The US Cities Double Feature

Last night, I didn’t see Chicago, or Philadelphia. I didn’t see Cedar Rapids, or – god forbid – Elizabethtown. The two eponymous US cities are Columbus and Paterson, and both films are fascinating. Neither is perfect; so rarely is it that a movie captures exactly what both the filmmaker and the spectator wish to see, yet both films exude a warmth, a sad ease that makes them easy to watch and difficult to conceptualize. Columbus, directed by Kogonada, is a poignant, mundane narrative following a recent high school graduate, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), and a Korean man, Jin (John Cho), as their lives bleed into the grey concrete skies of the city they’ve found themselves in. Paterson is a serene book of poetry plastered onto a screen; we watch Paterson (Adam Driver) and his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) go about their daily experiences, be they ordinary or extraordinary. These films are spiritually connected, and it’s a mere coincidence that I watched them back to back. In all honesty, I didn’t even know Paterson was a city in New Jersey until the film made it apparent. I would like to travel through these two cities, these two films, contrasting their themes and presentation. It’s not necessary for you to have seen the two films, but it will help to appreciate the analysis. 

Columbus and Paterson are often fixated on things: in Columbus, it’s architecture, buildings, and the things within them, and in Paterson it’s matches, a shoebox, a beer, other everyday objects. These things are the ways in which the characters see the world. Casey is moved by the buildings of Columbus, while Jin is reluctant to acknowledge their artistry. We know why Jin is opposed to them: His father, a renowned architect, was neglectful and unappreciative of Jin. The film refuses to tell us why Casey is so moved by the glass and cement and brick, though, muting her as she explains herself. I believe she loves the architecture because of its inherent immovability, a trait that she has embraced due to her mother’s history of addiction as well as her fear of advancement in life. She’s glued her shoes to the ground and tells herself the glue was there when she stepped, rooting her to Columbus and a lack of ambition. Paterson and Laura interact differently with their things: Laura repeatedly finds herself something new to paint, something new to cook, or to design, or to cut, or simply to do, while Paterson uses things as inspiration for his poetry, words on a page shared with nobody. The day Laura sells her cupcakes, sharing her creations with the world and being met with universal praise, Paterson finds his book of poetry torn to shreds, a creation that was once the property of a single mind reduced to the property of oblivion. For a moment, one might sense resentment in the air, but you’ll realize that their lives complement each other rather than devolving into bitterness. There is love here, in these things. There is tepid, inert love in the architecture of Columbus, and there is silently vibrant, unstimulating love in Paterson.

Ambitions don’t live or die in Columbus and Paterson, they simply rest. As previously mentioned, Casey has trapped herself in Columbus, unable to bear the thought of leaving her mother behind while she pursues a sense of self. Jin has also seen his ambitions held hostage, as his father’s waning health has forced him to look back on his choices and realize he doesn’t enjoy what he’s made for himself. Columbus isn’t a place where ambitions have to die, though: It’s more of a purgatory of ideas, a stagnation of aspiration that can eventually be alleviated. The buildings are permanent, but you are not. The ever-still camera and lengthy establishing shots build on this concept beautifully. Paterson takes a more straightforward approach to the ambitions of its characters, indicating with sharp juxtaposition the discrepancies between Laura and Paterson’s interpretations of peace. Paterson is content, or at the very least indifferent, to never move forward – to never share his life with someone other than the characters who happen upon him. Laura is the opposite in that she wants the world to hear her voice, or taste her food, or see her artwork, and yet the pair functions as a whole. The film accentuates this with irony: Paterson is a busdriver, meaning he’s constantly in motion without ever taking a step forward in life, and Laura is an ambition machine yet we do not see her leave the house until the sixth day, planted within the confines of their modest home. 

I’m not going to criticize the films, that’s not what this post’s intention is. These films went under my radar, so they may have gone under yours, too, and I highly recommend them. As a bonus as we near the end, these are some other somewhat strange parallels I found between Columbus and Paterson: Both include characters adverse to owning a smartphone. Both films were released within 8 months of each other (Paterson was late 2016, Columbus was mid 2017). Both films star an American, while the second lead is foreign. Both films take inspiration from non-film related artists. I’m sure I could find more if I looked hard enough. These movies make me happy.

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