“Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr. Paterson has gone away
to rest and write.”
– William Carlos Williams, Paterson (1946-1958)
Why is Adam Driver a leading man? He’s not Hollywood sexy, but he can act. In Paterson, from writer/director Jim Jarmusch, Driver plays Paterson (the man) living in Paterson, NJ (the town) in a movie inspired by Paterson (the 5-volume poem). And the film is as close to an actual poem as any film I’ve seen in the last decade.
What would we learn if we followed you around for one week? All your patterns would be revealed. All your repetitions, your common paths, your regular motions and rhythms. Maybe you sit in the same place every night, get up at the same time every morning. Maybe your position in the bed shifts by quarter-inches. But between the recurrences and alliterations that make your life recognizable, in the invisible, liminal space of your private thoughts and feelings, we would sense all the subtleties that make your life uniquely yours.
Paterson charts Paterson’s life through exactly one week. We meet his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), full of sincerity and hope and creative energy, the local barkeep Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) who is a steady and quiet presence on one end of Paterson’s daily routine, and a small cast of co-workers, peers and strangers that move through Paterson’s orbit on orbits of their own. We are treated to partial vignettes of their lives. Some are looking for love or falling out of it. Some share their lives with Paterson, others are eavesdropped on by Paterson like an anthropologist looking for data. There’s a dog.
Paterson is a poet and a bus driver. He writes two or three times a day in his kitchen or basement, on his lunch break, or in his bus before starting his shift. He steals seconds, minutes from the day and sets his observations to paper.
On its face Paterson‘s week is wholly unexceptional. Yet there is a sense of synchronicity woven throughout leading to a kind of haunted-ness. One example: twins start appearing, first in Laura’s dream, then in the real world every day for six days. Another: a Japanese poet shows up just when Paterson needs him most. Strange events like these, just outside of “normal,” are enough to give the story some contours.
No Ideas, But In Things
William Carlos Williams, the great American poet from Paterson, NJ, was attempting to wrestle poetry from the existential fury and emptiness of the post-war poets (typified by TS Eliot’s The Wasteland). “There are no ideas,” Williams says again and again in his 5-volume poem Paterson “but in things.” No ideas but in facts, this new kind of poetry should contain clear statements of fact about misery and splendor gleaned from our observation, our “subjective wanderings.” Jim Jarmusch brings this school of creative expression directly to Paterson. “Things” are the focus of his beautifully framed scenes: the edges of a building where it intersects with sky, the shoes of bus passengers struck by shadows, a couple arguing at a table, a box of blue-tipped matches. Jarmusch’s work tends towards the literal and the meditative: Yes, we should definitely hold on a shot of a man’s hand resting on his construction helmet as he rides the bus. Why? There are no ideas but in things. Everything is what it is, then we film it or write about it because it’s worth examining; we love it enough to notice it, no matter how mundane.
Watching Paterson begs interaction. Sometimes the value of art comes from what it draws out of you rather than what the artist wants to say. Every shot in Paterson is fodder for the poet’s pen. Rarely does a film inspire the viewer to create something new, but this one had me itching to write about the things I observe around me. There’s no plot; what little significant action there is takes place in the 3rd act, but it’s not hard to sit through thanks to the beautiful camera work, the ambient electronic soundtrack which lends tension to the scenery, and the beauty of watching some Everyman live his life. Ultimately the weight of the narrative sits on Adam Driver’s shoulders. His subtleties as an actor combined with a quirky script that looks at things a little sideways make Paterson a stand-out film. If you missed it in 2016, go watch it now (streaming with an Amazon Prime membership June 22, 2017). “Practical to the end,” writes William Carlos Williams, “it is the poem of his existence that triumphed finally.”