Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back.
– William Carlos Williams, ‘Paterson’, 1926.
In his first film, 1980’s Permanent Vacation, Jim Jarmusch tracked two-and-a-half days in the life of a youthful malcontent, documenting a number of encounters both planned and random. Under numerous different guises, Jarmusch has been remaking this essential concept over and over again for 38 years. Sometimes the malcontent under study has been middle-aged; sometimes they have been criminal, stupid, or supernatural; sometimes there has been no single central character at all.
Each of Jarmusch’s startlingly original, carefully-formed works have been melancholic but laugh-out-loud funny odes to ragged lifestyles, the search for enlightenment, and the absolutely crucial importance of any and every brief connection. Paterson is his latest film; it is one of his funniest, and in many ways one of his saddest – most of all, it is the summation of everything he’s yet done. After crafting 11 exquisite features, defining and redefining arthouse cinema, winning a warehouseful of plaudits and growing into the greatest living American filmmaker whose name doesn’t rhyme with Schmorsese, Jim Jarmusch has possibly made his defining masterpiece.
What we have in Paterson is a combination of hilarious Jarmuschisms, including things like coincidences, language barriers and a bizarre obsession with twins, as well as, frankly, the best examples of his uniquely loose, jazzy conversational dialogue we’ve had in years. It is no coincidence that for years the writer-director’s closest collaborator was avant-garde saxophonist John Lurie; for all Paterson‘s vaunted calm and naturalism, Jarmusch has retained and honed his scat-like approach to words, deploying his syncopated chattering exactly when needed. As Adam Driver, in the title role, looks at and listens to the world around him, things seem to unfold at differing speeds; the film follows a routine (both its own and that of the character), and is successful at playing within that. And again, though much of the film’s basic appeal lies in its quietness, the substance comes through in the contrasts. As with Jarmusch’s previous work, which has dabbled in Altman-esque genre deconstructions and reams of almost Cubist vignettes, Paterson toys heavily with circularity, connection and repetition (there’s those twins again). Contradiction is woven into its structure, its mood and its effect: it is among the most profoundly moving films of the year despite nothing seeming to move; it is the sweetest film of the year despite feeling kinda salty.
Paterson is the title of an epic poem-cycle by William Carlos Williams, who Paterson – Driver’s character here – is a fan of. It is also the name of a city in New Jersey which both inspired Williams and hosts Paterson-the-character, who lives there and works as a bus driver. Paterson himself writes poetry but, crucially, doesn’t show it to anyone; his style, though, is lovely, inspired not only by the intimate colloquy of Williams’ best work but also apparently by the same New York School writers who once taught Jarmusch – not least Kenneth Koch and perhaps Frank O’Hara. And where Paterson prefers shorter poems in a minimal style, Paterson is written and shot in a manner that reflects this. It transforms the maximalism of Williams’ original piece, but retains the seminal poet’s linguistic traits – in short, the Paterson film feels more like an epic haiku.
Indeed, as may happen in this hypothetical epic haiku, both Paterson and his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), seem to get a lot done during this film and yet get nothing done. It’s set over one week, Monday to Sunday, plus a lovely coda on the following Monday, suggesting that roundabout cycle of life you kinda see on a bus timetable. Paterson goes for a beer after work each day, always encountering a different set of interesting conversations and at one point stepping into a fight between acquaintances. Laura leans to play the guitar, she paints the entire house, and she prepares for a cupcake sale at the weekend, which ends up going very well. Both husband and wife experience an incredibly distressing disappointment late in the film, but then without this unique horror Paterson – and we, the audience – wouldn’t be gifted with the tremendous events of Sunday, which seem a cosmic reaction to the previous night (but probably aren’t).
And if that last paragraph seemed to toss and tumble through a bunch of vague descriptions with little interpretation, that’s only because the film did it first. Even the central relationship, brilliantly, does not have the usual hallmarks of an indie-film couple; there is no clear progression or development, merely variations on a theme as Paterson and Laura go through their really quite content routines. A subtle and tender visual motif sees the two waking up in the same bed each morning, shot from above with dappled shade. Across the eight instances of this shot, Jarmusch refuses to outright connect the couple’s positions with anything from the day before or the day to follow – if they wake up apart, it’s not to signify an underlying tension that will soon play out, but simply to show that sometimes they wake up apart. We do not go from A to C via B, like a bus route; we simply occur, like the passengers on the bus with their diversity of routes and conversations, that Paterson, ever the observer, likes to calmly listen to. All of this just is.
