Paterson: Jarmusch's Personified Metaphor for a New Jersey City

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Amazon Films, 118 minutes, R (language)
* * *

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He lies on his right side, head near the thunder of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep, his dreams walk about the city where he persists incognito.

So begins the book-length poem Paterson from the New Jersey city's most famous native son: William Carlos Williams. It helps to know that before viewing the film Paterson. Jim Jarmusch, one of the nation's quirkiest and droll directors, directs this film and people tend either to adore or deplore his work. Like previous Jarmusch films such as Down by Law and Mystery Train, the pace of Paterson is pre-global warming glacial.

This time, though, Jarmusch's slow pacing makes sense. The film follows a week in the life of a Paterson bus driver who is named Paterson (Adam Driver) and is, in fact, the city personified. His is a life of mundane routine. Five days a week , Paterson awakes shortly after six, has coffee and Cheerios, and walks down the hill through the former Silk City's post-industrial ruins to the bus shed. There he boards the #23 and scribbles in his notebook until his colleague Danny (Rizwan Manji) regales him with his personal woes. Then Paterson begins his rounds, his monotony relieved by the prose poems he composes and edits in his head. On his break, he transfers his thoughts to his notebook as he eats lunch in a shabby concrete park at the foot of Passaic Falls. At the end of the day, he walks home, straightens his mailbox, has dinner with his wife Laura, walks their English bulldog, has a pint and perfunctory chat at the neighborhood tavern, and returns home. Reset to Tuesday… Wednesday… Thursday… Friday….

This is Jarmusch, so you know the characters will be oddballs–none more so than Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who is cute as a button and crazy as a loon. She has an obsession with halftone design, and spends her days remaking everything in black and white: dresses, furniture, curtains, even cupcakes. Becoming a cupcake mogul is one of her big dreams, or maybe instead she’ll buy an Esteban guitar, learn to play, and become a country singer. Paterson adores her and the two are almost wordlessly in love—wordless on his part, anyhow.

Paterson is laconic and economical with words everywhere except in his mind. How does man (or a city) trapped in time move forward? William Carlos Williams wrote:

Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river animate a thousand automatons. Who because they neither know their sources nor the sills of their disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly for the most part, locked and forgot in their desires —unroused.

Williams knew about living an external life that clashed with his psyche—he was a physician, but it was merely the trade that supported his poetry habit. Paterson the driver/city is on auto pilot–the man surviving on snippets of eavesdropped bus conversations, Laura’s wackiness, and chance encounters with other poets, including a ten-year-old girl sitting by a factory and a Japanese man (Masatoshi Nigase) who came to New Jersey to rub metaphorical elbows with Williams. His own poetry is filled with mundane observations that flirt with things that might be profound. Or not. He's like the city–locked and unroused. In both cases, it’s hard to know if dreams can be animated, or if it's sleepwalking entombed in self-deception.

The film is filled with deadpan humor, irresistible weirdness, and sublime small moments—such as the revelation about Paterson’s crooked mailbox. I especially admired the fact that whites and people of color interact as people and nothing more. There are no coded or overt mentions of race. Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) is just a bartender, not a black bartender; the people Paterson encounters on the street, including gang members, are just neighbors who know each other. How refreshing! 

On the less refreshing side, this is not Jarmusch’s strongest film. Paterson is enigmatic, but the viewer spends a lot of time inside his head without getting much of a sense of what he thinks or feels. Laura is deliciously weird, but Ms. Farahani’s acting skills fail to dazzle. What are we to make of Paterson’s encounter with the Japanese poet? It feels like a diversionary tack-on, not the inspiration it was supposed to suggest. Is the scene here just because Nigase was also in Mystery Train?  

And, of course, there is the slow pace. Jarmusch makes us feel the weight of Paterson’s routines, but the day-by-day structure is clichéd and unnecessary. A really good montage could have shaved thirty minutes from the film without sacrificing content—of which there isn’t much—and without exhausting the viewer. We want to appreciate the tedium of Paterson’s life, but must we experience it vicariously? If you are a fan of Jim Jarmusch (and I am), you’ll enjoy this one. If, however, his films are too slow for your taste, stay on the Garden State Parkway and don’t take the Paterson exit.

Rob Weir


Japanese Impressions at the Clark a Delight Even for the Uninitiated

Clark Art Institute
Williamstown, MA
Through April 2, 2017

I just saw a show of Japanese art at the Clark and I really liked it. I did not expect that. Lots of Westerners are fascinated by Japan, but I’ve never been among them. Who can explain it? It’s not ideological or racial–more like a complete disinterest. When I saw the film Lost in Translation I thought I’d rather eat dog sashimi than visit Tokyo, which appeared to me to be Las Vegas on neon steroids.  I did not watch Shogun. My knowledge of Japanese culture is pretty much exhausted once we get past the words sushi, sayonara, and sake. That’s weird, because I know a fair amount about Chinese history and culture and much of Japanese culture began life as Chinese culture–sort of like Christianity began life as modified Judaism. This prelude is to say that if you were expecting some sort of “expert” review of the current show at the Clark, you’d get better commentary from a drunken samurai. Like that will stop me! 

