Friday, January 27, 2017
Directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Adam Driver as the bus driver Paterson and Golshifeth Farahani as his wife Laura.
PATTERSON is a quiet miracle. Writer-director Jim Jarmasch has fashioned a gentle and poetic evocation to a decent city and its people.
One day while walking home from his daily work as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson (for that is also his name) stops to listen to a poem written by a 10-year old girl waiting for her mother. “Water falls,” she recites, reading from her little notebook, and the simple lines compare falling water to hair falling across her shoulders. “That’s good,” says the admiring Paterson.
He should know. He too is a poet. While waking up over his bowl of Cheerios, while driving the bus, during his lunch breaks, down in his workroom, he thinks about his own poems tucked away in his own notebook. His words, halting and tentative, limn themselves across the screen as he thinks and writes. And if the little girl’s poem sounds like William Carlos Williams, well, then Paterson greatly admires William Carlos Williams. And Paterson the town was once the home of William Carlos Williams. Not that the city boasts of the fact. Rather, another local celebrity, Lou Costello, is privileged with a park and a statue.
But the whole of PATERSON is like a poem by Williams. It celebrates the details and simple incidents in the daily lives of the citizens of Paterson. There’s the local bar owner who plays chess against himself, the lovelorn barfly suffering from unrequited love, the bus manager with his daily recitations of woes, the rapper declaiming in the laundromat. Paterson’s daily routine itself is like a poem, a litany, as it were. He rises in the morning, checks his watch, kisses his wife, eats his cereal, arrives at the bus station, listens to the small talk of the passengers, arrives back home, straightens out the tilting mailbox, and exchanges quizzical glances with Marvin the pug dog. His wife, delicately portrayed by the lovely Golshifeth Farahani, bakes cupcakes for the local farmer’s market and sings “I’ve been working on the railroad” with her new guitar. She decorates her life: She decorates the cupcakes, the guitar, her dresses with an odd black-and-white motif of white circles against a black field.
Nothing much happens in Patterson, New Jersey. There are no big events and conflicts in the town and in the movie, just quiet moments that come and go, hardly noticeable, but cumulative in their collective power. But there is this odd way that the film rhymes itself. By that I mean incidents have a way of repeating themselves. A chance remark by Laura to Paterson about maybe having twins someday is echoed in later moments when twins arrive in Paterson’s bus. The little girl’s “Water Falls” poem repeats itself in moments at the city’s water park. Laura’s dark, rather exotic beauty finds its counterpart in the movie she and her husband attend one night, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, with its “Panther Woman” character. And while the quiet, rather stoic Paterson himself is something of a cipher, we remember the picture of him in a Marine uniform at the moment he disarms the lovelorn barfly after a lover’s spat.
Sometimes a miracle will find its way into the quiet streets and rundown shops of Paterson. They don’t announce themselves with a shout or with shafts of heavenly light. They just come and go, while we’re not looking. One day, while Paterson is sorrowing over the loss of his notebook (Marvin the dog ripped it up one night), he sits disconsolately on a bench in front of the waterfall. A little Japanese man in a business suit sits down next to him. He carries a satchel of notebooks. He asks Paterson if he writes poetry; if he likes William Carlos Williams. And then he gives Paterson one of his notebooks. It’s pages are blank. Paterson thanks him. Renewed, perhaps he will write again. The little man, meanwhile, departs, bound, he says, for Osaka.
From Paterson, New Jersey, to Osaka, Japan. Try to connect those two.
You can do it, but only in a poem.
Thursday, January 12, 2017
Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver.
THE SILENCE is Martin Scorsese’s Heart of Darkness. Unlike Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, who journeys toward “The Horror” in search of the renegade Kurtz, Scorsese presents two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who infiltrate the anti-Catholic savagery of 17th-century Japan in quest of the apostate Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Scorsese purportedly has been trying to bring to the screen this story, based on Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, for 25 years.
"If God hears our prayers, does he also hear our screams?" That question not only dominates a movie filled with the screams of tortured Christians, but it insinuates itself into the entire history of Christianity. Like a modern-day Job (about which more later), Martin Scorsese dares to ask this. But is there an answer . . . or just silence?
The subject in SILENCE of the Jesuit struggle in the 17th century to convert the Japanese to Christianity is not a topic we know much about. Not only was such an incursion resisted, it was savagely denounced. In another context, Bruce Beresford tackled a similar subject in his magnificent BLACK ROBE, wherein the Jesuits’s attempts to bring Christianity to the Indian tribes of Quebec resulted in the disastrous decimation of indigenous cultures through warfare and disease. In both films the introduction of Christianity is nothing less than the overthrow of one world-view and the replacement with another. SILENCE attempts to examine the conflicts and the negotiations in several key debates. The first transpires in a battle of wills between the Portuguese priest, Father Rodriguez, captured and threatened with torture, now fighting for his faith and his life with the wily Japanese Inquisitor. The priest’s attempts to counter the Inquisitor’s enigmatic taunts are rendered foolish. In the second Father Rodriquez finally confronts the apostate priest, Father Ferreira, who is now living with his captors as a Buddhist priest. In what is bound to create controversy among many viewers, Ferreiara defends his apostasy and demonstrates how selfishly indulgent, narrow, and presumptuous are Rodriguez’s arguments. A congruence of the two philosophies is impossible, argues Ferrera. For example, Christianity declares that Jesus came back from the dead after three days. The Japanese view is that God is the sun, which rises every day! Any Japanese person who converts to Christianity is only converting to his own version of the faith, inevitably inflected by his cultural grounding. Christianity may take root in the nourishing soil of the West but it only poisons the soil of the East.
