The matches catch his eye on the counter in the morning, as he’s having a bite before he heads off to work. During his walk to the bus depot, he composes the first few lines of the poem in his head. As he sits in his driver’s seat waiting for the thumbs-up from his supervisor, he jots those lines down, and a couple more. He drives all morning, eavesdropping on passengers’ conversations, running and re-running the route, and then during his lunch break, he writes some more. He thinks up a few more lines on his way home, and maybe jots them down in the notebook that sits on the tiny desk in the tiny corner of his basement. And then he eats dinner with his girlfriend, takes her dog for a walk, has a beer or two at the neighborhood bar, goes home, and goes to bed. This is his routine every day. He writes good poems, as many as he can – considering the kind of time he has to make for them.
The life of the day-job creative person is not one that makes its way to the screen very often, and certainly not with the kind of modesty and patience exhibited by Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, which takes its title from the protagonist’s name, the city where he lives, and the route listed atop the New Jersey Transit bus he steers every day. If creative people have day jobs in movies, it’s only briefly; they’re either shed quickly during their rise to the top, or held briefly after their descent, to show just how far they’ve fallen. But the vast majority of those who write or paint or sculpt or make films aren’t paid to do so – and they do it anyway, because it’s not a choice. If anything, those passions make all the other rituals and routines tolerable.
Within those routines, the days begin to blur. Sometimes the hours within them do too. Jarmusch is a filmmaker who’ll give a life like this the room to breathe, who isn’t afraid to live in the mundane moments; he opens himself (and thus the viewer) up to the tiny dramas that are happening all around Paterson, the little short stories in those overheard conversations, the quiet desperation of the dreams articulated by girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) to own a bakery or sing country songs, the real stress in the life of his boss, who’ll run down his laundry list of current headaches before shrugging, “Just my burden, I guess. My particular burden.”
Those words echo throughout Jarmusch’s extraordinary film. This – and I hope I’m not “spoiling” this for you – is not a film that culminates in some tremendous success for its protagonist. His work is not published in The New Yorker, bringing him immediate fame and fortune. His poems are not discovered by some high-powered literary agent, who explains that his life is going to change forever. His life isn’t going to change, not particularly, and it doesn’t much over Paterson’s 115 minutes. We do get a sense that there are little annoyances and dissatisfactions in his life – but there are also comforts, and they’re not likely to be outweighed. There is a moment where someone mentions how valuable the dog is, and we think Jarmusch might be setting up some sort of third-act crisis, which he is not. Paterson writes his poems (“They’re just words, written on water,” he shrugs) and goes about his business. The shadow of William Carlos Williams looms large over the movie, beyond his explicit name-checking, and into the tone and style.
Which is not to imply that things don’t happen. In fact, because it’s so low-key, the quieter Jarmusch speaks, the more we lean in; there is a small act of drama, but because the picture is so modest, that moment lands with the force of a murder. And then, a little while after that, there is a gesture from a stranger – a simple one, but a moment that, by that point in this story, is bottomless in its resonance.
Paterson is a film extraordinary in its ordinariness, in its willingness to show us people like these, and to suggest that these will be their lives, and that there’s nothing disappointing or shameful in that. In one of its best scenes, Paterson and his dog are out for their nightly walk, and they discover a forty-something man (Method Man, to be precise) at the laundromat, trying out rhymes for the audience of his rotating wash.
“Your laboratory?” Paterson asks.
“Wherever it hits me is where it’s gonna be,” the man replies. Ain’t that the truth.
Paterson is out today in limited release.