Milo Garner reviews Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Paterson.
Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature is in some ways very similar to his 1991 comedy Night on Earth. Both focus heavily on incidental conversation and are based around an incredibly commonplace occupation – in Paterson’s case that of a bus driver, and in Night on Earth a New York cabbie. Only in the latter film Jarmusch’s focus was very much on unusual people and events invading this premise of normality, while Paterson defines itself by embracing normalcy and ordinary, everyday life.
Through warm, subdued colours and an atmosphere of simple homely bliss the film evokes a Groundhog Day-esque cycle of life but without the cynical undertones; Paterson traces the life of its eponymous hero over 8 days, most beginning with him getting up a little past six, making breakfast, and heading out to work.
Paterson, played drily by Adam Driver, is a bus driver and an unpublished and unpretentious poet; someone who writes daily yet has no obvious aspirations to make it his career or even have his work read by anyone else. His poetry, as narrated and superimposed on the screen as he drives through Paterson (the city), is simple and descriptive. At first the viewer must contend whether his work is meant to be particularly good or bad, but it soon becomes apparent that while it isn’t any sort of masterwork, it has a certain domestic charm and honesty to it that suits his character well. The idea behind the film isn’t to celebrate the quality or revelatory nature of art, rather the simple joy in creating it, and this is something Jarmusch captures excellently throughout.
This feeling of authenticity also carries through to the nostalgic character of the film. Paterson does not own a smartphone, lives in a single floor detached house, is married to a stay-at-home wife, and is a fan of mid-20th century poetry – a sense of the 50s, at least as it exists in America’s collective memory, is evident here. Add to that a 12-hour shift and a typical stop at a bar before bed and we seem to have landed in a sort of dreamworld for Jarmusch: a place where art is made for art’s sake and postmodernism has yet to spiral society into ironic self-deprecation. Regardless of the greater implications at work here, it makes for a great place to spend two hours.
Beyond his poetry we also get to see Paterson engage in, or benignly eavesdrop on, various conversations with his wife, people on the bus, in the bar and passersby just walking down the street. For some filmmakers this might not constitute any reason for excitement, but Kiarostami Jarmusch is one of the great conversationalists in modern cinema. That such a slow and drifting movie engages us with mostly irrelevant conversation is a sign of his skill not only as a great director, but as a great screenwriter. Such conversations include a variety of strange and normal encounters, such as a pair of students declaring they are probably the only true anarchists still about, or a group of gangsters driving by and complimenting Paterson on his dog. Regardless of the content they are all entertaining or interesting, and inject a fair amount of typically Jarmuschian humour. Their ultimate purpose is building the atmosphere of Paterson (the city), which in turn defines Paterson (the man).
One key moment of dialogue is when Paterson’s wife Laura, an eccentric and creative Iranian-American, tells Paterson of an obscure dream she had in which they had twins. From this moment on Paterson begins to spot twins everywhere, and though ostensibly a running gag, this develops the film’s central theme: the doubling of Paterson (the man), and Paterson (the city). Both are presented as (mostly) average – not particularly unusual and certainly not someone or somewhere that would stand out amongst other more exciting prospects. Yet both also have a spark, small as it may initially appear, with Paterson (the man) being an avid poet and Paterson (the city) being home, or passing home, to many great men and women over the years, as explicitly noted by the collage of notable people at the back of the local bar. The effect of this is a mirroring of the message inherent from the start. As much as this film is an ode to the working, everyday artist, it is also an ode to the everyday city in which they live, somewhere that offers inspiration for Paterson’s domestic musings.
Paterson’s wife Laura, portrayed excellently by Golshifteh Farahani, represents a sort of equal yet opposite to his way of doing things. A housewife by definition she is in action an artist who happens to be a little obsessed with monochrome, seemingly painting everything in their house black and white over the course of the film. While Paterson is somewhat reserved, keeping his poetry to himself in a book even his wife can’t freely peruse, Laura flaunts her artistry openly and freely, being particularly proud of a batch of black and white cupcakes she intends to sell at the farmers’ market. The most curious thing about the pair is not that they’re both amateur artists in tune with themselves, but rather that they’re in tune with each other. A loving relationship is somewhat rare in modern cinema, especially one at the centre of the story and especially one that never comes under any real threat throughout. It seems another part of Jarmusch’s fantasy is the totally compatible and loving (occasionally too much, but it mostly works) couple that just ‘get’ one another despite their respective oddness.
On the technical side of things Paterson is not particularly notable, but it is certainly proficient. The bus driving sequences are often stylised via use of translucent overlaying images, appearing and disappearing on top of one another in a suiting form of visual poetry to support the spoken poetry on-screen. There is also a return of the fade to black, a technique that defined Jarmusch’s technique in his 1984 breakthrough Stranger than Paradise, and it remains just as effective a way to segue from one emotion or location to another without being too abrupt.
But for a film like this technical bravado is not entirely necessary, and so long as the atmosphere and story are effectively conveyed – which they are – most of the weight lies on the script and the performances. A slow-moving but engaging piece, Paterson makes for an outstanding addition to Jarmusch’s already superlative canon.
Featured Image: Indie Wire.