Paterson: Poetry and the Everyday

*** ½ (out of 4)

If it were being judged solely on plot action, Paterson probably wouldn’t come off looking very hot. The protagonist is a young bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) who lives in the New Jersey city he’s named after – and his daily routine, as we come to see, is nothing if not simple. He wakes up at 6, snuggles a bit with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), eats a cup of cereal, and then leaves for work, where he spends the entire day behind the wheel. When evening comes, he walks home, eats dinner, goes to a bar for exactly one cup of beer, and then turns in for the night. The next day, he does it all again. And again. And again.

On a basic level, Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie is just this: a week in the life of a bus driver. But you realize as you’re watching that he’s aiming for something more than a retread of Groundhog DayIt turns out that William Carlos Williams, a poet whom Paterson continually cites as a favorite, famously composed a lengthy epic poem about the city of Paterson called Paterson. And the connections don’t end there: Paterson, like Williams, is also a poet who works a day job and writes in his spare time. He spends his every lunch break sitting in front of the same waterfall Williams used as poetic inspiration, and the poems he reads to us via voice-over make use of the same plain, down-to-earth language Williams adored.

So this isn’t just a “week in the life” movie. But it’s not just a movie about poetry, either: as we come to see, it’s a movie that is in itself a poem about life. With the knowledge that supposedly “monotonous” repetition actually serves as the foundation of much of poetry and music, Jarmusch makes the seven days of Paterson’s week play like a theme and variations. (1) The theme is Paterson’s daily schedule; the variations are the random, unique twists he encounters along the way, whether it’s a melodramatic ex (William Jackson Harper) who storms into the bar with a toy gun or the three people who successively mention the idea of “an exploding fireball” after Paterson’s bus breaks down. Richard Linklater has shown throughout his movies – 2011’s Bernie, 2014’s Boyhood – that it’s the people and things you encounter in everyday life who’re often behind the strangest, funniest, and most memorable of events. Here, with the long lines of poetry he has Paterson compose about a box of matches and a glass of beer, Jarmusch takes Linklater a step further: those everyday moments are now moments that go beyond the particular, moments that come to emblematize an entire joie de vivre sensibility towards living. Watching this movie, you find yourself being wrapped up in an experience that’s deeply intimate, surprisingly funny, and lyrically beautiful. And, for that matter, definitely inspiring for anyone looking to inject some vitality into their own mind-numbing daily routine.  

This isn’t to say that the movie is without flaws. In the midst of his exultation of poetry, Jarmusch proves unable to resist the temptation of adopting a slightly snobbish attitude towards his secondary characters. Nearly all the people Paterson meets at work – the Indian man who complains about his life at length (Rizwan Manji), the bartender who plays chess with himself (Barry Shabaka Henley), the aforementioned melodramatic ex – pop up again and again just so we can make fun of them. Even Laura is portrayed as a somewhat slow, absent-minded housewife who flirts with a new harebrained scheme for getting rich every 24 hours; you find that the difficulty Paterson has concealing a gently patronizing smirk when she talks about becoming a country singer is also your own. Unsurprisingly, the only characters Jarmusch exempts from caricature are the other aspiring poets Paterson happens to run into now and then, like an eight-year old girl (Sterling Jerins) who writes poems about “water falls.”

But I’m being nitpicky here. However flawed the secondary characters are, Paterson himself is more than enough to make up the difference. Anyone familiar with Driver as Kylo Ren will be pleasantly surprised with how well he simultaneously goes and breaks with type here; he keeps his “cool” introversion, but it’s his loving devotion to his wife and poems that’ll catch you pleasantly by surprise. More than even Massimo Troisi’s in Il Postino, Driver’s character embodies the “commoner poet” to a T: gentle, a little awkward, but always perceptive, a stirring affirmation of the value of doing art for personal enrichment. You find yourself silently rooting for him every time he opens his notebook and starts composing, to the point that Laura could be speaking for you when she exhorts him to make copies of his writing.

At one point in the movie, midway through his week, Paterson enters the bar, grabs a beer, and simply sits and observes what’s going on around him. In the corner, some people are playing chess; at the other end of the counter, the bartender is hitting it up with a lady; behind him, a guy is flicking through jukebox records. There’s no hidden meaning to anything he notices – it’s just the sights and sounds of another Wednesday night. As a whole, Paterson is just like that. It searches for and savors the sublimity of the ordinary, the spontaneous moments of warmth and humor produced by the bare facts of life. And if it doesn’t completely convince you in every aspect of its vision, it still succeeds in providing a delightful and moving tribute to the power and importance of poetry. Williams would most certainly be proud.  

***

Paterson (2016)

Starring: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani

Running Time: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for some language.”

Produced by: Joshua Astrachan, Carter Logan

Written & Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

***

(1): More specifically, it’s the variety found in repeated appearances of a line, motif, or melody that serves as the basis of so much of poetry and music. It’s worth noting that while Jarmusch films Paterson’s routine in the same order each day – first in bed, then eating breakfast, then at work, etc. – he always shoots things from a slightly different angle. One day, we’re looking at close-up of Paterson’s cereal; the next, it’s him hunched at the counter as his wife wanders in from the bedroom. Variety in repetition turns out to be part of the very way the movie is shot.