By Ray Pride
In William Carlos Williams’ unfinished epic poem, “Paterson.” the favorite son of Paterson, New Jersey most invoked among many favorite sons referenced in Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” he wrote, “A man is indeed a city, and for the poet there are no ideas but in things.”
“Paterson,” the new movie by Jarmusch, is specific, lyrical, lilting, lovely, fixed on behavior, as well as things, mounting that behavior in a setting that is knowable but also mysterious. (And with susurrations of submerged feeling that are indicated but not pronounced.)
Adam Driver plays a city bus driver named Paterson in “Paterson.” Jarmusch shows us seven days in his life. Paterson drifts through the freedom of quiet, satisfactory routine, his partner, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), bursting with ideas for visual art, baked goods, finery, costumes. “Paterson” is patterned as a double dream of things: she lacks his daily routine and fizzles through marvelous creations, he works in the margins of his hours to inscribe a thought there, another line alongside, soon, a poem. (And good ones: Jarmusch’s former teacher, New York School poet Ron Padgett, composed them.)
Laura tells Paterson she has a dream that they’ve had twins—“one for each of us,” he murmurs sleepily—and the world around him bursts with pairs, with patterning, with mirror images, with twins and twins and twins, glanced and glimpsed.
Across the canvas, Jarmusch doubles the things, even when the notion is yet elusive: twins, doubles, neighbors, adjacencies. It’s not so much there are so many twins, but that Paterson sees patterns, he sees twins and Jarmusch inscribes that. The man, the poems. The dream life, the lived life. An offhand compliment to a few words on a page suits the movie’s own sweet shape: “That’s a nice internal rhyme.”
“’Paterson’ is a quiet story, its central characters without any real dramatic conflict,” Jarmusch has written. “Its structure is simple, following just seven days in the lives of its subjects. ’Paterson’ is intended as a celebration of the poetry of details, variations and daily interactions and a kind of antidote to dark, heavily dramatic or action-oriented cinema. It’s a film one should just allow to float past them—like images seen from the window of a public bus, moving like a mechanical gondola through a small, forgotten city.”
Through the turns and turn-agains of his bus-driving day, Paterson is remembering and not remembering, implementing the incremental. Driver’s twinkling eyes are joined by an unselfconscious near-smirk as he habitually, customarily eavesdrops on his passengers. The smile slow and sly, but perfumed with unalloyed joy that life sidles moments of delight into his routine. The details are poetic, the moments with the world shaken into them.
There is also a quiet river of implication, that Paterson, this gentle soul, lightly cowed, if not truly cowering, is likely shouldering the weight of PTSD. There are photos on a nightstand of Paterson in uniform, perhaps from Driver’s own time in the Marine Corps. Paterson’s reaction to deviations suggests what has led him to this place in his life: A sound in a bar like a gun going off, his panic when the electrical system fails on his bus, gathering children at the curb, clustering them from harm.
Routine is what keeps him from harm. He wakes in the arms, or the embrace, or abed the warmth of his beloved, asleep before she begins her days of fevered if unfocused productivity. Laura is a fury of good unrealized, a muse, sure, but also someone who does not challenge his gentle somnambulism, peripatetic, circling, hardly a ghost. She’s not foolish and far from a laugh: she’s gifted with talents but without the routine Paterson has to drift from fugue to lyric and back again. Laura’s not all black-and-white, she has her own drive (and mania) unfiltered, untreated (by friend or pharma, by confession or Clonazepam). They’re twinned, too: two artists, not artists manqué, but productive, seemingly satisfied individuals. Laura’s eyes light up like Paterson’s: look at this simple world, look at the patterns we apply upon perception.
Paterson writes carefully, his handwriting almost twigs of calligraphy, in a single precious notebook, like Jarmusch with the “analogue” Moleskines he himself carries to contain scribbles. A basement tool table is refashioned as a provisional desk lined with poets and poetry and histories. His miniature New York School.
It’s autumn, leaves fall, it’s nearly Halloween. Sunlight is dashed along streets, artfully casual on red and brown brick sides of buildings. A ghost sign that Paterson walks past with his lunchbox each day announces “FIRE” on a brick wall deep inside the entry tunnel to the bus depot. Each night he walks Laura’s bulldog, who he does not like, and lingers over a glass of beer at a bar. B-A-R, reads its generic but hardly plain red neon. It’s a paradisiacal wander through a utopian notion of a multicultural working-class city. His nightly circuit is the kind of haze that some dream in, the satisfactory everyday, won’t complain, can’t complain.
There is a specific inspiration for the first of Paterson’s several poems to float up on the screen,
So sober and furious/
And stubbornly ready to burst into flame
And as Paterson completes a further draft, layers and layers of suggestion are impacted into its few words, and will bloom further as the story wanders assuredly. They’re only words. They’re only thoughts. They’re only breath, composed, revised in Driver’s quiet voice.
The ending consists of nearly nothing, and contains a gift of blank pages. I nearly sob at its brilliant melancholy, with joy, finding words to describe the moments here but not pin them to a page. Writing as meditation, language as communion, image as revelation. All the things, all the ideas.
“Paterson” opens January 13 at Landmark Century and other locations.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.