Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Time Machine: An Appreciation

Last week, something magical happened.  I use the word magical in a technical sense, to describe the conditions under which ordinary objects (a hat, a rabbit, a deck of cards) collide, cohere, and then flare up into something bigger than themselves.  I don’t use it often.

I met my wife after work and instead of folding ourselves into the evening labor of dishes, dinner, dishes again, then bedtime, we drove to Rutherford, an ordinary place if ever there was one.  When we parked the car, we found ourselves at the top of a small hill.  Turning toward our destination, the William Carlos Williams Center for the Performing Arts, we caught a slightly obscured view of New York City and a series of houses floating off like a row of jagged teeth.

Soon we entered our destination and were swallowed up in a small crowd that worked us round and round until we were outside of it. We rubbed the backs of our hands on each others’ cheeks,  trying to get warm, and then realized we were standing beside a man with a shock of white hair that looked like trapped lightning. This man was Jim Jarmusch, legendary filmmaker, and the reason we had left our house on a Monday night even though everything told us that it would be best to stick to the week’s routine, keep turning the hamster wheel, because if it ain’t broke, why would you break it, let alone fix it?

We fell into easy conversation — about how this wasn’t really his scene — and about some of his early films — about how we all kind of preferred them. He was a prince of a man, a calming presence, the kind of guy who would refuse to sign a first edition copy of Book 5 of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson because to do so would have ruined it. (That last part really happened.) My wife ended up bringing him a glass of wine when his ran out, and at the end of our conversation, maybe five minutes in total, he put his arm around me and we both smiled for a camera.  He had to get going, since his new film was about to start, and oh yeah, his new film was about to start.

My wife and I walked into the theater, sat down, and waited.  It was good to wait; I took her hand like I hadn’t in a while and thought about how good it was to find it there.  And when the movie started, I felt like I was back with an old friend. This old friend, of course, was Jarmusch’s camera, the way it moved, what it observed.

The film reminded me of what I loved about Jarmusch’s work and why I go back to it often. He sculpts time better than any artist I know. He forces the viewer to slow down, forces you to sometimes look at your watch and wonder how much time has passed. Because you have to go through the movie to get to the end, you have to go through Jarmusch’s time machine. It doesn’t take you to the future so much as to the present, an irony I’m guessing Jim Jarmusch would enjoy: the broken time machine fulfills its true purpose, delivering not the what if but the what is.

Riding this particular time machine is such a healthy practice; I would even call it spiritual. Off the treadmill, away from chores and responsibilities, you’re in a frame, a two hour frame, where time is slower than it has been in months, maybe years. Which means that in Jarmusch’s movies, and in Paterson in particular, the characters have a little bit of room to breathe, as well.

They have time for a cup of coffee, time to look at a beam of light dancing.

They have time to make art outside of their daily responsibilities.

They have time to flip through the pages of a book of poems, time, in fact, to flip those pages enough times that the books become worn and dear and personal.

They have time to kiss each other in the morning, time to ask each other how their day was in the evening.

When they do this — say “how was your day?” — they’re not doing anything else, they’re just waiting for an answer, no matter how long it takes.

They visit the same places, sometimes repetitively, noticing subtle changes or that nothing has changed. They get to look again.  And again.

They get to hear what song is on the jukebox or see what photo has been added to the wall.  All life is accretion of detail, subtraction of detail, replacement of this for that. . .

And because Jarmusch’s characters don’t judge others, seem to have that part of their minds short circuited (because who can not rush to judgment except a saint?) they disarm certain situations that, clouded by judgment or prejudice or expected narratives, could have gone differently. Theirs is a kind of yea saying less than wonder but greater than mere smirk.

Like I said, it’s spiritual, watching Jarmusch’s films.

At some point, often in these films, someone from another country walks into the frame. Partly, this allows for some kind of reset, and partly, this allows for a brand new possibility.  This visitor usually brings a completely open heart, a different language, often a language barrier in fact, and new questions. Working through the difficulty leads to a new kind of  communication. Two people, in situations like that, have to invent a way to communicate. To do so, to create a wobbly bridge, they have to go back to what is utterly common between them. They have to say, this is human, that is not human, let’s stick to the former, the elemental.  We can only make proper magic with the ordinary.  A hat, a rabbit, a deck of cards.  Oil, salt, water.  Jarmusch.


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