For the second year in a row, my favorite film is a winning love story named for an urban area more or less in my backyard. That’s about where the similarities end between John Crowley’s Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan, and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, starring Adam Driver — other than the fact that they are both quietly joyous tales about decent people leading ordinary lives unmarked by extreme conflict or suffering.
Both the director and star of Paterson have described it as “an antidote” to “heavy action, heavy drama, heavy crisis.” Heavy crisis films can be valuable and important (I have some of these among my top films for 2016, though fewer than in 2015); so can antidote films. In my review of Brooklyn I wrote that “it isn’t just one of the best films of 2015, it’s also in a way the antidote to all the rest.” This year there is Paterson.
Paterson could be called an exploration of what one author, a phenomenological philosopher, has called “the Ecstatic Quotidian”: that is, with the world of seemingly banal everyday experience mirrored and transfigured through aesthetic contemplation, especially via the phenomenology of modern art. If that’s too dense, let me put it another way: Paterson is about a man who drives a bus, keeps his eyes open, and writes poetry inspired by seemingly trivial details of his world: a box of matches; a beer glass at the bar; the squeaking windshield wiper blades of his bus. His poems also throb with love for his lady, but here again his love is expressed in images as ordinary as lighting a cigarette.
Crucially, he’s neither an incandescent genius slumming as a bus driver nor an untalented hack with delusions of grandeur. Jarmusch sneers neither at his protagonist’s daily grind nor at his literary affections. He’s an ordinary man for whom driving a bus and reading and writing poetry are warp and weft in the fabric of his life. The story is set in Paterson, New Jersey, celebrated in the epic poem Paterson by New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams, a physician as well as a poet. The driver’s name is also Paterson, and it’s almost too good to be true that Driver is also the actor’s name.
Driving a bus may not be the most exciting of jobs, but Paterson is a creature of fixed routine and habit, well suited to his life. He wakes every morning without an alarm, eats the same breakfast, walks the same route to work, drives, eats a box lunch by the Great Falls, drives some more, walks home, straightens the post mailbox which somehow winds up askew every day, eats dinner, walks the dog, and stops at the bar for a beer, chatting with the chess-loving proprietor, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and other patrons. He lives inside his head, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t paying attention. Like the enormous windows of his bus, Paterson’s dark eyes take everything in, and while he doesn’t usually converse with his fares, he’s always listening.
We follow his routine for a week, each day like a stanza in a poem, structure and repetition providing the framework for inspiration and self-expression, like the meter of a sonnet — though Paterson prefers to write free verse, like his hero Williams. Perhaps Paterson’s literary freedom from meter and rhyme reflects the free spirit of the woman to whom he wakes up and comes home every day. Laura, played by the formidable Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly; There Be Dragons), is a creative soul as spontaneous and flighty as Paterson is steady and reliable. Jeffrey Overstreet called Laura and Paterson perhaps his favorite screen couple of all time, and I’m inclined to agree. (Notably, their idyllic relationship is not mirrored in the relationships around them.) In another movie a character like Laura might be a manic pixie dream girl, but not here. Laura doesn’t exist for Paterson’s sake and isn’t in the story to break him out of his rut. The beauty of Paterson and Laura’s relationship is that they enjoy one another but respect the differences between them. Laura adores Paterson’s poetry, but she has her own dreams — and, if they change every day, Jarmusch doesn’t sneer at her either; she’s talented enough to make one of her dreams come true someday.
Anyway, Paterson is about finding contentment where you are right now, and not pinning happiness to some future circumstances. When Laura dreams of opening a cupcake shop that could make them rich, and Paterson replies, “I’m ready for that,” he’s not just humoring her, even if neither of them expects to become rich. Some critics have objected to Laura’s domesticity as old-fashioned, but every day she does exactly what she wants. I’ve never understood the point of lecturing people for wanting the wrong things. You could call Laura Paterson’s muse, but reducing her to that would also be looking at things backward. Paterson is not a poet who finds inspiration in the company of a beautiful woman and happens to drive a bus; he is a man in love and a bus driver who happens to write poetry. That is how he sees himself, anyway, and, again, who are we to tell him otherwise?
