Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Starr: Adam Driver (Paterson), Golshifteh Farahani (Laura), Nellie (Marvin), Barry Shabaka Henley (Doc), William Jackson Harper (Everett), Chasten Harmon (Marie)
US / France / Germany, 118mins
NOTE: This review goes into great detail about the film’s construction which unavoidably discusses key plot points. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. And make sure you stay till the very end to observe the memorial to a performance almost the equal of Driver’s.
Paterson is a film about an unassuming bus driver and poet called Paterson living a satisfying routine in the town of Paterson, NJ. It was an oasis of calm in a year of cultural, political and social turbulence. In its adherence to tight close-ups, askew camera positioning and a world seen in reflection, it hints at the limitless potential for poetic resonance in all things, if only we are willing to look upon them contemplatively. One of the film’s key scenes takes place in a launderette in the neighbourhood in which Paterson lives and walks his dog. The rapper and actor Method Man is testing out some lyrics that reference Ohio poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906), who wrote a great deal of his material in a dialect associated with African-Americans of the Southern States. As Paterson eavesdrops from the other end of his dog, Marvin’s, leash, Method Man reworks his poetic flow, reminding himself as he does so that there are ‘no ideas but in things’. This is an oft-quoted line from one of Paterson’s more famous former residents, the poet and physician, William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963). By this point in the film we know that Paterson is a fan of Williams’ work, and that Jarmusch’s film itself is patterned around some of the key principles of Williams’ poetic output. Location, lead actor (Adam Driver), poetic allusions and an embrace of equanimity combine to make this the film in which Jarmusch finally seems to perfect an aesthetic he has been working toward since Stranger than Paradise (1984), one which I would describe as a ‘Zen absurdism’.
As a filmmaker Jarmusch has committed himself to small, forgotten, outsider spaces, more often than not American, which are inhabited by characters, predominately male, who are drifters, outcasts, or people who don’t really seem to belong in the time and/or the space they inhabit. A brief survey of works like Down by Law (1986), Broken Flowers (2005), or the aforementioned Stranger than Paradise, show mobile shots of some duration that give a whistle-stop tour of a neighbourhood and its peculiarly insular character. With Paterson the director has literally found the perfect vehicle for these potted travelogues of ‘nowhere’ places, in the form of the bus that Paterson drives around town. The small New Jersey city of Paterson becomes, with its two-storey downtown and its preponderance of inactive industrial landmarks, a crucible within which the mundane is converted into the mythic. It is the curious interconnection of a disproportionate number of poetic stories within the history of the city, that encourages Jarmusch and his DOP Frederick Elmes to visually depict the city’s geography as a nexus of poetic resonances emanating from within the quotidian nature of the place, and apprehended by the observant bus driver. This makes for a highly affected and slender form of narrative, but one that follows a carefully mapped out route towards a profound sense of closure and renewal.
The film describes a week in the life of Paterson and his wife Laura, from one Monday morning to the next. Just as Paterson’s life finds a watchful serenity in the rhythm of routine, Laura’s life is defined by a peculiarly specific sensibility that penetrates into the many, seemingly spontaneous, pursuits she undertakes (from interior design to country music). Although never fully condescending, the manner with which Jarmusch hems Laura in to a domestic space, very much on the periphery of Paterson’s ‘working’ day is one area of weakness within the film. Laura has creative agency, but her narrative purpose is very much geared toward helping establish a sense of secure routine for the eponymous protagonist. Each day of the week has improvisations and variations, but there is a formal structure underpinning them, that of Paterson’s unswerving daily routine (wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, write some poetry, drive the bus, clock off, go home, spend time with Laura, walk Marvin, go to the bar called Shades). Pushing the musical analogy further, a maestro can make great music from just two notes played well. The formal minimalism of Jarmusch’s narrative is exemplary of such an approach, drawing out a great deal of meaning from what seems to be frequently superficial and trite. I believe this is because what Jarmusch’s film is entirely devoted to is the restitution of a harmonious order; that of the protagonist’s calm, and fully accepting, contemplation of the ideas held within the minutiae, the smallest of things.
Similar to Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), Paterson has the feel of a small film that contains the entire world – another reason why the role of Laura, and later of Marie, prove problematic. They are the only two women in the film that Elmes’ camera revisits, even then we get little sense of who they are, beyond a potential source of poetry for Paterson. That said, on a reviewing of the film, I found myself dwelling more upon the little acknowledgements between lovers – the way Paterson pulls the covers back over Laura’s body after he gets out of bed, the manner in which he always finds a small compliment to pay her, the little detailings in Paterson’s lunchbox that greet his moments of composition at Passaic Falls. Laura’s love of black and white is also a neat underscoring of the notion of doing so much with so little. Her every creative endeavour shown in the film involves finding new variations of black and white design, something that Paterson finds quietly enthralling when he notes that every circle within her design for the drapes is different (a remark entirely absent of irony, which is thanks to Driver’s remarkable sincerity in performance). Paterson cannot remember the last time he saw a film in black and white, after him and Laura treat themselves to a night at the movies. Yet for Laura the experience is something she loves and makes her think of how this feels like living in the 20th century. Shades and nuance belong to Paterson’s quiet being, whereas boldness and reinvention are part of Laura’s more immediately engaging presence.
