The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment.
On paper, “Everything Else” and “Paterson,” both of which recently screened at the New York Film Festival, are kind of boring. Doña Flor is a government clerk in Mexico City. Paterson is a bus driver and poet in Paterson, New Jersey. Nothing particularly exciting happens to either of them. The two films follow a very similar structure: the characters get up, get ready for work, go to work, work, go home, sleep—and then do the whole thing all over again the next day. Their lives are decidedly unexceptional. So why bother to make films about the repetition of daily life? Isn’t it kind of boring to watch movies about people being bored?
It doesn’t have to be. In fact, when many other films compete to be bigger, louder and save-the-world-ier, there might be more than ever be a need for stories like “Everything Else” and “Paterson.” The stakes might be lower, but each film, in its own way, provides a valuable and insightful look into what it means to be a seemingly unremarkable person.
“Everything Else” can be excruciating to watch at times, for more ways than one. Director Natalia Almada spares the viewer none of the gory details of trying to get anything done in a government office. The camera holds on a man as he shifts and fidgets uncomfortably, waiting for his passport application documents to be reviewed—only to ultimately be rejected because he used both blue and black ink pens.
The rejection is a frustrating everyday occurrence, and the film forces the audience to watch it happen over and over again: person after person comes up with a passport application, then promptly gets rejected on a small technicality. And it is excruciating. By holding steady on the faces of all those involved, the camera encourages viewers to feel for the disappointed and angry applicants, for Doña who has no choice but to be a cog in this governmental machine, even for the janitor who quietly mops in the background, observing the whole ordeal with no power to change any of it.
However, the true painfulness of “Everything Else” does not come from being forced to watch the most tedious moments of everyday life. It comes from the way in which the film exposes the quiet pain and suffering that often accompanies those moments. Doña’s only companion, her cat, dies on her bed one evening and she must carry it out in a blanket, searching for a trash can to dispose of the body—then she must go to work the next day, same as always. “Everything Else” demonstrates how grief and pain must bend to fit within the confines of a life structured by unforgiving bureaucracy.
But all is not lost. “Everything Else” might be decidedly grim, but not hopeless. In the final scene, Doña sits alone in the pool showers when unexpectedly a woman comes over and washes Doña’s back. This small, unexpected act of compassion moves Doña to tears. Pain and suffering might exist inside the unforgiving boundaries of a boring life, but so does the possibility of kindness and human connection, even in the strangest of circumstances. Sometimes all someone needs is a woman in a public shower to come over and wash their back with a loofa.
And sometimes all a person needs is a Japanese poet to hand them a blank notebook. While “Everything Else” focuses on the cruel effects of an everyday life, with the briefest flashes of hope and compassion, “Paterson” takes the opposite approach: the film is a meditation on the beauty of the mundane, with the small painful moments mixed in between. To an outside observer, Paterson’s life does not seem particularly exciting either: he divides his time between his home, his bus, walking his dog, and his regular bar, with little variation in his routine. Adam Driver’s performance gives little in the way of expressive emotion, yet the film shows how the character finds a certain kind of beauty and poetry in everything around him. He listens to people as they talk on his bus: about anarchism, attempted romantic connections, and everything in between, and smiles ever so slightly at the rider’s insights and absurdities. Then he sits in front of a waterfall to eat his lunch and write his poems.
Even in more traditionally dramatic moments the film remains decidedly subdued: a drawn gun turns out to be fake, the broken bus does not explode into a “fireball,” the relationship between Paterson and his wife Laura does not experience any turmoil, just the every day ups and downs of a romantic partnership. In a less restrained film, this would all be building up to Paterson finally losing his cool at the climax when Marvin the dog destroys Pateron’s poetry notebook—instead of an outburst, Paterson simply stares at the dog and says “I don’t like you.” Cut to Marvin’s (literal) puppy-dog face.
Fred Elmes / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street
Every day life does not often contain big moments or big reactions, and by adopting a quieter tone, “Paterson” showcases the beauty in the everyday; just as “Everything Else” examines how those same moments can be heartbreaking. Paterson might not have the best life, but the film shows its beauty. Doña might not face the most agonizing of challenges, but “Everything Else” un-dismissively shows her real pain.
So yes, on paper, “Everything Else” and “Paterson” are boring films. But that’s not the whole story. In the way that the films showcase the typically un-showcased, they break away from what audiences might expect from a film, and therefore resist the negative implications of “boringness.” Both give viewers an in-depth, personal look at people often either ignored (bus drivers) or actively hated (government bureaucrats) and in doing so, they make a heartfelt argument for empathy towards others. Day-to-day life might be boring, but the complexities of human experiences, no matter how “unremarkable,” are not. And those complexities are worth considering.