Film Review: “Paterson” spotlights the beauty in cyclical and simple life
Words by Patrick Dunham, Illustration by Erick Wonderly
The latest feature from Jim Jarmusch, “Paterson,” is about a man named Paterson who grew up and lives in Paterson, New Jersey. He is a city bus driver and is played by an actor with the last name of Driver. The strange synchronicities do not stop here: motifs ranging from waterfalls to twins continually emerge throughout the film, and in tongue-in-cheek Jarmuschian routine, there are well-known actors cast in momentary roles in a sly nod to the previous characters they played. In this case, it is the post-adolescent Sam and Suzy from “Moonrise Kingdom,” who fleetingly talk of Italian anarchists during Paterson’s shift, but if you look for their credits you will only find “Male Student” and “Female Student.”
In addition to being a bus driver, Paterson is a poet and lives an analog lifestyle in the 21st century: no phone, no computer, no iPad. In no way a self-righteous Luddite dignitary, he never admonishes others for their use of technology, but rather sees the burden of gadgets as unnecessary. He worships the legendary poet, William Carlos Williams, and his bookshelf is stocked with Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Koch, and many other mid-century virtuosi of the medium. All of this characterization seems like it would equate to a motormouth who wants to tell every new passenger how great his latest poem is. But Paterson is the very antithesis of this poetic stereotype. Instead of verbally and boisterously wielding his influences on his sleeve, he chooses his wristwatch instead, as it is his only way to ensure that he naturally wakes up around 6:15 a.m. every day.
Following in a contemplative poet/civic employee’s routine, it becomes clear that he wakes up, goes to work, has dinner, goes for a walk with his groany English bulldog, Marvin, and stops at the bar for a beer. Although this sounds far from a riveting plotline, there is some variation via his sprightly wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who is always encouraging him to submit his poems and keep writing. She has the lovely, enthusiastic temperament of Butch’s girlfriend Fabienne from “Pulp Fiction”, always doting on her husband and trying to make him happy with her cheerfulness. On Saturdays, she sells cupcakes at the farmer’s market, and in her free time she learns the guitar and designs the whole house’s aesthetic around her cyclical, monochrome patterns.
As the film’s calm rhythm chugs along, the soft hum of Paterson’s quotidian cycles becomes a welcome rhythm within this narrative structure, which isn’t often seen in contemporary films. The daily banter of his passengers infuses into his constant swirl of being, tinging his reflection on the ever-dynamic dance of life. On his surprisingly pleasant walks through the city’s industrial sector, he meets several other poets, not one inhabiting the sneering, fussy aura of pedigree we might have been conditioned to expect of poets. One is a young girl who admires Emily Dickinson and rainfall; another is a Method Man, playing himself, rapping to the hum and drum of washing machines. The third is a kindhearted Japanese man who happens to pull out a translation of a poem collection by WCW which Paterson was reading earlier. Out of all three influences during Paterson’s short week, the Japanese man near the end of the film shows him the simplicity and importance of constantly experiencing those a-ha moments perceived as rare and decidedly un-banal. In other words, to look at something seen everyday in a different way, or just to take in the quiet splendor of the constantly shifting world around us. Poetry, or even just a sense of wonder, can be wrought out of the simplest conditions of immediate surroundings, and doesn’t have to be in this haughty, inaccessible form that people feel intimidated by. When Paterson is softly asked by his new friend the thorny question “Are you a poet?”, he respectfully declines without the edge which the question unfortunately bestows.
This is a quiet, simple, and deeply accessible film, and even though it doesn’t have the most bombastic plotline or astounding premise, its form absolutely fits its function. Scenes where he is driving the bus go by in layered edits that feel like careening thoughts and sights slipping by in the slow progression of his steady life. His relationship with Laura is another beloved element of the film; despite being complete opposites, they understand each other perfectly, always building the other one up. Poetic homage peppers the film in little moments, as when Paterson odes to Keats (his epitaph reads Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water) and takes a deep breath after a mishap with his dog Marvin (who won the best dog award at Cannes last year). This main conflict of the film exemplifies Paterson’s calm attitude and unbreachable pace despite experiencing what would be daunting to even the most seasoned of writers.
“Paterson” beautifully shows that the cyclical and simplistic doesn’t have to correspond with the doom of monotony, boredom, and the plagues that a constantly seeking life summons forth. The film imparts a gentle mantra that we would be wise to consider in this age of tethered digitality and constant, blinding focus on our daily duties and obligations instead of what surrounds us.