Paterson: Jarmusch's Personified Metaphor for a New Jersey City

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Amazon Films, 118 minutes, R (language)
* * *

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He lies on his right side, head near the thunder of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep, his dreams walk about the city where he persists incognito.

So begins the book-length poem Paterson from the New Jersey city's most famous native son: William Carlos Williams. It helps to know that before viewing the film Paterson. Jim Jarmusch, one of the nation's quirkiest and droll directors, directs this film and people tend either to adore or deplore his work. Like previous Jarmusch films such as Down by Law and Mystery Train, the pace of Paterson is pre-global warming glacial.

This time, though, Jarmusch's slow pacing makes sense. The film follows a week in the life of a Paterson bus driver who is named Paterson (Adam Driver) and is, in fact, the city personified. His is a life of mundane routine. Five days a week , Paterson awakes shortly after six, has coffee and Cheerios, and walks down the hill through the former Silk City's post-industrial ruins to the bus shed. There he boards the #23 and scribbles in his notebook until his colleague Danny (Rizwan Manji) regales him with his personal woes. Then Paterson begins his rounds, his monotony relieved by the prose poems he composes and edits in his head. On his break, he transfers his thoughts to his notebook as he eats lunch in a shabby concrete park at the foot of Passaic Falls. At the end of the day, he walks home, straightens his mailbox, has dinner with his wife Laura, walks their English bulldog, has a pint and perfunctory chat at the neighborhood tavern, and returns home. Reset to Tuesday… Wednesday… Thursday… Friday….

This is Jarmusch, so you know the characters will be oddballs–none more so than Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who is cute as a button and crazy as a loon. She has an obsession with halftone design, and spends her days remaking everything in black and white: dresses, furniture, curtains, even cupcakes. Becoming a cupcake mogul is one of her big dreams, or maybe instead she’ll buy an Esteban guitar, learn to play, and become a country singer. Paterson adores her and the two are almost wordlessly in love—wordless on his part, anyhow.

Paterson is laconic and economical with words everywhere except in his mind. How does man (or a city) trapped in time move forward? William Carlos Williams wrote:

Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river animate a thousand automatons. Who because they neither know their sources nor the sills of their disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly for the most part, locked and forgot in their desires —unroused.

Williams knew about living an external life that clashed with his psyche—he was a physician, but it was merely the trade that supported his poetry habit. Paterson the driver/city is on auto pilot–the man surviving on snippets of eavesdropped bus conversations, Laura’s wackiness, and chance encounters with other poets, including a ten-year-old girl sitting by a factory and a Japanese man (Masatoshi Nigase) who came to New Jersey to rub metaphorical elbows with Williams. His own poetry is filled with mundane observations that flirt with things that might be profound. Or not. He's like the city–locked and unroused. In both cases, it’s hard to know if dreams can be animated, or if it's sleepwalking entombed in self-deception.

The film is filled with deadpan humor, irresistible weirdness, and sublime small moments—such as the revelation about Paterson’s crooked mailbox. I especially admired the fact that whites and people of color interact as people and nothing more. There are no coded or overt mentions of race. Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) is just a bartender, not a black bartender; the people Paterson encounters on the street, including gang members, are just neighbors who know each other. How refreshing! 

On the less refreshing side, this is not Jarmusch’s strongest film. Paterson is enigmatic, but the viewer spends a lot of time inside his head without getting much of a sense of what he thinks or feels. Laura is deliciously weird, but Ms. Farahani’s acting skills fail to dazzle. What are we to make of Paterson’s encounter with the Japanese poet? It feels like a diversionary tack-on, not the inspiration it was supposed to suggest. Is the scene here just because Nigase was also in Mystery Train?  

And, of course, there is the slow pace. Jarmusch makes us feel the weight of Paterson’s routines, but the day-by-day structure is clich├ęd and unnecessary. A really good montage could have shaved thirty minutes from the film without sacrificing content—of which there isn’t much—and without exhausting the viewer. We want to appreciate the tedium of Paterson’s life, but must we experience it vicariously? If you are a fan of Jim Jarmusch (and I am), you’ll enjoy this one. If, however, his films are too slow for your taste, stay on the Garden State Parkway and don’t take the Paterson exit.

Rob Weir

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