There have been many films about writers—some about writers who actually lived, some about fictional writers, and many of them
unsatisfactory in one way or another. Some, such as Beloved Infidel, are less about the writer who is the subject of the story than the self-congratulation of the
biographer. Some, such as Julia, allow authors themselves to be simultaneously self-congratulatory and mendacious. Some, such as Bright Star, fall into
the bathos of having the subject quote himself at particularly “dramatic” moments. Some, such as last year’s Genius, dutifully record a writer’s
life and work but don’t quite convey the excitement of the creative process. Some present the frustrations of a writer’s life, most convincingly in fictional
stories such as Barton Fink and Wonder Boys. Many movies (My Brilliant Career) and TV shows (The Waltons) have traced the development of young
writers. A dozen years ago, moviegoers had the choice of two better-than-average movies, Capote and Infamous, both concerning the creation of Truman
Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s film from last year, received a lackadaisical theatrical release and came out on video April 3.
I caught in in its CD incarnation, and I am baffled why its distributor, Amazon Studios, allowed it to slip between the cracks. It is the best movie about the creative process
of a writer—in this case, a poet—that I have ever seen. It is also a singularly moving portrait of a pure, honest, self-effacing man.
Jarmusch likes to have his little jokes, and Paterson is about a man named Paterson who has lived all his life in Paterson, N.J.
He is a bus driver, and he is played by Adam Driver. Paterson is about a week in the life of Paterson the man, and you might say Paterson the town as well.
Every day Paterson wakes without benefit of an alarm clock, looks at his watch (always 6:30), and gets up, leaving his wife
Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) still sleeping. He eats a bowl of Cheerios, walks to the bus depot, drives his route, walks home,
has dinner with Laura, takes his bulldog Marvin for a walk, and stops along the way for a beer at the tavern of his friend Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley).
Paterson keeps his life simple so he can concentrate on the most important thing: poetry. He writes in his notebook just before
he starts his route, while his supervisor Donny (Rizwan Manji) launches his never-ending litany of complaints; during lunch,
sitting by the Great Falls of the Passaic River, his open lunchbox bearing pictures of Laura and of Dante Alighieri; and in his
basement, surrounded by books. Occasionally he meets a kindred spirit, such as a little girl (Sterling Jerins) who is an
aspiring poet herself. But not even to her does he reveal his poetry.
Paterson mentions many famous Patersonians in passing—Hurricane Carter, Lou Costello, Iggy Pop, Dave Prater
of Sam & Dave. But the happy genius of the film is William Carlos Williams, though Jarmusch avoids mentioning him by name until near the end of Paterson. Williams, a family doctor,
was higher up the social scale than Paterson the bus driver, but he lived a similarly circumscribed life, making the rounds of his patients by day and writing
his poetry by night. He lived in Rutherford, N.J., not far from Paterson, and titled his magnum opus Paterson. It was in Paterson that Williams made his famous
edict, “no ideas but in things”—a proclamation of his faith that poets should find meaning in the common things of life.
It is in this spirit that Paterson the character and Paterson the
film proceed. Everything in Paterson’s daily life is fodder for his verse—a book of matches, a shoebox, a glass of beer, the memory
of his grandfather singing “Swinging on a Star.” Jarmusch asked his friend Ron Padgett, a poet of the New York School and the
author of more than 30 books, to write four poems in the voice of Paterson. Padgett’s poems, like Williams’, are miraculous
little revelations of what lies behind the simplest things. I quote one of the poems from the film, “Another One,” in its entirety:
When you’re a child
there are three dimensions:
height, width, and depth.
Like a shoebox.
Then later you hear
there’s a fourth dimension:
Then some say
there can be five, six, seven…
I knock off work,
have a beer
at the bar.
I look down at the glass
and feel glad.
The windshield of Paterson’s bus is his window on the world, revealing things he needs to know about his town and his world.
The overheard conversations of his passengers enrich the mix. (Jarmusch pays homage to another filmmaker, Wes Anderson,
by casting two of Anderson’s stars—Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman of Moonrise Kingdom—as two of Paterson’s more voluble passengers.)
