Paterson, the latest film from underground impresario Jim Jarmusch, is cannily structured like a poem. It’s not simply that the film is ‘poetic,’ as we might apply the term to a Malick film, or something like Taste of Cherry. Paterson actually features the cinematic equivalents of repeating stanzas, modulated meter, a rhyme scheme. Jarmusch has directed films where cyclical events are important to the theme (Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control), but never one as explicitly metrical.
Adam Driver might play the title character—unless, like me, you think the title refers to Paterson, New Jersey, where the film takes place. This man follows, more or less, the same routine everyday. He arises between six and six-thirty next to his beautiful Persian girlfriend, Laura. He eats a bowl of cereal, then walks to his job as a city bus driver, where his Indian boss laments countless family troubles. Driving around eight hours everyday, Paterson hears snippets of people’s conversations, lives. He then returns to his house for dinner before taking his dog, Marvin, out for a walk. He stops by a bar for a beer, then goes home to sleep.
Paterson shows us a week in the life of Paterson, which means we see this routine seven times. Don’t think that deliberate repetition is boring, however; as I said, the film is constructed like a poem, with every day a stanza. Which makes sense, as Paterson is an amateur poet, writing stark, perceptive verse reminiscent of William Carlos Williams. Always jotting a bit of poesy in his ubiquitous notebook, we see the words on the screen as Paterson recites them, unsteadily, as if chewing them over in his mouth.
Some shrewd filmgoers will connect that William Carlos Williams spent his entire life in New Jersey, and wrote an epic poem in five volumes called…you guessed it. There are parallels between the works of Williams and Jarmusch here, but I won’t go into them too deeply. Honestly, I feel like they may mostly be a red herring. The poems in the film have more or less the same function as the songs in Moulin Rouge!
The important point is that the character of Paterson is a fairly gifted poet. As such, he is a master of observation. Consider the scene where he and Laura go to the movies. He’s watching the screen, sure, but also noticing all the small details around him: the rustle of popcorn, the screen illuminating one side of a black man’s face, the way a gay couple hold hands. He inhales his environment gently, calmly, like a sage.
What makes Paterson so Zen in demeanour? It may be his natural inclinations as a poet, sure, but Jarmusch hints at something deeper. There are two shots (one unnecessary) of a picture of Paterson in military garb. Couple this with his swift, level reaction when one character pulls a gun, and you can surmise that Paterson has seen some things, man, and some stuff. Once someone has gone through unspeakable trauma, some of the worldly concerns that used to seem so important just… fade into white noise.
There’s just one thing that bugged me… Roger Ebert always had this saying about symbolism in film: ‘If you have to ask what something symbolises, it doesn’t. Or it stands for itself.’ I always found this a bit smugly anti-intellectual; my own law about symbolism, in any medium, is, ‘If you have to ask what something symbolises, it’s because you don’t know.’ There is a corollary, however, that applies to Paterson, ‘If a symbol appears repeatedly, blatantly, and obviously, it probably only stands for itself.’ You’ll notice in Paterson an abundance of twins—there’s one pair on a park bench, one pair in Paterson’s bus, a pair he meets in a bar, etc.
Unlike the twin symbolism in, say, The Shining, which is not terribly obvious upon a first viewing, it’s exceedingly prominent in Paterson. (It’s even subtle in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and that film is almost about twinning.) I found this ever so slightly off-putting—when a director is this blatant about a symbol, the contrarian in me tends to dismiss it. Or want to, anyway.
Further in blatant symbolism, consider that every artistic project Laura undertakes at the house deals exclusively in the colours black and white: the shower curtains, the drapes, the artwork, her clothing—even her cupcakes and the guitar she orders from the internet. All scattered black and whites. At the end of the day, where does Paterson escape to for a brief respite? Shades Bar. Hmm.
I’ll chalk it up to the fact that many poems have internal rhymes, even if not necessary to the theme or structure, and the twins, wherever else they might accomplish, are one of Jarmusch’s rhyme schemes. After just one viewing, I don’t want to make too much of the symbolism, especially considering that the vast majority of Paterson is beautifully understated.
Most understated of all is Adam Driver’s performance, a master-class in subtlety. Watch the way that Paterson handles his girlfriend. There is a scene where she makes him a Brussels sprouts and cheddar cheese pie for dinner. (Ugh—I can smell it just typing this out!) Watch closely the way Driver eats, maintains eye contact, and takes swigs of water just a moment too long. Also, watch him closely in the scene where Laura asks for a guitar, costing several hundred dollars. It’s money they don’t have, but behind Driver’s eyes you can see him weighting the monetary cost against the happiness of his love. Even his melancholy is understated, as he softly confesses to one character late in the film, ‘I don’t really like you.’
Jarmusch’s Mystery Train dealt with Elvis-obsessed Japanese tourists making a pilgrimage of sorts to Nashville. Here, there is another Japanese tourist making a pilgrimage; this one is obsessed with William Carlos Williams and tries to visit the places mentioned in his poems. But, you slowly suspect he may have made the trip for Paterson the character, rather than the city. It’s a beautiful ending sequence to the film. Watching Adam Driver look out over Paterson Falls, it struck me how cinema allows us to make pilgrimages without traveling. You may feel as though you’ve made one to Paterson yourself.
Not the real Paterson, though. The film takes place in a fictional world of Jarmusch’s own devising. This is a congenial world, where danger doesn’t tread. How else to explain the scene where the carload of thug like men pull up to Paterson as he’s walking his dog, talking about dog-jacking being a serious problem? ‘Be safe man,’ they warn, as they drive off laughing. There are many such scenes like this—Paterson interrupts a free styling rapper, confronts a ‘gunman,’ sits next to a young girl without anyone noticing—which would play very differently in the real world.
But why not put such thoughts aside and let Paterson envelope you. Like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! from earlier in 2016, Jim Jarmusch has created a safe world designed for you to savour, to live inside. I want to go to there.