Jim Jarmusch channels Ozu in his poetic meditation on quotidian life

David G. Hughes on Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’ (2016)

Jim Jarmusch films rarely, if ever, portray a world demarcated from our reality. While he may make a western (Dead Man), a Gothic vampire tale (Only Lovers Left Alive) or an assassin flick (Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai), Jarmusch is forever engaged in a dialogue with the culture that surrounds us, either in awe of artistic idols or pejorative of crass commercialism. The cowboy recites William Blake; the assassin reads Mary Shelly; the vampire is a cultural aficionado. All function as an autobiographical conduit for Jarmusch’ euphoric adoration of culture.

His new character, Paterson, played gracefully by Adam Driver, continues this trend. He’s a bus driver working in the post-industrial town of Paterson, New Jersey, and he happens to be a modernist poet. Rather than actively seek to leave an imprint on the world, Paterson allows the world to leave an imprint on him. He is observational, stoic, laconic and sensitive. This is something that enables him to write poetry prolifically. With no interest in publishing his work or achieving fame, his absolute lack of ambition is endearing; while most seek to exploit talent for commercial gain, Paterson composes poetry as routinely as he completes his day shift. The point is clear: art serves a purpose; it is not a means nor an economy.

Living alongside Paterson in their humble abode is his monochrome-obsessed girlfriend Laura, portrayed by a vivacious Golshifteh Farahani, and their grumpy bulldog Marvin (deserved winner of the Palm Dog). Laura’s interests are more fleeting, but she shares a similar penchant for creative expression and compassion that allows the on-screen couple to bask in what feels like genuine love. The plot is thus: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – a working week in the life of a delectable couple. Naturally, as we expect in a cinema predominately driven by Todorovian equilibrium-disequilibrium-equilibrium narrative structure, there is tension in anticipating a disruption of the utopia established and the routine that we observe over the course of a week. Perhaps the cracks in Paterson and Laura’s relationship will unfurl? Will Marvin have to be put down? But no such crack occurs; Jarmusch subverts expectations continually.

When an African-American joy-rider pulls up and warns Paterson that his expensive dog is at risk of getting stolen within these dark and lonesome streets, this is surely a natural precursor to the act in question? Rather, this is just a friendly warning, genuine community concern as the young man drives away wishing our man and his dog well. This isn’t a film about hate, division or violence, it is a film about love, compassion, community, and understanding. As idealistic as this is, it is an outstanding achievement that these sentiments never communicate falsely or disbelievingly, feeling only ever truthful, not trite nor melodramatic.

Only Lovers Left Alive, as brilliant as it was, made culture the commodity fetish of collectors and elitist aficionados. In Paterson, Jarmusch brings it back to the streets for the proletariat, those who speak in a demotic manner but express themselves in a profound one. This is a world populated by fellow creative thinkers, not just Paterson – a rapper (Method Man) testing lyrical compositions as he waits for his laundry; a precocious girl who reads her beautiful poem “Water Falls”; and a Japanese man on a pilgrimage to see the birthplace of poet William Carlos Williams, Paterson’s own chief influence.

When not working, Paterson is walking the dog and stopping by the local bar each evening for a single beer. With predominately black clientele, the proprietor, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) showcases with pride his Patersonian wall-of-fame, including the likes of Iggy Pop, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Costello and Rubin “Hurricane” Cater. The town has a welcomingly pervasive atmosphere, acting as an inspiration not just on Paterson’s poetry as he listens to his bus passengers or visits the local falls, but also his character; a sense of community, belonging and pride is palpable, evoking an acoustic Bruce Springsteen ballad with its New Jersey topography and blue-collar sentimentality.

More so, Paterson feels like the tonal successor of tender Japanese master Yasujirô Ozu, of Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953). There is a comparable transcendentalism in the banality of routine; because of Paterson’s orderly lifestyle, there is time and space for poetic thought. In its simplicity and calm, there exists zen tranquillity functioning as an antidote to the complexity of everyday modern living and the current socio-political trends. Jarmusch’s film serves the same function as a meditation session, or even a mind-altering drug, by suggesting new ways of perceiving everyday banality and the world in front us, and conveying an inner life of Arcadian euphoria. Paterson is, quite simply, a discreet masterwork.

Paterson is available now.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.