When mapping out how the film demonstrates a ‘Zen absurdist’ aesthetic that is uniquely Jarmusch’s own, attention must be paid to other uses of formal structure. Visual balance within shot compositions is particularly important and subtly reinforces the explicit use of twins as parallels within the film. Background structures often have repeated elements (two white picket fence posts, two large steel girders, two no parking signs). Significant, or dominant colours within each shot are also very often paired up (the pink door of Paterson’s house with the pink petals of the garden flowers, the red road sign with the red of a postbox handle). Then there is the use of paralleling within reflections upon mirrors and windows. This latter element is clearly used to focus attention upon the conversion of the commonplace into their poetic reinvention through Paterson’s associative imagination. This is illustrated by an early sequence in the film where first we see Paterson pull away from the bus depot, presented in a medium fixed frame shot. Then we have a mobile tracking shot, moving in motion with the bus, where the city passes by on one half of the screen, and is reflected in reverse on the windscreen of the bus on the other half of the screen. This is followed by a profile shot of Paterson driving the bus, with fainter reflections of the passing city in the windows around him. Finally, the camera positions itself as if from the driver’s seat of the bus, looking through the windscreen at the road ahead, and the city as it passes by; this is effectively a POV shot and that POV is Paterson’s. From that point onward in the film, Paterson’s looking becomes an active work of poetic transformation, most often presented in the form of tightly composed close-ups of inconsequential everday ‘things’ (a bus door handle, the underside of a curtain and lampshade, a pair of workmen’s boots).
Throughout the film Jarmusch uses the deliberately naïve poetry of award-winning New York poet Ron Padgett – a sly heading-off of the bland criticism quite a few complacently condescending film critics have made about the ‘typically awful’ quality of poetry in films. The way the lines are presented upon the screen, in an approximation of Paterson’s handwritten scrawl, as he intones them in his head, is evocative of a similar device Jarmusch used in his 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, when Forest Whitaker’s character recites passages from the Japanese spiritual text the Hagakure. Furthermore, the film begins and ends with prominent sections of soundtrack by Sqürl, Jarmusch and Carter Logan’s noise-rock band. These pieces of music are heavily comprised from found sounds (bird noises, wind, leaves rustling) and the meditative sounds of a Buddhist singing bowl. This neatly affirms the cyclical nature of the film’s structure, whilst presenting us with that idea of variation, a harmonic note sustained and transformed.
One of the true beauties of the film is its dwelling upon commonalities rather than conflict. Jarmusch never allows any particular scene to develop in a dramatic fashion. The closest that the film comes to something that fits that criteria is when Everett takes a toy gun and makes a pretence of killing Marie, or himself, as because without love life isn’t worth living. For a moment Paterson is thrust into an unwelcome action mode, evoking the early image of the military photo by his bedside. Disarming Everett in one cleanly aggressive move Paterson seems taken aback by a moment of impulse, of reaction. This moment comes at the end of an unsettling day, one in which Paterson woke up late, his colleague at the bus station didn’t talk with him, and his bus broke down. The serenity and the harmonious rhythms of his working week were disrupted. It is worth noting that throughout the film Driver plays Paterson as a reactive figure, polite and courteous, only speaking when spoken to, or when showing concern for someone’s wellbeing. Communication is led by others, more often than not Laura. This crucially changes in the films penultimate sequence.
The week that structures the film builds to a destructive crescendo that is a divestment of sorts for Paterson. The ‘secret book’ that he squirrels away the sole copy of his poems within is destroyed by Marvin – an anthropomorphic performance of jealousy made in the editing suite. Paterson doesn’t rage over this loss, if anything Laura is angrier and more vocal. Instead a stoical acceptance is sketched out over the course of an evening and a morning. That stoical acceptance becomes something beatific when Paterson comes across Masatoshi Nagase’s Japanese poet at Passaic Falls. Nagase’s concerted efforts to politely draw out information from Paterson about Paterson (both the man and the place) foreground the reactive nature of the bus driver’s interactions. Then, in the space between two leading questions, Paterson finally feels compelled to offer something more of himself to Nagase. He briefly talks about Frank O’Hara and his work. Nagase then delivers a blank notebook into Paterson’s empty hands, a close-up of the plastered index and little finger confirming that Nagase is in fact the same character that he played in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989). After the poet’s departure, Paterson turns his attention back to the Passaic Falls. He is now staring directly into the camera. The shot tracks in on the eyes of the protagonist, an inner calm being offset by a renewed attentiveness to what is in front of him – the poetic vision renewed. Like Nagase’s poet, Paterson breathes poetry.