Jarmusch: Paterson (2016)
In many ways, Paterson plays as a companion piece and counterpoint to Only Lovers Left Alive, part of a late blooming of Jarmusch’s career that has witnessed some of the most languorously atmospheric tableaux that he has even crafted. However, whereas Only Lovers Left Alive was shot mainly at night and preoccupied with the undead, Paterson takes place mainly during daylight hours and is concerned more with a mystical and emergent sense of life. As the title might suggest, the film is set in Paterson, New Jersey, and follows a bus driver and poet, also named Paterson (Adam Driver) as he goes about his weekly routine. Most week days have a similar pattern, as we follow Paterson to work and then on his bus route, after which he returns home to spend the evening with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) before taking their dog out for a late-night walk and dropping into his favourite local haunt for a drink or a chat with some of the locals. While there are many incidental characters in the film, the main focus is on the relationship between Paterson and Laura, which is – quite remarkably – devoid of any tension or conflict whatsoever. Whether they’ve ironed out all their issues or never had any issues in the first place, they radiate a slow and steady domestic bliss that imbues the rest of the film with a profound and deeply felt harmony, creating quite a meditative and mindful mood. Where Only Lovers Left Alive felt stuck in the depths of the polar vortices that have haunted Detroit over the last few years, Paterson is quite emphatically scored to the gradual emergence of autumn, against which Paterson and Laura’s contentment intensifies and deepens, like a wine that becomes richer and more complex as it ages.
That kind of intensifying happiness is much harder to sustain than dramatic conflict, and would possibly be untenable here were it not for the particular nature and quality of Paterson’s poetry, since this is where his relationship with Laura is captured and delivered to us, in verses that are frequently scribbled across the screen as he speaks or imagines them. As if prescient that such lavish happiness might run the risk of becoming smug or saccharine if ornamented to any great length, Paterson opts for the plain-spoke poetry of everyday observation, with Jarmusch actually using a selection of poems by Ron Padgett, whose peculiarly American attention – sensuous and austere at once – to the stuff of everyday life works wonders here. In part that’s because Padgett’s lines imbue the film with a real poetic authenticity and legitimacy but also because they haven’t been tailor-made to suit the film’s specific scenarios or situations. While Paterson’s plain poetic style is undoubtedly informed by his observations and experiences as a bus driver, the fact that these are Padgett’s poems prevents them ever feeling like a mere transcription of those observations and experiences either, transforming plainness itself into a kind of mystical awareness or apprehension that brings this closer to pure imagist cinema than any other outing in Jarmusch’s career. Of course, William Carlos Williams was one of main proponents of that imagistic plainness, especially in his epic Paterson, and in many ways Jarmusch’s film feels like an adaptation of that poem as much as anything else, not merely in his imagery but in his dialogue, whose trademarked stilted dreaminess suddenly feels incorporated into a wider lineage of modernist experimentation, naturalised more than at any point in his career when set against the backdrop of the images and landmark’s of Williams’ modernist topography.
However, Paterson is not merely an adaptation of William Carlos Williams but a tone-poem to Paterson and New Jersey as they now stand, full of all kinds of apocrypha and marginalia, from Iggy Pop to the Anarchist Black Cross Federation. In particular, Jarmusch beautifully captures the quietness of New Jersey that occurs when you step away – sometimes only minutes away – from major transport corridors, as well as the quietness of those corridors themselves when shot from the muffled, barely-awake recesses of the twenty-four-hour bus system. Having spent a bit of time in New Jersey, I know how much of the public sphere and life of the state takes place in and around NJ Transit, with vast segments of the population commuting to New York or Philadelphia but most living away from the few major rail arteries, leading to an enormous and far-reaching bus network that joins the dots between what often seems to be an endless sprawl of highways and secluded towns. In Paterson, Jarmusch absolutely nails the peculiar intimacy of that bus system, which isn’t simply a matter of quietness but of slowness as well, with great swathes of time stuck in highway traffic or crawling up the surface streets and main streets of small towns. That said, Paterson seems to be a local bus driver rather than a commuter bus driver – or at least those are the only shifts we see, since this is a vision of New Jersey that is as defiantly devoid of highway iconography as Only Lovers Left Alive was reserved about the digital superhighway: the fastest trip in the film produces an electrical malfunction that sees Paterson and his passengers stranded on the side of the road. It’s a vision of the United States in which the public sphere has just got smaller and smaller, more and more dispersed and diffuse, but in ways that make its soulful warmth feel even more precious and tremulous, shot through with a profound introspection that also allows another Jersey to gradually emerge: a hushed substrate of red-bricked industrial buildings and commemorative plaques and statues, an older world of parks and pedestrian precincts, all suffused with the deep and abiding sense of public life that only emerges when you’re waiting for a bus to arrive. At times, it feels more like a documentary than a feature film, and I can’t imagine that certain segments would be all that different from In Transit, Albert Maysles’ final film, which was screening at the same film festival where I watched it.
