‘Paterson’ is poetry in motion
“Paterson” is set in Paterson, N.J., and concerns a bus driver, played by Adam Driver, who is also named Paterson. Already you may be getting a sense of the resonant circular prayer wheel that is Jim Jarmusch’s new film.
Paterson the man is a poet — although most people don’t know it — and he takes his inspiration from the late, great William Carlos Williams, who did not live in Paterson the city (rather in nearby Rutherford) but who dedicated 12 years and five volumes to an epic poem called “Paterson.” If you pick up a copy of “Paterson” the poem, you may come across the repeated line: “Say it! No ideas but in things,” and that may be the best guide to what Jarmusch has achieved here. “Paterson” the movie is about the ordinary slipstream of our days — about all the stuff we touch but never notice — and also about life’s piercing, inexhaustible beauty when we do notice. Coming out at a time when the world seems both upside down and backward, watching this film feels like drinking from a cool, clear lake.
Or maybe you’ll just be bored. “Paterson” is structured as a Week in the Life Of, with each day beginning identically: Paterson (the man) waking up, checking his watch on the bedside nightstand, then settling in to kiss his wife awake. He has the same breakfast every day — Cheerios and milk in a coffee cup — walks down the hill, boards his bus, drives through the city, goes home, has dinner, walks his dog to the local bar, drinks one beer. Everything is the same and everything is different. The bus route never changes, but the passengers do. I think Jarmusch has actually remade “Groundhog Day” as a work of spiritual ecstasy. I also think Paterson the man may be a Zen Ralph Kramden.
The wife, Laura, is played by the enchantingly lovely Iranian-born actress Golshifteh Farahani (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”), and she’s a flake — the queen of the couple’s little blue-collar paradise. For Laura, every day is an art project to be savored and covered in rich black-and-white patterns. She dreams of becoming a country singer. She wants her husband to share the poems he writes in his secret notebook, but he’s reluctant, which raises the question of whom he’s writing for, if anyone. Another movie might find Laura exasperating, but this one cherishes her as deeply and eternally as her husband does. What he writes about, she lives.
There are other figures passing through the film’s cityscape. The bus riders tell tales to each other; Paterson hears the spaces between what they’re saying and who they are, and so do we. At the bar where he walks Marvin, the couple’s pet bulldog, Paterson banters with the owner Doc (a majestic Barry Shabaka Henley) and cocks an ear to the romantic travails of Marie (Chasten Harmen) and Everett (William Jackson Harper). He passes a late-night laundromat where Method Man (as himself) is rapping about the 19th-century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Marvin himself becomes a major character, and if Jarmusch goes a little overboard with the dog reaction shots, it’s still a hell of a dog.
Not much else really happens; as with all Jarmusch movies, even as far back as 1984’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” the beauty and the comedy are found in the mundane. The bus breaking down in one scene is about as high as the drama gets, or the bit where Paterson has to intervene in a bar dust-up: wrinkles in the unending passage of days, the grit in the oyster. Williams himself wrote of Paterson the city as if it were a man, and Jarmusch seems intent on returning the favor, embodying a quintessential American landscape in his circumspect hero. The bus driver doesn’t talk a lot, but he listens to everything and he’s alert to the rhymes most of us miss, like the sets of identical twins who pop up throughout “Paterson” like an inside joke.
And he keeps coming back, as did Williams, to the city’s Great Falls and the park just beneath it, where the passing Passaic River roils up like a metaphor you can’t quite get your hands around. The smidgen of plot in “Paterson” involves a crisis of faith that is smoothed over by the appearance of what the monks call an arhat and the rest of us call a wise man, and it’s no coincidence that this flash of understanding occurs at the falls, or that Paterson (man, movie, poem, and city) come away newly alive in its wake.
Paterson’s verse in the film is in fact written by the estimable poet Ron Padgett, and I confess I found it slightly lacking: morsels of daily magic, meditations on kitchen matches and love where I (or you) may have been wanting something larger and more transformative. That may be the point, of course, and anyway, Paterson’s not writing for anyone’s eyes but his own. “Paterson” the movie doesn’t mine the dross and drab of our everyday lives for gold — it says they already are gold, and all you have to do is look.
“Say it! No ideas but in things.”
★ ★ ★ ★
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley. At Kendall Square. 118 minutes. R (brief strong language).