Illustration | Lynn Hong
The latest Jim Jarmusch film reveals the poetry in the everyday
Paterson is like taking a much-needed breath of fresh air; it’s understated and overlooked, but healing and necessary. The movie focuses on a bus driver and poet named Paterson (Adam Driver), who lives in the town of Paterson, New Jersey. The film follows him for one week, giving a brief glimpse into his life. There’s little drama and only hints of conflict, but Paterson is perfectly made. Instead of being dull, the movie refines the everyday into cinematic poetry. Instead of being about nothing, it is about living, creating, and existing.
Paterson lives with his girlfriend, Laura (played by the magnificent Golshifteh Farahani), and her dog Marvin. With so little conventional action happening, the actors not only have to make their characters believable, but interesting. They succeed with small ticks and habits, never highlighted by the movie itself, but noticeable as it progresses. Like so much, their love is understated but never questioned; their kisses are some of the most honest ever projected on screen. Their dialogue is banal enough to seem real, but deep enough to hold a variety of meanings.
But Paterson is interested in more than just its leads. It’s just as much about everyone else in the town—seen through the conversations Paterson overhears driving the bus and the friends he sees at the local bar. Scenes on the bus allow a space for connections between strangers. A shot of the dangling feet of two kids is mirrored by the heavy boots of two grown men the next day. They occupy the same place, but in different times. After work, Paterson walks Marvin and goes to the bar, where he often meets a trio of friends. Barry Shabaka Henley plays the bartender, Doc, and Chasten Harmon and William Jackson Harper play ex-lovers in the last tangles of romance. Even there, Paterson is more ready to watch than anything else.
The movie finds beauty in the small changes in Paterson’s routine. Director Jim Jarmusch is ready to capture these changes by repeating the same shot each day. We get to know the front of their house, and the corner Paterson turns as he walks home from the bus depot. The audience is left to pick up on the variations, while also being drawn into Paterson’s habits. Jarmusch never moves the camera forcefully through the space—he lets the characters move it naturally as they speak. But when Paterson writes, it’s really something special.
The poems appear on screen in small, imperfect, letters, at the same speed that Paterson narrates it in his head. The music swells out from the sounds of reality—but even then, it’s low, slow, and almost melancholy. And then, the movie layers images on top of each other, as Paterson’s subject, muse, and thoughts all collide at once. It’s a muted but daring representation of the thought process behind writing.
But why go see it? Especially in such a political time as this, why see a movie about the mundane? A movie that purports to be reality but is really a representation of some conflict-less ideal? The short answer: because it’s spectacular art. The long answer: because it’s exactly in a time of such volatile politics that Paterson is needed. Jarmusch is aware of film’s place as a medium of cultural discourse. There’s a scene at a movie theatre, where Paterson and Laura watch a black and white horror film. It’s outdated and racist, but Paterson cuts to different people in the theatre, revealing a brief cross-section of America. Paterson is a diverse movie simply because it’s trying to show a truth.
Paterson is an experience to see in the theatre, but also the type of movie to vanish—ignored by both awards and the mainstream. It’s a reminder of overcoming small conflicts every day, of the beauty found in habit, and the never-ending flow of time. By the end of the movie, Paterson seems to want the audience to use it as inspiration, inspiration to go capture something unique about their own life. I was sad to leave Paterson’s world after just two hours, but I felt inspired to go home and write poetry, bad poetry—but it’s the doing, and the living, that matters.