At 13:11 European time, on Monday, May 8, while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on United Airlines flight 963, in the 61st year of my life, it has finally happened.
Like the satisfaction of slotting into place the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle, like finally matching each and every lost sock to its mate, like the final arrival at the appointed place for the revelation of the Holy Grail, it has finally happened. I have seen the perfect movie.
The journey has been long, often frustrating, treacherous, and frequently disappointing. My senses have been brutalized, almost to numbness, by an endless variety of sentimental, insipid, emotionally manipulative boy-meets-girl, who-gives-a-damn soap opera romances; by long drawn out hostilities and cold wars enacted by children inhabiting apparently adult bodies; by hot, passionate Hollywood-style sex that shrunk my penis into a wither of embarrassment and insecurity; and by every shape, size, and style of building being blown to the sky in an inferno of the triumph of smug rippling-muscled cologne-drenched hyper-masculine superiority over acned, scrawny foul-breath bad, bad, bad, evil doers.
Going to the movies for many years has been like eating a saccharine-drenched, chili-scorching assault on my taste buds, while all the time I was just craving real food.
For a long time my benchmark for the perfect film was Eric Rohmer’s “Le Genou de Claire,” available with subtitles in English as “Claire’s Knee.” The entire film is about a young man, engaged and soon to be married. While on vacation, he meets Claire, a teenage friend of his host’s daughter. He is involuntarily and shamefully attracted to this underaged girl. In the climatic scene of the movie, they are separated from the rest of the group in torrential rain, and are forced to take shelter together, in a small boat house. And there, for no more than three seconds, he briefly touches Claire’s knee. That’s it. The climax scene of my favorite film.
This was not a huge box office hit in the US. No Oscar. Also no car chase, no nudity, no passionate humping. No one dies. No one even raises their voice. It delivers its brilliance, and packs such a powerful punch not by overwhelming us with larger-than-life drama, but by paying minute and reverent attention to the exquisite beauty already compressed into every moment, just as it is, if we would only stop to pay sufficient attention.
In 1999, Rohmer’s masterpiece was toppled from my greatest film so far position by American Beauty, written by Alan Ball. This film, for me, also came close to perfect. Not because of the murder hinted at in the opening scene, and depicted the end, but despite it. Not because of the highly erotic fantasies of Mena Suvari, naked all but for rose petals, but despite them. American Beauty came close to perfect, for me, because of the scene in which 17 year old Jane (Thora Birch) sits down next to 18-year-old amateur filmmaker Ricky (Wes Bentley), so he can show her a three and a half minute clip of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. It was for this moment that I fell in love with this film, and watched it over and over again.
I devoted eight pages to it in my 2005 book, the Translucent Revolution. Here is a passage from that book:
Ricky is awake, conscious, watching, attuned to the present moment. His penetrating, unwavering eyes are invariably looking directly into the camera whenever he is on screen. Ricky’s ability to see the world, to see the hidden beauty in things, is accentuated by his video camera, which is almost always zooming in on something. Ricky invites us to “look closer.” He can see the beauty underneath the appearance of things. A conversation between Ricky and Lester’s daughter, Jane, expresses the essence of the film’s gift. Jane has asked him why he would capture a homeless woman, frozen to death, on video. “Because it was amazing,” he replies. “When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you. If you are careful you can look right back.”
“And what do you see?” asks Jane.
“Beauty,” says Ricky.
The “Beauty” celebrated by the film is the beauty Ricky sees everywhere, the beauty Lester comes to discover, as his eyes are opened during the film, the beauty of a plastic bag dancing in the wind on an icy cold day. Ricky describes this moment of beauty as he shows Jane the image: “It’s a minute away from snowing, there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, and this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it for fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever. Video is a poor excuse, I know, but it helps me remember. I need to remember, I need to remember. Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”
Most writers and directors do with movies what many cooks do with food, and what most of us do with life. Lacking the power of attention and the subtle pallet to savor the fine beauty already inherent within the raw ingredients, we try to intensify experience with sensory overloading. But just as too much chili powder and and sugar can dull your pallet to the simple flavor of a carrot or a slice of fresh bread, so too much violence and thrusting passion can dull our senses to the exquisite beauty of a leaf dropping from a tree in the fall, or the faintest hint of a smile on the lips of an old man alone on a park bench, looking at the trees, lost in sweet memory.
But none of this matters anymore, and I can finally die one day at peace, for I have finally knelt down and tasted the Holy Sacrament. My eyes have been washed clean, my heart has been reignited, and my soul returned to innocence, for I have just seen the perfect film.
Jim Jarmusch’s Patterson cannot be labeled “a masterpiece,” nor as “innovative,” nor “provocative,” for all of those words have already been used up by lesser works. This is art so powerful that the adjectives to describe it have not yet been invented. It is schnotoleshbungeronny. It is wonderblushvolt. It is the perfect film.
Not for one moment did Jarmusch waiver from his faithful, calm, and reverent devotion to life as it is. His discipline as a master demanded he restrain from the use of the chili powder, the saccharine, and the MSG, in favor of his wide-eyed devotion to the exquisite beauty hidden in each and every moment of the ordinary. The most dramatic moments in the film are the electrical malfunction of a city bus, or the misdemeanor of a dog.
But I will not give you any more details. As you can tell, I am awestruck: I am staggering from a religious experience. I suspect that you will to. Right now, in this moment, dear friend, promise yourself to watch this film.
And then sigh a breath of “Hallelujah,” for the search for a film that truly satisfies is now over.