Jarmusch Ado About Bussing: Paterson Reviewed
, December 2nd, 2016 13:01
Adam Driver plays a driver called Paterson from Paterson in Paterson
Poetry, we’re happy to think, gains weight by being slight. The blank page hosts words like the white walls of an art gallery, and because of their selection – because there are so few of them – we have to read carefully, just as we try to look closely in the cathedral-galleries of modern art exhibits. Film, on the other hand, gives us less time. Our gaze is led here and there with the camera, things are shown rather than described, and when poetry occurs it’s spoken out loud, and we know that it’s poetry because it’s slowly and purposefully recited.
Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, is bold because it’s a film about writing poetry – hardly a riveting spectacle. But that’s not the only reason. It’s also a film about the rhythms of a working life, the dignity of localism, the joys of contemplation, and something else beyond. It’s about the process of writing, how we think and how we react to the world around us, its snatches of conversation and chance encounters. Paterson’s poetry materializes in front of us, literally: appearing on screen at the same moment that the poet protagonist (played by Adam Driver) commits it to paper. And it is paper that he writes on, even though the text we see on screen is very much software-sourced. This makes Paterson a multimedia affair, taking the risk of getting modern over something as fusty as versification. Lines of poetry alight on screen in the spaces where recent films have hosted SMS exchanges between characters who i.m. one another with their smartphones. The hero of this piece doesn’t even have a mobile phone. But that’s not the only thing that makes him a hero.
Adam Driver plays the lead: a man named Paterson, living in Paterson, New Jersey. This is just one of many doublings in the film, which seems preoccupied with twins. Like thought being replicated on paper, doubled up – written in concert to an inner monologue with which Paterson composes. He does so in the spare hours of his day not given to routine and regular employment. He wakes at the same time every day and goes to work, driving a bus. He comes home to his wife Laura, takes her dog for a walk after dinner, and stops into a bar for a single beer before returning home to start the weekday ritual over again anew. Driver is very good: relaxed just to the edge of bored, he gives off the right sense of inwardness and patient humour. Laura is played by Golshifteh Farahani, who provides some of the educative kookiness familiar to other of Jarmusch’s films. (Laura, we’re helpfully told, was also the name of Petrarch’s great love – you couldn’t make it up could you?). They love each other, serenely and modestly, which is the very atmosphere of the film itself.
Just as Paterson’s poetry is confessional and direct – setting up no barrier between his life and his recording of it in verse – Jarmusch plays it brave by having the words appear on screen (subject to greater scrutiny). There is no need for separation here – the words do not appear in interstitials, following the tradition of early cinema – there is no need to make excuses for the arrival of text either. (Compare this with the way that, in other films, meaningful language is often daubed on walls, or come across on posters, in order to make sense of their entry into the world of moving image). In Paterson, verse is just given to you. There’s no fanfare. And that’s refreshing.
Because poetry is always shorthand for profundity, no matter how little we get of it or how many degrees separate us from its rightful context. And so there are films in which poetry gets wheeled out, like a giant cake in the peak hour of a stag do – disclosing a hidden burlesque of cultural heft, exciting things a little, getting the crapulent crowd going – a stand-in for lyrical significance just as a strip-tease is a hygienic surrogate for real seduction. Think Dylan Thomas being wielded in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – presented, in one scene, upon a gravestone without citation, (as if Michael Caine wrote the fucking thing) desperately siphoning gravitas into a script which can’t conjure up its own. The same is true of the sci-fi film Equilibrium, where W.B. Yeats is read aloud as an emblem of human dignity and beauty in a dystopian future where European art is prohibited. (Whether the censors have remembered to confiscate Langston Hughes or Basho, of course, we’ll never know, but I suppose the answer’s yes and I should shut my jones-crushingly P.C. mouth).
One of the great things about Paterson - and Paterson is a truly delightful film - is that not all of the poems are good. Some are, or seem so, but the audience is allowed to make up their own mind. He writes one a day, more or less, and then moves on. He gets it down and then doesn’t worry over it, writing in an immediate style which, and perhaps this is one criticism of the film, suggests that poets just poet without a second thought, without revising or rewriting, grafting or struggling. It’s an element of the film that should feel twee, but somehow never does. Perhaps we’ll come to that in the hotly anticipated sequel – Paterson 2: A Publisher Calls.
Paterson is in cinemas now