Too many of us are trapped between the Heaven and Hell of our dilemma. I agree with one critic that the most relatable character in the film is neither the priests nor their inquisitors, but the one called “Kichijiro,” who continually appears throughout, begging confession and absolution for his betrayals of the priests. Back and forth, back and forth he goes, acting when it suits him out of faith one moment and renouncing that faith the next. He waffles back and forth between belief and self-preservation; renouncing his religion when it suits him, The effect is almost comic. Kichijiro is enacting the tragedy of being human. And I’m convinced that Scorsese loves him. So do we.
Meanwhile, I wonder if some viewers will come away from the film’s graphic depictions of Japanese tortures convinced that Scorsese is delivering a hate-sermon against the Japanese culture. And if other viewers will conclude that a God seemingly indifferent to human misery is not a God worthy of our faith and devotion.
And yet, and yet . . . For a film whose repeated and graphic scenes of Christian torture and martyrdom will test even the strongest stomachs of viewers, it’s fascinating how so many of the so-called “lost priests” of the Jesuit mission find that the denial of their faith is the only way to spare the horrific tortures of threatening members of their endangered flock. Now there is a true paradox. Indeed, our last view of the burial of the ageing Father Rodriguez, now an apostate living peacefully among his Japanese captors, is of the tiny crucifix secretly concealed in his robes . What are we to make of that?
As I said, Martin Scorsese is his own Job, questioning, like the beleaguered Job in the Bible (and like the captive Jesuits in the film) how God can allow Evil in the world and witness in silence mankind sufferings. The very inscrutability of this becomes its own answer. Are God’s ears deaf to our voice; or are we deaf to God’s voice? Has the silence been broken at all, either way?
In one of his finest works, G.K. Chesterton’s “Introduction to the Book of Job” tackles the problem. He speaks out in words that I believe Scorsese takes to heart: Job’s questions are answered only with more questions. “He is told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” As Chesterton notes further, “This deepening of the mystery is, paradoxically, what actually comforts Job – not only has no explanation been provided, but the world is shown to be even more perplexing than Job had even first thought, and yet he recognizes in this deepening of the mystery of creation some kind of assurance of divine providence.”
Thursday, January 5, 2017
Directed by Mike Mills, starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, and Billy Crudup.
Destined to become a new American classic, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN looks back to the late 1970s and forward to the beginning of the new century. All that transpired in between, feminism, group encounters, social change, drugs, and challenges to gender identity are here, captured in this epic and touching story of a 55-year old single mother, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), coping with cultural change, shifts in relationships with her teenaged son, Jamie, and hesitating about future relationships with men. Bening’s performance is a miracle, an intricately nuanced portrait of a woman that is wry, confused, gentle, angry, and distraught by turns. Sometimes the mother, she is otherwise the child in the ways of a changing world; sometimes the teacher, she is more often the student. It is certainly among the finest performances of the year. I wonder if Bening, who was very much a young lady in the ‘70s, isn’t drawing upon her own experiences during those years; yet here she is, playing a mature woman coping with that world. In short, she meets herself coming and going, the young lady, then, and the older woman, now. This could mean that this film can connect with audiences of both groups.
Although the film is centered in 1979, Bening’ narrative voice keeps flashing forward to the end of the century, anticipating the fates of all those herein. Her large house is populated by several boarders, including Julie (Fannng), an independent girl trying to differentiate between love and sex; Abbie (Gerwig), a punk artist photographer coping with cervical cancer; and William (Crudup), the mechanic below stairs with a hankering for Dorothea. Her son, 13-year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), has a long way to go in understanding his mother, the young ladies (with one of whom he is desperately in love), and his own budding adolescence. He is, in short, surrounded by women, with all the confusions that can entail for a young boy. In the pressure cooker of that house, everyone crowds in upon another.
The wealth of incident and detail defy brief analysis here. Music, books, movies, and television shows (including a prescient Presidential Address by Jimmy Carter (“A Crisis in Confidence”) dot the cultural landscape. There are times when I think in its intelligence and compassion, this is the greatest movie I’ve seen in a longtime, the sort of intricately-tooled tapestry I remember from the 70s movies of Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, and John Cassavetes. But at other times, I must admit, the dialogue and situations become too precious, the characters too precocious, when I can’t recall ever meeting characters like this back in the 70s (unless it was in those movies back in the 70s!).
With the compassion of a Jean Renoir, director Mike Mills shares his love for these characters with us. At the end, we can only shrug our shoulders in recognition of our commonality, and remember with affection the time we have had together. In that regard the rendition by Rudy Vallee of “As Time Goes By” on the soundtrack resonates with a sweetly nice poignancy.