Manchester By The Sea and Paterson

I’m getting a bit behind so am doubling up on these two American arthouse slice-of-ordinary-life type movies set in real places.

Manchester By The Sea is a small town on the Massachussetts coast, to which a taciturn loner who works as a janitor returns one bleak winter to settle the affairs of his brother who’s died suddenly but not entirely unexpectedly of a heart condition, leaving his teenage son to his brother’s care. But this janitor brother has some baggage. And how. Of that more later.

Paterson, New Jersey, is a decaying industrial town notable only for being mentioned in Bob Dylan’s song Hurricane as the setting for the killings that resulted in the murder convictions of boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter in 1966:

…In Paterson that’s just the way things go.
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
‘Less you wanna draw the heat

Hurricane is such a powerful piece of protest poetry that it had me convinced Carter was innocent until, out of interest while writing this review, I googled and read up the story and now believe the TWO juries (one of which was not ‘all-white’, as alleged in the song) who found him guilty in two separate trials, got it right. Still, it’s a great song which could almost single-handedly justify Dylan’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But I digress. The story told in Paterson is of a week in the life of a young, not very bright bus-driver who spends his spare moments daydreaming and writing poetry about his sweet-natured sexy wife, who thinks, mistakenly but endearingly, that he’s a poetic genius.

Not much happens. The bus breaks down and he handles it pretty well. He listens sympathetically to a fellow driver’s daily litany of family and financial woes. He intervenes gallantly but unnecessarily as it turns out when a lover’s tiff at his local bar threatens briefly to turn violent. His wife makes some much-needed money selling home-made cupcakes at a local market and they celebrate with a night out. He overhears snatches of conversation on the bus, listening intently.

These interactions are nicely observed, and indeed the best thing about this movie is the way it captures the sometimes inadvertently funny side of human silliness. When the bus breaks down, a schoolboy passenger asks why they all had to get off while waiting for its replacement to come – is it because the bus could burst into flames any minute? Of course not, he laughs. But his wife and his mates at the bar reflexively ask the same question when THEY hear this not-very-big-deal story. It’s not just kids who watch too many Hollywood movies!

Anyway, I was grateful for the lack of violence and the refreshing portrayal of human beings as mostly nice folks. But I do like a bit of a narrative arc….

Enter my movie-going companion Richard, with whom I saw both Paterson and Manchester By The Sea. He liked Paterson but disliked Manchester, where my preferences were slightly the other way round, although I liked them both.

Manchester is all about the legacy of overwhelming grief. The janitor returning to his home town for his brother’s funeral is still deeply affected by the deaths of his three children about ten years earlier in circumstances to which his own minor carelessness may have contributed. There’s a flashback scene where he’s being interviewed by the police after this awful event. He confesses everything, taking care not to leave out the tiniest incriminating detail no matter how trivial or irrelevant. It’s as though he craves punishment. But the cops can’t and don’t want to charge him: he’s meant no harm, he’s had no evil intentions. Like everyone else in this small town they pity him; he’s become famous as the victim of an unspeakable tragedy. Even his ex-wife, mother of the children, eventually forgives him, but he cannot forgive himself.

It’s pointed out in the film that the family is Catholic. Richard thought this was significant; that the central character’s inability to forgive himself is some kind of critique of Catholic guilt, for which Richard has no time: it’s a useless, destructive emotion, he says. This led to a diverting post-movie argument about the nature and ‘purpose’ of guilt which foundered on our inability to agree on its definition, although I reckon I won. I was more sympathetic to the story and the central character because I found it entirely plausible that the powerful combination of grief and guilt experienced by that character could have paralysed his emotions, deadened his soul and robbed him of any hope of future happiness.

Yes, it’s a gloom-fest in which – spoiler alert! – he does not find redemption in the guardianship of his newly-orphaned teenage nephew, but it’s a well-acted, well-told story that avoids mawkishness and cliche. Four stars.