Paterson is everywhere in Jim Jarmusch's twelfth feature film. There is the title, of course. It is also the name of the film's bus-driver-by-day-poet-by-night-main character. The New Jersey City is the title and subject of the five-volume epic poem by William Carlos Williams, the poet and book(s) mentioned on several occasions in the film. As Paterson, the man (Adam Driver) walks to and from his bus garage in a warren of old industrial buildings, we see the city name spelled out across some venerable old brick on a clearly visible ghost sign. The driver's bus flows through the streets of the city as if conveyed through its very blood. Teem as it might with the real New Jersey City, Jim Jarmusch has, as usual, created a place that is of the world and mainly not. With this particular piece of work, at this particular time in America, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Mr. Jarmusch's films often exist in a kind of reverie, but the dream, the vision, is an especially quiet and gentle one in Paterson. Existing within the reverentially-photographed actual city of Paterson, New Jersey is a kind of alternate universe. As usual, the writer and director relegates some of the more unpleasant realities of the Rust Belt cities (Cleveland, Detroit, Paterson) he's visited to the shadows. There's a veritable hush, both in Paterson's bus and the corner bar he visits once a night for a mug of beer. The nightly sojourns to the tavern occur at the blessing of his very supportive wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), at least partly because Paterson takes the couple's English bulldog, Marvin, along for the walk.
One evening, Paterson is hailed by four gang members cruising in a convertible. They inquire after Marvin and leave Paterson with the admonition, "A dog like that get dog jacked, majee." So goes the meeting of potentially menacing figures in Mr. Jarmusch's film. Paterson leashes Marvin outside the bar as usual and instructs him not to get dog jacked. Of course, no harm comes to Marvin. In fact, the film's one act of real mayhem is perpetrated by the dog himself on a notebook of poems (alas, the canine actor Nellie has not fared so well, dying subsequent to the shooting of the film, thus becoming the first pooch to be awarded the "Palm Dog" by film critics at Cannes).
Typical of Paterson' s lack of real unpleasantness is a scene at the bar in which lovelorn actor Everett (William Jackson Harper) pulls a gun in frustration at his continued rejection by his beloved, Marie (Chasten Harmon). When Everett puts the pistol to his head, Paterson wrestles it away only to find it's a toy. This is not of immediate consolation to Paterson, but reflects the ultimately benign nature of the action (or lack thereof) in Paterson.
Paterson is something of a week in the life of its title character and wife. The days begin with the couple happily sprawled in bed, filtered sunlight applying its caress. Paterson turns each morning toward a side table and consults what Laura calls his "silent alarm watch," which always seems to beckon Paterson between 6:15 and 6:30. The husband then begins his day with the warm ritual of kissing his wife (if only temporarily) awake, rousing her with a kiss on her back or along an exposed hip. The overhead shot of the sinuous spoon of bodies is reminiscent of a similar point of view on the vampire lovers in Jarmusch's previous feature, Only Lovers Left Alive. But in Paterson, there is a warmth and tenderness between a couple not really seen to this extent in the work of the writer and director.
Paterson is rich with the play of shadow and light, photographed by veteran cinematographer Frederick Elmes, a frequent collaborator of both Jarmusch and David Lynch. Early in the film we see Paterson through the very clean windshield of his bus, the cityscape passing over the man's thoughtful face, the montage of reflection reminding one of the recently-departed Abbas Kiarostami.
Paterson drives and dreams through his days, his work begun and covert writing in his bus cut short at the arrival of his comically woebegone supervisor, Donny (Rizwan Manji). Laura, a woman of somewhat pathological restlessness, spends her days creating patterned drapes, dresses, walls, etc. This leaves the couple's home looking very much like the scene of a Marimekko bender. Laura dreams of making it big, striking it rich, whether as a baker (cupcakes as crazy with pattern as everything else she touches) or as a country music singer, a dream abetted when Paterson (sort of) consents to her purchase of a "harlequin" guitar, which she sees on an Esteban infomercial. Paterson's slight chagrin at the cost of the guitar, or his hesitation over one or another of Laura's culinary creations (especially a dinner pie), is the closest thing we see to marital strife in Paterson. To the husband's credit and that of the film, Laura's own attempts at artistic expression are never mocked.
|This is just to say...the decoration is getting slightly out of hand.|
Golshifteh Farahani and Adam Driver in Paterson.
Adam Driver's face, so prominent of length and feature, is still a surface of considerable understatement in Paterson. Water, the rush of water, specifically the cataract of Paterson Falls, gets a good bit of play in Mr. Jarmusch's film, as it does in the epic poem of William Carlos Williams (one of the film's more charming moments occurs when Laura facetiously asks for a poem from Carlo William Carlos). And yet the visage of the film's main character is itself like some serene, welcoming, slightly remote body of water, more likely to subtly register another's breeze of emotion or action than to express his own.