One reason I liked the show so much is that it’s a medium I adore: wood cuts. Its subtitle is: Color Woodblock Prints from the Rodbell Family Collection. I don’t know squat about the Rodbells either, except that in 2010 they gave the Clark a whole bunch of art they collected in the 1960s and 1970s. In this show, it’s woodblock prints from the 1830s into the 1970s. The earliest come from a style known as ukiyo-e, which translates “scenes from the floating world.” That’s a pretty cool way of expressing the idea that the things of this life and world are transitory, which is why the images are sumptuous yet dream-like, and nature is a dominant theme. The two most famous printmakers from this period were Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. You know Hokusai even if you don’t realize it. Have you ever seen the print of a large curling, cresting blue and white wave? Of course you have; it’s on a poster in every college dorm room and pseudo head shop in America!

The earliest print makers did it all—design, cutting the blocks (often several for each image), inking, printing, and publishing. In the 20th century, these tasks were often separated; hence the style is called shin-hanga (“new print”). It’s also more blatantly commercial–a tip they got from the late Impressionists, who discovered the link between marketing and solvency. Many of these evoked village life, exoticized Japanese life, and catered to Western buyers—much in the spirit of Native American trade goods. Japanese prints from the 1930s on are more expressionist, personal, and psychological in nature. I suppose one might even call them modernist, though I’m not sure if Japanese art experts would agree with that label.

This is about all I can honestly tell you, so here are a few images I photographed, along with a line or two about why I liked the woodcut. And I know I shouldn't make so many West/East comparisons, but I ascribe to the educational theory that you start with what you know and let it take to places unknown.

If you’re in the Williamstown area before April 2, take a look for yourself.

1.  I always enjoy scenes of ordinary life. I like how the gloominess of a rainy day is captured, especially the contrast between the foreboding sky and the yellow raincoat and the red umbrella. It gives a sort of gloom meets hope for renewal vibe.

2. I've always admired the angst-riddled works of Edvard Munch and Edward Hopper. This one struck me as a Japanese mash of the two. Hey, I told you it would be an impressionistic review! 

3.This one is trippy enough to be a rock concert poster from the Fillmore. It's a waterfall and the Japanese love to represent them. In fact, only images of Mt. Fuji are more numerous. I didn't put any Fuji images into this piece because everybody has seen scads of them. 

4. Loved this one! The framing is off on my image because I was looking for an angle that didn't reflect the gallery lights off the glass. I like this because it's what Renoir's nudes should have been! I've never cared very much for Renoir's fleshy bodies--mostly because they are too sentimentalized for my tastes. This one is sensual, which is what I think nudes should be. I will also confess to being a fan of the nude in my bed--err, I mean art. (Monty Python reference!) Note once again the use of just a splash of bright color. The subject is an actress applying her make-up.

5. This one surprised me. Could be a Picasso, yes? See what I mean about the modernist flair? 

6. Another angst vibe, but this one feels ominous with the the small dark figure about to burst into a square of light. It made me think of Orson Welles movie shots from films such as "Touch of Evil."  

7. Take out the junks under the bridge, add some fog, add a few smokestacks poking through the murk,  and render the tones more somber and you'd have something from Monet's Waterloo Bridge series.









Eat That Question Lets Zappa Be Zappa

Directed by Thorsten Schütte
Sony Classics, 93 minutes, R (language, brief nudity, sexual references)
* * * ½

Never heard of this film? It made a splash at Sundance, went into limited release, and then to video after a paltry box office of under $350,000. You can see it on Netflix or YouTube. Should you? That depends on whether you think Zappa was a charlatan, a genius, or a bit of each. If you opted for either of the latter two, give it a try, though I won’t guarantee you’ll be enlightened.

There is no doubt that Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was enigmatic and polarizing. He gets labeled as a radical and a non-conformist, but these doesn’t fit well. He called himself a “practical conservative” who didn’t use drugs and fired band members that did. After a brief first marriage, he wedded the former Adelaide Sloatman in 1967 and remained married until his death from prostate cancer in 1993. Pretty square, except they named their kids Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva! He didn’t like groupies and was reputed to be monastic on the road—odd for a chain smoker and avowed atheist, and out of keeping with his flair for the provocative or his disdain for convention and social niceties. His music was called “free form” and “improvisational,” but that might not be accurate either; it’s hard to know what sort of musical patterns rattled around in Zappa’s brain.

