by Benjamín Harguindey
Paterson is very much a return to true form for writer/director Jim Jarmusch, back to his simple, contemplative stories of urban wanderers without the esoteric tenets of Dead Man (1995) or the mumbo-jumbo of The Limits of Control (2009), whatever that one was about. It’s a very sweet, mellow, easy-going movie, and a deceitfully simple one at that.
The film centers on Paterson (Adam Driver), who is either a bus driver dabbling in poetry or a poet dabbling in bus driving. The two seem intricately connected. As he drives he overhears the conversations from passengers, drinks in the minutiae of everyday life, then writes down his poetry on a little notebook during his break. He’s more inspired by a book of matches than by the abstraction of love or death.
That Paterson works for the city of Paterson, NJ is a conceit that seems to spring from Jarmusch’s eternal fascination for namesakes and doppelgangers, like the “other” William Blake from Dead Man or the bait-and-switch at the end of Permanent Vacation (1980). That he is also constantly beset by the apparitions of identical twins is another surreal conceit, perhaps to echo a similar bond between the man and the city he shares his name with.
What is Paterson but a chronicler of the quotidian in the vein of Raymond Carver and William Carlos Williams (the latter famously penning the 5-volume epic poem “Paterson”, based on you-know-where)? As a poet he goes through the motions of everyday life with eerie disconnect, writing down an endless torrent of observation. We perceive that this is his natural role in life, and that it gives him peace of mind.
On the surface, Paterson is a blue-collar slice-of-life. The movie consists of seven chapters, one for every day of the week, and they all play out more or less the same way: Paterson wakes up next to his girlfriend Laura (the lovely Golshifteh Farahani) without even the need for an alarm clock, checks in at work, hears out the comical grievances of his long-suffering colleague, drives across town, goes back home, has dinner with Laura, walks the dog and stops by a bar run by the venerable Barry Shabaka Henley. We never see him return home; the screen simply fades to black and restarts life by the following day.
The film is not, however, about the toil and ennui of everyday routine. The denizens of Paterson are inspired rather than lulled by the 9-to-5 life, driven privately on quests for personal expression.
There’s Laura, comically brimming with wonder and excitement to figure out her artistic persona first and her actual art second (as an interior designer she’s obsessed with black and white patterns, which find a way to her cooking and later to her up-and-coming folk act, as mastered from a YouTube video). There’s the aspiring rapper Paterson finds practicing late at night at a Laundromat, the down-on-his-luck actor who can’t act even to save a failing relationship, Doc (Henley) and the missus bickering over the money that will fund either one of their passion projects, etc.
Paterson showcases these aspirations and essentially delivers the message that life is inherently artistic in that it sparks the need for artistic output, and that figuring it out is an end in itself.
The movie does cheat a little in the way Paterson’s poetry is displayed – curlicue text showing up on screen as Driver gives a stilted narration and the soundtrack soars – a decision that seems a bit tacky in that it tries to inflate the verse via artifice. The floating text, the font, the music, all of it stands in contrast with the relatively minimalistic style (fraught for the purposes of the film by real-life poet Ron Padgett) and the mundane subject matter.
Paterson is a deceitfully simple movie and yet much like Synechdoche, New York (2008) it’s concerned with the imitation of life by art, and the extent to which this is an insurmountable ordeal. But whereas Charlie Kaufman depicts this as a torment, Jarmusch relishes in the wonder and pleasure of the act in itself. Paterson is just as much a pleasure to watch.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).