There are certain cinematic signposts that indicate that you’ve officially entered the land of Jim Jarmusch. First, his offbeat characters tend to be pretty deadpan about their idiosyncrasies like, say, being a bus driver who writes poetry or an immigrant obsessed with country-western music and quirkily-decorated cupcakes. Second, his scenes tend to be fairly leisurely and static, comprised of the slice-of-life moments that most other filmmakers would edit out. They’re like little elliptical, minimalist plays that end with a bemused fade out. And third, if there’s a cheap or easy way to jack up the drama of a moment, he won’t take it. In fact, he’ll jerk the wheel as far in the opposite direction as he can. But even though Jarmuch has a distinct directorial style, it’s his style. It’s impossible to imitate. These days, I can’t think of a higher compliment.
Jarmusch’s latest film is called Paterson, which is also the name of the main character (Adam Driver) and the city in New Jersey where it is set. Paterson (the man, not the city) drives a bus, and you get the sense that he chugs along the same route every day listening in on the conversations of his passengers. He’s a simple man of simple habits (like the way he carefully lays out his clothes for the next day before going to bed), but Paterson isn’t quite as simple as he seems. Inside of him, beats the heart of a poet. During his breaks, he pulls out a small notebook and composes oddly matter-of-fact verse that’s dry as a bone, keenly observant, and whimsical enough to seem silly at first, then kind of profound. He’s a blue-collar William Carlos Williams—who also happens to be Paterson’s hero (the man, not the city) and also happens to be from Paterson (the city, not the man).
The film follows a week in Paterson’s workaday life and captures the small poetic moments that can make a city feel as intimate as the size of a backyard. The week begins with him waking up next to his girlfriend Laura (the luminous Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani), eating cereal, losing a battle of wits with his English bulldog Marvin, and heading off to work with a lunch pail in his hand. Nothing particularly eventful happens, which pretty much scans with the nature of Paterson’s poetry, which revolves around things like an everyday box of matches. I can think of a million ways how this film could fail to be interesting, but Jarmusch has found the perfect alter ego for the part in Driver, who reins in some of his usual tics and excitable mannerisms to deliver a quiet and touching sort of decency. He’s lean and angular and stork-like, and he studies the world, taking in his surroundings with curiosity. Paterson (the man) is as watchful and observant as Paterson (the movie).
Farahani’s Laura urges Paterson to photocopy his notebooks full of poems. It’s the closest thing the movie has to a conflict since Paterson doesn’t write his poems for posterity or to be published, they’re just for him. He’s an artist who creates for the sake of creating, that’s it. I realize that I’m probably making Jarmusch’s film sound like a bit of an aimless snooze—it’s anything but. There’s a hushed beauty to Paterson and Paterson that celebrates the way in which even the most ordinary, prosaic lives can be full of poetry. A–