Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Paterson: The power of a blank notebook

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

If you’re looking for a filmmaker who can accentuate the poetic nature of everyday life, you could definitely do worse than Jim Jarmusch. That’s kind of what his whole career is all about, even when he’s making movies about modern-day samurai or guys escaping from jail. This one is one of his more down-to-earth ventures though, following a regular guy with artistic aspirations through a week of his life.

It’s a pretty low-event movie, one that seems to take place mostly in its main character’s head, and even its most dramatic moment featuring a struggle that’s almost entirely internal. And who better to play a guy of few (verbal) words but one that has a lot going on under the surface than Adam Driver, that most inscrutable (in a good way) of young actors. He plays the eponymous bus driver, who shares a name with his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and while he seems to just quietly go about his work and observe what is happening around him, we see him regularly write poetry in a notebook that he always carries with him, and we hear him read these poems in voiceover, often delivering them in a somewhat halting manner, as if he is still composing them.

And that’s about all there is to the movie. Paterson continues throughout his daily routine, working on his poetry and trying to take inspiration from his hero William Carlos Williams and his surroundings, although he seems to be struggling a bit. And that’s where the slow-moving, internal nature of the movie becomes fascinating. It seems that everyone around Paterson has some sort of artistic pursuit of their own, from his wife and her multiple creative outlets (including fashion, interior design, baking, and music), to a young girl he meets who is also a poet, to the bartender at his evening haunt, whose pursuit of his love of chess may end up causing him some trouble, to a cameo by Method Man as a rapper working on his verses while waiting for his clothes at the laundromat. Many of them also seem focused on fame, with the bartender highlighting famous Paterson natives on the wall behind the bar and his wife dreaming of becoming a country music star. And most of all, the spectre of Williams, who is certainly Paterson’s most famous son in Paterson-the-man’s eyes, stands out as the person whose example he’ll never live up to.

But is that really the point? While Paterson’s wife pushes him to share his poetry with the world rather than hiding it in his “secret notebook,” isn’t art truly about expressing yourself creatively, no matter who is watching? Or is Paterson’s intensely internal nature keeping him from sharing his poetry with anyone else, and he needs a push to get him to acknowledge to the world that he’s more than just a bus driver? Whatever the case, he definitely becomes forced to face himself and do something, and that’s where the movie attains a kind of sublime power, a call to action to not let your artistic gifts lie fallow.

I’m especially fascinated by the film’s repeated use of twin imagery. Paterson encounters several sets of twins throughout his week, as well as other instances of doubling (two bus riders having a conversation in which they each relate an experience in which a pretty woman flirted with them, but nothing came of it; a pair of old ladies sporting similar attire and hairstyles; the bus dispatcher complaining about his personal troubles on multiple days, and so on). At first, this seems like a cryptic detail that highlights the poetry that Paterson sees in the world around him, but then it takes on relevance in relation to his wife’s urges to photocopy his poetry notebook. But after thinking about it, I feel like it’s the world telling Paterson that he is more than one thing; he contains multitudes. He can be a bus driver, and a loving husband, and a friendly guy at the local bar, and also a poet. It’s an empowering realization, and one that we can all take to heart.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Jerusalem: When can I make a pilgrimage to this new holy land?

By Alan Moore
Published by W.W. Norton

Alan Moore is a weird dude, but he's been writing compelling, fascinating stuff for decades now. Most of his body of work has been comics, but his first novel (or was it a collection of interlinked short stories?), Voice of the Fire, was pretty successful, so he apparently decided to go for broke and pour as many ideas as possible into his next work, and Jerusalem is the result, a 1,200-page doorstop of a book that is in turns mindbending, frustrating, and exciting in its sprawl of concepts and styles.

Like Voice of the Fire before it, Jerusalem centers on Moore's hometown of Northampton, England (specifically the working-class neighborhood known as The Boroughs), which he posits as centrally important in the history of Britain, a wellspring for much of Western culture, but a neglected and downtrodden place that is constantly being shat upon and systematically destroyed, possibly leading to the eventual downfall of civilization.

That's a pretty big idea to take in, but it's only one of the crazy concepts that Moore explicates here. While the story jumps around in time, with segments ranging from over 1,000 years ago all the way to the end of the universe (and also beyond time itself into higher dimensions), the story centers around a family native to the area, the Vernalls, and their fitful awakening to the role they play in the relationship between "our world" and the higher realms of the afterlife and the ghosts and spirits that inhabit it. It's an interesting multi-generational story, with everything leading to a climax of a sort, although now that I've finished, I'm still pondering exactly what to make of it all.

