When we think back on our lives, even on a relatively small scale like, say, the week we just had, we tend not to think on every minute of minutiae we endured. We think of the relatively big things we went through, the stuff that was memorable. Sure, we all eat and have conversations and go to work and sleep and wake up, but we tend to only process it as a necessity: it’s the minute to minute, day to day of being. What’s important to understand, however, is that every second we live, every small little thing we go through, informs literally everything else about us. It’s all a flow of life that causes us to react, to process information, to make decisions, to move forward. It’s the process of life, and it’s the context for who we are as people, and our identities are as grand and important a concept as we’ll ever grapple with.
Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a film about those small moments. Adam Driver plays a bus driver in the city of Paterson. His name is Paterson. The film takes place chronologically over the course of a week in Paterson’s life. He has a wife, Laura (Golshifte Farahani), and they have a dog, Marvin. Every day, Paterson gets up early, kisses his wife, eats breakfast, goes to work, comes home, fixes the tilted mailbox out front, talks and eats dinner with his wife, takes his dog on a walk to his local bar, has a beer or two, and then comes home.
That’s Paterson. Every day, Paterson does those things (excluding the weekend, when he doesn’t work).
At the core of the film, though, is poetry. Paterson is a poet. He composes in his notebook in the mornings, on his downtime at work, in the evenings. He writes about the things he experiences. A box of matches, the view when he looks down into a beer. Most of Paterson is mundane, but it is life. We create art to try and get at the meaning of all of this, of what we’re experiencing. We consume art for the same reasons. And in Paterson, Paterson finds that meaning in every single small, quiet moment. A bus driver overhearing conversations, walking his dog, kissing his wife, listening to a couple argue at a bar, it’s all channeled into Paterson’s most defining characteristic: his art. His poetry. He is everything he goes through: how he reacts to it, the decisions he makes. If art and poetry are a reflection of the artist/the author, then Paterson is Paterson.
While the mundane is stressed in Paterson, by no means is it boring. It is funny, it is warm, it is surreal. There are genuine laughs, and Marvin the french bulldog is one of the most delightful characters in the entire last year of film. There is an action sequence, there is some drama, there are debates and there is quirk and the audience is never quite sure what to expect. Characters feel like complete people, from the patrons of the bar to a free-styling rapper Paterson stumbles upon at a laundromat. There is life in every frame, every interaction of this film. Particularly in Laura. Farahani’s portrayal of Laura is energetic and contagious, an endless supply of passion and curiosity that she channels into many different outlets simultaneously. Her energy contrasts beautifully with Driver’s passive, quiet performance, especially because while their demeanors are very different, they share that passion and curiosity. They feel like they’re in love, and it’s beautiful to experience with these actors.
I’m not sure how many performances this year are better than Driver’s, in what might be a career best role. He is an actor with a particular and specific physicality: he is tall, his voice is deep and unique, and while he’s handsome, he’s not a conventional looking movie star. He has portrayed wild, independent, sexual energy in HBO’s Girls, and near-teenage levels of angst and inadequacy in Star Wars: the Force Awakens. He has stolen scenes with his comedic talents in Inside Llewyn Davis, and he’s felt darkly and complicatedly consumed by faith in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant Silence. In Paterson, he is remarkably human. His passivity allows him to be an observer to much of what happens in Paterson, which makes his moments of action or decisiveness mean all the more. His Paterson feels authentic and artful: he is a bus driver who loves Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. He is an artist, so there is added weight behind his constant observation, and he simultaneously blends into the scenes he observes while also informing them with his presence, his perspective. Such a passive performance may feel “easy” to some, like he doesn’t have to actually do much, but such understated performing is often the hardest to pull off. He must walk the perfect balance between brilliant poet and everyman bus driver. He must appear even-tempered, but not apathetic. Good natured, but multifaceted. Patient, but intellectually active. In Driver’s eyes, in the way he looks around, in his measured responses to dialogue, he has captured the profound brilliance of Paterson beautifully in his lead performance.
The brilliance of the everyday experience is not an easy concept to capture in film. Cinema is largely based on action, on visually striking images, on stakes, on drawing an audience in with captivating storytelling. Jarmusch is a majestic and brilliant craftsman, and Paterson may be one of the ultimate examples of just how in control of the medium of film he is. It’s not unlike being in a trance, except it still engages the mind as we, like Driver’s Paterson, take in the information we are presented with and work through it to come to the thoughts and conclusions we come to. It brings an awareness to every step we take after we see the film, it is profound how close to home many of the aspects of Paterson are (the bar Paterson frequents and the tone Jarmusch captures there feel pulled almost exactly from my memories of Rose’s, a Chicago dive my friends and I used to patron routinely). Largely, poetry is uniquely adept a medium for capturing the beauty in the simplest images and concepts, while films often lean towards more epically scaled stories. In it’s smallness, in its quiet moments, Paterson brings poetry alive and reinvigorates the medium cinematically, challenging how we view ourselves. This is a film called Paterson, about a man named Paterson. The entire film is occupied by his poetry, his words, his process. However, when late in the film a man asks Paterson if he’s a poet, Paterson tells him no. The man asks Paterson what he does. Paterson answers that he’s a bus driver. “A-ha!” the man replies, as if catching Paterson in a lie. Their conversation ends, but not before the man presents Paterson with a gift: a blank notebook.
Paterson asks us who we are, and won’t accept anything less than the truth.