In Jim Jarmusch’s new film, a bus driver named Paterson who lives in Paterson, N.J. — hometown of William Carlos Williams and Alan Ginsberg — sees life as gentle verse
Starring: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani
Directed and written by: Jim Jarmusch
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Running time: 118 minutes
By Jay Stone
Jim Jarmusch’s new movie, Paterson, is about a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) who lives in Paterson, N.J., and drives the number 23 bus, also named Paterson, which is sort of like a streetcar named Desire except without any of the, you know, drama.
There’s passion in Paterson — both the movie and the man, who writes poetry on his way to work, much like Wallace Stevens, who toiled as an insurance executive and composed in his head as he walked the streets of Hartford, Conn. — but it’s an understated kind of passion. No one yells “Stella” and rips his T-shirt, although at one stage Paterson does glare at his dog, an English bulldog named Marvin that spends most of the film either splayed on the couch or tugging ferociously at his leash. That glare is one of the emotional high points of Paterson, but don’t be fooled. It seems as if not much is happening, but in fact Jarmusch is creating an entire world, or even an entire poem.
It’s told in seven stanzas, as it were; a week in the life of Paterson and Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), his sweet, flaky partner who stays home redecorating her life in black and white: painting the shower curtains, say, or making all the trim in the house black, or baking black-and-white cupcakes. She wants to make a fortune in the cupcake business or, failing that, become a country music sensation. She buys a black-and-white guitar to practise on.
Paterson, meanwhile, goes off to work, writes poems on his break, beside a lovely Paterson, N.J. waterfall, and then comes home to walk the dog to the local bar where he enjoys one beer a night in the company of Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), the bartender. Doc has a “wall of fame” of famous Paterson, N.J. residents, most prominently Lou Costello, who also has a statue downtown. But who’s on first? More likely Alan Ginsberg or the poet William Carlos Williams, Paterson’s (the bus driver’s) hero, both of whom are also from Paterson, N.J. Something in the water, perhaps, or the beer.
The writing of poems, the walking of the dog, the beer, all happen every day, a lulling narrative lovingly laid out by Jarmusch, an indie film pioneer (Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive) who manages the rare feat of creating a quiet and eccentric story with firm, almost muscular, confidence. He trusts us to get it when, for instance, Paterson listens to the conversations of his passengers — a couple of kids talking about Paterson’s own Hurricane Carter, say, or a young girl at the bus station who also writes poetry and whose favourite is Emily Dickenson — and reacts with dreamy silence. The performance of Driver (playing a driver, we remind everyone) is a thing of understated beauty: he’s lost in the miracle of the everyday, like the box of Ohio Blue Tip matches that become his metaphor for love. Paterson’s verse (actually written by the poet Ron Padgett) is seen in handwriting across the screen, a sort of surtitle of the miraculous laid across the quotidian of a town so ordinary as to be practically mystical.
When things happen in Paterson — the film and the town and, I suppose, the bus driver — they come as calm surprises. Jarmusch gives equal weight to a sudden confrontation in the bar between estranged lovers and the part when Laura takes her black-and-white cupcakes to the farmer’s market to see if she can launch her career. When a bus stalls, everyone comments that it could have exploded into a ball of fire. They just have the wrong movie.
Throughout, Paterson keeps running into other poets: not just the little girl but a guy in a laundromat practising a rap song — a rehearsal that hugely engages Marvin the bulldog — or a Japanese tourist visiting the town because he, too, is fond of William Carlos Williams. This not at all astonishes Paterson; he sees poetry everywhere, just by watching the world. Jarmusch invites us to do the same.
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