The journey from the beginning of the book to the end is definitely worth taking though. It starts with a prologue about Alma and Michael Warren, a brother and sister who grew up in the Boroughs in the 1950s and 60s. The defining incident around which much of the book is built has to do with a day in 1959 in which Michael, at three years old, choked on a cough drop and spent nearly ten minutes in which he was basically dead before being miraculously revived, with no memory of what happened during that time. But nearly 50 years later, in 2006, he has an accident and the memory of those 10 minutes comes flooding back, and it's so crazy that he thinks he might be going insane. He tells the story to his sister, who grew up to be a somewhat famous artist, and she decides to create an exhibition of works about his experiences, one that she says will make everything right that has gone wrong in their dying neighborhood.

But, having defined these two events that are of fundamental import to the story (Michael's near-death experience and Alma's exhibition), Moore proceeds to make us wait before he gets to them. Jerusalem is divided into three "books", and the first one skips around all over the place, focusing mostly (but definitely not exclusively) on members of Alma and Michael's family from earlier generations and their propensity for what seems like madness but turns out to be a knowledge of higher dimensions. This exhibits itself in different ways and to different effects, but it probably comes across most strikingly in a chapter told from the viewpoint of their great-grandfather Snowy Vernall, whose fourth-dimensional experience of his life means that he knows everything that will happen beforehand and simply follows predefined steps with his every action. Fascinatingly, Moore turns this into a beautiful examination of how this type of life would be experienced, describing how he still feels all of his emotions and lives every moment, even though he knows what's coming, and it ends up being a beautiful look at human life as lived without the illusion of free will.

There's plenty of other excellent drama and ideas in this first third of the book, with the perspective shifting in every chapter and jumping around in time to follow not only other members of the Vernall/Warren clan, but other characters as well, including a modern-day Boroughs prostitute, a former slave who emigrated from the United States, a medieval monk who hauled a stone cross from Jerusalem to mark Northampton as the center of England, and a ghost who roams the Boroughs living a strange sort of purgatorial existence.

That last one is one of the more interesting chapters, since it offers a hint at the weird cosmology that Moore has devised here, in which the departed can roam their former haunts and tunnel backward and forward in time, gaining sustenance from a sort of extradimensional fungus that looks like a bunch of conjoined fairies (you can see a depiction of these "Puck's Hats" right next to the title on the book's cover art, which was drawn by Moore). And when Moore finally comes back around to what happened during young Michael's near-death experience, you understand that he has been laying the groundwork for Book Two, which functions as an extended trip through the afterlife, a higher dimension known as Mansoul.

Book Two functions as one of the travelogues that Moore is famous for (think of William Gull's tour of London in From Hell, or, perhaps more analogous to this book, Promethea's journey through the Immateria), with Michael taking a premature trip through the afterlife, which sort of sits "above" our world and functions as a place where the dead can congregate, interact with angelic "Builders", and journey to any moment in history to witness what took place. This leads to plenty of adventures, many of which occur after Michael joins up with a group of apparent children (we learn that the dead tend to take the form at which they were happiest during their life) called the Dead Dead Gang, and they take him exploring through various moments in history, interesting areas of Mansoul, and sights that he needs to see to be able to later relate them to Alma so she can turn them into her art exhibition.

This second third of the book is probably where it works best, since it functions as a rollicking adventure through time and space, shifting perspectives each chapter so that we not only experience Mansoul through Michael's eyes, but also check in with each member of the Dead Dead Gang and learn about their lives and what led them to take part in these momentous events. There's an exciting scene in which they watch a fight between two Builders who come to blows over Michael's fate, an encounter with a demon whose nefarious schemes may or may not all be part of the grand plan, moments of profound sadness and joy, and a grand finale that's a fitting send-off to the kid before he rejoins his natural lifespan.

Following that tour de force exploration of the workings of the crazy afterlife that Moore has come up with, the last third of the book can't help but feel somewhat less satisfying, with much of it seeming like it's killing time before we can finally get to Alma's big exhibition and the culmination of all the book's plots. But there are still some fascinating ideas and continuing exploration of this world, including a trip to the end of the universe, a look at the world's monetary system (another thing that Moore claims has its origins in Northampton), and the payoff to some plots that had been simmering throughout the entire story.

Book Three also gives Moore a chance to experiment and push the limits of his format, sometimes in ways that test readers' patience. This is especially true in a chapter about James Joyce's daughter Lucia, who spent several decades in a Northampton mental hospital. Moore writes the chapter in what seems to be a pastiche of Joyce's style (I haven't actually read any Joyce, so I can't say how effective of an imitation it is), and it's a chore to get through. Everything is written phonetically and with lots of misspellings, rearranged words, and malapropisms, and reading it kind of drove me crazy, since it required constant decoding to determine what it was saying. I did get the hang of it after a while, but I was certainly glad when it was over, even though the content of the chapter lurking under the stylistic presentation was really interesting, with Lucia's fractured mental state allowing her to traverse multiple time periods and interact with lots of fantastical people and creatures.