Driver's performance falters only, in a sense, where it is written to do so. As he composes his rather straightforward verse, the words appear on the screen and we hear the actor's voice enunciating those words in the halting manner of someone thinking, or composing out loud. The most dubious of these poetic intervals occurs early on, when Jarmusch actually superimposes the words over the cascading Paterson Falls, veering toward visual expression more suitable to the Hallmark channel. Any film about a singer, a band, a painter or poet, depends, to some extent, on how credible is the art on screen. Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon succeeds partially because its make-believe rock band was composed of actual musicians (Lou Barlow and his Folk Implosion mates) running through some pretty solid tunes. In Paterson, as its title character produces his oft-literal lines and observances, as Laura exhorts her husband to copy his notebook lest these great poems are lost, the eyes tend to roll.
And yet, as the closing credits tell us, the poems we see taking form on the screen are actually those of Ron Padgett. For the previously uninitiated (like myself), Mr. Padgett is a long-established American poet, with 20 collections of poetry to his credit. This does nothing to improve the quality of the poems we see in Paterson, but that's hardly the point. What is most venerated in Paterson is not the final product, but the effort to make art, the striving. This is a point emphasized to our generally laconic hero while he's sitting on a park bench before those redoubtable falls. Disconsolate at the loss of his entire body of work at the droopy, destructive maw of Marvin the dog, Paterson is approached by a Japanese man (Masatoshi Nagase, in more young turk days, one of the stars of Jarmusch's Memphis-set Mystery Train) who turns out to be a poet, making a pilgrimage to the site of the Williams' epic. When this unknown man asks Paterson if he's a poet, the downcast bus driver demurs. Still, this beneficent visitor senses something in his young interlocutor and gives him a blank book, which he produces from his satchel. This somewhat magical encounter is pure Jim Jarmusch, utterly contrived and quite moving.
There are plenty of other welcome Jim Jarmusch hallmarks and old friends to be found in Paterson. Method Man - not the only former member of The Wu-Tang Clan to appear in his films - is happened upon one night by Paterson and (mainly) Marvin, a would-be rapper working on his flow in a humble laudromat. There is the charmingly, almost innocent admiration for the artists esteemed by the director. Paterson and a girl he encounters, herself a budding poet, share an appreciation of Emily Dickson. “Huh, what do you know,” she smiles, “a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson.” As in Only Lovers Left Alive, we're made to see beloved tomes: Lunch Poems, by Frank O'Hara; Williams' Paterson (in two languages, no less); Infinite Jest and Kill Your Darlings. Apparently a man after his creator's heart, Paterson is decidedly low-tech (even more so than the analog-loving vampire, Adam, in "Only Lovers"). And there's Iggy again. Fresh off his Stooges documentary Gimme Danger, Jarmusch again briefly puts the spotlight on the shirtless one. When the bartender, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), asks the bus driver if an article about Paterson teenagers voting Iggy Pop the sexiest man qualifies him for the bar's municipal wall of fame, how do you think the Paterson answers? Doc just happens to produce this newsletter clipping from 1970....
Like Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch tends to create worlds of his own on screen. As is too often the case with Allen, Jarmusch's characters sometimes jar in their contrivance, their inability to sound authentic when dropped into a real setting. This can be a perverse strength or a thudding weakness. In Paterson, within the quiet confines of its main character's bus, both we and the bemused driver are privy to conversations far more didactic than natural, catching us up on some local history: two boys talk about local legend Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer wrongfully jailed for 20 years; two slightly older students later educate us about the Italian anarchist Giuseppe Ciancabilla, who settled in Paterson in 1898.
Much as their musical knowledge runs deep (Jarmusch's also spreads wide), both writers and directors sometimes present art as in an undergraduate survey course. There's hardly time in Paterson for the recitation of the poetic work that shares its name, but the Williams poem we do hear is one of his most commonly bruited, "This is Just to Say." Similarly, as Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive muses on her old vampire friend Kit Marlowe being the actual author of the plays and poems we attribute to Shakespeare, she recites what is arguably the most careworn of the Bard's 154 sonnets, good old number 116, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds...." So Woody Allen trots out E.E. Cummings' "Somewhere I Have Never Travelled Gladly Beyond" in Hannah and Her Sisters to help usher Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey into bed.
What keeps the films of Jim Jarmusch more vital than those of Woody Allen these days (which is perhaps to damn him with faint praise) is that the worlds he casts upon the screen are much richer, varied places than his fellow New Yorker. Beyond the facile mantle of coolness which is too blindly applied to his work, Jarmusch's curiosity and mix of discrimination and diversity, his very individual brand of erudition and hero worship both celebrate and add to the best of our culture. There's not a great deal realistic about the gentle, artistic household of Paterson and Laura, but it's a lovely and even inspiring vision.
At this particular time in the greater American culture, when, among even more ugly gestures, some of the small, fearful men (mainly) in our federal governments are gleeful at the prospect of defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jarmusch's naked admiration for the written word, for the making of art in any form is particularly welcome. It's a point gently though powerfully made. To poetry then. To love and to waking up without alarm clocks. To inclusion and diversity and cupcakes woozy with patterned icing. To Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and the corner bar. To writing, to trying, to civilization. Bravely onward.