Paterson (and five of the best films about poets)
There's a moment in Paterson, the latest film from Jim Jarmusch, which perfectly illustrates what it is that makes the Ohio-born director's films so uniquely absorbing; in the scene in question, Clifford Smith – better known to most as gravel-voiced rapper Method Man – sits in a laundrette, sketching out lyrics in time with the whirring rhythms of the washing machines.
The word 'auteur' gets used a lot to describe any filmmaker whose style is so readily identifiable that their work could hardly be confused with anyone else's. In most cases the identifying characteristics are visual, as with Tim Burton's penchant for gothic imagery and drained colour palettes, or Wes Anderson's love of symmetry, but Jarmusch's 'thing' is less about how a film is visually presented and more about finding beauty or fascination in the mundanity of everyday life.
His 2003 film Coffee & Cigarettes is a case in point, comprising eleven short vignettes featuring a range of celebrity cameos in which the only connecting thread is the consumption of caffeine and nicotine. In one scene, Meg and Jack White discuss the work of Nikolai Tesla. In another, Bill Murray drinks black coffee straight from the jug and complains to two members of Wu-Tang Clan about his insomnia. Nothing really happens, but it's the attention to detail expressed in each scene that makes it magnetic viewing.
So it is with Paterson, which arrives in stores on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday (March 27th). Adam Driver stars as a bus driver who is not only named Paterson but also happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey, the place that served as inspiration for William Carlos Williams' epic poem of the same name. But when he's not ferrying passengers around the city, Paterson is also a budding poet, writing verses in between shifts or on his lunch breaks in a journal which he shows to no-one except his girlfriend, Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani).
For her part, Laura stays at home while Paterson works, indulging her talents of painting and cooking while harbouring dreams about buying a guitar and becoming a country music star. She encourages Paterson to share and make copies of his work, but is less concerned about the potential for commercial success as she is about keeping spare copies in case something happens to the original notebook. Her motivation is typical of a sense of naivety that permeates the whole film; when the couple are out walking their dog - an English bulldog named Marvin – and a car full of gang members pulls over to them, the memory of dozens of similar scenes from other films precondition the viewer to expect that something terrible is about to happen, but instead they simply make some complimentary remarks about the dog before driving away.
Paterson isn't, however, a completely aimless amble through the life and love of one couple, and there are moments of loss and reconciliation that draw the film's many threads together in unexpected ways, but as ever with Jarmusch's films the magic is in the detail; Paterson's daily straightening of a mailbox that somehow gets knocked crooked every day; the overheard conversations between passengers on his bus that inspire his poems; his nightly trips to the same bar with Marvin, where he routinely solves the problems of its patrons over a single beer.
Jarmusch's films can be something of an acquired taste and if you're looking for a film that is completely linear and follows a single narrative, you won't find it here. What you will find however is a film every bit as poetic as the verses Paterson writes in his notebook and against the backdrop of a social and political climate in America that is characterised by chaos, Paterson is an oasis of calm serenity that depicts everyday life in a way that is ever so slightly unreal, but completely and utterly unique.
You can find a trailer for Jarmusch's latest film below, beneath that we've picked out five other great films on the subject of poets and poetry that really deserve your attention...
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedmann, the pair behind the 2013 Linda Lovelace biopic Lovelace, Howl tells the story of American poet Allen Ginsberg through the framing device of Ginsberg being interviewed about his first performance of the controversial poem from which the film takes its name, as well as the obscenity trial that followed as a result.
James Franco delivers one of his best performances in the role of Ginsberg, alongside a cast that also includes David Strathairn, Jon Hamm and Mary-Lousie Parker. As much an examination of changing cultural attitudes as an exploration of Ginsberg's life and work, Howl offers a fascinating snapshot of the impact that Ginsberg and his fellow 'beat generation' poets made on popular culture.
Another film to examine the lives of Ginsberg and his contemporaries including Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, John Krokidas' 2013 film finds the young poets in their formative years at New York's Columbia University, except the focus is not on their work but on the killing of a teacher named David Kammerer by one of their peers, Lucian Carr, and the aftermath of his death.
Based on a true story, the film recounts Kammerer's odd and predatory relationship with Carr and the build-up to the night of his death, when Kammerer allegedly confessed his love for Carr and threatened to kill him and his girlfriend Celine before forcing himself on Carr, prompting the young writer to stab him in the heart with a penknife. Carr panics and throws the body in the Hudson River before confessing to his friends and drawing Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs into the ensuing murder investigation, one that would shape all of their lives for years to come.
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky may not have been the most prolific of filmmakers, directing only seven feature films throughout the course of his career (not including shorts and documentaries), but he remains one of the most revered thanks to groundbreaking films like Andrei Rubalev and Solaris. His 1983 film Nostalgia was the penultimate film to be directed by Tarkovsky before his death in 1986, and his first since leaving Russia to escape the censorship of the Soviet regime.
The film addresses what Tarkovsky described as “the particular state of mind which assails Russians who are far from their native land” and examines this form of selective nostalgia through the eyes of a fictional poet named Andrei Gorchakov, who travels to Italy to research the life of an 18th century Russian composer. Once there he befriends a strange man named Domenico who may or may not be insane, but who causes the poet to reassess his understanding of what is important in life. Often hugely abstract and typically non-linear, like many of Tarkovsky's films, Nostalgia is nevertheless completely entrancing.
C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known as the author responsible for the seven fantasy novels that make up The Chronicles of Narnia, but he was also a poet of some renown and this 1993 film by Richard Attenborough explores his relationship with a feisty American poet named Joy Gresham, whom Lewis married, initially only as a 'marriage of convenience' after her visa expired, before later realising he had fallen in love with her.
Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger portray the couple in question and the impact Gresham had on Lewis' writing, particularly his poety. Both are superb in Attenborough's heartwarming film and it's a story which offers some unique insights into the mind of one the 20th century's most beloved British writers.
Our final pick is the most recent film from a director almost as revered as Tarkovsky; the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Best known for his surreal 1970s masterpieces El Topo and The Holy Mountain, here Jodorowsky turns the lens onto his own life with a semi-autobiographical film in which he reimagines his life and career as that not of a filmmaker, but a poet. Starring his own son Adan Jodorowsky as his younger self, the film recounts the personal battles of a restless artistic spirit against the conformist and religious tendencies of his own family and broader Chiliean society, as well as his quest to break free from these constraints and his association with a group of young artists and writers, each trying to find their creative outlet. Featuring some stunning cinematography and all the vivid imagery you'd expect from a Jordorosky film, this is essential viewing for any fans of his work.