Moore also throws in a few other semi-experimental bits, including a chapter that's presented as a sort of stage play (with Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, John Bunyan, and John Clare as characters), another that takes a stream-of-consciousness journey through one peripheral character's evening, and a third that takes the form of a poem (with an ABCCBA rhyme scheme that seems to reflect the book's structure itself). It's all rather playful, and by the time the book is over, it makes for a kaleidoscopic range of stories and ideas.

I'm still processing what exactly Moore is trying to say with all of this, but one thing I'm thinking is that Alma Warren is sort of a stand in for Moore himself (her name even sort of functions as a verbal anagram of Alan Moore), and this book is his version of her art exhibition, with the purpose of capturing the history and character of his beloved hometown and preserving its importance even as it (and, by extension, the rest of the world) decays into ruin.

But the book is really about so much more than just the importance of Northampton. It's full of fascinating ideas, and its extreme length lets Moore take side trips into whatever seems interesting, including Oliver Cromwell's psychological makeup; the struggle to come to terms with the fact that John Newton, writer of the song Amazing Grace, was also a slave trader; and even a look at cartoonist Ogden Whitney and his creation Herbie Popnecker. The book contains multitudes, and I'm sure it's full of additional secrets and symbols that I didn't catch. It's a pretty incredible experience, one that's like nothing else I've read, even among Moore's extensive, challenging body of work. It definitely requires an investment in time and mental energy, but it's totally worth it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

I Watch TV Too: I need more time

I got behind on Timeless, but I'm all caught up before new episodes start again, so here's a quick review dump:

Season 1, Episode 8-10: "Space Race," "Last Ride of Bonnie & Clyde," and "The Capture of Benedict Arnold"
NBC, 2016

Welp, Timeless is still rolling along, and I'm still enjoying it. Of the three episodes that closed out 2016, we've got one that's an "adventure of the week," one that's sort of a character piece, and one that furthers the show's overarching plot in kind of interesting ways.

First up is "Space Race," in which the team heads back to 1969 to save the moon landing, which bad guy Garcia Flynn and his kidnapee/accomplice, the lead time machine scientist played by Matt Frewer (who I hope gets to travel to the 80s at some point and note his similarity to Max Headroom) have decided to sabotage for some reason. It gives our heroes their usual chance to geek out over being witness to a famous historical moment, and it also leads to some pretty amusing technobabble in which Rufus has to figure out how to fix a virus that Frewer infected NASA's computers with (he supposedly used a DDoS attack, which doesn't make any sense). Interestingly, he does so by recruiting Katherine Johnson, the real-life woman who was an unsung hero of the space program due to her race (she's played by Taraji P. Henson in the recent movie Hidden Figures). I do like that this show manages to work in historical figures like this and point out bits of less-remembered history.

As amusing as all of this is, with jokes about how the giant computers running the space program can hold 10 whole megabytes of data, it definitely strains credulity, with mission control spending most of the episode sitting around with their thumbs up their asses while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin sit there on the moon waiting for the guys on the ground to fix the computers. The episode also suffers from its other plot, in which it turns out that the NASA stuff is mostly misdirection so Flynn can go meet his mother and try to change his family's history for the better. I think the show is trying to humanize him, making him into a conflicted villain who does evil for what he thinks is the greater good, but it ends up being kind of a muddle, with the audience not sure who to root for or how much they should care. Oh well, it's off to the Depression for the next episode!

You can guess the setting of this episode from its title, "The Last Ride of Bonnie and Clyde." Unfortunately, it's not especially interesting, maybe because the actors playing the eponymous bank robbers are no Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Our heroes head into the past to meet up with them when they find out that Flynn is after a key that Bonnie wears around her neck, which he has helpfully labeled as the "Rittenhouse Key" in some documents that the government recovered, so everyone knows it's important to the series' conspiracy plot.

Aside from a shootout that happens when Bonnie and Clyde rob a bank that Lucy and Wyatt have wandered into, the episode kind of drags, spending a lot of time with the characters hanging out with the historical figures and quizzing them about where they got the key (turns out Clyde stole it from Henry Ford and gave it to Bonnie in lieu of a wedding ring, since she was already married to someone else). I think we're supposed to wonder if Lucy and Wyatt are also forming a budding romance and maybe see some inspiration in these historical examples, but they don't have much in the way of chemistry, so I hope not.

