doubles, the repetitions and the metrics all point to an external control that harnesses the film from the outside in, unbeknownst to its characters, in a form of dramatic meta-irony that doesn’t see a way out: with the inevitable triumph of prose over poetry, Paterson chooses to make a thesis about its own failure.

The prosaic dimension maintains the fidelity to the pact of events, but in a certain way their lack of diegetic meaning and deliberate randomness (it’s the one film by Jarmusch that more closely resembles the cinema of the Coen brothers) indicate that the real meaning of the film also exists only outside the film: its failure is its most poignant statement. That does not diminish the defeat – in some way, it makes the film its hostage – yet it gives it some kind of direction, a period to which the film can run to, and that is its sole reason of existence.

But that’s precisely the problem: for Paterson to express what it wants to express, it must fail, become an accessory, a path in service of a beyond that doesn’t necessarily make the journey any more worthwhile. The film is a thought that, unlike William Carlos Williams’ city, only exists outside of things, outside of itself. Yet, at the end, there is a thought and the thought only exists because of the movie – at least to those who live to tell. The strength of Paterson, this filmic thought, is exactly in the impossibility of it being a film. Yet, there is a film, albeit an oxymoronic one.

Behind the feelgood, the “limits of control” point to a strangling of the artist as fruit of the world, and also to a strangling of the possibilities of intervention and transformation that he has over that world. Paterson is not only a film about Paterson, the character – the film we watch with an interest that varies according to each spectator’s taste, since the currency here is evil and old satisfaction – but also, and most emphatically, a movie about the artist’s immobility (Paterson as well as Jarmusch) before an asphyxiating determinism that rejects, or even neutralizes, transformation, surprise and lack of control.

It’s a thesis-film, even more than The Limits of Control, with the difference that the thesis is no longer about the potency of a lack of control that is activated as meaning when it clashes with the viewer, but about an alleged failure or inefficiency of this very same trust, spoiled by the flavor of the week. How can an artist film poetry after billions of YouTube videos that, like the director parodies here, have thrown words over karaoke-like images of waterfalls in slow motion? And what can one do when those waterfalls, the same waterfalls that inspired William Carlos Williams in the origins of his own Paterson, have dried up as likely sources of inspiration, vulgarized as throwaway images that have nothing left to say?

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There’s some cynicism behind the pure exposition of the awareness of one’s limits – an awareness that carries some bitterness from the failure of the altruistic experience of The Limits of Control – which reduces poetry to disenchanted truisms about the debris of an ex-civilization (and Laura’s success at the local market – the vulgarity of cupcakes made by one who can barely cook – cosigns this death certificate). In this suffocated world, poetry seems to be only possible as an accident: a bus that breaks down and changes the plan of the day; a dog that chews notebooks filled with unpublished poetry whose meaning the author kept trying to control, not allowing anyone to read them; a late encounter, symptomatically reminiscent of the end of Stollen Kisses (1968), with an otherness brought to that waterfall for the very same reasons you are there.

Since aesthetic self-reflexivity has already been fully absorbed by the urban structure and the submission to once invisible forms of control (Foucault) that no longer feel the need to hide has been normalized as a form of existence, Paterson seems to wheeze that the only thing one can do is to expose this system as mise en abyme in broad daylight. And even though the gesture is beneath what the cinema of Jim Jarmusch was able to do until fairly recently, even if with clear irregularity, the blue softness of this cinematic sigh doesn’t do such a bad job after all in measuring the tragedies of its own time. May the poet rejoice in the wilted laurels of this new possibility of “success”.

2.

However, poetry craves more. And to the poets that haven’t been, History keeps the example of the poets who are. Right at the beginning of A Quiet Passion, the new feature film by Terence Davies, a family watches an opera from the box seats, in a theater alive somewhere in the 19th century. The camera cranes up, from the singer at the center of the stage to this specific family above it, individualizing those characters in a collective experience, radically displacing the focal point of the audience (in this case, us) to that other tableau.

It’s the second moment of that nature in a film that’s barely started: in its opening sequence, Davies’ camera singled out the protagonist with another gesture of individualization, accomplished with a simple attack of mise en scène, detaching a girl from her classmates with nothing but blocking. The principal (Sara Vertongen) who questioned the girl about her faith highlights this individuality already suggested by the camera: “You’re alone in your rebellion.”

