Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time*. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is.
Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for, but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappointment is that Marvin doesn’t get dog-jacked, although Jarmusch undercuts such expectation of eventfulness throughout).
One might see Paterson as something of a pushover, as it’s quite clear he’ll do anything Laura asks of him; he even has the route of his walk dictated to him by Marvin. There’s no urge to confrontation there, though, as if he is the same passive observer of his home life as he is of passengers on his routes “Do you think there are any other anarchists in Paterson?” one student asks another, to Paterson’s wry amusement). His poetry reflects this unswerving, ordered mundanity, focussed on the least arresting of topics, the small details (“We have plenty of matches in our house…”), and yet finding a hypnotic, methodical beauty in them; his routine existence informs and enables his creative life.
At first, I was unclear if Jarmusch intended us to regard Paterson as skilled at his chosen recreational pursuit – poetry is, after all, one of the most subjective of artistic endeavours, particularly given its minority appreciation – being as there are pointers on the way. Pointers such as the girl he sits with to wait until her mother returns, whose words affect him profoundly and suggest her as talented and literate beyond her years, so making Paterson aware of his own fragile talent.
But he is belying in his modesty, and Jarmusch invests in his creative technique as that of a true artist (we experience his developing compositions through repetition and subtitling, as the craftsman whittles his words to their final form, Driver’s tones imbuing them with steady, unmoderated rhythm).
If Paterson is quietly dedicated to his solitary art, Laura is a sexy, passionate screwball alighting on all manner of different endeavours, somewhat reminiscent of Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters; she wants to develop a cupcake business and has interior-decorated their home to varying degrees of success (there are several dog paintings on the wall that even Paterson can’t disguise his lack of enthusiasm towards).
The sense is of one harmlessly deluded over their abilities, and who knows their other half will capitulate to their every coquettish demand (“You really need this guitar?”). Yet she actually is competent at the guitar almost immediately, and her cakes go down a storm (when Paterson doesn’t finish one, earlier in the film, you suspect they’re lousy). Laura announces “I have a very strong visual style” which is certainly true, consisting of painting black and white circles on curtains and gradually spreading the same colours everywhere, including her clothing.
Her lack of aesthetic compass is most clearly signified by her decision to make a Cheddar cheese and Brussel sprouts pie on impulse (the effect of which is to send Marvin into a stupor and require Paterson to drink gallons of water). Despite this, Jarmusch isn’t depicting a flawed relationship, one requiring the worm to turn; they’re both endless supportive of each other. Paterson isn’t nursing pent up aggression towards Laura, and she’s the one who has been, unsuccessfully, attempting to get him to make copies of his work (as to why she doesn’t copy it for him, well, it’s his work). In his book of poetry, he confides “Pumpkin… if you ever left me… I’d tear my heart out and never put it back”
Paterson: It’s okay. They were just words. Written on water.
Perhaps there’s nothing Paterson needs to set right. Perhaps his lack of ambition in any regard is a talisman of fortitude, his contentment with just being. It is only really the loss of his notebook that brings him down, and by the synchronicitous workings of the universe, he receives another at the very point when he is sees no reason to continue with his pastime (“Sometimes the empty page presents more possibilities” he is told).
Synchronicity and mundanity – and encyclopaedic knowledge of local icons and obscure pursuits of more famous ones – featured strongly in Jarmusch’s last picture, the superb Only Lovers Left Alive (which also depicted strangely barren urban environs). That was through the filter of bored immortality, but Paterson is all about finding satisfaction in the little things.
Japanese Poet: May I ask if you too are a poet?
Paterson: No, no. I’m a bus driver myself. Just a bus driver.
Quite what the twins motif amounts to is unclear – Jarmusch said “the film is about things not being significant” so it suggests pursuing that line of thought would be flogging a dead horse – but it recurs, from Laura’s dream of their having twins, to the twins in the bar and on the bus, to the poet girl’s sister, to Paterson’s reaction to Kathleen Burke in Island of Lost Souls – “You look like her, you could be twins” he tells Laura – and Jarmusch may be suggesting, consciously or not, a sense of opposition and duality.
At the same time Laura has success with her cakes (making two dollars less than the cost of her guitar), Marvin destroys Paterson’s notebook, announcing his failure. Paterson encounters fellow poets, as if by magic, wherever he goes (the rapper in the laundrette, the girl, the Japanese tourist with the notebook, who has visited the city because of its famous poet William Carlos Williams), who serve to underline the importance of his activity.
Paterson, who maintains unaffected acceptance of his unvarying daily rotation in the face of Donny’s problems and Everett’s heartbreak, is brought (relatively) low by Marvin’s destructive act as the universe strives to maintain a balance. But, as Everett (William Jackson Harper) offers, seeking to console him, “The Sun still shines every night and sets every evening. Always another day”. “So far” admits Paterson.
Japanese Poet: Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.
Paterson (laughing): I see what you mean.
Jarmusch also observes a quiet synchronicity through humour, such as the repeated response to its passengers regarding the potential danger of the broken-down bus (“Damn, they could have exploded in a fucking fireball”). But his pictures have always been quietly funny (“Sabotage, probably” suggests a child passenger regarding the incident), except when Benigni has been on hand to create an uproar. It goes without saying that Driver is great, the unfeigned flipside to his immodest hipster manipulator in While We’re Young, and Farahani matches him beautifully, both irresistible and impossible as his endlessly-motivated other half. A word too for Barry Shabaka Henley as the most classic of approachable bartenders.
Paterson ends with Monday rolling round again – seven days – its title character having resumed his poetic path as he muses on Swinging on a Star, and how “Or would you rather be a fish” was only that line in it that spoke to him “As if the rest of the song didn’t have to be there”.
Which reflects Paterson’s acceptance of his own life; that it is what it is, and striving to make it something other won’t help matters. Out of quiet contemplation comes meaning. Paterson is an exponent of art for art’s sake, not for its acceptance by others or his own consequent self-gratification.
This seems to be Jarmusch’s essential ethos too, albeit one bound by the practicalities of financing (he sees Paterson as cinema in poetic form, although unlike his poet, he writes only one draft of his script, then hones the picture in the editing room). Whether or not Paterson’s is talented – and Jarmusch evidently thinks he is; I’m sure he could have written him as a bad poet if he so wished, although cynics of the form might suggest it would be difficult to tell the difference – it becomes irrelevant when he is his own audience and critic.
*Now on the home page, so if you came here directly: hard cheese.