In other words, the film presents Paterson’s position and profession – driving a bus – as a more fluid and heightened way of being a pedestrian, not merely because the bus often moves much slower than actual pedestrians but because bus drivers are necessarily devoid of all the digital devices that tend to stand between the average pedestrian and their pure material apprehension of the street. Even in a car you can still talk on your SmartPhone or furtively check your messages, but that’s not legally acceptable in Paterson’s profession. Combined with the enormous widescreen perspective from the front of the bus, it often feels as if his poetry is a conscious retreat from digital media in favour of something close to the observational art of cinema – or, rather, that cinema and poetry have converged into something of a “minor art” that grows more and more lavishly outdated as the film proceeds. Of course, that has something to do with the fact that cinema and poetry are both somewhat old-fashioned by the 2010s – at least cinema and poetry of the kind Paterson espouses (the film ends with a trip to a retro screening) – but it also feels as if cinema and poetry are being offered here as synecdoches for a version of whiteness that is increasingly minoritarian, with Paterson emphatically marginalised by a vision and version of Paterson that is overwhelmingly populated by African-Americans, and Hispanics, along with immigrants and tourists from other countries. Where Only Lovers Left Alive fixed on Detroit as a space in which the fantasies of white supremacy and continuity might be taken to their undead conclusion, Paterson is more concerned with what whiteness means for the living, as well as the languages the living might use to articulate their whiteness as one choice amongst many, or even as a minority position, as splendidly irrelevant to the real United States as traditional cinema and poetry are to new media. In one of the most delightful scenes, Paterson comes across a local rapper, played by Method Man, in a laundromat, who incorporates Williams’ iconic mantra “no words but in things” into one of his raps: the clearest indication in the film that the national language envisaged by Williams has moved elsewhere, with little left for Paterson himself to do except make what small late gestures he can while paying tribute to this new world in which he finds himself.
That sense of being somewhat sidelined from everyday life gives Paterson’s wanderings a distinctly melancholy quality, which again aligns him with an older, modernist, flaneur sensibility. As the film proceeds, looking, walking and driving converge – hand on the wheel, foot on the brake pedal, eye on the road – into a beautiful observational tactility that is compounded by the lushest score in Jarmusch’s filmography (as well as his first exclusively electronic score). By this stage in his career, Jarmusch is an utter master of texture and that works wonders here, with many of my favourite sequences just involving Paterson sitting, watching and noting the world as it passes around him. Of course, that’s also the perfect backdrop to flesh out Padgett’s poems, all of which exude a peculiarly tactile and sensuous contentment, satisfaction and satiation (“I go through trillions of molecules that move aside to make room for me.”) that doesn’t even seem to require publication; they are an end in and of themselves. If anything, they are already published in and through everyday life, through the very act of being written, making for a profoundly imagist cinema in which even the most incidental observations are in some sense love poems. At one point Paterson cites Petrarch as one of his influences, and while his own poems have all the breathless apprehension of courtly love they are flushed with consummation as well, creating a deep and abiding romantic optimism that gives the entire film an inherent – if gentle – comic tone, if only because of how naturally comedy arises from the inspired and dedicated observational touches on display here. Whereas Jarmusch’s earlier films often displayed an intentional jaggedness in poise and tone, here his comic and existential tendencies are integrated as never before, creating a smooth and seamless profundity that feels hard-won even if it looks effortless.
Perhaps that’s why the film also manages to avoid so many of the cliches and pitfalls surrounding the writing process itself – so risky in a film about poetry – with most of Paterson’s moments of inspiration occurring furtively and fugitively in the midst of the working day, as the mobility and momentum of everyday life provides him with the rhythms and patterns he needs to put his thoughts into poetic form. Scribbling down his thoughts in the driver’s seat before he sets off for the day and then leaving them to percolate across his various routes, his “process” feels embodied and pragmatic in the most compelling way and really rang true with me personally as someone who has spent a great deal of my writing life in and around mass transit. Of course, that’s not to idealise mass transit as a writing venue either, and the film has more than its fair share of melancholy relating to Paterson’s ideals, from a couple of college commuters who speculate in his hearing about being the only intellectuals in Paterson, to a young girl who is incredulous to find “a bus driver that likes Emily Dickinson” to the final destruction of Paterson’s draft book and his return to work without all those pages of poems to buoy up and texture his day. Yet there is also a sense that these kinds of contingencies cement Paterson’s poetry as a medium for everyday life: by the time he reads “This Is Just To Say” at the very end it feels like a complete summation of the film – it fits seamlessly within Jarmusch’s mise-en-scene – which is really saying something. In a beautiful pair of final scenes, Paterson and Laura have a rare night off to go to the movies – the quietest, smallest and stillest of all the film’s public spaces, and the logical conclusion of Paterson’s own cinematic apprehensions – which Jarmusch follows with a climax set at the Great Falls, where a Japanese tourist approaches Paterson with his own translation of Williams’ epic and asks for a photograph in front of the Passaic icon. Bridging the gap between Japanese ideogram and American imagism, it’s the perfect conclusion to one of Jarmusch’s most restrained and refined films, just as the Great Falls are possibly the best object yet for his trademark sitting-and-watching sequences, both for Paterson and the viewer: for both us, by the end, there is an abiding feeling that merely to observe these beautiful images is in some sense to have already composed poetry.
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