FilmScene — Opens Friday, Feb. 10 at 4 p.m.
In a recent interview with WHYY’s Terri Gross, director Jim Jarmusch discussed his new film, Paterson, about a poet-cum-bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver), living in Paterson, New Jersey. Because his stoic poet protagonist prefers observation to engagement, Jarmusch felt driving a bus was an ideal job for Paterson due to the removed, slightly-elevated visual perspective a bus offers.
Jarmusch also became enamored with the vehicle’s unique locomotion: “I thought a bus was a perfect visual … to drift [Paterson] through the city,” he said. Similarly, Jarmusch drifts the film from scene-to-scene and the result is a gorgeous visual ode to the power of the poetry. Paterson serves as a reminder that the beauty in the mundane can be uncovered simply by shifting one’s perspective and remaining open to experience.
The film’s plot is minimal. It follows Paterson during a week, Monday-to-Monday, of his highly routinized life. The routine is in place to help him cope with stress; a photo of Paterson in his Marine Corps dress blues offering the only early hint of whatever might be at the root of said stress.
During the week, Paterson drives his route and eavesdrops on passengers’ conversations. Every day he eats lunch near a waterfall and, at the end of his shift, he walks the same route home, walks his dog and frequents the same bar, night after night. Viewers are then privy to his writing process as he constructs poems based on his experiences. Paterson has a loving wife, a grumpy dog and a diverse group of friends and colleagues — all of whom are deeply curious about the poetry he refuses to share with them.
Long before the film Paterson, poet and Paterson resident William Carlos Williams wrote an epic poem about the city. Images of Williams and a copy of his book are present throughout the film. If you’re noticing some repetition here — Paterson, based on “Paterson,” set in Paterson, NJ — it’s quite intentional. The Paterson locale of Jarmusch’s film is an enchanted place in which coincidence abounds and moments of quiet beauty can be found in laundromats, under bridges and in kitchens bursting with fresh-baked cupcakes.
Much like the best of Jarmush’s oeuvre (Down By Law, Dead Man, Only Lovers Left Alive), Paterson is subdued and slow-paced; the camera lingers longer than most directors would ever allow. The result of this cinematic patience is a film that often feels more alive than life and more real than reality. Throughout the film, Paterson travels countless blocks of his eponymous city, revealing colorful storefronts, grassy lots and a series of stunning waterfalls.
Conversations between characters are about little things: work, dating and retelling the stories of famous Patersonites. Characters who try to be profound, or who complain too much, are dismissed as silly and overly dramatic. Poetry in Paterson isn’t an elite, inaccessible art form — it’s a craft to be honed and practiced by anyone with the desire to do so.
If there is anything lacking in Paterson it is embodied by Laura, Paterson’s doting, passionate wife. She is a homemaker whose rudderless existence has her bouncing from hobby to hobby in search of anything nearly as fulfilling as her husband’s poetry. Though Laura is beyond supportive of Paterson, she seems to exist only to be a supporting player and goes through almost no development of her own –- this despite a brilliant portrayal by Golshifteh Farahani.
Laura’s love for Paterson is apparent, and thus it feels odd that her clear lack of personal fulfillment doesn’t bother him, a gifted observer of the human condition, much more than it seems to. Ultimately, viewers are forced to contend with a paradoxical dichotomy: the pleasure of watching Paterson is increased by Farahani’s presence but the power of the film as art is reduced by the failure to develop Laura beyond Paterson’s cheerleader in quirky black and white dresses.
Aside from Driver and Farahani, Paterson’s cast is rounded out by Rizwan Manji as Paterson’s hilariously put-upon coworker, Donny, and Barry Shabaka Henley as Doc, a bar owner and chess addict who seems to be one of Paterson’s true confidants. Many of the other cast members are present only for brief cameos, including Method Man from the Wu-Tang Clan who repeatedly reminds the audience of William Carlos Williams’ famous line: “No ideas but in things.”
Another great cameo comes from a pair of actors who costarred in a Wes Anderson film and who Jarmusch quietly reunites on Paterson’s bus to discuss anarchy and political upheaval. From top to bottom the casting choices in Paterson are stellar — especially Driver, whose poker face breaks slightly now and again to reveal more in a brief glance than many actors can express in a tearful soliloquy.
Paterson is a genuinely great film. It isn’t flashy, it isn’t overly dramatic and there are no big plot twists designed to make viewers’ heads spin. Instead, what Paterson offers is a two-hour meditation on the meaning we all ascribe to our daily lives. It’s a film about the ways in which poetry can connect to and clarify the beauty surrounding us, if we would just stop and take a moment to seek it out.
Paterson runs through Monday, Feb. 16 at FilmScene. Opening day (Feb. 10) showtimes are 4 p.m., 6:30 p.m., and 9 p.m. Tickets are $6.50-9.