Beauty in Things: Paterson

By Pamela Zoslov

[A] man himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may imbody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions.

— William Carlos Williams, introduction to Paterson

Last year, Jim Jarmusch gave us a film highlighting the poetry of the simple-sounding lyrics of rock musician Iggy Pop. Today he brings us a film about the poetry found in the everyday, the rhythms of quotidian life, and the influence of place on individual creativity. The model is William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), the esteemed American poet who worked for more than forty years as a physician in Rutherford, New Jersey, and drew his early inspiration from the stories (“inarticulate poems”) of his patients, jotted down on prescription pads or typed in spare minutes between appointments.

Driver, as the driver Paterson, in the town of Paterson.

The movie, and the lead character, Paterson, are named for Williams’ epic five-book poem inspired by Paterson, New Jersey, which he chose as “the prototype of the American industrial community…the self-sustaining city of skills with the competitive energy and moral stamina to lift the burdens of the citizen and raise the livelihood with social and cultural benefits.” Williams’ intent was to reveal “the elemental character of the place,” and “both the beauty of the Passaic Falls and the poverty of the region. Jarmusch’s film does pictorially what Williams did poetically: the cityscapes of the old, depressed working-class town become, through the camera of the talented Frederick Elmes, vivid, memorable color street photography.

Our hero is Paterson (Adam Driver, well cast), a man who drives a city bus and in his spare time writes poetry in a small notebook. He leads a very regular life, awakening every morning at 6:15 beside his pretty, lively wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), carries his lunch pail to work and writes in his notebook before starting his shift carrying passengers across Paterson. After work, he walks the couple’s bulldog, ties the dog’s leash to a post and stops at the corner bar for a beer. On a special night, he and Laura go to the movies (they see Island of Lost Souls at a local repertory cinema).

Laura spends her time pursuing a range of artistic endeavors, from painting everything in their house with black and white circle patterns, baking cupcakes she hopes to turn into a business, or buying a mail-order guitar to help her pursue her unlikely dream of becoming a country-and-western star. The couple’s genuine love  — he is quietly supportive of her dreams and enjoys her sweetness, she takes an interest in his daily life and his poetry, encouraging him to “do something” with his poems, or at least make photocopies of them.

The film shares Paterson’s poems with us, recited by Paterson and written in script across the screen; they are about things mundane (a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches), romantic, and spiritual (marital love). The poems in the film (more commonplace than Williams’) were written by Ron Padgett, a poet admired by Jarmusch (they both studied English literature and poetry at Columbia).

“Shaken by your beauty”: Driver and Farahani

The spirit of William Carlos Williams, Paterson’s poet, is invoked throughout the narrative, not only as a literary model for Paterson the bus driver, but also as a local hero. The bartender, Moe (Barry Shabaka Henley) keeps Williams’ calling card displayed behind the bar, alongside memorabilia of other Paterson notables, like Lou Costello, and Dave Prater, of the soul duo Sam & Dave. Unusual is the town that has a poet as its favorite son, and Paterson, with its seedy center city and breathtaking waterfall, spawns poets, from a nine-year-old girl who reads Paterson one of her poems, to a Japanese poet visiting Paterson in homage to Williams. (Alan Ginsberg also grew up in Paterson; his father, an English teacher there, was also a poet. Is there something in the water?)

Not a lot happens in Paterson, and that’s exactly the point. The unfolding of the rhyming days, the “inarticulate poems” of the bus passengers, bar regulars and other plain people. Oh, there are incidents — a lovesick man threatens violence at the bar, Paterson’s bus breaks down — but the movie really is about the texture of everyday life, the ordinary inspiration for extraordinary creativity, and poetic synchronicities. Laura shares a dream she had about twins, and the next day Paterson sees twins everywhere. The little girl poet shares a poem about a waterfall, Laura hangs up a picture of a waterfall, and Paterson meets a Japanese poet beside the Passaic Falls. Every thing has meaning, just as Williams wrote famously:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Jarmusch, who comes from Akron, Ohio, has previously explored similar themes (Night on Earth, 1995, told stories of cab drivers in five different cities), but in recent years he seems to have grown away from hipster cant (Stranger Than ParadiseDown by Law) and genre exercises (Ghost Dog, The Way of the Samurai ) in search of greater artistic purity, even in something as unlikely as Gimme Danger, the documentary about his favorite band, The Stooges. There is a slowness and repetitiveness to Paterson that won’t please everyone, but it is a poem, an often beautiful one that expresses the spirit of William Carlos Williams’ oft-quoted line from Paterson: “No ideas but in things.” Grade: A

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