Set in the present in Paterson, New Jersey, this is a tale about a bus driver and poet.
A man wakes up beside his beautiful wife. He kisses her shoulder, makes coffee, and goes to work. He drives a bus in downtown Paterson, New Jersey, eavesdropping on passengers, writing poetry in his lunch hour, and coming home to walk the dog and drink a beer at the local bar. This is the humble routine we’re shown over seven days in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, a quiet miracle of a film, and a kind of sublime minimalist poem in itself.
With deep voice, long solemn face, and slightly pigeon-toed gait, Adam Driver is perfect in the lead as a man who shares the name of his working class hometown. We see from a photo that he served in the military, but he now seems content to drive in circles around the town, composing poetry as streetscapes drift across his windshield, stopping to write it down in a notebook as he contemplates the peaceful waterfalls not far from his modest house.
There, Paterson’s bubbly and adoring wife Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) has her own creative urges to express. She doesn’t seem to work, but instead covers every surface of the house with repetitive black and white paintings and designs. She also dreams of getting rich selling cupcakes and orders herself a harlequin guitar on the Internet so she can learn to become a Country Western singer. Paterson meets these schemes tolerantly, with wry jokes, though money is clearly an issue. But just when we think the film might be laughing at Laura’s simplicity, we’re shown how much she understands her husband and his poetry. Her concerns that his poems are only preserved in one paper notebook prove well-founded and form the basis of the film’s one major crisis.
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There’s something endearingly unworldly about Paterson’s stubborn analogue ways – he refuses to own a mobile phone or a computer – and it’s in keeping with the film’s refusal to shout or argue, that we see the results of this refusal as both disastrous (some poems get lost) and also inconsequential: the bus breaks down and Paterson simply borrows a child’s mobile phone to call for help. A recurrent joke about how the bus might have ‘exploded into a fireball’ but didn’t, gives some idea of the tone.
Early in his career, Jarmusch said in an interview that his goal was ‘to approximate real time for the audience’. Paterson achieves this, conveying the rich texture and detail of an ‘ordinary’ life, but without a single moment of boredom. Like a poem, part of the pleasure is to experience the repetitions with slight variations: the letterbox that needs straightening every day; the grumpy bulldog who must be walked in the evening, straining and pulling on the lead; the complaining co-worker with a mounting litany of domestic disasters to report.
"The film refuses to say whether Paterson himself is a great undiscovered poet or merely competent. It doesn’t actually matter. [..] That his creative outlet gives his life structure and joy is the whole point."
The film refuses to say whether Paterson himself is a great undiscovered poet or merely competent. It doesn’t actually matter. That he’s serious and knows what he’s doing is enough. That his creative outlet gives his life structure and joy is the whole point.
Within the film, Paterson is an ardent admirer of the famous imagist poet William Carlos Williams, whose epic five-volume poem ‘Paterson’ was also inspired by his hometown. The character’s fresh, raw poetry is often seen in handwriting on the screen and narrated in deep, deliberate tones by Driver. Provided by American poet Ron Padgett, it’s deceptively simple but with bite, like the famous 1934 Williams poem that’s quoted in one lovely scene between Paterson and Laura in their kitchen. She asks him to read her favourite poem: ‘This is just to say’ – an apology for having eaten the plums that were ‘delicious – so sweet – and so cold.’
One of the great American independent filmmakers, Jarmusch has often been accused of being too self-consciously cool for his own good. Sometimes his films do verge (but I would say never quite fall) into hipster hell. Whether it’s Mystery Train, Dead Man, Ghost Dog, The Limits of Control or Only Lovers Left Alive, they’re movies populated by self-contained, romantic (but rarely carnal) loners who inhabit strangely deserted and melancholy landscapes. There’s no doubt that Paterson, a bus-driving poet, is one such romantic, so goodhearted he doesn’t even know how cool he is. But with this film, Jarmusch, now in his sixties, has produced an unironic masterpiece without an ounce of pretension.
'Paterson' opens in Australia on December 22.
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