dir. Jim Jarmusch
Decades ago, Jim Jarmusch was working as an apprentice for the late, great director Nicholas Ray. One day, Jarmusch handed his mentor a screenplay that he'd been working on, and after giving it a read, the director of In a Lonely Place criticized Jarmusch for writing something where so little actually happens. But, as if kicking off a lifelong trend, Jarmusch won his critic over by doubling down on the inaction - he later handed Ray a revised script, which contained even less action, and this time his mentor couldn't help but be impressed with his determined vision.
Over the course of somewhere around ten features now, Jim Jarmusch has continued to write and direct movies that break just about every rule they teach you in screenwriting classes. And this is a big reason why his movies continue to be received as blessed cinematic manna to certain moviegoers who can grow weary of the endless amount of American movies that are sprung from boilerplate story structures and dreams of four-quadrant glory.
It's also worth noting that just prior to his time with Ray, in the early 1970s, Jarmusch was studying literature and nursing his aspirations to become a poet. So it's not hard to see Paterson as a movie that has been over 40 years in the making.
Like any meaty word in a piece of poetry, "Paterson" means a lot of things: It's an old factory town in New Jersey that still has a quaintly bustling main street and a diverse community. Unlike Detroit, the center stage of Jarmusch's last fable, Only Lovers Left Alive, Patterson appears to have kept it's blue collar workers around and is humbly surviving while continuing to honor its past. It's the kind of place where a guy named "Doc" runs a corner bar with no TV and wall of newspaper clippings that highlight Paterson's small but significant contributions to the world.
Paterson is also the name of Adam Driver's character, one of those blue collar workers who drives the #23 Paterson bus that carries the town's wide array of citizens to and from their appointments. Paterson is the name of a book as well (a collection of books really) by the poet and New Jersey native, William Carlos Williams. Like Driver's character, Williams had a day job, in his case a family doctor, and wrote his poetry in his spare time, using an unfussy style that was observant and descriptive - again, much like Driver's Paterson.
So, in Jarmusch's own unfussy and observant style, Patterson becomes an engaging study of the creative spirit and process, following Paterson through one week in his life as he wakes up, eats his cereal, drives his bus, has dinner with his girlfriend, walks his dog and stops off at the local bar for a beer. But more to the point, each step of the way, Paterson sees the beauty, mystery, pain and fear all around him. As Jarmusch's camera (once again working with Broken Flowers and Night on Earth cinematographer, Frederick Elmes) drifts over to a conversation on the bus, or the clacking sound of a jukebox being flipped through, we can see Paterson is always aware of what's going on around him - that his antennae is always up, receiving the sounds, sights and emotions of his community.
A good portion of the movie is spent following Paterson as he works over a poem about time, the fourth dimension. Jarmusch has always been adept at using time to create a rhythm and mood; even early on, in Stranger Than Paradise, he was playing with different cinematic ways to enter, linger, and leave a scene. In Paterson, he uses montages and the repetitive nature of tracking a typical workweek to great effect. He creates a very comfortable, leisurely and welcoming feel, and after a couple days go by, you start to make your own observations about small but telling details in Paterson's life, just as he would.
Like most of Jarmusch's films, Paterson is filled with a great supporting cast of characters who have the magical ability to enter a scene with a presence that suggests they've been living in this movie for years, just waiting for their cue. This is especially true for the different people and relationships that fill up the bar that Paterson stops at during the weekday dog walks. The actors, and Jarmusch's gently persuasive touch, make it easy to get wrapped up and invested in their stories - especially the sweetly troubled romance of Marie and Everette.
Not every side story has a payoff in the traditional sense - that's not why they're there. The loves, losses and hopes of the people in Paterson's life inform his own outlook, and payoff comes when we see it show up in the poetry he writes and how he feels toward Laura, the love in his life. Played by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly), Laura carries on the Jarmuschian tradition of paring his stoic leading-man with a lively and exotic female counterpart. While you might rightfully consider this a standard trope in his work by this point, it's hard to deny Laura's charm, and even the more jaded viewer will likely be won over by her sincerity and unflappable entrepreneurial spirit, as well as her own creative spirit. By the end of the movie, it is obvious how strong their love is and how good they are for each other.
If there's an antagonist in Paterson, it's Marvin, Laura's little bulldog. If you've followed Jarmusch's career, it might be a small shock to find out that he's made a movie with more than it's fair share of doggy reaction shots. But then again, there is a long cinematic tradition of troublesome mutts like Marvin, and the everyday banality of the trouble that he causes, and how profound it can end up being, is kind of the point. I won't spoil it with details, but by the end of the movie, Paterson is shaken. His daily routine has been upended, and he's not only reconsidering his stance against cellphones, but also whether or not he's even a real poet.
This is perhaps Jarmusch's most uplifting movie to date, which is a feeling I know a lot of people are looking for, and I'll admit I probably appreciated it more for having seen it on a grey mid-November day. There's an abundance of humanity in this movie, and it appreciates life's convergences and coincidences (another Jarmusch hallmark) with a grace and subtlety that makes it all the more powerful. Jarmusch doesn't pander to anyone; sure, if you're a kindred spirit that also hates cellphones and bars with loud TVs you'll probably like Paterson even more, but if you've ever had an artistic thought in your head, or struggled against being identified by your day job, you'll find a lot of truth and a lot to admire here.