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It’s a literal trope, but here literalness is a matter of principle: the girl is Emily Dickinson (in this first part, played by Emma Bell), the great north-american poet who only had seven, out of several hundred, poems published during her lifetime. Unlike Paterson, who was consumed by self-protection, Dickinson’s drive was buried alive by conservative times. The reactionary face of her present enjoys the opera next to her and her sister, as her father grunts that no woman should expose herself in public like that singer. The two young women chuckle and the spectator can already tell those words will be taken as a challenge – won past her lifetime, marking her name in a tragically male history.

If the movie stopped at that, this noble courage would have acquired a normative dramatic sense in the journey of a hero fated to survive the turmoil of her time. But Emily Dickinson is a poet, and poetry isn’t contained by straight lines. Later on, when the years have already turned Emma Bell into Cynthia Nixon – in a great performance – A Quiet Passion will show the other face: Emily’s father dies and from then on that young girl who challenged the limits imposed by the habits of her community will lock herself in her room, deflecting every external attempt to covert her space. She will stay there, unnegotiably being who she is, until her very last day, despite her sister’s efforts – some of them, rather comical – to break in that self-imposed retreat. But most of all she will keep on writing, having her commas changed in the rare occasions that she was published. 

In all the aforementioned moments, the adherence to Emily’s point of view exposes its own motivation: the exemplary individualization of a character who – with grace, conviction and commitment – refuses to cater to an imposed social expectation. The choice to biograph Emily Dickinson – more specifically, this Emily Dickinson, one who embodies the director’s chaste veneration, even though the details of her biography open hazier possibilities that are no less interest – proposes dissension as a form of protagonism.

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It’s a rather surprising conclusion, because while Terence Davies has always been a filmmaker of detached figures – from the devious characters in his short film trilogy (1976-1983) to the woman in love played by Rachel Weisz in the beautiful Deep Blue Sea (2011) or the farmer by Agyness Deyn in Sunset Song (2015) – this drive toward independence have always been carried like a cross. In A Quiet Passion, this detachment has ripened as an active contrariety, as a political affirmation that doesn’t foresee or works for reconcilement. Once the detour has been triggered, the film focuses on capturing the modulations of that gesture, the social effects (even though the community here is rarely bigger than a house) rippled from the presence of a free spirit. While Paterson saw his creativity being challenged by his place in the world, Emily removes herself from the world as a way to keep the autonomy of her place in it intact.

The fascination the director nurtures for this historical figure who voluntarily runs against the grain, confronting the structures of her own time, and who finds a certain peace, a vocation even, in the daily embodiment of dissent is surprising in tone, but not baffling in any way. Throughout the years, Terence Davies has established himself as a purposefully anachronistic filmmaker, whose gaze seems to belong to a parallel place that, despite extremely conservative (keep in mind how the voice over narration by the director in Of Time and the City, his 2008 documentary about Liverpool, the city he was born in, rejects the Beatles as a synonym of degenerate modernity), has found a paratemporal dimension that his characters, ideas and feelings can bloom.

In his cinema, the world doesn’t stretch for a “before” as much as for a “beside”: his past – the only tense his movies can happen, even when they’re about Liverpool today – is a time that never really happened; his reconstitution is always a few notches above the real, closer to the recreation of a period cinema than of an actual period: the dizzying pace of the dialogue; an imposing elegance in even the most austere settings; a speech that’s always neighboring music; the fluidity of the dimensions, often embodied by the camera movements; the portraits, the funerals and the traumas. If Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) seems like some kind of missing link to contemporary cinema today, it is mostly a sign that contemporary cinema has arrived at a place envisioned by Davies at the distinctive solitude of his time. Hence the solidarity in rebellion: in A Quiet Passion, the director finds in Emily Dickinson a spiritual sisterhood.

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However, in cinema this fraternity can only be manifested through staging. In that regard Emily Dickinson poses a fundamental problem in her exemplarity: the job of a writer is one of the most difficult realities one can film – and the waterfalls in Paterson are there as testament of this struggle in loud CAPS, whose weight threatens the survival of the film itself. It is a job of few actions, of limited representation – the percussive typewriting of The Shining (1980) or Atonement (2007) – and of an interior life that’s even harder to stage – the banal textual interactions in Stranger than Fiction (2006); the projection of a comic book subjectivity in American Splendor (2003); the zillions of films and TV documentaries that make use of “poetic imagery” such as paper blown by the wind, overblown calligraphy and books scattered on the floor…

In A Quiet Passion, the director dodges that aphasia of expression by displacing “writing” from action to embodiment: the person who wrote I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed and I’m Nobody! Who are you? carried within her, in every second of her existence, the talent and intelligence that resulted and these and other poems. To watch the author is above all things to watch a living being, capable of writing what the author has written. That’s the movement made by the film: a sort of reverse psychology that fills the intervals between the verses with the daily life of someone who goes to sleep, wakes up, eats, talks, breathes… and writes.