If I had to pick a one-word descriptor for him, it would be “Trickster.” Keep that in mind if you watch this documentary, which is decidedly not any sort of biopic or musical retrospective. It is, as billed, an assemblage of Zappa’s thoughts on various subjects, most of them musical, interspersed with some little known footage. Zappa on TV was a thing to behold; he could be charming and almost cuddly one moment and irascible the next. We also get the sense that he’s telling us exactly what he wants to reveal and not a syllable more. On any sort of stage Zappa was completely in control. We see him without filters in concerts where he slays every sacred cow imaginable and goes to places so dark they make Jim Morrison seem like a choirboy. Yet we also see him with hair pulled back and besuited before Congress testifying against Tipper Gore’s plan to place warning labels on records. We also watch him become defiant before a group of rightwing inquisitors to whom he proclaims himself the real conservative. In other words, I doubt you’ll discover the true mind of Frank Zappa from this film.

Will you find the key to his music? I’m not sure there was one other than the fact that Zappa equated making music with life itself. This is, after all, a guy who first came to the public’s attention in 1963 as a clean-cut youth coaxing sounds from bicycle spokes and handlebars on the Steve Allen Show. Three years later he was long haired, goateed, and fronting The Mothers of Invention, perhaps history’s most provocative rock band to actually get radio airplay. He also had bands named Flo & Eddie (short for Phlorescent Leech and Eddie), and the Grand Wazoo, the latter a jazz ensemble. Jazz was, apparently, his greatest musical love. Predictably, it was of the avant-garde variety. Zappa also pioneered in electronic music, made films, and wrote classical compositions, though he won a Grammy for a jazz composition, and his largest-selling record of all time was the goofy “Valley Girl,” and he charted again with “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”

So who was Frank Zappa? Perhaps the only answer is “yes.” Make any sense? If it doesn’t, maybe this isn’t the documentary for you. If you kind of catch my drift, try it. I don’t think this film will change anybody’s mind one way or the other about Zappa as an artist, but you’ll not take many journeys like this one.

Rob Weir


Thoughts on Rachel Dolezal

By now you've probably heard of Rachael Dolezal, the woman exposed for passing as black. She was good at it; in 2014-15 she was actually the president of Spokane, Washington's NAACP chapter. In truth, she lied about having an African-American father and is of Czech, German, and Swedish heritage. Childhood pictures emerged, which showed her with braces, straight hair, and be-freckled pale skin. Her "black" public presence is the product of a good hairdresser and Mystic Tan spray-on.

These revelations led to savaging and shaming; that's what we do in a culture where hard journalism has given way to gotcha pillorying. So now Dolezal, who got a full scholarship to Howard University, passed herself off as an expert on black art, and once taught Africana Studies, is now jobless and, if she is to be believed, soon to be homeless. Plenty of signs indicate she may have issues beyond her rigid Christian homeschooling, including allegations that Dolezal plagiarized some of her art. Who knows? I'm not a psychologist. But my social/historical, perspective leads me to opt out of the public shaming game.

Dolezal now calls herself "transracial." Before you dismiss this as an attempt to divert attention from her lies, there's the inconvenient fact that she's right, even if you conclude that her only true artistry is of the con variety. Strictly speaking, nearly every human being on this planet is a racial mutt. Insofar as can be determined, Homo sapiens originated in Africa and/or Asia, but we don't have to go that far back in history. About 4% of today's Caucasian Americans have some African ancestry; no matter how "white" they (or their Klan robes) appear. If you want to know the true legacy of slavery, consider that 25% of the genomes in the average "black" person in the United States are European. Southern racial "purists" never needed to protect white women from black men; they needed to protect black women from white male rapists. 

Clarence King
Rachel Dolezal reminds us that race is a social fiction, not a biological fact. She identified as black­–as good a reason for being "black" as any. She's not the first to go that route. We hear much about African Americans "passing" for white, but there are cases in which it ran the other way. Look at this picture of Clarence King (1842-1901), who led a double life. As King, he was a famed geologist, author, and lecturer; as James Todd, he married and fathered children with an African-American woman. It was easy to get away with it. He simply proclaimed himself "black." In the prevailing "single drop" views of the day, one's "blood" mattered more than outward appearance. King/Todd was black because he said he was–just like Dolezal.

Now gaze upon Walter Francis White (1893-1955). From 1931-1955, he was he executive secretary of the national NAACP. Though he looks as "white" as his name, he was a "negro" because five of his thirty-two great-great-great grandparents were African American. He flunked the single-drop rule and had to attend a black college in Atlanta. White surely could have "passed" for white, but chose instead to identify as black—again like Dolezal.

