Great poets are masters of words, but their most finely tuned skill is often simple attentiveness: to the matches on the kitchen counter, the water slipping over the boulders in the falls, the beer softly frothing in the half-drunk mug.
In Jim Jarmusch’s outstanding film Paterson, a poet named Paterson — who drives a New Jersey Transit bus in Paterson, New Jersey — spends his days in the same simple rhythm of work and home. But he notices things, and we notice them too: the matches, the water, the beer, and also the conversations of the people who ride the bus, and the pictures hung on the wall of his home, and the people in the bar around him. He writes poems about them in his spare moments: before starting his route for the day, on his lunch break sitting near Passaic Falls, or while sitting alone in the basement.
Through Paterson’s eyes, we see the world, colored with quiet emotion. The resulting movie is a gentle fable, a small myth, and the rare philosophical film that captures the balance of work and art that so many artists — especially poets — have to navigate. But Paterson doesn’t feel the need to romanticize it as a struggle or downplay work as just a “day job.” In Paterson, work and art is all of a piece. Whether laced with small joys or defeats, it’s all a good life.
Paterson takes place during a poet’s simple, quietly extraordinary week
On its surface, Paterson is a very simple tale, spanning just a week. Paterson (Adam Driver) wakes up early every morning and spends a few minutes in bed next to his cherished Laura (the marvelous Golshifteh Farahani). He eats a bowl of Cheerios and drinks a cup of coffee and fingers the box of matches on the counter. He grabs his tin lunchbox (inside which is tucked a picture of Laura) and walks to work, composing poetry in his head that he writes in a notebook while sitting at the wheel of the bus.
Once his shift starts, Paterson waves to the other drivers and listens to the bus passengers, who talk about the girls they like, the boxers and anarchists who lived in Paterson, what they did on the weekend, and he smiles. He eats his lunch by the waterfall and writes a little more. We hear his poetry and see it written across the screen. (Paterson’s poems were written for the film by the American poet Ron Padgett.)
When he returns home — which always involves straightening the mailbox, which mysteriously tips to the left every day — he’s greeted by an exuberant Laura. She bursts with creativity in all kinds of ways: She paints, she learns to play music, she makes gorgeous cupcakes, she invents dinners, she comes up with new ways to make their small home exciting. She’s also his biggest fan, begging him to make a copy of his wonderful poems, the only copy of which he keeps in his “secret notebook.”
In the evenings, Paterson takes their English bulldog Marvin out for a walk and stops for a beer at the local bar, tended by Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). Sometimes he stops along the way and listens to a rapper practicing in a laundromat or talks with guys driving by in a convertible who compliment Marvin and warn Paterson about dog-jacking (like carjacking, but with a canine). In the bar, he talks with Doc about famous figures from Paterson or watches people play pool and chess. Then he goes home and goes to sleep.
Watching closely, there are some indications that this week is not like all the others. The first clue is that Paterson keeps seeing identical twins everywhere — old men sitting on a bench, girls on a bus, two men in the bar. Twins signal all kinds of things in mythology around the world: sometimes impending doom, sometimes good luck. And things seem to be quietly going awry in Paterson’s life. But when the big moment comes, it’s so underplayed that it’s easy to miss.
Paterson weaves wry humor with a meditation on vocation
The twins — and the strange, unexplained pairing of Paterson’s name with his hometown — lend an air of myth to Paterson, as do Paterson’s ordinary encounters along the way. But each moment is tinged with wry humor. One day, for instance, he sits down and talks to young girl who is waiting alone outside a warehouse for her mother and sister. She shares a poem with him (which she, too, writes in her “secret notebook”). When her mother and sister arrive, it turns out she is an identical twin, too. It’s a coincidence, but the kind that’s repeated so often across the film that it merits a rewatch.
Or there’s Everett (William Jackson Harper), an actor and a regular from the bar who’s in love with Marie (Chasten Harmon) and just can’t let her go. His increasingly desperate attempts to win her back are tragicomedy, but the movie (and Paterson himself) has both humor and compassion for him.
Because Paterson regards these people with the same kindness and interest as its main character, we too become interested in them and their world. And Paterson seems to find something to praise or encourage around every corner — partly because his idol is William Carlos Williams, the New Jersey poet who wrote a five-part epic poem titled — you guessed it — Paterson. Williams, a master of imagism (a movement in poetry that strove for clear language and precise description of images), intended the poem to be a sort of documentary of the place, and published it as five books between 1946 and 1958. (Williams also wrote the “The Red Wheelbarrow,” studied by American schoolchildren for decades.)
But Williams had another vocation: He was a physician, and chief of pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital for almost 40 years, a job requiring no small measure of attention and compassion. The interplay of vocations, both artistic and more quotidian, is a strong theme in Paterson: Everyone’s got something they do on the side to brighten the world, whether it’s chess tournaments or country music or acting or poetry.
Paterson is also a work of cinematic imagism. The meaning of the film is all in its deliberately drawn characters and images, each of which experiences the world in a different way. Noticing each moment and weighing its significance helps round out the meaning of Paterson.
Paterson is a philosophical film that points toward gratefulness
In constructing this sort of world, Jarmusch does a little gentle philosophical prodding of his own. Walking Marvin one night on his way to the bar, Paterson hears a rapper (Method Man) in a laundromat practicing in front of a spinning washer. The rapper trips and stops, then mutters to himself, “No ideas but in things, no ideas but in things.”
That’s a quotation from Williams and a mantra for imagism, but it also mirrors a dictum from Edmund Husserl, the 19th-century philosopher who more or less founded phenomenology, in which philosophers begin with the sensations of lived experience — the feeling of the shoes on feet or, presumably, the matches on the kitchen counter — and work their way out to the significance. Husserl’s maxim was to go “back to the things themselves,” to encounter the world on its own terms by observing the feelings it provokes in us. In doing so, phenomenologists believe, we more fully grasp the nature of our existence, and gain the tools to live better lives.
That’s what Paterson does throughout Paterson: He observes the simple design of the matchbox or the beer at the bottom of his glass, and then observes the emotion it provokes in him, and turns it, quite literally, into poetry.
The result is not angst. Paterson and Laura are not wealthy; they live in a small house in a working-class city and don’t have a lot of extras. Their lives are, by most accounts, very small. But they love and support each other, and their contentment — even when things go wrong — works its way into Paterson’s poetry as gratefulness.
Did Paterson’s poetry give him this lens of grateful compassion on his world? Or did he become a poet because he learned it, or felt it intrinsically? Was it the days of listening to people’s stories and living with Laura? Or was it learning to observe and write down feeling?
Paterson doesn’t give answers, but it holds a lot of wisdom regardless. Jarmusch directs our attention through Paterson’s and gives a glimpse of goodness that’s in short supply, both onscreen and in the real world. Paterson’s own poetry, following Williams, has the ability to make readers see the world in a new way. In making Paterson, Jarmusch has pulled off the same feat.
Paterson opens in theaters on December 28.