Saturday, December 31, 2016

'Paterson': A Gem of a Way to Look at Life for 118 Minutes

This is a character study, taking a look at one week in the life of a Paterson, New Jersey, poet and bus driver named Paterson (a nuanced performance by Adam Driver). Be forewarned: There’s hardly any drama or conflict here, not the modern cinematic variety at least. Instead, Jim Jarmusch’s film unfolds as an accumulation of details and images. Some are haunting… the twins Paterson’s wife dreams about before they wake up on that first Monday morning seem to float in and out of the story. And duos, too: Abbott and Costello, Romeo and Juliet, Sam and Dave. And the circles and spirals of Paterson’s wife’s art. It’s all very heady, and the most poetic parts are filmed from the perspective of a moving bus – not airborne and not ground-level, but truly unique. It’s a gem of a way to look at life for 118 minutes.

And Now, The Backstory…

Jarmusch, with Carter
Logan, at the Sunshine
Cinema last night
My wife – and notice, by the way, how I blithely assume the wonderful Golshifteh Farahani plays the role of “wife” when that is never stated or specified in the script -- and I happened to see this movie at the Sunshine Cinema on East Houston Street in New York last night. The attraction for viewing the film there (besides “date night in the city”) was that writer/director Jim Jarmusch was scheduled to show up after the 7:15 screening to answer audience questions.

During this Q&A, Jarmusch was simply amazing – cool, insightful, respectful about his art, playful about his art, genuine, smart and thankful to all the people who collaborate on his films.

As I’ve noticed at similar events in the business world, however, the audience questions seemed more focused on the observations of the person asking the question. It’s always personal… always “about me!” and not focused on the topic of discussion.

In that spirit, I offer my own "Paterson" backstory that has only a tangential thread to the movie:
I grew up in Totowa, a town bordering Paterson – which is America’s first planned industrial center and still the most populated city in Passaic County. 
Despite its local reputation for crime and poverty, I always found Paterson to be a good neighbor… although its neighbors have not always been so faithful. 
Two other bordering towns – formerly known as East Paterson and West Paterson – formally changed their names to Elmwood Park (1973) and Woodland Park (2009) – seemingly to avoid any association with Paterson. Notice how these towns cleverly kept their EP and WP initials, so that none of the associated community, municipal or educational logos needed to change. 
My first job as a newspaper reporter was in Paterson – and I admit it, I found the city scary enough not to stop at any red lights when driving home after my shift ended in the early morning hours in the early 1980s. 
A tough and complex city – unapologetically unlike Totowa or Elmwood Park or Woodland Park -- Paterson has also, over the years, been a haven for musicians, artists and writers… with an astoundingly diverse population and an enchanting incongruity. There are, for example, breathtakingly beautiful renovated homes in the city’s gentrified, historic Eastside Park neighborhood. There’s also a large historic park and waterfall right in the center of town (and this particular setting plays a central role the movie). 
Photo from my visit to Paterson's Great Falls in October 2017
This Paterson – the one I grew up with, often love and sometimes fear – is truly a unique place. And Jim Jarmusch (remember him?) is truly a unique director, so please, I urge everyone, SEE THIS MOVIE. It is, as my review (remember that?) states, a gem of a way to look at life for 118 minutes. It’s simply not like anything else. In this day and age, that may be the highest praise you can give anything.
But, back to me.

After the movie, my wife Nancy and I went for a drink at trendy Fools Gold on East Houston Street. I definitely didn’t feel like I was cool enough to be there.

Yet, there we were, seated at the end of the bar. I was in a restless and unsettled mood. I was, in fact, the saddest person in a happy barroom.

I sought solace in the always on-point observations of my wife.

“What did you think of the movie?” I asked.

As Nancy spoke, I was looking directly at a reflection of myself sipping a craft beer in the tastefully trashily decorated mirror behind the bar.

“Oh,” she said wistfully, “it was sweet in its own way. But it kind of had its flaws.”

I was still looking in the mirror, so – speaking of everything being about me -- I had to ask:

“You are talking about the movie, right?”

Friday, December 30, 2016

Poetry + Technology = Magic

Mom and I at the scenic overlook in Allamuchy in October 
Mom will turn 85 soon, one week earlier than Dad would have turned 85. The sad thing is, Dad died when he was 73.

I’m their only son. So for nearly a dozen years, I’ve taken the place of Dad in Mom’s life… but only in the smallest of ways.

For example, there’s the job of setting the timers: That is, trekking to Mom’s house every few weeks to make sure her living room lights automatically turn on at dusk. I used to resent knowing New Jersey’s sunset times better than the Farmer’s Almanac, but then it dawned on me (excuse the pun) that “setting the timers” used to be my father’s job.

I initially thought Mom was just being stubborn about not wanting to learn how to set her own timers. But it turns out she was just being sentimental. Having someone take care of that for her was a small, but meaningful, comfort… one less thing to remind her Dad was gone.

Over the years, I’ve tried to get Mom to text or Skype, use email, check her bank statements on an iPad, or at least use a cell phone – all to no avail. She plays Scrabble on a laptop for hours at a time, but only an old version that runs from a CD. I’ve turned off the computer’s Internet access because she’s otherwise rattled by update notifications and worried someone is spying on her.

Still, this Christmas, I gave technology another shot with Mom. I bought her two Echo Dots along with some smart outlets, and arranged things so that she could turn her lights on and off by voice from her bed or easy chair. And, failing that, so that I could do so remotely.

Behold, the Echo Dot
To my surprise, Mom warmed to the idea of asking “Alexa” to control her lights… and she thought it was black magic when I randomly asked Alexa to reach into Amazon’s music cloud to play “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.

So earlier today, I was upset when I called to check on Mom and found that she was having problems with Alexa. How could that be, I wondered? Mom had no clue, and she was upset Alexa was no longer responding.