Anyway, aside from an interesting scene between Rufus, Flynn (who is posing as a bounty hunter chasing the Barrow Gang), and Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who led the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, there's not a whole lot of interest here. Flynn ends up getting the key he was looking for, and the episode ends with him using it to open a steampunk mechanism in some old-timey clock and retrieve a mysterious scroll, which we're supposed to find exciting, if the dramatic music is any indication. What does the scroll contain? Find out next episode:

"The Capture of Benedict Arnold" functions as a Fall finale for this season, and it's back to exciting territory for the series as the cast faces their own "would you kill baby Hitler?" dilemma. This time, the gang heads back to find out what Flynn wants with, yes, Benedict Arnold; turns out he's a founding member of the evil Rittenhouse conspiracy, which is what that mysterious scroll told Flynn. We learn his plan when the team runs into George Washington and he introduces them to a familiar spy from the Culper Ring (a reference that I knew, having read Y: The Last Man) and asks them all to go on a mission to kill the traitor who recently defected to the British.

So that's their first big decision: should they trust Flynn and work with him to try to destroy Rittenhouse at its inception? Flynn tries to get them to agree by showing them that Rittenhouse is behind every travesty in American history (Lucy cites the Trail of Tears and the Waco Massacre), which is enough evidence for them to agree, I guess. When they do catch up with Benedict Arnold, the plot thickens even further when he reveals that Rittenhouse is just one man at this point in history, so if they can kill him, maybe they'll change history for the better?

This is all pretty dubious stuff, and it's the kind of thing that annoys me about not just this type of science fiction, but conspiracy stories in general. Trying to pass of centuries of horrible acts that real people carried out as a sinister plot by some evil overlords cheapens the real human cost that everyone should reckon with. Plus, it's less dramatically interesting, in my opinion. The banality of evil, the fact the real, regular people are capable of the horrors that we've witnessed throughout history is much more interesting than the idea that there is a cabal of moustache-twirling bad guys pulling everyone's strings.

But that's what you get in shows like this, so at least they make it fun by having the evil progenitor of the show's conspiracy be played by Armin Shimerman (Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). He almost immediately sees through our band of misfits' assassination plot and captures them, smirking the whole time at his superiority over them. The good guys still win, of course, but mostly out of luck and dramatic necessity, and they end up killing not only Rittenhouse, but Benedict Arnold, and the British General Cornwallis, and who knows what changes that will have on history.

But Rittenhouse's young son gets away, providing the big dramatic climax of the episode, since Flynn wants to kill him, but Lucy won't allow it, even though we got a scene in which the kid told them all about how his dad thinks that the powerful people are destined to rule over the peasants, preferably from the shadows while mollifying them with the appearance of democracy. The kid is definitely shaping up to be an evil mastermind, but now that his dad is dead, maybe he'll change? That's the argument anyway, which plays out to tiresome extent in the episode's climax, even though it seems obvious that even though the show regularly changes history, it won't actually sign off on child murder. And sure enough, the kid gets away, which enrages Flynn enough to kidnap Lucy and take her with him in his time machine, leaving us on a cliffhanger until next time.

So sure, the show is still fun, although I'm finding the conspiracy plot to be increasingly tiresome, for reasons stated above. Of the three leads, Rufus is the only one who seems to have much personality; Lucy and Wyatt are bland and boring, no matter how many times they reiterate what they're fighting for (for the former, it's to try to fix things to bring back her sister, who was accidentally erased from history; for the latter, it's to maybe try to do likewise with his wife, who died in a car accident that might have been masterminded by Rittenhouse for some reason).

Interestingly, one of the series' minor players, the Homeland Security lady who sends the team on their missions, gets one of the more affecting scenes of the entire series in this episode when she has Lucy over for dinner to meet her family, confides in her that she's horrified at the possibility that they might change history in a way that makes her wife and kids disappear without her even knowing that they existed, and asks her to carry a thumb drive full of photos and videos of them with her on her missions in case that ever happens. It's a kind of goofy idea, but it fits into what the show has been doing, and actress Sakina Jaffrey totally kills the scene, demonstrating that with a decent performance, real emotion can be wrung out of these situations.

If the show has to shoot for emotion and drama in future episodes, it would be great if it's more like this than the overwrought angst the series' leads usually engage in, but I'm not especially hopeful. Instead, I'll just be glad whenever we get to see some fun time travel shenanigans, meet historical figures both well-known and less so, and recreate various settings on whatever backlot the show shoots on. That will probably be enough for me to keep watching.