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.
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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To be human is to live with the assumption that, somewhere out there, other people are having more fun than you. These other people sit in VIP lounges enjoying better food, better sex, better clothes, better conversation and better access to all the fun stuff that the world has to offer. This assumption underpins literature’s obsession with what has come to be known as the demimonde (literally the ‘half-world’).
In the 19th Century, operas such as Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) and novels such as Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias (1848) and Le Demi-Monde (1855) described a sub-culture where the bourgeois values of respectability were flouted in favour of a lifestyle based upon decadent self-indulgence, pleasure and self-destructive hedonism. The success of these operas and novels reflect the fear amidst the European middle classes that all of their wealth and their social status came at the cost of being locked out of a world that was much more fun than the world they knew and created around them. The demimonde is as much a fantasy as it is a paranoid delusion; the tendency of the demimondaines to reach a sticky end represents the profound ambivalence that the middle classes felt about their own fantasies of hedonism and rebellion.
This ambivalence continued to hold true as 19th demimondes devoted to sensual indulgence transformed into demimondes based upon fantasies of power and influence. The 20th Century demimondaines were not consumptive courtesans but criminals, business leaders, Soviet officials and intelligence operatives. These were the people who were thought to be the true leaders of the world, those who dwell behind the velvet ropes and who get to have all the fun.
Joe Wright’s Hanna is an espionage thriller that draws extensively upon the idea of the demimonde as part of an exploration of the coming-of-age process. For Wright and his teenaged protagonist Hanna, the world is but a series of partly overlapping demimondes: the world of childhood is the world of the forest and the world of adulthood is the world of espionage. Each of these worlds has its own inhabitants and the viewpoints of these inhabitants are not only perfectly adapted to those worlds, they also help define the character of that world and the beliefs required to survive within it. However, as Hanna attempts to escape childhood and become an adult, the artificial nature of these demimondes becomes increasingly clear and ‘growing up’ becomes not so much a rite of passage as a choice between different – but equally flawed – ways of seeing the world.
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