There's a bit in Moonlight, right at the end, when Black and Kevin are driving in Black's trapmobile, and Kevin, breaking one of many almost interminable silences, says something along the lines of, “Why d'you come down here then?” and Black can't really answer that, and, to be honest, neither could I. Was he coming down to reignite that spark of teenage romance, or to erase a rather painful, tender blot from his past? And as Black got out of his car to enter Kevin's apartment, I could've sworn that he took out a gun and slid it into the back of his jeans. I began preparing myself for some horrific ending which never came. Instead, they embrace and the credits roll.
Moonlight is filled with subtle and arresting performances. Special mention must go to Naomie Harris, consistently acting her socks off, even when belied by some rather cheap looking grey hair and makeup. In what could've been a caricature role, she perfectly pitches her vacillations between tender, terrifying, and finally, broken. Each successive incarnation of Little/Chiron/Black is also flawlessly cast, and the way Trevante Rhodes embodies that quiet, stooped boy even when he's covered with all the trappings of masculinity is a marvel. You can still see Little inside Black as he somewhat awkwardly removes his grills to eat Kevin's chef's special, and that continuity is quite wonderful to witness.
The film brims with authentic feeling, and shows a different world from 99% of American cinema. But is that enough? Not quite. The pace is too slow, and I never really cared enough about Little until he finally became the interesting, conflicted character of Black. To me, that's where the film should've started. For too long, I remained locked out, like all of the supporting characters, and never felt that I'd entered his inner world. Instead the camera and script kind of skirted round the edges, keeping the viewer alienated and distanced from the real boy. We see him dance once, and that's it. Perhaps this is intentional; but all the great, immersive camerawork and impressionistic score couldn't make up for a lack of access to the characters' worlds, and this, ultimately, is the script's fault. I felt like Little, looking at his mama close the door -- but I never felt I knew Little: his hopes, his dreams. On the beach with Kevin, he says he dreams about crazy things, but we never find out what they are.
Needless to say, this movie ticks all the boxes of what makes a critically acclaimed contemporary film: great directing, flashy camerawork, excellently cast, and almost flawless acting, but ultimately underwhelming. So a perfect oscar winner, really.
What is Moonlight? How did it come to be? It is difficult to imagine Moonlight as once an idea in someone's head.
In some ways, it works almost perfectly as a whole, a mesmerising combination of beautiful photography, performances that are as full of passion as they are well-crafted, silences that are almost too long broken by dialogue that is almost too banal, but that all together work to create a world that is immersive, real at the same time as it seems oddly unearthly.
In other ways, does Moonlight truly work as what it is, a narrative? I'm not so sure.
Moonlight is an experience. Watching it is, most certainly, different to the experience of watching other movies. But what is it ultimately driving towards? The central character, Little/Chiron/Black, is such an enigmatic figure to the point of coming across as oversimplified. The combination of fragility and sternness, attachment and reclusion, is conveyed flawlessly by all three actors that play him, but it also seems to have been all they were given to work with. The same could be said for just about every role in the film. Is the storyline in Moonlight deliberately underwhelming, a meandering portrait of "common people living common lives"? Or does it miss out on an opportunity to tell a compelling story about those people?
Immersive as it is, I was left wondering whether Moonlight as it came to be isn't the result of a simple accident, a failure to be something else, something better and more audacious. Can a story worth telling really come out of simply putting under-explored and, truly, inaccessible characters in difficult situations? Is this inaccessibility intentional, in order to give the viewer the sense of isolation these characters must live under, their impossibility to relate to one another? I, personally, feel like I should have left the movie theatre with a clearer or stronger answer to those questions. Moonlight is a very confusing movie.
I don’t know what Jim Jarmusch is up to, but I hope he keeps at it. Coming to this film having seen a handful of his other works (Ghostdog: brilliant, Down by Law: enjoyable, Dead Man: good plus a sublime final act, parts of Coffee & Cigarettes: dull and dumb, and the egregious Limits of Control) I was aware of Jim Jarmusch as a sort of presaging hip-father who turned cinema into a studied curation of cool. Though I always thought his approach seemed ostensibly interesting though fairly formulaic: put x and y together in situation z, shot by f to the soundtrack of d. As long as the names are good, the sum will add up. Iggy Pop dressed as a prairie woman reading the Bible to Johnny Depp, over feedback courtesy of Neil Young, shot by Robby Mueller in black and white. Job done.
