The similar and the dissimilar collide, complement each other and dominate “Paterson,” the Jim Jarmusch film that opened recently at Israeli theaters. The movie tells the story of a bus driver named Paterson, who lives and works in a city called Paterson; the actor playing the driver is called Adam Driver. Jarmusch probably cast him for his presence and talent, not his name, but the coincidence must have amused a filmmaker whose movies often explore the random and accidental.
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Paterson, New Jersey boasts one famous native son, Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello, the early classical Hollywood comedy team. There is a sculpture of him in town, as well as a park bearing his name. Not far from Paterson lived another celebrity, the famed poet William Carlos Williams, who worked as a pediatrician when he wasn’t writing poetry. He is a greater inspiration for Paterson the driver than Lou Costello, but he is commemorated in the city only by a statue, not a park, even though one of his most famous works was the epic poem “Paterson.”
Jarmusch’s movie is a beautiful cinematic meditation on the essence of the mundane and the complexity of the everyday. It follows a week in Paterson’s life, from one Monday to the next, divided into daily episodes. His five workdays are all alike, and they are in fact so similar that we notice any variation, even the smallest – from the time he wakes up in the morning, whether it’s at 6:10 or 6:30, next to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), sometimes back to back with her, at other times in an embrace – in what Jarmusch chooses to show or leave out of Paterson’s daily routine.
He gets up, takes the clothes he laid out neatly for himself the night before, probably shaves and showers (which we don’t see), eats his cereal and goes to the hangar where his bus is parked, carrying the lunch his wife has packed for him. After a short exchange with his boss, who sometimes complains about his own troubles and sometimes doesn’t, he sets out on his route through Paterson, which Jarmusch shows in varying degrees of detail. While driving he listens to the conversations of the passengers, but mostly just observes people on the street.
He has his lunch across from the magnificent waterfalls outside the city. At night he returns to his one-story home, props up his habitually tipped-over mailbox (or, in some cases, doesn’t), and after eating the dinner Laura has cooked, he takes their English bulldog, Marvin, for a walk (no dog since Lassie, star of a movie and television show, has gotten so many cinematic shots of his own). Stopping at the neighborhood bar, he leaves Marvin outside, has one beer and chats with the owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). Then he goes home and goes to bed. And another day begins.
This description might make it seem as though “Paterson” is a movie about the daily life of a working man. But it is not just that, because Paterson is also a poet, who uses every free moment to write in his secret notebook (some of the poems he supposedly composes were written especially for the movie by 72-year-old poet Ron Padgett).
Paterson’s poems – the first of which begins with a celebration of an ancient matchbox that becomes a loving tribute to his wife – appear on the screen as he writes them, whether on the bus before leaving for his route, during his lunch break, or at night in his basement study. Laura, who knows some of his work, is sure that her husband is a great poet. She urges him to make copies of his secret notebook in case he loses it and to publish his poems, so that the whole world might enjoy them. But Paterson is not that kind of poet. Writing, for him, is a refuge from everyday life; it defines him and his privacy, and he has no ambition of sharing what he writes with others.
A twin to himself
When was the last time you saw a movie about poetry and about the privacy and self-sufficiency of creation in the midst of a mundane existence? This is what “Paterson” is about. Its hero is a driver and loving husband who is also a poet, but the interwoven aspects of his life represent an existence that is doubled, even fragmented – the source of the same emotional ambivalence found in many of Jarmusch’s films. The movie thus explores not only the repetitive and the divergent, but doubleness and fragmentation, which take various forms – from the use Jarmusch makes of reflections to the many identical twins Paterson sees, or maybe only imagines, since “Paterson” begins when Laura tells him she dreams they had twins and asks whether he would want that. He does not know what to say, maybe because he – a poet and bus driver who shares a name not only with his city but with the most famous work of the poet he idolizes – is a sort of twin to himself.
All this is wonderful. A weaker aspect of the movie involves Laura, a housewife whose own creativity is expressed in an obsession with black and white – another split, another pair of opposites that she tries to combine by decorating all the white curtains with black circles of different sizes, while also baking black-and-white cupcakes.
Laura may be driven by a boredom and frustration that she hides deep beneath a constant appearance of cheerfulness. She dreams of making it as a pastry chef, or maybe as a country singer, although she has no experience or musical talent. To Paterson’s dismay, she spends several hundred dollars – a hefty expense for a bus driver – buying a “harlequin” guitar adorned with black and white diamond shapes, which comes with a DVD that promises to teach her to play in a few easy lessons.
At one point Paterson and Laura go to see a 1930s horror movie (for those curious to know the source of the bits we see, it is “Island of Lost Souls” from 1932, a fine picture that has gained appreciation with time). When they come out of the theater, Laura says she liked the fact that the movie was in black and white, because she hasn’t seen a black-and-white film in a long time. This is funny, given that her whole life is in black and white (Paterson responds by saying that the actress playing the Panther Woman looked like her). But there’s something tedious about Laura’s character, which is not developed with sufficient clarity – unlike her husband, whom the movie observes in a way that tells us everything we need to know about him. Through Laura, Jarmusch was apparently trying to comment further on the desire of some people to fill daily life with a creativity that will form their own distinctive identity, as well as to shed more light on the couple’s relationship. But the result is unsatisfying.
“Paterson” has enough wonderful scenes to make up for this flaw, despite the void it leaves behind. For example, there is Paterson’s encounter with a 10-year-old girl who recites a poem she has written, leaving him to wonder – consciously or not – whether it is actually better than all of his poetry; or the scene in which he runs into a Japanese tourist, a fellow poet and poetry lover, who came to Paterson to see the city that Williams wrote about. The moment is a beautifully written one, a crystallization of the entire movie, which offers – like all Jarmusch’s films – an entirely unique experience.