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.
Jim Jarmusch is no stranger to making films about artists or films that reference other works of art: “Dead Man’s” protagonist is named after the English poet William Blake, in “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai,” Jarmusch pays homage to Seijun Suzuki’s “Branded to Kill,” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” has a vampire protagonist who doubles as a famous rock musician. Jarmusch’s latest two films which, played at the New York Film Festival this year—“Gimme Danger” and “Paterson” — continue this pattern of making a film about artists. What ultimately ties all these works together is a nostalgic longing for old art, and this can be seen through references Jarmusch’s films make or in the films’ own subject matter.
“Gimme Danger” and “Paterson,” however, are a bit of a departure, because of how more direct Jarmusch is in dealing with the subject of nostalgia. The role of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) as a rock musician in “Only Lovers Left Alive” functioned as more of a stylish adornment rather than something with which the film engaged. Similarly, while “Dead Man” certainly dealt with William Blake directly, the film wasn’t necessarily nostalgic so much as it was using Blake’s poetry to make a commentary on the then-modern American beliefs of the Old West.
In this regard of how they deal with nostalgia, “Gimme Danger” and “Paterson” have more in common with one another than they do with Jarmusch’s previous work. Consequently, “Gimme Danger” and “Paterson” can be seen as Jarmusch’s stance on the contemporary artist: the contemporary artist as being beholden to the past.
“Gimme Danger” is a documentary about the proto-punk band Iggy Pop and the Stooges, following the band’s start in the early 60s and ending with their reunion or “reunification,” as Iggy puts it, just a couple of years ago. The aspect of nostalgia in “Gimme Danger” is found in both the film’s subject matter, and in Jarmusch’s more formal use of editing. To clarify, while “Gimme Danger” may be a documentary, the film has a semblance of a narrative. That narrative has an aspect of romanticism to it because of how the past is shaped.
Jarmusch uses a juxtaposition between the past and present to show how contemporary artists owe their sound to Iggy and The Stooges, further cementing the nostalgia and idea of the artist as being beholden to the past.
The screen is filled with images of album covers from bands whose sound evolved from the one developed by Iggy and The Stooges: Black Flag’s “Damaged,” Sonic Youth’s “Dirty,” and Nirvana’s “Bleach,” and so on. Jarmusch then juxtaposes the crawling image of the albums with archival footage of Iggy and the Stooges performing. The two shots are imposed on one another until they nearly create an almost indecipherable image. Without Iggy and the Stooges, these future bands would not exist the same way we recognize them now.
That nostalgia continues in “Paterson.” Unlike “Gimme Danger,” “Paterson” is a fictional film about a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver), who takes his name from the eponymous town in New Jersey. The narrative of “Paterson” is focused on Paterson’s daily routine for a week: going to work, spending time with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), drinking at the local bar, and writing poetry. It’s this last aspect of Paterson’s daily routine where Jarmusch most directly deals with nostalgia, and the contemporary artist’s relation to the past.
As a poet, Paterson is shown to be extremely well read; within his basement which houses a private writing room, Jarmusch litters Paterson’s work table with other books, and the camera is made to linger so as to make these books visible. Among the works seen are David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” as well his collection of essays, “Consider the Lobster.” There’s also a photo of Jorge Luis Borges and a collection of poetry by William Carlos Williams, whose work plays a somewhat significant role in the film.
What these collection of books show is similar to the role of Jarmusch juxtaposing Iggy and the Stooges with the artists that came after them, and that is, the influence of past art on the contemporary artist. Being that “Paterson” is a fictional film, there is more wiggle room to work with when discussing the film’s themes. Jarmusch develops the idea of the relationship between the contemporary artist and the past a bit more than he does in “Gimme Danger.” “Paterson” is not just simply being about the contemporary artist’s relation to the past, but the contemporary artist as attempting to live in the past, and the alienation which results from attempting to do so.
Paterson as a poet not only directly recalls the artists who came before him through his collection of literature but also in his developmental process of writing; he is always seen in the act of writing sitting on a bench, watching a waterfall. There’s a connection made between Paterson and nature which brings to mind other poets, such as Walt Whitman. Where Paterson’s alienation comes from is when that developmental process of writing spills into his social life.
Later on in the film, it is revealed that Paterson doesn’t have a phone or computer, because he believes they are too distracting; he maintains a somewhat abhorrence and distance from technology and Jarmusch shows this in a variety of ways. At one point while working, the bus breaks down because it was an electric bus and something had gone haywire. Immediately after, Paterson attempts to use a payphone which is torn off the hook and also doesn’t work. The bar Paterson regularly attends has no television, because its owner is against it. Finally, throughout the film, Laura urges Paterson to make Xerox copies of his poetry in order to share it with the world, something he never gets around to doing. Then, towards the end, Paterson faces a sudden tragedy involving the survival of his work.
It’s this last act of having Paterson’s writing destroyed where Jarmusch seems to be making the case that the contemporary artist must be someone who is modern, which would thereby sever their connection to the past, less they become alienated. And yet, that’s not true due to a saving grace in the film’s last act. Paterson returns to the waterfall and while there, he meets another poet, an older gentleman visiting from Japan.
The two bond over William Carlos Williams, and Paterson denies being a poet, but the acquaintance sees through the lie. Before leaving, he inspires Paterson to continue his creative pursuit. There’s a significance in the age difference between Paterson, and the Japanese man, because what the latter represents is that old guard that Paterson looks up to, i.e., the nostalgic past.
Both “Gimme Danger” and “Paterson” differ from Jarmusch’s previous work because of how they deal with nostalgia. Specifically, the relationship between contemporary artists and the past. In “Gimme Danger” that nostalgia takes the perspective of the past in the form of Iggy and the Stooges, where Jarmusch shows how modern bands wouldn’t have their sound without the influence of the former. In “Paterson,” that perspective is flipped to the contemporary artist, and there, Jarmusch not only shows how the contemporary artist is shaped by the nostalgic past but more so than “Gimme Danger” how that past is fundamental to the existence of the present. The key difference is that the Ramones, Sonic Youth, and so on, may have existed without Iggy and the Stooges. Without the intervention of the older poet—the nostalgic past of the old guard—Paterson would have ceased to be an artist.