Coming out of the screening of Paterson, I overheard another critic say to a colleague, “Well, he managed to paint a very accurate portrait of a boring life.”
I suspect many will share those feelings concerning Jim Jarmusch’s latest, but longtime fans of the director and new converts to his laid-back, observational style and deadpan humor will have a different take: there are no boring lives for those who pay close enough attention to them.
Jarmusch pays attention. He always has. In a career now spanning four decades, he has never compromised his low-key, offbeat stylistic signature and has barely even flirted with the commercial mainstream. Yet, despite the ever-encroaching hold of “blockbusterism,” pushing so many personal filmmaking voices to the margins, he has somehow managed to survive and thrive. It’s like he pulled off a magic trick for impossible career paths.
From his quirky, just-out of-the-underground early films (Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law) to the multi-character anthologies (Mystery Train, Night on Earth) to his “anti-genre” genre films (Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Only Lovers Left Alive) and even his music documentaries (Year of the Horse, Gimme Danger), Jarmusch has seemed to follow his artistic bliss untouched by industry demands or expectations. Undoubtedly, his longevity has not come without struggles, but in the distinctive qualities and consistency of his work, he has made it look effortless.
So it is with Paterson, a movie about a poet named Paterson working in Paterson, New Jersey, where revered poet William Carlos Williams once lived and about which he penned an epic poem…titled Paterson. Williams also happens to be the favorite poet of Paterson (the character), whose writing mirrors his hero’s deceptively simple reflections on the everyday.
If that premise sound pretentious or too cute, it doesn’t play that way in Jarmusch’s hands. A blend of naturalism and subtly lyrical visuals has marked his work for years, so making a modestly poetic movie about a modest poet is a perfect fit for his sensibility.
Adam Driver plays the title character, who works as a bus driver when not living in happy domestic tranquility with his agreeably ditzy girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani). She is torn between dreams of being a country-western singer (having just ordered an Esteban guitar and instructional DVD) and building a cupcake empire when she isn’t obsessively adding decorative painting flourishes to their house.
The third resident of their home is an amusingly expressive English bulldog, Marvin, whose nightly walks include an intermission where Paterson stops at a local bar for a beer or two, chit-chatting with the bartender and a couple of regulars.
In between his daily and nightly rituals, he works on his poems. This is the “plot” of the movie, such as it is: work, home, bar, work, home, bar…and poetry. The cycle repeats throughout the film with only the slimmest hint of suspense or conflict. The suspense comes through the possible fate of the single notebook containing all of Paterson’s poems (he has made no copies). The conflict comes in a comical subplot involving the jilted ex-boyfriend of one of the regulars at the bar.
But really, Jarmusch doesn’t give a shit about plot here (and never really has). Instead, like its lead character, the movie concentrates on the ordinary rituals of daily living. Concentrate is the wrong word. This is a mellow meditation on the comforts of the expected, the beauty in simple words and the meaning in the basic, seemingly mundane exchanges between people.
Dull? Well, not if you fall into the film’s gentle groove like I did. There is a semi-dreamlike quality to the images Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes (frequent D.P. for Jarmusch and David Lynch) compose for the scenes of Paterson driving the bus and coming up with his poems. The movie’s easygoing tone is spiced with amusing vignettes and a real empathy for the small absurdities that abound even in an ordinary life.
Driver, who shows off much more emotional range in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, is suitably passive in the lead, mainly reacting to the more colorful supporting characters. Farahani (Rosewater) is a real charmer, as is Marvin, played by the late bulldog Nellie, who was honored posthumously with the Palm Dog Award (yes, there is such a thing). Based on Nellie’s work here and the equally scene-stealing performance of Jason Schwartzman’s French bulldog in 7 Chinese Brothers, I wonder if bulldogs aren’t bred to be movie stars.
Whether canine or human, bus driver or barfly, Jarmusch has a way of showing the big picture by focusing on the small ones in front of him. The filmmaker has long evoked a certain hipster vibe and early in his career it sometimes seemed he was crafting a public image as the “coolest guy in the room.” Now, with Paterson adding to his impressive body of work and his status as independent film icon secure, it appears he may have been exactly that all along.
Paterson. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Select poems written for the film by Ron Padgett. Cinematography by Frederick Elmes. Starring Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani.
118 mins. Rated R.
Opens Friday, January 20 at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema.
Filed under: TV & Film