Paterson isn’t so much the undoing of his previous style as a redemption of it. The movie itself stands up so bravely as a sensitive and sympathetic study of a bus driver who writes poetry. Doesn’t that just sound awful? Prepare to be surprised.
This isn’t a perfect movie, as the sum doesn’t quite flow as well as its parts. A number of the scenes still exude an almost self-contained, skit-like feel, which I found unsatisfying. However, the central character of Paterson (magnificently played by Adam Driver, whose face possesses the stoicism of an Easter Island Statue) helps us to navigate this occasionally tedious world we know so well. Here is a man it would be easy to laugh at–I found myself almost smirking at the beginning, as Paterson scrawls down his first poem, an ode to love via a particular box of matches, but I reserved my judgement and, to my great surprise, found myself truly moved by his poem. From then on, I was in, and from then on, I never really felt let down.
The voice-over repetition of the poems while in the process of creation, the actual writing of the text on-screen, accompanied by shots of flowing water, all of these directorial choices flirt with kitsch, but somehow manage to work, and really made me concentrate on the words and how the poems were taking shape. Special mention must go to Marvin the dog, who is constantly vying with Driver for best performance.
But what Jarmusch does here, successfully, in my opinion, is allow the audience to get inside the head of a poet, or someone who writes poetry, who sees the world or is trying to see the world a certain way. Paterson may not be a genius the way we’ve come to recognise them–this guy is a nobody–but he is to everyday existence what a monk is to god. And his is a quiet and quietly illuminated form of worship.
It is notorious that, for Jim Jarmusch, subjects such as prisoners playing cards, famous people drinking coffee, or Swedes driving taxis all constitute complete stories that he will devote entire scenes or entire movies to. This sort of action minimalism, that in most of his work has centred around well-placed silences and a meticulously crafted banality, gains a new dimension in his latest film, Paterson. For the first time in recent memory, he makes use of a device that could in many ways be considered opposite to the way he’s told stories for over 30 years: the voice-over.
One could say that a recurring theme in many of Jarmusch’s features is the isolation his characters live under. Often, all his characters do is talk. They talk about trivialities, they have oddly-paced conversations they don’t really want to have, they deal with being to some degree forced to share a physical space with people they don’t care about – be that a prison cell or a taxicab. Therefore, it could be considered uncharacteristic that Paterson is centred around a silent bus driver and a young couple in love. As we watch the eponymous Paterson navigate the streets of the eponymous Paterson, New Jersey, we also hear him recite the poems he writes in his notebook. More than ever in a film by Jarmusch, we are made aware of a protagonist’s inner world, and this awareness shapes the way we understand everything he does.
The movie is divided into seven segments, the seven days of a week. Every day, Paterson and his wife, Laura, wake up together. She tells him her dreams. He goes to work while she stays in and paints gouache circles on the curtains and bakes cheddar and Brussel sprouts pies. When he comes home, Paterson takes their dog, Marvin, for a walk, then pops into the local bar for a quick beer and a chat with the bartender, before going back home and settling into bed. Over the week, small dramas unfold, such as the making of a few dozen cupcakes for a bake sale at the weekend, a laborious break-up between two patrons at the bar. Paterson, the movie, minus the poetry would be the portrait of a life we could consider simple at best: a routine, a relationship, a town. Add the poetry and it all gains new meaning, much like how we experience our own lives, constantly narrated and qualified by our inner monologues.
However, this isn’t due only to the actual poems being recited: everything in Paterson is constructed so as to have the self-sustaining coherence of a work of art. Certain symbols are repeated, to evoke no obvious greater message, but simply because that is what the human mind does – find patterns through selective attention, organise reality to make it reflect one’s own subjectivity. Laura dreams about twins, and Paterson meets a little girl who has a twin sister. The girl reads him a poem named Water Falls, and Paterson notices a picture at home – that presumably had been there for a long time – of a waterfall, which also happens to be his favourite place in the town.