Paterson’s other muse is the city in which he lives and drives, with its hulking, derelict red-brick silk mills, its commercial downtown, and especially the Great Falls, along with the flow of the Passaic River, which we sometimes see superimposed over Paterson as he channels his creative energies. The lowkey score, a sporadic, ambient electronic presence, was created by Sqürl, aka Carter Logan and Jarmusch himself. Paterson is full of hometown pride. At Paterson’s favorite bar Doc maintains a Wall of Fame dedicated to local heroes from Lou Costello and Allen Ginsberg to local children’s TV star “Uncle Floyd” Vivino and his brother Jimmy, bandleader for Conan O’Brien. On his bus Paterson overhears a young boy telling another about the local significance of “Hurricane” Carter (who “looked just like Denzel Washington”) and a couple of college students talking about 19th-century Italian anarchist Giuseppe Ciancabilla, who lived for a time in Paterson. (The casting of the students is one of a number of in-jokes or references that enhance the film if you catch them, but do no harm if you don’t.)
None of this is particularly realistic, and it isn’t meant to be. Jarmusch shows us, perhaps, the Paterson of the protagonist’s poetic imagination — the “Ecstatic Quotidian” rather than the quotidian per se. (It is hard for me to separate the film’s “ecstatic Paterson” from that of my own imagination. In 1977 one of those old silk mills at the top of Market Street across from the Falls was converted to a Christian elementary school named Dawn Treader. I was a member of the inaugural class and went there for three years. I haven’t been back as an adult. Some shots in the film awaken sharp childhood memories.)
In this Paterson, poets and artists lurk around every corner; an amateur rapper (Method Man) polishes rhymes in a laundromat, a young Emily Dickinson fan writes in a “secret notebook” just like Paterson’s. In a crucial scene, a Japanese tourist (Masatoshi Nagase) appears who is visiting to see the city William Carlos Williams wrote about, and converses with Paterson in slightly broken English about poetry and bus driving. A mark of the film’s ecstatic vision is the recurring motif of twins, initially suggested in a dream of Laura’s in which she is pregnant with twins. Nothing comes of this motif; here, as with other details like the dudes in the lowrider convertible who warn Paterson that his dog — an English bulldog named Marvin — is valuable and liable to be “dog-jacked,” the film is full of signs that point to themselves rather than something else. (Marvin is involved in another payoff, though, that is one of the film’s best gags.)
Those disappointed with Paterson will complain that “nothing happens.” That’s true in a way. The narrative rises to a sort of crisis three times, none exactly pulse-pounding. One is so mundane that it leads to deadpan humor as characters speculate absurdly about how much worse it could have been. (This is a very funny movie, but like everything else, the comedy is low-key.) Another brief crisis unexpectedly casts Paterson as a man of physical courage and action. We have already seen that he is a doting husband and a reliable worker and provider, and to see this other side of him suddenly highlights the theme of masculinity.
Besides Laura, the film has one other notable female character, a woman named Marie (Chasten Harmon) who is being nearly stalked by a heartbroken ex-boyfriend (William Jackson Harper). Perhaps the next most important male character, Doc, also has a woman who, in their one conversation, is very displeased with him (we also see him flirting with a patron). Then there are the two fellows on the bus feebly boasting about recent near-conquests (earning a stinkeye from a female rider). Against this backdrop, Paterson himself offers an unconventional if appealing icon of masculine virtue: the farthest thing from a Hollywood action hero, humble, quiet, poetic, committed, yet capable of heroism if necessary. (A nightstand photo reveals that Paterson is in fact an ex-Marine — a biographical detail shared by Driver, who supplied a real photo of himself from his Marine days.)
The third crisis, although in one way the least notable, is the one that matters most. The film’s own commentary on this crisis is perfect and complete; I have nothing to add. Loss, hope, and gratitude come together with miraculous rightness in the very last shot. What has happened this week? In a way, little of consequence, thank God.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.