Throughout Paterson, we see Paterson working on and revising his poetry. This is the first movie about a writer to my knowledge
that gives the audience a glimpse into the actual process of writing. None of Paterson’s poems emerges whole in the first
draft—a blessed relief from all those films that show a writer sitting down at the typewriter, producing a masterpiece in one
sitting, and triumphantly typing “The End” when he or she is finished.
Paterson is a quiet, polite man, unconcerned about fame. He is a bit of a Luddite—he refuses to buy a cell phone or computer, or
even make copies of the poems he keeps in his notebook. (Doc the tavern owner is a kindred spirit: his bar is built for chess,
pool, and conversation, and damned if he’ll ever get a TV.) Paterson’s lack of concern worries Laura; she would like to see
him get the recognition she knows he deserves. Laura is a bit odd herself, particularly in her obsession with black-and-white
patterns. They show up in the clothes she makes for herself, the drapes she makes for the house, the cupcakes she bakes for the
weekend farmers’ market. Even the guitar she buys in her obviously vain attempt to become a country singer bears a black-and-white harlequin pattern.
It is apparent that Laura’s obsessions mirror the pattern of her
husband’s life. It also becomes apparent that everything Laura does, she does to please her husband. She, the only one who
knows about his poetry, truly believes in his genius. Paterson, in turn, is grateful for her belief in him, and supportive of
everything she does, even if he’s a little dubious about the particular thing at hand.
One of the best things about Paterson is its portrayal of a joyous love between two likable people, analogous to Williams’ happy
50-year marriage to his wife Florence. At one point, Paterson reads “This is Just to Say,” the plums-in-the-icebox poem, to an
entranced Laura. Driver reads the deceptively simple poem marvelously, doing full justice to the love it expresses. Williams
sets the egregious Erich Segal on his ear: love, Williams shows us, means always having to say you’re sorry. Paterson and Laura’s
mature, solid love stands in contrast with Everett (William Jackson Harper), Paterson’s actor friend, who finds ever more
histrionic ways to express his unrequited love for Marie (Chasten Harmon).
Alas, trouble comes to Paterson’s life, and in a form he least suspects. Marvin (played in a gender-bending performance by
Nellie the Bulldog) is a jealous dog. Rather than cuddling with Paterson and Laura on the living room sofa, he sits across from
them in an easy chair, staring and growling resentfully. When Paterson and Laura kiss, he barks at them. Knowing what you
already know about the plot, you can probably guess what Marvin does. What you cannot guess is the film’s marvelous
penultimate scene, with Paterson meeting a mysterious stranger (Masatoshi Nagase, who starred in Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train) at the Passaic Falls. Whatever happens to
Paterson, Jarmusch tells us, he will be all right. He will always be a poet, and that will sustain him.
Jarmusch is one of the great names among American independent filmmakers, and his wry, idiosyncratic vision has
sustained a three-decade career that includes films such as Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man, and Only Lovers Left Alive. To my mind, however, Paterson is his first authentic
masterpiece. In this film, he has created a man of both genius and integrity, and has not only made us love him but shown us
persuasively what makes him tick. He helped himself greatly in this task by casting Adam Driver as Paterson. Driver has a long,
large-featured face, reminiscent of the faces in Breughel or Holbein (thoroughly appropriate to William Carlos Williams),
and he can either be homely or handsome as the role demands. He has never been as handsome as he is in Paterson. There is a
purity about Driver that oddly works to his advantage when he plays less-than-admirable characters, such as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Jamie in While We’re Young. In Paterson, there is nothing odd about it. Here he is the most
noble, shining soul, and we believe in him completely.
(Note: Nellie the Bulldog—a veteran actor dog whose credits included more than 700 performances of Legally Blonde: The Musical—fell ill during the shooting of Paterson, and died
shortly after filming concluded. She won a posthumous award at Cannes for her performance in Paterson. The film is dedicated
to her, and so is this review, in honor of a good dog who was so good at playing a bad dog.)