Walter F. White

Now let's look at a few more pictures. W. E. B. DuBois always gets the lion's share of credit for founding the NAACP, but he was only a cofounder. Among the other founders were social reformer Lillian Wald and civil rights activist Henry Moskowitz. They were Jews and, in the early 20th century, Jews weren't viewed as entirely "white." 

Lilliian Wald
Henry Moskowitz

Remember: the NAACP stands for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the terms "black," "negro," or "African American" are notable by their absence. "Colored" meant anyone not considered "white," the latter term being the ultimate fiction. If you think you are "white," look in the mirror and tell how much you resemble a snowflake. Maybe then you'll come around to the point-of-view of journalist Oscar Garrison Villard or the socialist labor activist William English Walling. Not only do they look white, they passed every test for being white of their day. Yet both were cofounders of the NAACP. Why? Because they thought discrimination was wrong and felt the sooner America stopped inventing "race," it could dispense with racism.

Oscar Villard

William English Walling

So look again at Rachel Dolezal. Is she black? White? I'm not defending lying or self-aggrandizement, but perhaps Dolezal can help us focus on what matters and what doesn't. Hey–maybe she can become a rapper. Apparently that's one area of American culture where it's fine for "white" folks to pretend to be "black" and profit from it. What makes that any better than what Dolezal did? 


Alex Dezen II: February 2017 Album of the Month

Alex Dezen
Pledge Music/Warner-Tamerlane

"What killed rock n' roll?" The endless discussions over that question have become a bore since it's impossible to argue for or against a proposition with a false supposition. Rock n' roll has been around since the early days of recording; it just took the genre inventors a few decades to evolve the term. It hasn't gone anywhere either–what's changed is that it doesn't make hearts pound the way it used to. In my humble opinion, that's because a lot of rock became too tame. Rock is best when it's in-your-face music. I love ballads and pretty songs, but that's not rock's forte–a good rock song should unsettle, not make you weak in the knees. And that's why Alex Dezen is fast becoming my favorite rocker. The second full-length solo release from the ex-Damnwells front man is titled Alex Dezen II, which won't win any best title awards, but those who tune in will encounter a simmering dynamo.

You'll have to seek Dezen's songs online as they won't be playing on an FCC-approved radio station near you. Not with titles like "Fuck or Fight," or lyrics such as: Well there's semen on the mattress/And I haven't even kissed her yet/And there's bloodstains on the lampshade/The floor's covered with rabbit shit. That's the opening line of "Holding on to You (Holding on toMe)," which probes a relationship so twisted all he can say about it is it: was worth the sex but not the shame. Yeah, we're talking gritty, not pretty. Dezen's rock dances on the sharp side of the razor. "When You Give Up" has a catchy tune, but it's a song that challenges one and all to answer the question: What you gonna be/When you give up? He's not a defeatist—just a guy who knows it doesn't matter if you're a priest or an archbishop/Or maybe a gambler who calls and bluffs; sometimes scenarios aren't going to play out the way you mapped them.

Dezen's music is lyric-driven and thought provoking. He can swing his axe, but he generally doesn't try to dazzle with guitar chops and opts for sonics that ring, frame, and reverberate. He uses those as his hooks because he also knows that rock has got to grab you by the scruff of the neck, which means a memorable melody, not just noise.  Check out the simple but exceedingly heavy lines in "Randolph Tonight," a road song with the honest recognition that the people coming out to hear music don't give a damn about the baggage you're carrying. No woe-is-me stuff from Dezen: I gotta bury my cross/And play my ass off/In Randolph tonight. And then there's a very different kind of confessional, "I Am a Racist." No—it's not a redneck anthem; it's a searing exploration of what it means to grow up in America with white privilege. Part of that burden is the psychic damage to people such as himself and he's not letting anyone else out of the hot seat: I am a racist/Of this there is little doubt/Black and brown faces/Make me nervous…. Now I don't want to be this way/But what can I say?This is how America raised me/To always be afraid/Don't take the blame/And you're probably exactly the same. Ouch! The closest Dezen gets to wholesome is imaging his mother's afterlife in "New York to Paradise," though what he sings suggests moms was a kick-butt kinda gal. One of my favorite tracks also wields a double-edged sword: "Everything's Great (Everything's Terrible)," which vaguely reminded me of something Paul Simon might write but wouldn't have the moxie to record. If you're tired of wimpy forms of rock (art/glam/country/diva) and want to hear stuff that won't ever be made into a beer ad, check out Alex Dezen. Here's a statement: The final track is titled "Boys of Bummer." What? You were expecting "You Are My Sunshine?" Rock n' roll isn't dead, but Alex Dezen sure did give it a swift kick in the ass.     

Rob Weir