Rated PG. Running time: 1 hours 58 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
I now have a list of two bus driver films that I like very much. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s, set in Paterson New Jersey, and Chazz Palminteri’s 1993 A Bronx Tale, set in that sprawling borough across from Manhattan. The two are very different, Robert De Niro’s Lorenzo being a father very concerned that his teen-aged son is too much under the influence of a local gangster who has taken a liking to the boy. Adam Driver’s Paterson has no children, his passion being his wife and his writing poetry in between his day’s activities.
There is not nearly such drama in Jarmusch’s quotidian film, save for a tavern scene that threatens to end violently. Instead, the plot consists of following the routine life of a man named Paterson for eight days. And I do mean routine, the two exceptions being the already mentioned bar room scene, and a rift on “the dog ate my homework” that would be funny if it were not so destructive to the one thing that makes Paterson so unique among bus drivers—the poetry that he writes in his off-hours, ripped to shreds when the family pet bulldog goes on a rampage when both his master and mistress are away. He finds inspiration for his poetry in simple things—such as an Ohio Blue Tip match box, and a shoe box, the theme of the first poem being love.
The Psalmist wrote the above poem for a royal audience, whereas the only other person who reads Paterson’s verses is his supportive wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). She is repeatedly pleading with him to submit them for publication, or, at the very least, to go and make copies of them for her. He at last reluctantly agrees to do this for her come Saturday.
For a creative person, Paterson follows an almost rigid schedule: The film is divided into the days of the week in which we see that there is a rhythm to Paterson’s life akin to that of the stanzas of a poem. Paterson wakes up between 6:10 and 6:25 A.M.; checks his alarm clock; rolls over and hugs or kisses his wife; eats a cup of Cheerios for breakfast along with his coffee; walks to the bus barn; sits in the driver’s seat writing in his notebook (the words appear on the screen as he writes);lays aside the notebook when his supervisor taps on the bus door to let him know it’s time to start his route; maneuvers the massive bus through the crowded streets of Paterson; listens in on snatches of his passengers’ conversations; eats his lunch by a bench facing the Passaic Falls (there is a picture of Laura in his lunchbox); walks back home from the bus barn; removes his mail from the always leaning mail box; straightens up its post again (the reason that it is always tilted is revealed in a funny scene later); greets Laura with a kiss and listens to another of her wacky schemes; after supper takes their English bulldog Marvin for a walk; and then, tying him up outside, enters his favorite bar and converses with some of its patrons, namely bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) and fellow drinkers Everett (William Jackson Harper) and Marie (Chasten Harmon).
The film script rounds out well the supporting characters, especially Laura whose world, unlike her husband’s, is changing all the time as she flits from one artistic project to another, the one constant being that she limits her pallet to black and white. Her creations, many of them outlandish, sometimes become sight gags—using black and white paints, she daubs paint in striped, curved, and wave patterns onto table cloths and napkins, pillows and a throw rug, drapes, scarves, a shower curtain—even on the tops of the cupcakes she bakes by the hundred for some pen money she places black and white icing. Her biggest artistic aspiration, however, is to acquire a guitar so she can learn music and go to Nashville and become a C-W star. Paterson will never be bored with this dynamo of a wife—nor find a more enthusiastic supporter!
Jarmusch’s other characters have less screen time, yet come across as flesh and blood people. Doc has a wall of fame at his bar, proud of such Patterson notables as Lou Costello of the comedy team Abbott and Costello. Of course, there is a signed photo of the city’s famous poet, William Carlos Williams, whose multi-volume poem, also entitled Paterson, inspired Jarmusch long ago to make this film. The bar owner steadfastly refuses to get a TV set, and when a customer asks him to get one so they can tune in to ball games, he almost runs the upstart out of the bar. He keeps an eye on the black patrons Everett and Marie because, despite the girl’s rebuffs, Everett keeps trying to establish a romantic relationship with her. What will appear to be a violent climax to his unwelcome pursuit provides the only moment of Paterson’s playing the hero late in the film, with Doc ready to back him up.
The film will seem slow moving to fans of comic-based yarns, but for those with patience, it is an exquisite visual parable about a man paying attention to the little details of daily life, hence the filmmaker conducting us through a whole week of Paterson’s routine, starting on a Monday, Tuesday, etc., until the film ends on a Monday. Creativity often is, as Christ said to his spiritually blind disciples, having “eyes that see.” Paterson is a person who notices the little things of life and connects them to larger things, such as his love for Laura. This is well illustrated by the small Blue Tip Match box on his kitchen counter which he has turned into a simple poetic declaration. Back in the ‘60s when an inner-city Catholic mission group published a set of posters called “Full Circle” featuring quotations by various authors, one of my favorites proclaimed, “Art is the Celebration of the Ordinary,” attributed to John Dewey. This certainly what Paterson does.
The darkest day for our bus driver poet comes at the end of the work week when his notebook has been destroyed. Laura is more visibly dismayed than he, but something inside the sober-faced Paterson seems to have flickered out. We keep thinking that he is going to bring out the sheets he had copied, as he had promised, but this never happens. He had been so busy helping Laura that day and in other activities that he apparently had forgotten to get to it. The poems really are gone.
How he gets back what some would call his groove is a wonderful summary of what the film is about. It is on a Sunday, appropriate in that for Christians this is the day of Resurrection. While sitting disconsolately on a bench by a stream and the Passaic Falls, a tourist (Masatoshi Nagase) with a camera asks permission to sit. In short snatches of conversation, he reveals that he has come from Japan to Paterson pay homage to William Carlos Williams. Although Paterson denies being a poet, it is obvious to the tourist that the American is a poetry lover, conversant with the works of the ones the tourist mentions. Revealing that he is a published poet in Japan, he does something that rejuvenating for the depressed American.
This film is filled with poets—Paterson himself; a 10-year-old girl with whom he forms an instant bond as she shares a clever poem she has written called “rain Falls;” a rapper practicing his routine at a laundromat; the Japanese tourist; and of course the works of New Jersey poet Williams. We also see on a bookshelf a collection by Frank O’Hara, and Paterson and Laura discuss the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, whose love sonnets were meant for a woman also named Laura.
Poets, as well as other artists, look at the world differently, and if we are alert and open, help us to do the same. Even if we will not become artists ourselves, they can certainly give us a greater appreciation of our world around us. Most of the poems are by a friend of Jim Jarmusch, the award-winning poet Ron Padgett. To see how simple, down to earth they are, you can read one at the PBR website.
This is a film I must see again, there being so much in it. One thing I have not mentioned, is the many twins that Paterson sees after Laura says that she is pregnant, and that there could be twins in her womb. This echoes the twins in legend and myths, and thus I want to return to the film to get a clearer view of how Jarmusch works this into his film.
Although you do not have to be a poetry fan to enjoy this film, those of you who are will revel in this simple yet profound work, proving once more that Jim Jarmusch is a visual poet.
Note: For a wonderful scene of the need to pay attention to the quotidian see Wayne Wang’s Smoke, in which the manager of a Brooklyn tobacco shop takes a photograph of the people passing by every day at precisely the same time.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.