Bright Lights Film Journal

All the Small Things: Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson

Almost as if stolen from the time of the usual commitments of any working person engaged with the world, these images breathe a second, more intimate, rhythm into Paterson and draw us into the innocent reverie of the poet’s labor, a city becoming living verse. By the end, there’s a sense of synergetic harmony, a whole unfolding before us mid-creation.

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“No ideas but in things,” Method Man tucks the phrase into his work-in-progress rap bars. Quietly uttered amidst the rhythmic whir of a fluorescent-lit laundromat and a whining French bulldog named Marvin, this isn’t the first (or the last) time Paterson broaches the thought. The line comes from William Carlos Williams, the mid-century poet laureate of the everyday most famous for the paean to his New Jersey hometown, “Paterson.” Besides that, Paterson is also the film’s protagonist, deftly played by Adam Driver. He’s a city bus driver, a husband, and perhaps above else, a poet of Williams’s mold who writes amidst his daily routines.

We follow him, his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and Marvin through a week’s worth of cyclic, quotidian patterns. A version of the Kinks’ “Well Respected Man,” Paterson wakes up, eats breakfast, and works, more or less the same time every day, writing poetry in the off-minutes. For her part, Laura spends the days directing her boundless creative energies into a variety of passion projects around the house. His daily ritual ends in a local, predominantly African American, bar. He and the bartender are good pals, and from Paterson’s stool we witness a range of micro-dramedies: people laugh, fight, and relationships fracture, but it never amounts to that much. As a frustrated regular reminds us, the sun continues to rise and it all starts over.

The whole setup is too good to be true, which ain’t so bad. More Ford-era nostalgia than contemporary reality for a bus driver and his stay-at-home wife, their working-class life’s improbable ease is rendered with a semi-magical quality. Even with the opening shot, from above their bed as the gentle morning sun breaks over their crumpled white sheets and Laura whispers her dream to Paterson, the space and time of Paterson is not quite here and now (though it also is; Paterson’s latest rhymester Fetty Wap gets a mention). She dreams that they have twins and lo, he encounters a pair every single day in a sort of visual rhyme scheme. Surreal elements like this go wonderfully unremarked upon, heightening the sense of the exceptionality of Paterson’s world. This is the everyday as only a poet could create it.

The city of Paterson’s miraculously jocular rotating cast of characters diffuses even the few moments of potentially mortal danger, like a case a dognapping that we keep expecting or everyone’s overblown surprise at a bus that doesn’t explode into a fireball. Paterson is in many ways a comedy, and this carefree attitude lets the film subtly deploy its stock of jokes. If humor often relies on the absurd or the unexpected, what’s funnier than setting the audience up for disasters that (mostly) never arrive? The delicate entertainment of Paterson wells from its agile navigation of underplayed details and perfectly timed grand fuss-making. Yet, to say that nothing really happens isn’t quite right. The week’s predictable rhythms make any modest detail pop. These niceties accumulate, slowly and semiconsciously, ultimately attuning us to the tacit and subtle patterns of Paterson’s life. We become invested in the trivial incidents and objects that Paterson is willing to let lay in silence.

In a film studded with wonderful performances, Driver and Farahani stand out. As a character full of seemingly boundless creative verve, Farahani can turn on a dime from the concentrated attention on one of the myriad projects that Laura has going, to an ebullience that can travel a room at light speed. For his part, Driver displays his prowess in a carefully restrained mildness that never relents. Even gushing love on page, he seldom strays from the median set for Paterson, letting joy and disappointment overwhelm the screen rather than his person. In Paterson’s nearest moment of actualized danger, an armed man in the bar, Paterson jolts into action, belying his hitherto only hinted-at military background. Almost as quickly as it happens, Driver returns to docility, registering the moment more as a subconscious impulse than a moment of decisive activity, just another day in the neighborhood.

From Paterson’s driver’s seat, the city is a tapestry of characters, personalities, and random occurrences ripe with inspiration. His job’s mobility and proximity to chatty strangers passing in the day let him pocket fragments of otherwise banal particulars. Busy streets, the suds at the bottom of a beer, random bus prattle, or a boss’s kvetching become small gems, material for Paterson—Driver’s minute, blissful smile at these things belies Paterson’s delight in them—to convert into poetry. This conversion is subtle and gracious; drawn in as we are by the camera’s roving vision, Paterson also invites us into the very heart of the moment of creation. Poems appear hand scrawled on the screen as they come into being, accompanied by the sound of Paterson slowly reading as it flows from his pen to the paper. The sensuous texture of the off-white not-yet-touched notebook page taking up the whole screen overwhelms, as his scrawling black pen chases line after line across it. In moments of greater concentration, we see a literal blending together of Paterson’s world into verse: a love poem becomes occasion to overlay buildings and streets, Laura’s face, and Passaic Falls’ rushing waters. Almost as if stolen from the time of the usual commitments of any working person engaged with the world, these images breathe a second, more intimate, rhythm into Paterson and draw us into the innocent reverie of the poet’s labor, a city becoming living verse. By the end, there’s a sense of synergetic harmony, a whole unfolding before us mid-creation. These visual odes suggest – even if the prospect of a prosperous working class is no more than nostalgia for a bygone dream – that if an American utopia is still even thinkable, we need our poets to help us imagine it.

Despite the treasures to be found in Paterson, some of Jarmusch’s script seems questionable. While Laura is imbued with all the same creative energy as Paterson, she comes off as a hopeless dilettante of an, albeit atypical, housewife. If she’s not obsessively decorating everything in black and white, she’s trying to start a cupcake business or become a country music star. She seems more like a manic pixie dream girl than a serious romantic partner. Surely her role could have been written without such glaring sexism? Laura and Paterson’s affection for one another is genuinely moving and rare, perfectly in step with the innocent beauty that structures the rest of Paterson. It’s a happiness that most films wouldn’t let survive, but theirs miraculously does. Yet, there’s still a feeling of something amiss simmering in the background and never brought forward. While the degree of their mutual adoration is undeniable, it’s hard to get a clear grasp on it, as they don’t seem to have anything in common. At best, Laura and Paterson seem infinitely supportive of each other. She asserts his poetic genius and he, without seeming to appreciate her craft, finances her endeavors; how convenient.

The racial dynamics of the film aren’t much better. While Jarmusch accurately fills Paterson’s stylized workingman’s world with characters from a variety of national backgrounds and races, it’s strange that the recurring characters are all people of color while the cool observer of the charms of everyday life is white. This tiptoes around the well-worn racist fantasy that people of color are simpler or folksier and thereby more authentic, giving the poet access to “real life” through others’ melanin. It’s not for nothing that Paterson is the only white person in the bar he frequents. Paterson’s home life is not free from these racist gestures either. Laura’s domestic femininity only appears more retrograde when coupled with the film’s tendency to exoticize her (she dreams of ancient Persia, go figure), making her feel like little more than a white fantasy of a wife from the Orient. These touches, amongst others, often detracted from what is otherwise an enrapturing film and fit uncomfortably in the overall development of Paterson’s narrative.

While it’s hard to get the bad taste of such unnecessary choices out of your mouth, Paterson soars when it gives us a glimpse into poetry at its truest. It reminds us that there’s beauty cut deep into the world that speaks with certain innocence, if only we can take the time to let it.  It’s tempting to think about Paterson as an assemblage of pretty minutiae, but I recommend approaching the film as our poet-hero might. Keep your eyes open and immerse yourself in the joy of settling into the world.