Cast: Adam Driver, Goldshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Cliff Smith, Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Masatoshi Nagase
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Paterson is one of those films that somehow feels like a neorealist drama and a timeless fantasy at once. It is one of those films where virtually nothing happens, and yet it enraptures you all the same. This is a film of a type that Jarmusch has done before, most notably with his early masterpiece Stranger Than Paradise. The film, in a sense, is a poem. It isn’t about telling a story, it’s about capturing something; a mood, a time, a place, a feeling. Something. The film flows like a poem, there is a rhythm and a pattern to its structure. There is no beginning or end to Paterson, it is a film that exists in the present, in its own telling. It is a calm, quiet, even serene film; one that is perfectly at ease with itself and that plays out simply and naturally (fans of Ozu will be pleased indeed). The film doesn’t exactly feel real, but that’s because poetry seldom does feel real. Truthful is the word that I’d use.
The plot? There isn’t one. There is a protagonist; his name is Paterson (Adam Driver) and he lives in Paterson. Every day he wakes up next to his wife Laura (Goldshifteh Farahani), he goes to work and then he comes home. His job is driving a bus around his hometown, a job that allows him to see life in action and to contemplate it all. Anytime he gets a free moment, he will jot his thoughts into his notebook. In the evenings he takes his wife’s loathsome dog Marvin for walks and leads him to a bar where he stops for a drink. There he meets with the regulars and talks to them about life, love and their town Paterson. While he’s at work, Laura stays home and finds herself different projects to do such as decorating the house, learning the guitar and baking cupcakes. She whimsically flies from one project to the next as she searches for her calling. Paterson indulges her (or encourages her depending on how you interpret it) but is perfectly content with his station in life and with his daily routine.
Paterson’s life is devoted to poetry but, despite Laura’s encouragement, it doesn’t seem to be something he wants recognition for. His poetry is just for himself. He spends his days observing the ordinary and daily activities of those around him and his poems are simple and plain-spoken. In one of Paterson’s compositions, ‘Love Poem’, he simply describes the design of a matchbox that he and his wife both use. His language is plain and straightforward and his delivery is deadpan. Yet through that bluntness is conveyed a fascination for what others might perceive as mundane, the everyday. Paterson himself is by all means quite an unremarkable person. He is quiet, passive and utterly stoic (qualities that Driver plays to perfection). His spends his entire day in contemplation and finds inspiration in everything around him, whether it’s an overheard conversation on the bus or a character he encounters. His favourite place to go and contemplate is Paterson Falls, a famous source of inspiration for William Carlos Williams in his ‘Paterson’ collection.
In fact, Paterson as a town is shown to be a source of pride for Paterson and his fellow townsfolk. The city itself, which was once a prosperous industrial city and a centre for union activity and immigration, now seems still and silent. Yet, through Paterson the man’s eyes, we are provided with a tremendous sense of time and place as he observes the people of Paterson going about their lives and learns something new about his home with every day. At the bar where he frequents we see Wall of Fame for the town, celebrating such big names from their town as Lou Costello. As Paterson drives his bus he overhears conversations about Paterson’s fascinating history from the Italian anarchist Gaetano Bresci, who made a living as a weaver in Paterson, to Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who was falsely convicted for a triple-murder committed in Paterson. Some of the moments Paterson observes are not just revelations about the town’s history but rather of its character. He finds, for example, just as much to think about from a conversation between two guys about these totally hot girls who definitely wanted them, if only they hadn’t been so tired at the time or else they’d have definitely gone for them.
That is pretty much how the film plays out. There is a momentous event near the end, and an affective one at that given how invested I was in Paterson’s life and work, but it isn’t one that should be mistaken for drama. There is no deliberate sequence of events (not one that makes itself apparent anyway) nor is there an obstacle that needs to be overcome. There are setbacks, sure, but that’s life. His relationship with Laura, for example, is one that brings him joy and grief in equal measure. She is a loving, incessantly cheerful person who supports Paterson wholeheartedly in his poetic pursuit but she is also capricious in her activities and often too impulsive for her own good (plus she has an utterly hateful pet). Still it is clear that the two adore one another and their life together is, if nothing else, a content one. In living his life in such a routine way Paterson finds that he can still be surprised by encountering something or someone new or by discovering something new in what had once been familiar. These moments are the subject of his poems, perhaps because they are the moments that provide meaning and fulfilment to a procedural life.