2016

London Film Festival Review: Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’

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Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature, is a tender slice-of-life movie that elevates the inner lives of blue-collared workers. Mundane everyday life emerges in the film, full of joys and unexpected dramas. This might seem to be a drastic shift from Jarmusch’s previous work, the vampiric Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), but Paterson actually signifies the director’s return to his fascination with how ordinary people interact with their ordinary places in an extraordinary way.

The title Paterson carries a hint of ambiguity in its simplicity. It might refer to the Paterson City of New Jersey, the location where the film takes place, yet it is also the name of the main character, a bus driver who writes poetry on the side, played with irresistible warmth by Adam Driver. This obscurity of reference is intentional, for Paterson studies its eponymous city and character with equal intensity.

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The spirit of Paterson City exists almost independently of its inhabitants, its character is full of contradictions. The brick houses that fill up the streets look dated and even uninspiring, yet not far from these concrete structures are the city’s waterfalls whose mythic beauty elicits powerful response from their visitors. In fact, the film opens with overhead shots of the falls slowly dissolving into one another, before cutting to Paterson the character and his wife Laura, played by Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani, sleeping peacefully in their bed. In the film, Paterson City represents a mixture of materiality and transcendence, of awe and ordinariness, and while people are not always physically present, the pride of their city is apparent; the wall of the bar where Paterson frequents is lined up with pictures of famous people or famous events related to the city, a chronicle of the place’s quiet greatness.

Paterson City’s contrasting qualities are echoed in the character of Paterson. A picture of him in uniform on his bed drawer suggests that he has been in the army, though he never talks about his past. In fact, he is completely rooted in the present. His thoughts are of his surroundings and of the moments he’s experiencing. This mindfulness is actually enabled by the repetitiveness of his job. Structured around Paterson’s everyday routines, the film elaborates on how doing the same things, day in and day out, can actually expand a person’s sensory perceptibility. Already sure of the fixed mechanisms and operation of his job, Paterson’s mind is free to wander and he becomes more attuned to his environment. He notices his passengers’ conversation, watches the way the trees on the streets leave abstract shadows on his windshield and takes time to carefully examines his box of Ohio Blue Tip matches. Once again, Jarmursch uses dissolves to examine Paterson’s interconnectedness to Paterson City, the place where he was born and has spent all his life since.

In many scenes, images of waterfalls or city roads are either superimposed over Paterson’s face and body or narrated by the reading of his own poetry, as if he has become a “transparent eyeball,” the way Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a person so connected to his environment than he just lets nature flows through him. For Paterson, through following his routines (which are always circular), time ceases to be a system of measurement, or a sense of impending limitation. Instead it transcends, and thus a scene where the bus breaks down feels startling: viewers are suddenly reminded that time exists.

Paterson’s multidimensional awareness of his city is set side by side with his total lack of self-awareness. He’s hesitant to call himself a poet and has no desires to publish, or even make copies, of his poems. He is nevertheless disciplined in his craft; his writing den is lined with books by Williams Carlos Williams and David Foster Wallace, and he carries a copy of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, adorably enough, in his lunch box. In contrast, Paterson’s wife Laura always talk about the future where one day her cupcakes will become famous, or her guitar skills (which she has gleefully only acquired in one day) will culminate in a national tour. Laura stays at home and similar to her husband, she makes use of her time creatively, painting their bathroom, their kitchen and even their blankets with unusual black and white designs. Their lives are intimately interwoven yet separate; when Paterson does his usual night duty of walking their bulldog around the neighborhood, Laura is at home deeply concentrating on practicing her guitar. Thus, while Laura and Paterson might have different personalities, their love and creativity tie them together, and to see their days all begin with them lying in bed, in a loving embrace, creates a sense of assurance, despite the supposed boringness of everyday life.

Paterson is about that circularity of life that simultaneously brings about sparks of creativity and moments of reassuring stability.

Follow Phuong Le on Twitter (@smallnartless)

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