Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson in Paterson, a driver who hails from Paterson, New Jersey. He’s a driver by day and a poet by day, taking in all that he sees around him before unwinding at the local tavern with his British bulldog once the sun sets. He lives with his girlfriend Laura, a jack-of-all trades ‘artist’ whose skills don’t nearly compare to his, and yet this humble poet – at times too humble – finds more value in her art than his own. This is the premise, plot, story and overall arc of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and it has his signature all over every frame.
Paterson is moody and moving, and it moves even while stationary. It follows Paterson through his morning, his afternoon and his evening, a day that always begins with a poem scribbled in his notebook. But rather than seeing the process of his poems’ mental construction (or even the moment he makes them real by putting them on paper), we get to truly experience them. Not just through the detailing of his point of inspiration, like a curiously designed matchbox, but through his daily New Jersey bus route, unfolding on the screen through seemingly handwritten subtitles, detailing the beats and pauses of his penmanship along with Driver’s hesitant voiceover, punctuating each line and unearthing its meaning through tone of voice, like the poem is being written on the very fabric of the screen. It reveals itself to us as life’s life reveals itself to Paterson, little details filtered through his driver’s side windshield, or chatter from his passengers through the sacred, uncrossable glass and yellow line behind him. Matchboxes become imagined opportunities to light cigarettes for beautiful women as his poem, the result of his inspiration, plays over images of inspirations for the next one.
These scenes of driving and art unfolding, time compressed as moments fading in to one another (backed by musical notes that feel ethereal), are but a slice of Paterson’s quiet, often amusing life in Paterson, New Jersey. His mornings and weekends are dedicated to his expressive canine and to Golshifteh Farahani’s Laura, a musician, painter, confectioner and all-round life enthusiast. She dreams of stardom and success, although her experssions of self come only through painting and colouring everything around her in winding patterns of black & white. These are her favourite colours, and as the days go on, they begin to envelop Paterson’s domestic existence, from the walls, to the floors to the shower curtains. Laura herself begins dressing in black & white. It bleeds into the food she bakes. Her new guitar, which she acquires from a famous musician (and with Paterson’s hard earned money) is also black & white, as is the hat she wears while she learns to play via videos on the internet. So whacky!
Paterson sneers at exactly none of this.
Farahani and Driver play what feels like an ideal relationship – not so much characters who live together as much as the idea of a relationship itself. They support each other’s artistic endeavors without question, hear each other out when they express their dreams (be it goals or visions of twins while asleep), and they push each other to succeed and to work harder. They are also each other’s foils. Paterson searches for meaning in glances and hair locks, colourful details that he only pens privately. Laura’s art is big and broad, and she stretches her black & white over their entire household for all to see. She talks about her process constantly, and how she plans to take the next step to share her art with the world. Paterson on the other hand, doesn’t even make copies of his poems. His art is for him, and him alone. He doesn’t even consider himself a poet, but he does find value in forms of expression that may not gel with his own.
Paterson functions healthily in his bizarre black & white relationship, and part of that is the time and space he’s afforded. He wanders without a cell phone, spending hours at the local dive with colourful characters, from the bartender who plays chess with himself and celebrates the artistic history of Paterson, New Jersey, to the lovelorn actor whose attempts to rekindle his love for a local beauty begin approaching levels of dangerous. Even larger than life events, some of which involve Paterson himself, are but matters of fact to him. It's their details that are important, like the twins sitting in the corner of the bar when violence almost breaks out, or the rapper freestyling to the late night whirr of a laundromat on the same street where gangsters once threatened his dog. Driver simply smiles and takes in the minutia, absorbing it as part of his contentment – a contentment that only lacks his own recognition of the worth of his words.
Like so many of Jarmusch’s other works (Only Lovers Left Alive in particular), Paterson feels more like an encapsulation of mood or state of being, rather than a “traditional” story. The writer-director first found his way to my radar at a poetry read at my college, for his late mentor Kenneth Koch. He read us one of Koch’s poems describing a series of films – not specific films, but vivid descriptions of colours and feelings, ideas for films that felt like they could only exist in written poetry. To some degree, Paterson not only feels like a tribute to his mentor, but an attempt to capture the feeling of one of those meandering, impossible films that ought not to be. It is, in its own way, a poem on screen. It just so happens to be about poetry.