This week sees the home release of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, his first film since 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive (which I adored). Unlike most of Jarmusch’s recent films, Paterson comes without the sugar-frosting of genre tropes. No vampires, no spies, no cowboys, and no assassins. Just a dude who writes poetry and drives a city bus. My FilmJuice review can be found over here.
There are many paths into an evocative film like Paterson but the one that caught my attention was the relationship between the poet who exists in an oppressively repetitive world where he is just happy to be a normal guy and the wife who spends her days trying to perform the identity of an artist only to have her true calling almost creep up on her. It would have been easy for Jarmusch to unpack this tension in moral terms and so take a swipe at the culture of public performance created by social media but the view he adopts is actually far more nuanced in that it supports the poet who keeps beauty locked up inside his own head as well as the people who feel the need to ‘fake it till they make it’ creatively.
Like many of Jarmusch’s more memorable films, Paterson is episodic, urban and filled with a wry melancholy over the isolation and strangeness of normal lives but Paterson uses those themes to explore the creative process as it plays out in the lives of normal people.
Paterson is a beautifully conceived, beautifully shot, and beautifully acted film that serves as a reminder of how sensitive and humane Jarmusch can be when he isn’t forcing the round peg of his vision into the square holes of popular culture. It is also an interesting piece of cinematic business as while the age of austerity is forever turning the screws and forcing works of art further and further outside of the cultural mainstream, Jim Jarmusch managed to convince Amazon.com to help distribute a $5 Million film about a bus driver who writes poetry.
Before they are made flesh and born into this world, works of art exist as clouds of pure possibility. Every work is born of ideas and the creative process requires artists to make those ideas material through a combination of different elements including plot, character, style, and theme. While certain ideas bond more naturally with certain elements and certain combinations of elements prove more or less popular at certain times, it is the artist who sits at the creative mixing desk and shapes how their idea will move from possibility to actuality.
Humans may be flawed and finite creatures but commerce assumes us to be more broken than we are. One side effect of this great conspiracy of under-estimation is that the marketplace tends to interpret our natural desire for different stories as a desire for different sets of mixes. Thus, mainstream realist literature encourages us to yearn for stories that can only be told with the character slider all the way up while Hollywood encourages us to watch films that require a focus on plot and a narrow explosive-laden visual style. Even art house film falls into this trap by emphasising a certain set of stylistic tics and then giving us more or less character and theme. There may be sound economic and historical reasons for this elemental fetishism but it does tend to encourage the assumption that trade-offs between the different elements represent some sort of zero-sum game. Why else remain wedded to such absurd superstitions as the belief that style can be severed from content or that thematically complex works cannot be stylish, exciting and full of humanity?
The truth is that the basic elements of artistic composition relate to each other in ways that are almost completely unpredictable. Some films – like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – feature no characters, follow no plot, manifest no interest in the world and yet somehow manage to work on every conceivable level. Other works – like The Force Awakens –feature lots of plot, lots of character, a limitless budget for the provision of visual spectacle, a real desire to use mythological tropes to say something profound about human relationships, and yet somehow manage to be boring, empty, and utterly disposable. One film that demonstrates how emphasising certain elements can have unexpected consequences is the (recently re-mastered and re-issued) cult documentary Grey Gardens.
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I like to think of criticism as the art of reaction. The most common form of criticism is the review, a format that limits the critic’s powers to remaining in synch with their audience and explaining whether or not a film or book is likely to prove pleasing to said audience. Another common format is the academic article in which the critic’s powers are limited to discussing a particular work of art in terms of a finite body of theoretical literature.
While these may be the most recognised forms of criticism, critics can articulate their reactions in terms broader than either audience expectation or academic dialogue. At the root, criticism is all about voicing one’s reaction to a particular work of art and explaining the connections that were forged between the work you saw and the memories you have. Little wonder that popular criticism is starting to feature more autobiographical elements: What connection could possibly be more primal than the moment in which a work of art tells you something about yourself?
As someone who has produced a lot of criticism over the years, I find myself drawn to works of art that give me more room to elaborate my own reactions. Some works are well-curated and well-structured articulations of particular ideas that will speak directly to my favoured concerns but others are more elusive and so demand considerably more of me as a critic: The less obvious the connection, the more satisfying its articulation.
James Benning is a filmmaker I had not been aware of until Ian Sales recommended him to me. Born in 1942 and originally trained as a mathematician, Benning returned to university in his 30s before landing a job teaching film. While Benning’s work has been turning heads since at least the 1970s, he appears to have supported himself primarily through teaching and so has been quite adamant in his refusal to chase funding by doing what the film industry expects of its professional filmmakers. Until recently, Benning’s refusal to compromise even extended as far as a flat refusal to allow his films to be seen outside of proper cinemas. In fact, the only reason he stopped working with 16mm film is that the film stock was no longer being manufactured. In a 2012 essay explaining the decision to allow his films to appear on DVD, Benning said:
I’m getting older. It’s easier to give in.
In other words, Benning is a director who is extremely (some might say excessively) reluctant to accommodate his audience. This much was evident from the formal characteristics of the films themselves.
California Trilogy comprises three films about the state of California. The films are all just under ninety minutes long and are all made up of thirty five shots that are all two and a half minutes long. The camera never moves and – according to Benning – none of the shots were staged… Benning simply set up his camera, recorded chunks of Californian space-time, and stitched them together to produce three beautiful and enigmatic works of cinematic art.