In fact, despite character and place having the same name, it is clear the film is really named after Paterson the man. We don’t see or learn much about the place that doesn’t serve the character’s narrative – that is why they become one. We don’t see most of the bus route he follows every day, but we always see the waterfalls, because of the meaning they carry for him. Occasionally, though, this tidied-up version of reality suffers from intrusions: Paterson gets stopped on a walk with Marvin by a gang of teenagers and told to watch out for dog thieves. “It gets real out there,” they tell him. And finally, it collapses, when Marvin destroys the notebook of poems, indifferent as he is to the manufactured meanings that (we claim) define our humanity.
To each other, all the characters in the movie appear slightly delusional. Laura has a new grand ambition every day, from opening a cupcake business to becoming a country singer. Her world is not the same world as Paterson’s – for her, his poems are written in order to get published and bring him fame and fortune. He doesn’t see it the same way. She gets excited about ordering a black-and-white guitar that she feels was meant for her to play, he mainly worries about the financial expense. She can only tell him her dreams in a few barely coherent sentences every morning – he will never get to see the silver elephant that for a night she thought they were riding together.
Similarly, the two patrons at the bar who are going through a turbulent break-up, Everett and Marie, cannot understand where the other is coming from. Everett can’t imagine why Marie would break up with him, she thinks he is being overdramatic and manipulative. What would a movie set in Paterson look like through their perspectives?
But again, it is poetry that brings everything together in this story, that turns Laura and Paterson’s shared life, their morning kisses and their little miscommunications, into a blazing love affair, that turns his bus driver gig into a “poetic occupation”, in the words of the Japanese tourist he meets in the final scene of the film. However, stripped of his notebook, Paterson tells him: “I’m just a bus driver.”
Why does someone come all the way from Japan to Paterson, New Jersey? To visit the place that inspired William Carlos Williams, is his answer. There is nothing he’s there to see, no museum, no viewpoint – what he has come to visit is the inner world of a poet. And that is what Paterson, the movie, is able to convey: a personal perspective in the form of a place, a week, a life. The only addition to what is still one of Jarmusch’s characteristically uneventful storylines is a series of poems on voice-over – and that changes everything. Paterson has the pleasant cadence of a sonnet or of a predictable routine, the lines and events following one another in a rhythmic procession. It is tidy and beautiful – just like the realities every single one of its characters tries, with all their might, to conjure up and maintain, despite the inevitable chaos that insists on messing them up.
The Circle is so awe-inspiringly facile that it’s a very challenging movie to review. I can remember finding myself astounded by the ending, such a muddled mess of triumphant ambiguity. What is it about? I don’t know, perhaps no-one knows. For a film that pitches itself in the middle of one of the great talking points of our time (duh, the internet!) The Circle is astounding in how many punches it misses, in all directions. But flail away it does. Here is a film that seems so hasty to move along – to get to some great plot point that never comes, or to a piece of dialogue that might penetrate the shiny, thin veneer of aphex-twin-lite and post-production chintz – that when Emma Watson smiles and kayaks off and the camera zooms out to reveal a multitude of other people all being simultaneously filmed by some gizmo invented by Tom Hanks, one is legitimately left thinking, “Wait, was she the protagonist?”
Everyone is rushing, no-one can stop and explain, because explanation might risk actual characterisation. When people do stop and talk, we/they find that they have very little to say. The actors all look scripturally malnourished, especially John Boyega, who has the eternally glazed expression that screams “feed me a decent line, something other than lazy exposition, please! This shit is worse than Star Wars…”
For two hours we are whirled through a story that makes little to no sense: girl gets dream job at monopolistic tech-giant; with incidental characters that seem dropped in and then conveniently forgotten: wood-working ex-boyfriend and dad with MS but no insurance. Emma Watson seems to be the only one enjoying herself, essentially portraying a sort of dream-projection TED-talking technophilanthropist that she’s probably been practicing in front of the mirror for god knows how long.
The one saving grace in this sea of inanity are the comments, written no doubt by an unpaid intern, that flash and critique Emma Watson’s character’s every live-streamed move later on in the film. But this is a movie so confused as to what it’s about that I think it has really done a valuable service in showing how little cogent art there is being made about the times we live in. Surely someone must see this as a call to arms. The issues are all there, the scary dystopian companies exist, the control freaks at the helm are incarnate; let’s just try and get some insight and leave the damn kayak at home.