These findings are translated as mise-en-scène: the tableaux serve as a stage for an intelligence and incessantly performative humor to take place, agitated by a sharp speed of provocation and reaction that contrasts with the immobile serenity of epochal bodies. We are far from the explosive repression of Jane Campion’s stunning Bright Star (2009), and surprisingly much closer to the impossible faithfulness of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007): the interest here is not as much in the life of the poet as it is in living like a poet, capturing her vibration. For A Quiet Passion, writing is a form of life, an ethos that is manifested in every single microsphere of a subject’s relationship with the world… a singularity one doesn’t state; a singularity that is, which deserves the prominence of the center of the frame.

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“Oh my dear, you don’t demonstrate. You reveal,” says the insolent friend (Catherine Bailey) about Dickinson, opening a radical cleavage concerning Paterson: if Jarmusch’s mise-en-scène started from the most basic definition of poetry, Terence Davies poeticizes about what cinema does – reveal, not demonstrate. The poet here does not contemplate the world in search for inspiration; she fights with it, pursuing a harmony that shall never be achieved, but that finds reason in its own restlessness. Poetry becomes a form of life: to wake up at three in the morning to write, immersed in the impression of a world that’s only hers, of a physical individualization of the experience of life, which involves obliterating the surroundings – the noise, the light, an entire outside world that is as palpable as it is metaphorical… an acute focus on the self.

In a recent New York Times article about Bob Dylan’s silence regarding the Nobel Prize in Literature, Adam Kirsch attributed the difficulty in understanding the gesture to a sartrean affirmation of freedom. “(…) being ‘what one is not’ is an abdication of freedom; it involves turning oneself into an object, a role, meant for other people. To remain free, to act in good faith, is to remain the undefined, free, protean creatures we actually are, even if this is an anxious way to live. Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson is precisely that protean creature, governed by a source of freedom that reacts to the status quo, in order not to be determined by it… what we’ve come to know as “authenticity.” While Paterson indicated a difficulty that the poet has in connecting with a world that’s been turned into a simulacrum, A Quiet Passion puts faith in retreating to the endless inspiration found in the artist’s internal landscape: her great vocation, as Kim Gordon would say, is to believe in herself.

However, if writing is a form of life, this unpredictability must contaminate the film in some way. Even though the biopic is a heavy obligation to carry, sometimes burdening the film with contractual obligation (to demonstrate, not to reveal: the flags that mark the beginning and the end of the war), and auteurism can be just as suffocating as the biographical demands, Davies uses the death of the father as a way to flip the movie on its head – a fairly counterintuitive rhythmic reversion that finds a histrionic parallel in another biopic: Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere (2009). The sunny comedy gives way to atmospheric horror that spreads in the darkened rooms of the house, because this a story that proves that “rigorous is no substitute for happiness” (like she says), and the weight of time falls upon those who dare challenge it just the same.

Unlike the karaoke waterfalls, the cupcake stand and the self-protection of never wanting to be read, cinema has more important tasks than to camouflage this weight. Much on the contrary, as often stated by Thomas Elsaesser, what we’ve come to understand as the cinematic experience is a memento mori, a reminder of our mortality: a film that plays from beginning to end, over which we have no control, and therefore must come to terms with the impossibility to retain all we desire.

Yet, even though that’s the effect of irreversibility over the spectator, to film is to conjure up spirits from an eternal past as examples to a collective present. To claim the protagonism of dissension is to declare dissatisfaction with a cinema that’s content to be a mere witness of its time… is to believe that the present can desire more than that. It’s an embittered belief, but a believe nonetheless: “it’s easy to be stoic when no one wants what you have to offer”, says Emily Dickinson, the artist with all her notebooks open, facing up, waiting for readers just as oppressed by the constrictions of their time. But if cinema is a tool that can cut through time, it is up to the director’s camera to highlight the inevitable reticence: the want knows very little about it truly needs.

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