Jarmusch, however, is always working in service of a wider point, or at least a sort of unique instinct. So it is that Paterson‘s central couple themselves embody many of the film’s apparent messages. Here, in a reconfiguration of previous Jarmusch dynamics – most notably the couple in Only Lovers Left Alive – we see the quietly artistic Paterson contrasted directly with his vivacious wife in an almost Manic Pixie manner. The wider point here, though, is designed to steer away from apparent problematics and towards something more characteristically absurdist: Paterson has much quantifiable talent but seems pathologically unable to bring it to the outside world; Laura has an overflow of exuberant creativity for the outside world but lacks a single discernible project, remaining (or preferring to remain?) flighty and quixotic. The most simplified description, I suppose, would be that Paterson is a man without a project while Laura has too many projects. For both characters of course, these are both wonderful traits and terribly hobbling. They are complete equals in that respect; it is astonishingly easy to identify with both at once.
At the very least, though it is largely Paterson who we follow for the seven-and-a-half days, Jarmusch is careful to show us how much is going on in the background. Laura seems to have her own entire separate world, where her husband sort of meets her at home in the evening and they talk about each others’ creative pursuits (and this perpetual listener speaks far more to her than he does most people) but in which, one has to assume she gets a lot more done than we are allowed to see. This is no accident; all sorts of questions are half-asked and un-answered. Paterson’s poetry is presented onscreen with superimposed handwriting, concretising his voiceover and serving to reinforce the poems’ interiority; it transmits and reflects, too, the multifarious lives occurring outside the frame, those he listens to on the bus and in the bar. It is implied through small clues that Paterson has seen combat; true or not, it happened outside the frame. The film, like a poem, and like life, is composed of moments, encounters and phrases, each of which connect to many more things we simply don’t see. In that sense, this surprisingly concise piece contains everything and, rather brilliantly, refuses to privilege anything with any sort of variation in tone. Jarmusch gives us slice-of-life partly by absolutely flattening what “life”, in film terms, usually means. Everything of interest becomes so simply because we’ve been paying attention – so pay attention. To everything.
At its narrative core, though, Paterson is just an excellent film about a couple, who’ve probably had higher points together than this particular week, and who’ve probably had lower points – at the very least, on a day-to-day basis they seem to complement each other perfectly, and that’s essentially the ideal. It is a film about work and self-motivation rather than end goals. One can imagine Paterson and Laura falling out down the line over something like her impulsive guitar purchase, but then everyone falls out – as Jarmusch reminds us via his leading man, we must above all think on the good things so as to prevent the bad becoming worse (when dealing with the spiritual, political subtexts can easily abound). Paterson therefore provides, through its steadfast approach to life (and how to live it) one of the most potent moral statements of a highly turbulent year. And this is done, with almost painful simplicity, by not forcing any such moral position on you. In fact, while remaining perfectly calm it allows for and accepts things like weariness, irritation, capriciousness, disaffection, anger, and all sorts of melodrama. We can argue; this is, after all, a world of varying conflicts, deaths and despairs. And it all marches on, like that stupid mantra about keeping on keeping on. Try a little self-contentment. Don’t worry about other people. Don’t show them your poetry if you don’t want to, and don’t worry about painting the house if you’re just feeling creative. You don’t have to “be someone”. Just be someone.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 7…
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2016
20 – The Witch
19= Son of Saul
19= The Hateful Eight
18 – Midnight Special
17 – American Honey
16= Embrace of the Serpent
16= Captain America: Civil War
15 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
14 – Creed
13 – Hail, Caesar!
12 – The Revenant
11 – Weiner
10 – Everybody Wants Some!!
9 – Zootropolis
8 – Anomalisa
7 – Paterson
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2016 to read more on our Top 10 films of 2016!