Films about artists, more often than not, are about paying attention to, and emotionally bearing, life’s infinitely intimate details. As Ellar Coltrane aims a camera in Boyhood, we are right alongside him in observing the small, overlooked details of his suburban childhood, each shaping him in ways he can’t yet understand. As Therese develops her love for photography in Carol, we too develop a fascination for all the fleetingly captured details and illicit feelings her human subjects, and of herself. Despite their own resistance, those who glean and interpret such fine details tend to be just as microscopically affected by them.
Adam Driver’s title character in Paterson (A-), born in the city of Paterson, NJ and a fan of William Carlos Williams’ so named epic poem, also writes poetry, his mundanely beautiful lines collected from the minor-key items and events in his reassuringly minor-key life. On the wall of the local bar are pictures of cultural icons who’ve lived in, and moved on from, Paterson. His wife Laura, played with irrepressible, yet soft, sunshine by Golshifteh Farahani, is just putting together the pieces of her own fledgling career – her artistic aspirations lend the film’s production design a giddily evolving, expressionistic palette. All indicate a life upward from the city Driver’s character increasingly seems like a condensation of. Routine rules his life, and while he takes joy in that routine’s small, lovely variations, jarring interruptions, even when anticipated, are a tough thing for his flinty, fragile soul to take.
Inhabiting a week of Paterson’s markedly repetitious life, we see him wake up, go on his daily bus driver route, overhear passengers’ expressive and amusing conversations, return home to Laura’s latest artistic project, and finally walk his bulldog Marvin to the local bar. Recurring fixtures show up in Paterson’s life, each seemingly more honest about their lives’ disappointments than Paterson, who maintains a soft-spoken, yet inescapably solemn, demeanor. Moments of happiness, for him, are flickering and fleeting, gleaned from idle conversations and darting expressions of random passers-by, from a duo of cocky, boisterous dudes to a disarming cameo by Moonrise Kingdom breakouts Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as teenage anarchists. Their practiced sweetness as a duo is a charming mirror of Paterson and Laura’s own dynamic, divergent yet supportive
Paterson’s life seems pleasingly stationary, but even the smallest of changes feel distinct, in either rejuvenating or heartrending ways. In a film of twin opposites, where Paterson struggles to shoulder the change, Laura ecstatically embraces it. Farahani makes a beautiful case for this ostensible character study as a soaring two-hander, lending a vivid portrait of a married woman whose dreams of professional and artistic success don’t impede her from expressing joy for every routine occurrence of her life with Paterson. As broadly as their characters’ emotional lives come through their open-faced performances, Jarmusch still manages to fleetingly imply a personal history for the two. Cutaways of Paterson in a military uniform and scenes of Laura listening to Iranian music give as dense and as spare detail as we need to know about their improbable romance.
Jarmusch tends to come through most purely when at his simplest and sweetest. Only Lovers Left Alive also approached long-term romantic partnership through a pairing refreshingly free of conflict, though often times their existential sadness registered as too vacant. This being a Jarmusch film, it’s reasonable to expect his brand of ironic existential coincidences to bluntly express itself its low-key climax, a chance encounter with an Asian poet who isn’t the only mirror version we see of the title character. Even when its most literal metaphors start baring their seams, the oddball humor reads with as much tenderness as the characters do. Paterson is a film of well-meaning individuals, not merely its central ones, struggling in the smallest of gestures to get past life’s melancholy to observe just a little more of its loveliness.
Not remotely as leisurely a journey through bizarre life experiences Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist (B) is a film that jarringly shifts gear every time you seem to get a grasp of its lunatic vision. Establishing itself in its oblique opening moments as a perhaps frustratingly plotless nature documentary about handsome bird-watcher Fernando passively rowing down a river in the Portuguese wilderness, The Ornithologist becomes something else entirely when his fixed attention on the avian capsizes his kayak. Emboldened, bright red titles suggest we’re in for something unexpectedly pulpier, but much of the film’s charm is in how startlingly unpredictable it remains from moment-to-moment.
Battered and lost, Fernando is seemingly rescued by two religiously paranoid Christian campers, whose fears about demons inhabiting the woods he discounts with a callously hilarious “There’s no such thing as spirits… or God.” Whether due to his brazenly atheistic outlook or something more sinister, Fernando wakes the next day tied up and constricted by the women, who may or may not be Chinese lesbian vampires. We sadly don’t get to wait around to witness the full extent of their twisted plans for Fernando, as he wrings himself free of their kinky bondage, only to stumble into one bizarrely beautiful, religiously evocative situation after another.
Stretched across an increasingly uncertain 118 minutes, it’s Rodrigues’ delicious silliness that enlivens his potentially dour, intellectually confounding queer reclamation of Christian iconography. If Fernando is a totally vacuous protagonist, he’s meant to be. His naive confidence is the perfect model to be challenged and humiliated by boar-hunting tribesmen and a gorgeous young goat herder significantly named Jesus. If it’s still uncertain by the end what The Ornithologist‘s bizarre symbolism adds up to by the end of this daftly beautiful adventure, one thing remains clear: If you meet Jesus sucking goat’s milk by the river, you know you have to fuck him.
As confounding as The Ornithologist is at times, it registers with more lucid emotional intent than Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Karl Marx City (C+), a multi-track documentary investigation of the Stasi security service and Epperlein’s own uncertain family history. “She claims she had a happy childhood,” Epperlein narrates of herself in the third person, crafting a psychological distance that mirrors that of the Stasi’s own infamous surveillance. Even past that tragic time when communal trust felt unnervingly non-existent, Epperlein still seems distrustful of her perception of her life experiences, particularly following her father’s suicide.
From the catalyst of Epperlein’s fathers’ death, the film split into two narratives. One focuses on the distrust and personal paranoia that the possibility that Epperlein’s father Stasi recruitment awakens in her. Besides framing her study on both sides, that arc is sidelined for much of the screen time. The other is a more direct historical study of the Stasi’s surveillance techniques, interviewing those who’ve studied or first-hand participated in their invasive efforts. These strands never entirely come together in a coherent manner, but then it’s often difficult to make intellectual sense of what Epperlein and Tucker are visually and informatively presenting us.
When not delving into dense archival footage, much of which is difficult to process due to distractingly boxed-off subtitles, we’re shown Epperlein vacantly wandering the empty streets of the formerly titular town of Chemnitz, strolling with a large microphone and headphones. Occasionally orchestral music leak into these scenes, but we never hear the sparse sound recording as she’s capturing them. They’re always layered over with other information, sonic or visual, making it difficult to get a clear perception of any of the data we’re receiving. There’s a version of Karl Marx City that lends its striking black-and-white cinematography clarity with a matching, crisp soundscape. What we get is a film equivalent to the Stasi records: a daunting, scattered compendium of muddled information, its results confusingly inconclusive.