Paterson

January 6, 2017
Adam Driver in Paterson, 2016. Photo by Mary Cybulsky - © Window Frame Films
Adam Driver in Paterson, 2016. Photo by Mary Cybulsky - © Window Frame Films

For most directors film is a narrative art. Those movies that abandon story-telling in favour of portentous ‘poetic’ imagery are rapidly consigned to the arthouse bin where they are admired by a handful of academics and ignored by everyone else. In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch has demonstrated that it’s possible to make a film about poetry that uses a distinctive poetic device to divide the story into seven stanzas, one for each day of the week.

Not only is Paterson structured like a poem, it employs the characteristic methods of modern poetry in the way the story unfolds, each day bringing its small epiphany. Every small incident finds its way, obliquely, into one of Paterson’s poems, scribbled in his “secret notebook” during his lunch hour, or at his desk in the basement of his suburban house.

Adam Driver’s Paterson is a bus driver who writes poetry, or if you prefer, a poet who drives a bus. He lives in the town of Paterson, New Jersey, the subject of William Carlos Williams’s book-length, five-volume poem called Paterson. This unremarkable town was also the childhood home of the leading Beat generation poet, Allen Ginsberg.

While his pal, Ezra Pound, made mischief in Europe, Williams spent his life in New Jersey, working as a doctor. He is an invisible presence in this film, much admired by Paterson, who likes to eat his lunch in front of the Passaic Falls, which score a mention in the first volume of Williams’s mock-epic.

Williams is best known for the small, enigmatic poem, The Red Wheelbarrow (1923), which I’ll quote in its entirety:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Williams was one of foremost exponents of Imagism, a movement that conjured up crisp, clear pictures in precise language. The red wheelbarrow is no less crucial than anything else in the world. It has its role to play, like every other object or entity.

Paterson’s poems – written by the contemporary American poet, Ron Padgett – owe a debt to Imagism, and the entire film is an affectionate celebration of this strand of modern poetry – of its plainspokenness and democratic ethos. Williams was aghast at the success of T.S.Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922) which he believed had “returned us to the classroom”, with its erudition and layers of references. “No ideas but in things” was Williams’s famous dictum.

This view is reflected in the poems that Paterson inscribes in his notebook whenever he gets a moment. He’s not the angst-ridden lyric poet described so memorably by Milan Kundera in Life is Elsewhere (1969) but a man who accepts every aspect of life with the calm of a Buddhist sage. Every day Paterson gets up, goes to work, drives his bus, comes home and takes the dog for a walk, stopping at the same small bar for a beer and a chat. He takes a quiet pleasure in listening to his passengers’ conversations, and in his chance meetings with people. Poetry seems to be everywhere. He meets a little girl who admires Emily Dickinson, and a Japanese poet making a pilgrimage to Williams’s New Jersey.

The counterbalance for Paterson’s perfect calm is the nuttiness of his wife, Laura (played wonderfully by Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani). Restlessly creative, Laura seems to be redecorating the house on a daily basis. She paints the curtains, designs her own dresses, makes quantities of cup cakes to sell at the local market, and dreams of being a country-and-western singer. Everything is in black-and-white, which is her special fetish. Laura’s artistry extends to the kitchen, and it takes all of Paterson’s sang-froid to get through a tart featuring cheddar and brussels sprouts.

By the standards of a typical Hollywood movie, Paterson is a film in which nothing much happens, as the protagonist goes through the same daily routine. There are small incidents at the bar and at work, but nothing that disturbs the fundamental rhythm of his existence. Laura begs her husband to make copies of his poems, but he resists, possibly feeling that it imparts too great an importance to his literary efforts.

Nothing happens, but this is not a recipe for boredom. The entire film is Jarmusch’s answer to The Red Wheelbarrow, making every moment of Paterson’s life seem just as interesting and important as the next. So much depends… on Laura’s cupcakes, or Paterson’s bus.

The closest cinematic equivalent for this ingenious feature would be one of those quiet but magnificent movies by Yasujiro Ozu, where the characters lead insignificant lives filled with deeply buried emotions. In a typical Ozu film the camera barely rises from the tatami mat as the actors enter or leave a room, and Paterson has a similarly static approach to framing a scene.

We know from interviews that Jarmusch is an admirer of Ozu, and claims to have never seen a film in the Star Wars franchise. It’s not that he’s hostile to the big budget blockbusters, he’s simply not interested. In Jarmusch’s view there is no need to explore the galaxies when everything one needs to sustain life and art can be found in New Jersey.

Paterson
Written & directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Rizwan Manji, Barry Shabaka Henley, Masatoshi Nagase, William Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon, Sophia Muller
USA/France/Germany, rated M, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7 January, 2017