Over the Hudson River sits Paterson, NJ. Paterson is the very antithesis of NYC: away from the big city bustle, the start-up companies, the booming tourism industry. Across the river sits small-town America, only a bus ride away.
Like the personified Belfast in I Am Belfast (2015), the eponymous Paterson becomes a symbol for the city itself. Divorced from the big city, Paterson feels almost out of time. Paterson works in the service industry, living his life in his blue uniform (or his crosshatched shirt). Parts of the city seem run down, covered in graffiti. He removes himself from social media, not even owning a cellphone, waking up without a blaring iPhone alarm.
When Paterson and his girlfriend Laura go to a movie, they see Island of Lost Souls (1932); they don’t watch movies together on Netflix on Laura’s iPad, Paterson never seems to watch movies. Jarmusch leaves the extract to run on, when any other director’s instinct would be to cut it as soon as possible, as the 1930s lone, exoticised island woman, lives on. In the bar, its patrons don’t watch ESPN; Doc refuses to put a television in. And for the better. Paterson feels like a capsule, perhaps of a way of life that will die out – but it still lives on, even in the young 30-somethings of today. Paterson isn’t a hip, young relatable hipster who goes to Starbucks and grooms his beard; he’s an everyday person.
Like with Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), the film highlights a different way of life. The dominant media voices tell us about life in LA, or New York, or San Fran, or Washington DC. But most of America isn’t big cities or big states, it’s little ones, underestimated in voting power, never visited by tourists.
Paterson is the person we always see, but never think about. We see he thinks about us, too. As a bus driver, Paterson overhears conversations on the bus, as he slowly drives through the city. Almost, in a way, as we learnt Travis’ persona as the reflective New York City driver in Taxi Driver (1976). In the small-town life, it becomes easy to bump into the guy from the fight in the bar the other night, or see the old bartender with his wife at the front of the cinema.
Paterson is defined by the city’s characters, who become as friendly and reliable as the regular characters in a sitcom or a soap opera. At points, the film seems to shift between vignettes, where new information is revealed every time. Which isn’t unlike Jarmusch: Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) is essentially a series of vignettes. Hearing two anarchist college students on the bus talking to each other doesn’t feel like padding; it gives the city life.
Love stories intersect: Paterson’s relationship with Laura; the old bartender, Doc, arguing with his wife about what he spends her money on; Marie’s dissolving relationship with her actor boyfriend; the shift manager’s myriad of family problems.
We can sit back as viewers and laugh at the seeming nothingness of their problems, and how ridiculous they seem. But these are all real lives, being lived out right now.
But there is something else which unites the people of Paterson, NJ: creativity.
We hear of the creative minds who have come before in Paterson: William Carlos Williams, the author of Paterson (1946-58); Allen Ginsberg, who once read poetry at the local bar; Lou Costello (but not Abbott), memorialised in a statue; Iggy Pop, who, according to an old newspaper clipping, once performed at the bar during the 70s.
Perhaps these are the forgotten voices, removed from their origins: Ginsberg isn’t defined by Paterson, but by the Beat generation, whilst Costello is defined by 1930s Hollywood more than anything else.
But new voices are still alive in the city: Paterson grabs as many seconds as he can before his shift starts, drafting away at his poetry. Paterson does not spout out verse after verse; he spends time rewriting, rethinking, recomposing. Jarmusch spends his time showing us the process: the film is slow, reflective, meditative. Jarmusch does not merely present the words in spoken monologue, but presents them in handwriting on screen. Though frustrating at first, it leads the viewer to question the words behind the words.
I’ve been a poet. Last year, at the height of my depression, I found writing poetry became my outlet, writing away at something new almost every day of the week. Since then, I’ve gotten better, and much happier, and found other outlets for my writing. I don’t feel like there’s anymore verse left in me. But there’s something very real to see this process play out on screen.
As ever, Jarmusch’s films become a kind of spiritual journey. By the film’s denouement, Paterson is made to question why he actually writes poetry, and he, as with Ginsberg, literally has to kill his darlings (a book on Paterson’s shelf carries the same title). Yet without his poetry, we see an unspoken emptiness within him, only resolved when he can look out to the water – and write.
Along the journey, Paterson becomes joined by other voices which influence his own: the guy in the laundromat, rehearsing his verse as Paterson listens in. As she waits for her mom outside the bus station, a girl recites her verse to Paterson, Water Falls – feeling a spiritual connection between their two styles (and Emily Dickinson). As the tourist from Osaka takes out his copy of Williams’ Paterson, split between Japanese translation and the English original, we learn of how it affects him too. Even Doc’s chess tournaments have a degree of creativity too them.
Had this been a different decade, Paterson would be a different character: the charming, eccentric man, befriended by a young kid, as we go on a heartwarming journey learning the ways of poetry and the morals of life. But Jarmusch was never that kind of sentimental filmmaker.
Lyricism goes to the heart of Jim Jarmusch: Dead Man (1995) lives upon the sounds of Neil Young’s guitar; Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) would not be the same film without Yasmine Hamdan singing in Lebanese; Gimme Danger (2016) would not exist had music not struck a chord with Jarmusch. Poetry and music are not the same thing, but they come from the same place.
Every character in Paterson has their own dream. Laura dreams at night of riding elephants in ancient Persia, whilst trying to live out her creative dreams. She oscillates between fashion designer, interior designer, amateur chef and up-and-coming musician. The house becomes the canvas of her entire personality, enveloped more and more by black and white circles as the film progresses. Everything she touches becomes art: the walls, her dresses, cupcakes, even her dog’s collar. Sometimes, she seems more passionate about Paterson’s poetry than he feels about it himself: striving for Paterson to be a known voice. At times, she is to be laughed at. She fixates on the dream of becoming the next Patti Smith, with no prior experience, after watching a YouTube video. But she still has something: a real dream.
Jarmusch depicts a life of routine. Where Laura seems torn apart by the nothingness of her days, Paterson’s days pass in the space of an ethereal montage, fading between the ever-moving hands on his watch and the sights through the window, as water flows, as it does every second of every day. Every day mirrors each other, as each shot becomes identical: we see Paterson waking up next to Laura, eating his bowl of Cheerios, writing in his notebook, speaking to the shift manager, coming home to his mailbox torn out of the ground every single day.
As the film progresses, the routines begin to dissipate. Paterson sleeps in bed just a little bit longer. He spends just a little bit too long writing in his notebook than usual. We learn what happened to the mailbox. There’s almost a sense of performance to his life: his conversations with Laura can amount to a few words, not to throw anything off, even when he doesn’t like her music.
“I hope you liked the sandwich.”
“What do you think of the curtains?”
Marie’s relationship with Donny lives on performance, not knowing how to find the right way to break up with him. After being described as a “Romeo and Juliet” destructive love story, he shifts into Leonardo DiCaprio mode, straight out of Romeo + Juliet (1996), pointing the gun to his head and threatening to shoot his love – only to fire a blank out of a toy gun. Paterson’s dive to the rescue is also a kind of performance – presenting himself as a macho figure.
But where these words are so hard to say, there’s poetry.