I checked the Alexa app on my smartphone and saw that even my remote access was not working. That couldn't be right, either. So I inspected the app a little further and found a history of my Mom’s actual voice commands over the past few days.

It turns out Mom has been talking to the Echo units as if there was a person on the other end, and not a bot. She had set an alarm to wake her in the mornings, and evidently complained, “I’m up! I’m up! I'm up!” to shut it off. She had also asked conversationally about the weather, and somehow Alexa had dutifully answered.

I was floored, however, when I read that Mom had also asked this:

“There’s a poem, and it’s called, ‘How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways…’ Alexa, do you know that poem? Before my husband passed away, he used to recite it to me. Could you recite it to me now?”

I didn’t know this about Dad, and I felt as if I were spying on my parents’ relationship.

Alas, Echo’s Alexa does not recite famous public-domain poetry on demand. (There’s a feature idea for you, Amazon.) So Alexa’s response to Mom's request was simply, "Sorry, I didn't understand your question."

I asked my wife what to make of all this. I told her that soon after Mom had requested the poem, her day had been interrupted by someone who comes in to do her cleaning and vacuuming.

My wife knew immediately what must have happened. The most convenient outlet for a vacuum cleaner is also right where Mom’s router is plugged in. It was probably unplugged. That’s why I couldn't receive a remote signal, and why Mom couldn't receive a response from Alexa.

Troubleshooting this on the phone would have been painstaking since Mom neither knows nor cares what a router is, so I decided to test my wife's theory by surprising Mom with a visit. Before leaving home, I recorded myself reciting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43. I named the file “How Do I Love Thee” and uploaded an MP3 version to Amazon Music.

Arriving at Mom's house, I explained how I “fixed” everything by simply plugging in the cord attached to a mysterious black box she didn't even know she owned.

Then I said, “Alexa, play ‘How Do I Love Thee’.”

“Playing ‘How Do I Love Thee!’” Alexa cheerily answered, and from somewhere in the cloud my recorded voice filled the room.

This is how, on the eve of 2017, technology bridged the gap between generations. It unleashed the magic of a 170-year-old poem to summon my father… in my own voice… to make my overwhelmed and delighted mother start to cry on the eve of her 85th birthday.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Down the Shore Everything's All Right...

"The Shore" is the No. 1 reason people love New Jersey, according to NJ Monthly magazine's latest poll.

I happened to be on the Point Pleasant boardwalk today... at dusk in late December.

I agree with the poll.

Monday, December 19, 2016

To Read or Not to Read

Don't Read This...

Hamlet, Prince of DenmarkHamlet, Prince of Denmark by A.J. Hartley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this book, a Shakespeare scholar (Hartley) and former journalist (Hewson) have novelized the story of Hamlet for modern audiences. 'Tis a noble effort, I suppose… reminding me of an iPad app for cats, with lots of sudden, random movement.

Before the play-within-a-play begins, in the space of seconds, Hamlet punches a stone wall, sings and dances maniacally. Seemingly, the young prince is always moving forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling towards freedom. (Apologies to the Kang character in “The Simpsons”). The action is so compressed here that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive from half the known world away to appear in the king’s court within hours of being summoned. This takes two months in the actual play.

The avuncular Polonius becomes a scheming political operative. Think Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards.” In this book, Ophelia carries Hamlet’s love child and is subsequently murdered by the traditionally minor character Voltimand, upon whom the authors have bestowed Sicilian mob ties. Hamlet – think Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips” -- battles menacing pirates. And then there’s the plot twist of “A Beautiful Mind,” where a main character Russell Crowe thought existed in real life turns out to be only the figment of Hamlet’s imagination.

The famous soliloquies are only hinted at here. So, in the end, it’s easy to smugly dismiss this as “Shakespeare without the poetry”… a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it has enough elements of Entertainment Weekly magazine in the plot to ensure the failure of any student using this text as a replacement for actually reading or seeing “Hamlet.”

So I give it three stars for that.

Read This Instead...

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Hamlet” wasn’t the first Hartley/Hewson book I tried to read. Months ago, I started reading their take on “Macbeth,” but couldn’t finish it.

“This is a bloody disaster,” I thought at the time – but then, in fairness, decided to give the authors another shot since, existentially, that’s precisely what “Macbeth” is.

So I read “Hamlet” while waiting for the Audible version of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run,” to become available earlier this month.

Now that I’ve finished listening to Bruce narrate his life story in a little over 18 hours (or about “five concerts,” in Springsteen time), I have to say his life has more relevance to me than Hamlet’s, and Mr. Springsteen is a better writer than Hartley, Hewson and me combined.

Worthy reads, all
I’ve found this to be the case with lots of successful performers – Amy Schumer, Steve Martin, Carly Simon, even, god help me, Rob Lowe. These are all wonderful writers and storytellers, and they all became “famous overnight” by working for many years at honing their craft, performing without a net and cultivating a keen self-awareness along the way.

Springsteen’s story is full of bombast, just like all his best songs. He isn’t Shakespeare, and he doesn’t try to be. His performance here is unnervingly honest and more than occasionally poetic. Struggling young musician, ego-centric band leader, loving father and friend, sympathetic wrestler of demons of hereditary depression… he describes what it’s like to rehearse “Tumbling Dice” with the Rolling Stones in close quarters, or perform for hundreds of millions of people at the Super Bowl, or struggle to find solace and meaning in his turbulent relationship with his dad.

He also describes the late-in-life phenomenon of spontaneously bursting into tears at odd moments.

I know what that’s like. It happened to me once while commuting home on Route 287 when the radio unexpectedly started to play a song that reminded me, full-throttle, to show a little faith… there’s magic in the night.

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