Left image courtesy Amazon Studios. Right image courtesy Martha Kang, NPR, KOMO.
Great, as an adjective indicating excellence, has the unfortunate fate of being forever associated with its other definition, the one pertaining to massiveness or bombast. Many of our words for effusive praise also suggest extremes: awesome, fantastic, monumental. How often do we conflate the two meanings, forgetting that excellence can as easily be delicate, subtle, apparent only after quiet musing?
The pleasures of Paterson work their way into you with a gentle grace. By the closing frame, you’re transported not in imagination but in perception–that is to say, not by the outsized visions of far-off lands or outer space, but by a gradual shift in how you see. The subtle rhythms and nuances fine-tune our gaze, and the effect is quietly stunning. I looked about our half-full theatre as the closing credits rolled: nobody got up. Nobody was getting up. They looked about in new reflection, as though surprised by how much more their eyes could now perceive. Could you really ask for more from a film?
Yes, Paterson is about a bus driver. The similarities don’t stop there: like me, he’s also a thin, brown-haired, brown-eyed man in his thirties (I think you know this age and body type are rare in our profession!), he’s an artist, specifically one who translates his work experience into writing; he’s amiable toward all, doesn’t like smartphones or social media, takes pleasure in listening to passengers’ conversations, and (like most operators too), is extremely comfortable interacting with all class and race backgrounds. Yeah. It’s downright scary. Even down to the character’s Persian girlfriend, which was once true for me, and his not exactly loving affinity for dogs.
The interesting thing is, even when you take me out of the picture, director Jim Jarmusch’s new film seems to acknowledge that life is rife with such strange intersections. The actor Adam Driver plays a driver called Paterson in a city called Paterson, drives the 23 Paterson line, and is inspired by William Carlos Williams’ epic poem, Paterson. That the film makes almost nothing of these serendipities makes it feel that much more lifelike. The same goes for its other “gentle coincidences,” as Paterson noticing several twins around town after his partner relates a dream involving twins. Despite the frequency of such occurrences in life and their visibility to those who look for them, films generally don’t have the luxury of depicting such things, because they would be too readily interpreted as having weighty thematic portent. “A theme is any element which shows up more than once,” the rulebook on storytelling says; life has no such stipulation. Sometimes the pizza slices all have an equal amount of pepperoni, and it’s nothing more than its own simple pleasure, to be noted by those with eyes to see.
Paterson concerns one week in Paterson’s life. He gets up at almost exactly the same time every day, spends a shift tooling around town as I do, driving, observing, and writing, returns home to hear about his partner’s (played by Golshifteh Farahani, radiant as usual) day, walks their dog, stops at a bar, and goes to sleep. We watch this play out seven times, with some mild differences on the weekend (most of the above minus the driving), and the repetitions highlight the subtle differences, honing us in on the shifting cadences of his routine. How does this become so compelling?
Paterson may be about a poet, and there are poems in it read aloud (written for the film by Ron Padgett, and also visualized via onscreen text, which, incredibly, isn’t annoying). But although Paterson’s poems aren’t at all bad, they aren’t sublime, either. I don’t think they’re intended to be. They’re exactly the ruminations you would note down privately, as Paterson does, and not share until you’d refined them into something actually great six months later. Viewers going in expecting Ginsberg or Wallace Stevens will be missing the point; this is about how Paterson sees, how he reflects, not the brilliance of a museum piece. Plus, isn’t it great to get to see the rough draft? After hearing several of Paterson’s poems, we (and he) hear one by a young girl, which is obviously better than any of his. Driver’s reaction here is what’s sublime. He knows it, but he knows he’s talented enough to see it, too.
No, it’s the film itself that’s the poem. In its repetitions and rhythms of routine are its cinematic corollaries for stanza and rhyme. In its everyday camerawork and rigorous minimum of formalism are its workaday prose. It even references other “poems,” as when characters from other films (Moonrise Kingdom, Jarmusch’s own Mystery Trainˆ) pop in.
With this structural conceit, we have no choice but to search for inconsistencies, variations in each day. What do they mean? Look at Driver’s face when Farahani proposes buying an expensive guitar, or flits about with adorable but self-absorbed abandon in her projects; the distance between his inner state and hers, his remove into the outlet of creativity, for now a good solution. She loves all things black and white; he revels in nuance. We’re seeing the beginnings of what will later be problems in an otherwise currently very happy, very stable relationship. When faced with only slight alterations we pay more attention, as we do when we watchJeanne Dielman, Kim Ki-Duk’s Three Times, and yes, Groundhog Day. We’re introspective enough to note the unspoken dilemmas above and ruminate on them, hopefully not just during the film but afterwards in our own lives. We’re primed to consider questions like: to what degree is partnership undeniably an interference with creativity?
Films built on this structure have led us to expect an explosive catharsis as a payoff; no such violent event takes place. Almost all films feature violent action or murder, and almost all daily life doesn’t. Almost all films are about either the extremely wealthy or the utterly destitute. If you’re wondering where all the movies are about people who drive Honda Civics, well, this is one of them, and I wonder if it captures what most artist’s lives are actually like– blue-collar work spent on reflection and rent, and a lot of observation. Not enough films know that artists live in that delicate balance between the openness of observation and the insular state of contemplating those scrutinies.
A passenger told me late one night, after hearing that I also work as a visual artist, that the art of real value I’m contributing during my short time here on earth is my behavior on the road, how I treat people. The positive ripple effect I have on them. I’m not making the art, he insisted, I was the art piece. I wonder if it’s the nicest thing I can recall being told.
In like manner, Paterson’s poems are less his true accomplishment in the film than his perspective. By the time we reach the picture’s superb final scene we really do believe he will become a great poet. He has the eyes and ears to see, and in his detail-oriented introspection, we marvel at his feat of being the gentle soul he is, thirsty to listen, aware he can learn from anyone, even his pre-teen passengers. We marvel at Jarmusch’s ability to have designed a film which engenders in us the very same.
One morning in Photo Theory, our professor walked in and said, “okay. I’m going to tell you guys what to tell your parents when they ask why they’re paying all this tuition for you guys to go to art school.” We laughed. She continued, “you’re not here to learn how to use the equipment, or study the history of photography. Because you could really do all that on your own. What we’re trying to teach you here is a way of thinking. To question what you think. To think about what you think. You see things differently. To have that extra layer, that self-aware layer that considers not just your actions but your thoughts, too.”
Which is how we can close on the sentence: 400-level Photo Theory at UW and seeing Paterson may give you similar results!