Friday, January 6, 2017

'Paterson' Illustrates A Life Of Quiet Inspiration

This review originally appeared on

Henry David Thoreau wrote "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Some might see the life led by Paterson, the lead character in Jim Jarmusch's latest film, Paterson, and think that in its redundancy and routine, it could be nothing but a life of secret desperation. But Paterson is really about lives filled with quiet inspiration, and the fulfillment that can bring.

Paterson (Adam Driver) lives in Paterson, New Jersey, with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). He wakes up every week day around 6 a.m., has a bowl of cereal, and then walks to his job as a bus driver. Before he sets out on his route, he sits in the driver's seat and works on poems he writes in a notebook. At lunch, he does the same. He comes home from work around six, and hears what the artistically inclined Laura has been up to that day. It most often involves painting various things in the house in stark black and white colors and patterns. After dinner he walks their bulldog Marvin, and has a beer at the local bar, where he talks with the bartender, and sometimes the patrons. The whole week repeats much the same.

Paterson's favorite poet is William Carlos Williams, who also wrote a book of poems called... Paterson. These circular connections are at the heart of the movie. Twins, echoes, callbacks, and repeated phrases turn up a lot, illustrating that feeling, akin to deja vu, where something odd might be mentioned, and then you start noticing it everywhere. (And let's not overlook the fact that Adam Driver is playing a bus...driver.)

The redundancy of Paterson's life actually helps to illuminate all of its connections. He drives a circular bus route, and lives a circular life. But within that life he derives inspiration for his poems — an ode to books of matches they keep in their home turns into a love poem; a recollected dream about twins becomes a poem about dimensions, and existence. (The poems in the film were actually written by 74-year-old poet Ron Padgett.)

Paterson is a comforting movie, in many ways. While it's set now, it harkens back to a time when men could be bus drivers by day, poets by night, own a nice little house, and a wife could stay at home, pursuing her own fancies. Paterson doesn't even own a cell phone, and their house is filled with a mid-century aesthetic (painted black and white, of course). His routine, like many routines, is comforting to watch. In fact, the film's only bit of drama comes from Laura's urging Paterson to change his routine by making copies of his poems, which only exist in his one notebook.

Some of Jarmusch's previous slow and laconic films could be seen as comedies, but Paterson is a bit more serious. Which isn't to say it's a drama. Instead it uses its long stretches of quiet inaction not for laughs, but to help build up a feeling of reality. And reality, as we all know, can sometimes be pretty funny.

Casting Adam Driver — aside from the name bit — is, on the surface, a bit of an odd choice, since he's a very physical and verbal actor, and Paterson is really neither. Frankly, I never thought I'd see Driver in a role in which he could be so likable, since he plays jerks so epically well. He's really kind of perfect as Paterson, since our experience of Driver has us a little on edge, like he could blow at any moment. His Paterson is still water that runs deep.

If I have any complaint with the film it's that it doesn't seem to treat his girlfriend Laura's artistic inspirations as seriously as it does Paterson's poems. Granted, she seems to have a different idea every day; one day it's to become a baker; another, to become a country singer. But her enthusiasm for these things doesn't seem to be taken completely seriously by either Paterson the guy, or Paterson the movie. (In fact, she ends up being pretty adept at everything she attempts, and in the long run, I could see her being more successful at her artistic pursuits than Paterson!)

Paterson isn't a movie for everyone. If your preference is movies filled with action and conflict, it's going to be annoyingly inert. But in a certain way, watching Paterson's daily life is exciting. Who's going to get on the bus today? What will they talk about? Is that fighting couple from the bar last night going to be there again? Will they still be fighting? What will he have for dinner? Something new?

Even a seemingly boring life can be a poem. And you can't photocopy it at Kinko's.

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