Nowadays, Paterson, New Jersey is no longer in the condition Williams Carlos Williams, New Jersey resident, doctor and poet, wrote about in his book length poem named after the city. Jim Jarmusch has named his new film after it as well, and gone even further in his simplified, focused way, naming his protagonist Paterson, too. Played with a slowly affecting, deadpanned distance by Adam Driver, 2016’s Paterson is a bus driver and a poet, living in a small house with his exuberantly creative girlfriend Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani), and contently settled into a daily routine of waking, writing, working, and walking the couple’s English bulldog to a local bar for his sole beer of the night. Following him daily, we see some of the industrial, turn of the century downtown of Paterson during his route, overhear snatches of passenger conversations (about erotic longing, Italian anarchists), read and listen to some of his diaristic poems and Laura’s latest, joyful creation (painted interiors, cupcakes and guitar), catch some of the characters—all African American—and their romantic problems at the bar, and then Paterson start the next day anew.
Thus the week proceeds, and in a sublimely relaxing manner. We find and fall into the tempo of each day and, through them, a life. That life is stylized in the manner of Jarmusch’s films over the last decade—performances of deliberate, muted coyness, lighting plump and artificial—that at first seems a bit too arch and honed down, but in his new film it beautifully builds on itself, separated into days and met with the occasional, gorgeous flourish of images dissolving into one another as Paterson reads his poetry (in fact written by American poet Ron Padgett).
Pulling from Williams Carlos Williams’ most well known line and artistic aphorism from his own Paterson, we hear several times “no ideas but in things,” and indeed Jarmusch’s pared approach seems to emphasize so little, simply but directly. Yet this little unnoticeably aggregates over the week, over time, growing in quiet humor, gathering the terms to imbue the regular and the unassuming with unexpected, gently piqued emotion. Much that seems hip or twee in the film—whether Driver’s neutral tone of voice, his girlfriend’s quirky hobbies, the coincidental meeting in the town with other poets (a teen girl and cameo by Masatoshi Nagase, who acted in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train), the remarkably numerous joke cuts to the bulldog, or a contrived, dangerously broken romance between two of the bar’s regulars—when eventually fully fit into the modest scope of Paterson, each and the sum become very touching.
While the story, such as it is, softly points towards Paterson (the man) having an epiphany about his poetic hobby—Laura keeps asking him to make copies of his notebook, he starts seeing twins everywhere, and we worry the notebook will be lost or destroyed—in fact what Jarmusch suggests by his pattern of daily habit and minor variation is how the precise, isolated noticing of the everyday creates a structure of observation, acquiescence, and small actions. These reveal, in a completely unpretentious way and with the utmost, empathetic tenderness, how your life is in fact your first poem, and one uniquely capable of making an art inside of itself, of itself.