Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is work of subtle optimism. It’s a gentle film, kind and generous, funny, too. Watching the movie, I sensed Jarmusch giving me a reassuring push, like a parent at a swing or a child casting off a toy boat. Paterson is one of the best movies of 2016, and also a great movie about being a writer.
So many movies about writing are full of the same cliches: substance abuse, depression, infidelity, abject poverty, a history of screw-ups redeemed only by our hero’s virtuosic prowess with language. Paterson‘s strength comes from how well it avoids these trappings even as the score (provided by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL) makes us expect the worst. Life could be better for our title character played by Adam Driver, yet he rarely succumbs to self-pity. His humble life is unassuming yet poetic.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the US theatrical release of the film.]
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Release Date: December 21, 2016 (France); December 28, 2016 (USA, limited)
2003’s American Splendor may be the best companion to Paterson. That film chronicled the life of comics writer Harvey Pekar. Pekar lived and wrote in Cleveland, and kept a day job at a VA hospital. Paterson in Jarmusch’s film works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He uses little catches of time through the day to write poetry in his notebook. This is the writing life of working people–no parties with literati, no salons, no scenester-ism, no pretension, just toil and care with words.
Paterson follows a week in the life our bus driver. At the end of the first day, we get the broadstrokes of this character’s routine. He wakes up beside his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), he walks to work, he eavesdrops on people’s conversations, he returns home, he walks their bulldog, and he has a drink at the local bar. The routine might seem stifling, but Jarmusch enlarges the world that Paterson lives in. Side characters get fleshed out in unexpected ways, and we get new details about who Paterson and Laura are through careful reveals and well-observed scenes. The initial claustrophobia of the structure both folds out and opens inward. Paterson’s acts of noticing help convey his sense of the city he lives in, his interior life, and the lives of people around him.
Bad poetry ruins everything. To avoid that danger, Jarmusch hired New York School poet Ron Padgett to write original work for Paterson. Paterson’s poetry reads like actual poetry (a pastiche of William Carlos Williams) rather than the hokey stuff that movie-poetry often sounds like. Jarmusch depicts the writing of this poetry through voiceover and superimposed text over montages. It isn’t the most ideal representation of the creative process, but it works.
The whole of Paterson is imbued with its own poetic flourishes, like the constant appearance of twins, doubles, or mirrored lines, as if trying to find a visual equivalent for internal rhyme or rhyming couplets. (Intentional correspondence: William Carlos Williams, writer of the five-book poem Paterson, is the favorite poet of a man named Paterson who lives in Paterson, NJ in a movie called Paterson. Coincidental correspondence: Adam Driver cast as a bus driver. )
One of the more fascinating things I noticed about Paterson was how it explores the relationship between Paterson and Laura. They spend most of their time apart, but thanks to the new information we get about each of them as the film unfolds, I’m able to understand not just how they work as a couple but why. On the surface, Laura seems like a manic pixie dream girl artist who wound up with a polite stoic, but they complement each other and know the importance of space and time in their relationship.
Driver is a delicate soul in this film rather than his usual hipster scumbag. His performance reminds me of an artist friend back in the Bay Area who struggles to make time to paint. Farahani adds depth to Laura, who, like her boyfriend, is a type of optimistic American dreamer. Maybe this space and togetherness between Paterson and Laura is an example of the power of interpersonal enjambment.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the online literary community about the role of writing in the lives of writers. Is writing just a hobby? Can writing really be considered a job? As if those are the only options. Paterson seems to offer its own answers with a zen-like Jarmusch cool.
While Paterson keeps so many of his poems to himself in a journal, he writes because he can’t live without it. It’s where he finds and creates meaning, and issues of ego, publication, notoriety, and the local scene never factor into the significance of what he does. It is significant simply because it is. Perhaps the melancholy of the score is meant as a counterpoint to Paterson the man. So much about the surface of his life suggests the misery of obscure solitude. That might be true in other stories, but Paterson is a writer, and in addition to his good fortune for having the friends he does, he has writing to fill the empty spaces of each day.