Roughly equidistant–a half-hour drive, say–from Manhattan and Newark, Paterson, New Jersey is in 2017 a housing-dense, humanity-diverse city, home to large Muslim and very large Latino communities, alongside smaller cohorts from countries all over the world. Fifty years ago it was a very different place, at least demographically–its geographic location has remained pretty constant–and, as in many great cities, its landscape bears reminders of multiple layers of history and personality for those who care to see them. New Jersey ain’t the whole world, no, but it is the center of the universe, just like everywhere else.
Is it a little prosaic to launch a review of a movie about poetry with boilerplate population statistics? It sure is. But Paterson, the film, privileges the prosaic. You might even say it exults in the ordinary. If you see it, let me know if you think it overdoes it. It seems so to me, a little. And yet, you know, hold on, I feel the need to hasten–damn it, I am hastening–to add something that may be important: I like Paterson better than any film Jim Jarmusch has made in many years. And now, having gotten that off my chest, I’m going to try to slow back down to the film’s own unhurried pace.
What we have here is, to repeat, a movie about poetry.
Popular among the narrow range of functions assigned to poetry in film, and not only in film, is that of an empowering force–a tool for discovering voices and liberating selves. And, of course, it can be, and often is such a tool. But maybe you’ll agree that this conception, or exploitation, of poetry often results in self-congratulatory, soul-inflating hoo-ha. Every now and then, when the stars align just right, it results in scenes of Olympian grandeur, notably Rodney Dangerfield’s recitation of “Do not go gentle into that good night” in Back to School (1986). But such exceptions are rare.
At some point in the cycle of near-identical days that comprises Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s dreamily, defiantly inert double-tribute to New York School poetry and New Jersey’s third-largest city, our bus-driving poet’s bartender tells him and us–and I’m paraphrasing here–that “there’s no point in trying to change things; it only makes them worse.” The film itself doesn’t quite support this classically conservative assertion, but its protagonist’s quietism does resonate with a resignation profoundly out of sync with our political moment. For him, change, more often than not, and usually at best, only makes things differently the same. As for poetry, it is more a matter of keeping this fact in mind–by keeping the stuff of the world in sight, one small “aha!” moment after another–than it is a hammer with which to affect change.
“No ideas but in things”: an article of faith, a statement of fact, a plan of action, applicable to poetry but doubling as a program for living. An oath of allegiance to the concrete, William Carlos Williams’ famous maxim is nevertheless an abstraction; an anti-idealist idealism, and a shaky logical proposition. Luckily for Williams (not that I expect he ever sweated it), poetry is more forgiving than philosophy when it comes to this sort of thing, not only containing multitudes but granting them ready license. If it’s true, as Williams wrote in 1923, that
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
then it’s true because it’s in the nature of “so much”–in the nature, that is, of everything, to depend. What any particular “much” depends upon is conditional, but that it depends on something is inescapable. This is equally true of ideas and things; no real hierarchy of categories obtains.
Repetition and variation–in life, the lifeblood of routine; in music, they establish and transform a theme. In poetry, at least in Paterson, they are recruited to drive home and ring changes upon themes found in and ferreted out of routine. If they’re in there. Hell, even if they’re not. Poetry, via repetition and variation, takes the raw materials of observation (real or imagined) and brings them to life, makes them dance, and finally kills them off or abandons them at the side of the page, however benevolently. Unless, I suppose, it is killed off or abandoned itself.
Speaking of violence: Great Balls of Fire! That was the name, sans exclamation point, of Ron Padgett’s first collection of poems published by a major house and distributed all over the country, back in 1969. Oblique references are made to the volume throughout Paterson–a fact I mention in part to show off (done!), but also as a stand-in for all of the probably many allusions, sly in-jokes, and other assorted references, whether to poets or to celebrated Paterson personages, strewn across the script and screen that I didn’t get.
One thing that seems clear is that Jarmusch sought to structure his film as a poem; an ambitious, admirable conceit that could have been fatally incoherent (due to its baseline impossibility), but which works well enough here thanks to the simplicity of the scheme employed–a playful, not entirely un-cloying filmic facsimile of poetic form and tactics, or some of them.
Namely: repetition and variation, but also, before and within them, observation and allusion. If these, in my ersatz bastardization of poetic practice, are present in Paterson as linear, horizontal elements–one thing after another–they operate in conjunction with what I may as well call the verticality of surface and depth–one thing on top of another–and, closely related but non-identical twins, showing and telling. Visual and narrative approximations of rhyme are rampant, and each day is like a stanza if you’re willing to meet it halfway.
Here’s one in precis: a Patersonian bus driver and unpublished poet by the name of Paterson wakes up each morning next to his partner Laura, gives her a kiss, eats Cheerios, drives a municipal bus, lunches at the Passaic Falls, comes home, takes his dog for a walk, and visits a local bar, scribbling poems in his notebook at pretty predictable intervals throughout. Sleep and repeat.
The idea of recurring motifs is represented neatly by … recurring motifs. I mean, they are not subtle. The subject of twins comes up in the very first exchange between Paterson and Laura, and in no time he and we are seeing twins everywhere. While enjoying his first bowl of Cheerios (of the film, I mean), Paterson notices and fiddles at length with a box of matches–”stubbornly ready to burst into flame”–and we know he will put them in a poem, and he does. These sorts of things–twins, flames, explosions, circles, shadows–are, of course, actually concepts, made new and re-considerable each day as they return to us in concrete images and objects.
Poetry in film doesn’t, as a rule, put its best foot forward, or wear its best face, or, I don’t know, come up with the best metaphors for itself (though I may just be projecting my own difficulties finishing that sentence). Its awkwardness is rarely its own, resulting instead from its being deployed as a shorthand for passion, romance, rebellion, profundity–for love and madness and all their attendant stürm and drang.
