Doc (pointing to a chess board) – I’m getting my ass kicked tonight.
Paterson – Who are you playing?
Doc – Myself.
When I was studying media in Weimar, I attended a seminar on road movies. I still quote my German professor’s particular field of study today, as the films we saw and discussed with him every week during the summer semester of 2008 were, I realise today, the beginning of my cinematic education. One of the films discussed was Jim Jarmusch’s second ever film, Stranger than Paradise. I remember a black and white screen, the snowy landscape of Ohio, and a discussion on the advantage of eating a TV dinner even when no TV is on, as you don’t need to do the dishes. Eight years later, I sat down to watch Paterson, Jarmusch’s latest work – a poem within a poem.
I first became aware of this film earlier this year, when I noticed that it was selected at Cannes and stars Adam Driver. Some will know him primarily for his role in the latest Star Wars, and others as Adam in Girls. As an actress, my feelings about a character can be blurred when I watch a movie, as I will sometimes focus more on the actor’s process than the character’s story when describing my feelings about a piece of work. How did he convey that emotion? Wow, that must have been a tough shooting day. When you think of Adam on Girls, he is the kind of person I’d want to run away from. However, I’ve often praised him, when in fact I was praising the actor Adam, and the lengths he went to, his bravery. Driver seems like a discrete man who lets us see so much in his performance and is generous to his scene partners, as is the case in Paterson.
Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver in the town of the same name in New Jersey, where many artists and musicians have come through. Every morning, Paterson wakes up around the same time next to his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) without the help of an alarm clock. He then eats Cheerios, walks to the bus depot and starts driving. He always eats lunch looking over the same waterfall. After work, he walks home, eats dinner with his wife and goes out to walk the dog. He always stops by the local bar for a beer and a chat with Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). The only accessory in his life (he does not have a smart phone) is a notebook in which he writes poems. This week, he’s writing a love poem for Laura, inspired by his feelings about a blue match box he finds on the kitchen counter.
Just as Paterson’s poems are about small but highly significant things in his life, this film is a poem about a seemingly ordinary life. A man spends every day doing the same thing, sharing a lovely home with a loving, generous, quirky and artistic partner, and writing in his lucky poetry notebook. The simplicity of this setting and of this thoughtful, honest and giving main character is an absolute highlight for me as a viewer. The pace is slow, the clock and the wheels turn, and there is space for that little bit of wonder which, as the filmmaker reminds us, we could also witness if we just slowed down and looked.
There are many wondrous elements in this film: on Monday morning, Laura tells Paterson that she dreamt about having twins. Each following day of the week, twins somehow make their way into Paterson’s life, whether as bus riders or brief encounters. Another wonder is the way very different parts of Paterson’s life connect. There is a sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary. One day, as he is waiting at the bus depot, a young girl shares a poem with him that she wrote, called “Water Falls”. The poem sends back to Paterson’s lunch location, but also to a painting that Laura has hung up on in the dining room on that very day. Coincidences seem to be everywhere but, as the filmmaker probably tells us, that’s how life is. Just look around.
Don’t you find that if you read about something new, it will shortly thereafter appear again, in a similar or different form, and only be recognisable to you?
I enjoyed the minimalism in this film, from the few locations to the consistency in the main character’s choices. His honesty and respect for others are striking and comforting, for example when he walks home after having a beer at the bar, and runs into a fellow poet, who is in the middle of writing rap thanks to the inspiration that a washing machine at the laundromat gives him. Poetry is everywhere and everyone finds it in their own way.
The tenderness in the couple’s marriage is another beautiful element. Farahani, who plays a cupcake maker and artist with her own delightful design signature, is a joy to watch as the loving, tender and generous partner to Paterson. The communication between them (he does point out to Doc that “She knows me very well”) is, again, comforting and rare to see as a film viewer. While Laura may seem impulsive at first, her choices and goals prove to be real, and we can only aspire to be like her. Driver plays a man of few but words, except on the page and when a true connection between human beings is happening. He is a listener, and remains open to what amuses him.
This is my kind of independent film, with wonder, peace, humanity and minimalism. And it may be closer to our lives if we open up to it.