PATERSON, drama, rated R, Violet Crown,
“I still think poets are like, for me, like rock stars. They’re kind of magical people. They should just be given whatever they want.”
In his autobiography, William Carlos Williams reflected on his epic five-volume poem “That is why I started to write : A man is indeed a city, and for the poet there are no ideas but in things.”
In Jim Jarmusch’s movie of the same name, the city and the man share that name: Paterson. The movie is itself a kind of cinematic poetry, dreamy and contemplative, a paean to love and observation. And to poetry, Williams, and Paterson, New Jersey.
Paterson, the title character, is played by Adam Driver, a tall, gawky, basset-faced actor who is concurrently in Martin Scorsese’s He drives a bus in the city, and his days follow a virtually unchanging pattern. The movie covers a week in his life, with each morning announced by the day of the week as a chapter heading. Paterson wakes between 6 and 6:30 in the morning, snuggled in bed with his wife Laura (the lovely Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani). He checks his watch, gets up, eats a cup of cereal, walks to work, drives his bus, eavesdrops on snatches of conversation, observes his surroundings. He comes home, kisses his wife, has his supper, walks the dog, stops in at a neighborhood tavern for a beer, returns home, goes to bed. Through it all he is composing poetry, in his head and in a notebook he carries with him, his “secret notebook.”
The uneventfulness of his life is the blank page upon which Paterson writes his poems. But if his life is plain, it’s not boring — not to him. He is deeply in love with Laura, and she with him — no tension there, but a profound reservoir of emotion. Laura is as animated and full of enthusiasms as Paterson is quiet. She is obsessed with black and white — she paints their house and their curtains and their cupboards and even her clothing in black and white, she bakes black-and-white cupcakes for sale at the farmers market, and when she comes upon an ad for a black-and-white “Harlequin” guitar, she orders it and decides to become a country star. The black-andwhite color scheme of life in the Paterson household contains a rich spectrum of happiness beneath the surface. The same can be said of poetry, which we generally encounter in black and white, ink on a page creating words that open doors onto all manner of experience.
One of Paterson’s poems is his rumination on a box of matches. Jarmusch has fun with a recurring theme of visual-verbal play, as he scatters matching sets of identical twins through the movie. This kind of game probably extends to the decision to cast Driver as a driver.
It’s not true that nothing happens in this movie. There are bits of low-key drama here and there, and even a flicker of suspenseful tension involving a lovelorn fellow patron of the bar (William Jackson Harper), whose presence serves to remind us (with apologies to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) that love will get you through times of no poetry better than poetry will get you through times of no love. There are encounters with kindred spirits, fellow worshippers at the altar of poetry, including a teenage girl who is working on a poem while waiting in an alley for her mother and twin sister.
Paterson doesn’t carry a cell phone, and doesn’t have a TV at home. Nor is there a television at the bar he frequents, where the owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) prefers an atmosphere conducive to talk and chess, and has created a wall of fame behind the bar paying homage to the town’s famous native sons. There are photos of ballplayers, writers, and actors, there are newspaper clippings and plaques honoring great achievers like polio pioneer Albert Sabin, along with the immortal Lou Costello, Paterson’s most famous alumnus, a man honored by the city with both a statue and a park.
But for Jarmusch, the true spirit of greatness that rules the heart of Paterson, both the city and the man, is William Carlos Williams, the doctor-poet who in fact lived not in Paterson but in nearby Rutherford, but who chose Paterson as the setting and inspiration for his masterpiece.
One of the most poignant scenes comes at the end, down by Paterson’s beautiful Great Falls, in a chance encounter with a Japanese pilgrim (Masatoshi Nagase) who has come with a volume of Williams’
to see the city and breathe the air that shaped the great poet’s masterwork. It comes at a low point for our poet/bus driver, and it lifts him up and renews him. The Japanese poet observes that poetry doesn’t translate well, but his presence there, with his bilingual volume of gives the lie to that notion. — Jonathan Richards