But Paterson will never be confused with the heroic martyrs of Dead Poets Society (1989) or Bright Star (2009). Nor will his version of poetry be confused with theirs. Where those pots of poesie boiled over with capital-feel Feeling, this one putters along at a placidly steady simmer. Poetry in Paterson is a comparatively easy-going affair, casual and relaxed. It contains sadness, and love, and a few of your other popular emotions, but to make them anything other than low-key would be, well, embarrassing.
This is because Jarmusch’s poetic models are different. Ron Padgett wrote the poems attributed to Paterson to spec for the film, and the project’s reigning spirit is William Carlos Williams, aforementioned and quoted. If Williams represented a mid-century shift toward the concrete and idiomatic, the so-called New York School of poets, by way of Frank O’Hara, took his idea (about things) and moseyed around with it, mellowing it into a distinctly countercultural, avant-goofball naturalism. The line connecting the New York School to Jarmusch runs through Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine and their kindred spirits; a hipster lineage predictable enough to risk being tired, but the participation of Padgett–a member of the school’s founding cabal along with Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, and a handful of others–promises to help lift the film out of the doldrums of earnest homage or facile imitation into, who knows, maybe some interesting art. And yep, it helps.
Jarmusch and Padgett share an affinity for the deadpan. But Padgett possesses, when he’s writing in his own voice, a much wackier wit than Jarmusch, and a blessedly un-self-conscious openness to weirdness and wonder rarely evinced by the notoriously heavy-lidded hipster behind the camera. Some of Padgett’s voice, and some of his spirit of play, make it into Paterson, and that’s great news. Less great, however, is that they run up against, and have to stand around awkwardly next to, the more typically Jarmuschian ponderousness that characterizes the film’s score, a blearily bleak electro-acoustic dronescape played by Jarmusch and his producer Carter Logan (they record as SQÜRL) that reminded me somewhat of the ambient gloom produced by A Winged Victory for the Sullen. You might call it a clipped stalemate for the stolid in this case, at least if you’re a jerk like me.
Jarmusch, who has spent his entire career romanticizing hip outsider figures of one kind or another, from the estranged and deranged jazzbos of his earliest films to the stoically aloof, Patersonesque-ish vampires of 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, ultimately can’t help but put his poet on a pedestal. Driver’s Paterson, while hardly a Byronic figure, is certainly a saintly one. He’s a veritable prince of the humble everyday, a knight in white t-shirt who rides above us, listening in on and gently smiling over our silly babble and inadvertent beauty.
One abiding mystery of our days is the way we are constantly, or rather repeatedly, starting over from the beginning without having actually finished anything. “The sun comes up every day,” a heartbroken, silver-lining-seeking bar-buddy of Paterson’s reminds us, and goes down every day, too. “So far,” replies Paterson. From point A to point A to point A we go, perhaps not always with the same rigidity of routine that marks Saint Quotidian’s days, but with the same reliability. So far, anyway. Changes of some sort do, after all, occasionally occur, as do endings of one kind or another. But mostly things go round and round.
Paterson’s partner Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani, herself a luminous doppelganger of Salma Hayek circa 1995’s Desperado) is in on the circle game, not to mention the shadow game, which is one aspect of the twinning game. Apparently unshackled by a day-job, she spends every day in the couple’s little house painting and otherwise crafting dresses and curtains and cupcakes, always in monochrome and always covered in circles, which she presents to Paterson when he returns from work. “I like how you made all the circles different,” he says when asked what he thinks, laconic as ever, but also right to the point: the whole damn film is a fabric of circles, a helix of twins and strangers, all of them “identically different.”
Does Paterson get us inside the (or at least a) process of poetic creation? That may be asking too much. But we might fairly expect it to give us a glimpse into how one poet begins and continues, proposes and disposes, writes and revises. The one scene in which it does so features, not Paterson over his notebook, but rapper Method Man alone in a laundromat, rehearsing, reshaping, and perfecting his flow, intermittently chanting to himself Williams’ injunction, “no ideas but in things.” For Paterson himself the poems just seem to come, if not fully-formed all at once, nevertheless whole and complete within a few sessions of composition. As they occur to him–while he drives his bus, or eats his lunch at Passaic Falls, or hunkers down in his basement library/laboratory–the poems appear onscreen in a superimposed scrawl in tandem with Adam Driver’s gravid, deliberate recitation.
Gravid and deliberate. Much of the pleasure, as well as the frustration, of watching Paterson lies in its ambiguous balance, or vacillation, between two kinds of (or takes on) stasis, one of them a kind of zen contentment, affable but detached; the other more of a benumbed, resigned inertia. Adam Driver–who, according to my unreliable memory, bears a striking resemblance to Ted Berrigan’s son, Ed (himself a gifted poet of generous but wry disposition)–has a face that, left slack, looks either lost, blue, or utterly, if prettily, blank. Hence Paterson’s mirror image, or shadow, is Laura’s British bulldog, Marvin, who jealously shares his love for Laura while clandestinely undermining (and thereby enabling) Paterson’s rituals, among them the daily straightening of his listing mailbox when he gets home from work every day. A pair of apparent tabulae rasa, neither Marvin’s nor his putative master’s mug gives much away.
Paterson runs into a few other poets while making his rounds, and when he does, his impassivity gives way to open curiosity and enthusiasm. Muted enthusiasm by most standards, but still. Excepting his devotion to Laura, Paterson’s reflexive sense of bardic fellowship is the most romantic thing about this lovely film Jim Jarmusch made about him. Aha to that.
dir. Jim Jarmusch
Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema