I have recently discovered, rather late into my twenties, the truly cathartic power of the cinema. There is something about the anonymity of the darkened auditorium and the shared experience with strangers and friends which makes it a good place to face your demons. Last night I went to see German writer and director Maren Ade’s new film Toni Erdmann, which was highly recommended by a film-buff friend. It is undeniably brilliant; an excruciating black comedy (which German directors are so skilled at) about the difficulty of communicating with your family. I won’t go into the detail of the plot here; Peter Bradshaw has written a fantastic review in The Guardian which says everything you need to know.
This film had an emotional impact because it deals with situations which feel uncomfortably close to my own life. But this certainly isn’t unique to me. Who hasn’t had to face up to a difficult relationship with a parent, an uncomfortable sexual encounter or the death of a pet? These are ordinary life experiences played out on a big screen but dealt with intimately, in what Bradshaw aptly calls ‘excruciatingly understated tragedy’. Yes, Toni Erdmann made me cry in a primal Where the Wild Things Are way but it also made me laugh loudly and it turned out this was just what I needed.
This is the fourth film I have watched in recent weeks. Manchester by the Sea was impressive and mesmerising in its slow-burning, gut-wrenching unravelling of past tragedy but lacked the nuance, subtlety and skill of Toni Erdmann. La La Land was mildly entertaining but too predictable and sickly sweet for me. However, there is another film that I thought matched Toni Erdmann for its charm and poetic beauty. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a beautiful film which draws its inspiration from the American poet William Carlos Williams and the imagist movement.
In this film, like in Williams’s poetry, patterns occur as images are repeated. A waterfall. A pair of twins.
The central character is named Paterson and lives in a town called Paterson; the town which Williams was from and which he used as the name for a collection of poetry. Paterson is a bus driver who spends his lunch break writing poetry in a notebook. He observes the daily rhythm of the city, he hears snippets of conversations, he returns home to his eccentric wife and her dreams. The film is punctuated by Paterson reading aloud poems that he has written.
According to Ezra Pound, the key features of imagist poetry are:
I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.
It is refreshing to watch a film that responds to poetic ideas in such a determined way, combining and contrasting art forms. If you haven’t been to the cinema recently and are feeling disenchanted with the world, I would urge you to go. Ignore the news and switch off your phone. For a few hours, sit in the dark, be absorbed and transported, laugh, cry and remember that humans are still capable of making something beautiful.