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FilmJuice have my review of Arrow’s re-release of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The film revolves around a group of female rock musicians who decide to leave home and try their luck on the LA music scene. What they find is a scene replete with sex and drugs where fame is just as likely an outcome as death. Initially wowed by the glamour and raw sexuality of their new friends and hangers on, the band lose sight of the music and each other before re-discovering themselves and asserting their basic moral character. In other words… it’s the cinematic version of Josie and the Pussycats only without the tunes and satirical edge:
The problem with Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that while Meyer had been working in Hollywood for a few years, neither he nor his screen-writer the film critic Roger Ebert had any idea as to what LA’s sinister underbelly was actually like. Meyer was 48 when Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was released and so the image of Hollywood he wound up ‘satirising’ was one with little or no basis in reality. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not so much humorous as embarrassing in that characters wander around spouting 60s-inspired gibberish like “don’t bogart that joint” and “I’d love to strap you on”. It’s funny enough the first few times but the well is shallow and Ebert’s script keeps digging long after the audience is being served refreshing glasses of dirt. Moving beyond the thin attempts at satire are juvenile attempts at transgression that usually boil down to footage of enormous bouncing breasts and moments of gay panic.
Some critics describe Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as a satire of the LA scene but the satire rarely rises above the level achieved by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, which I assume provided the bulk of Ebert and Meyer’s ‘research’ into 60s counter-culture.
Meyer is a director who reminds me a lot of Roger Corman in so far as his fame seems to be a reflection of financial realities rather than genuine authorial vision. Both directors arrived on the scene after the collapse of the studio system and TV’s wholesale annexation of cinema audiences. Corman and Meyer made money and brought in younger audiences by filling cinema screens with sex and violence and so have come to be hailed as pioneers but the directors of the American New Wave did much the same and yet produced art rather than the grubby, stupid and lacklustre nonsense that we have come to associate with Corman and Meyer. As I say in my review, Meyer deserves credit for developing a vision that was uniquely his own but there really are much better Meyer films than Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This film is unfunny, unsexy, unexciting and egregiously reactionary. Ugh.
I grew up within gobbing distance of the Kings Road and can still remember teenaged punks charging tourists for photos and shitting in doorways opposite what is now an enormous McDonalds. I remember when postcards of London still featured punks and I remember when rising property prices finally rid Chelsea of its art school pretensions and replaced them with the cosmopolitan brutality of a first class airport lounge. I remember the aftermath of the British punk scene but I was too young to appreciate it… all I have to go on is what history has taught me.
Anyone who grew up in Britain during the 1990s will be familiar with the broad narrative beats of British punk history as laid down by the Sex Pistol–Media–Industrial-Complex: From the poorly attended gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall to their expletive-laden appearance on the Bill Grundy Show and on to mocking the Queen’s silver jubilee from the top of a chartered boat. We are familiar with these narratives because they are the origin stories of people who would later become very popular and very successful. The truth about the British punk scene might have endured the deliberate revisionism of Julien Temple’s The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle but it was never going to survive Alan fucking Partridge:
Narratives are easy to steal, history is easy to re-write and the truth will always be closer to the unformed opinions of people who were there than the polished anecdotes of those exact same people twenty years down the line. The truth about British punk may lie buried in interviews and half-forgotten fanzines but part of the truth about one corner of the LA music scene recently returned to DVD in the form of a swanky box set.
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Jim Jarmusch is one of those directors who attract a lot of critical attention despite few critics being fans of their work. You can always identify these directors from the way that reviews of their work often include sentences like ‘a return to form’ or ‘his best film since x’ where x stands for some previously well-received but not necessarily successful film.
Exemplified by the likes of Woody Allen, Tim Burton, and Spike Lee, this type of director invariably has a strong and immediately identifiable vision that seldom seems to translate into great films. We all know what we think of when we talk about the films of Woody Allen and Tim Burton but pointing to a really good Woody Allen or Tim Burton film is quite a lot harder than you’d think given the way that these directors have been allowed to pursue and perfect their cinematic visions. Critics like the idea of this type of director as perfecting a vision is what directors are supposed to do and yet the ability to articulate and explore a personal vision is no guarantee that you will produce interesting films. Some people just have boring visions.
Jarmusch’s vision is as singular as it is identifiable in that many of his films feel like attempts to produce American genre film using the themes and techniques of European art house. For example, 1995’s Dead Man is an ironic deconstruction of the western that dwells on feelings of cultural isolation while the more recent The Limits of Control strips the espionage thriller down to its component parts resulting in a film about beautifully-dressed people wandering around exotic locations in response to some inarticulate conspiracy. Only Lovers Left Alive is neither as minimalist as Limits of Control nor as tongue-in-cheek as Dead Man but it is excellent and precisely what you would expect from a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie.
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Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a film defined by its own logistics. The project began back in 2002 when Linklater decided to bring together a group of actors to portray a family that would age and change with the natural passage of time. Clearly very conscious of the logistical difficulties inherent in keeping a cast together for over a decade, Linklater designed a production schedule that would minimise production time while giving him as much narrative wiggle-room as possible. Thus, rather than working from a fixed script, Linklater would shoot for a couple of weeks every year, re-watch all of the available footage and come up with just enough narrative and scripting to generate another year’s worth of footage. While it is easy to understand why Linklater would choose to approach the project in this fashion, his decision to emphasise flexibility at the expense of focus has resulted in a film that manages to lack both the complexities of real life and the resonance of fictional artifice. Stranded somewhere between the desert of the real and the palace of dreams, Boyhood is little more than a collection of haircuts and games consoles.
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