“THERE ARE NO POETS that were ever in it for the money,” Jim Jarmusch recently told British film magazine Little White Lies. “Nobody makes money being a poet. You scrounge, you have another job. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Frank O’Hara was the curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There’s a kind of purity of intent if you’re a poet. You’re not doing it for the money or the fame, you’re doing it because the form is strong and your hand is strong.”
In Jarmusch’s latest, Paterson (Adam Driver) is a poet, albeit an unpublished one. He scrounges, and he has another job: Each weekday, he wakes up, walks to work, and drives the
Handsome Express 23 bus line through the crumbling, blue-collar streets of Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson’s job takes up that floaty space between meditative and mind-numbing, and Jarmusch occasionally trains his camera on Paterson’s wristwatch, its hands spinning across its face as hours disappear into stops, into intersections, into the sunlight shining through the windshield. And when Paterson clocks out, his routine is as predictable as his bus route: He walks home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who is always speaking of dreams. Not only of what she dreamed the night before, but what her next career might be—one day she dreams of teaching herself guitar and becoming a country singer, the next of opening a cupcake shop. Each night, Paterson walks Laura’s dog, Marvin—a charmless, obstinate bulldog who grudgingly tolerates Paterson just as Paterson grudgingly tolerates him—and ties him up outside his neighborhood bar, where he has a beer, and chats, and sometimes has to explain that yes, his name really is Paterson, and yes, he really is a bus driver in a city that’s also named Paterson. He goes home, he falls asleep, he wakes up the next morning to do it again.
But in brief moments—before the 23 leaves the garage, or on his lunch break, or hunched over a tiny desk stacked with William Carlos Williams and David Foster Wallace—Paterson scrawls in his notebook, writing and rewriting his poems. Laura pushes him, carefully but constantly, to publish: Like her cupcakes or her music, she wants Paterson’s dreams to emerge into the world. Paterson seems content to keep his poems where they are. He has dreams too, but one senses his dreams are his poems—and that, just by being written, they’ve already come true.
Those who go to movies merely to consume piles of plot will likely be disappointed by Paterson, which finds Jarmusch in one of his quieter moods, rambling alongside his characters, tagging along rather than nudging them in any direction. But those willing to adopt Paterson’s routine as their own will find something profound and beautiful in the film’s focus: simple but deep-rooted pleasure in the time Paterson and Laura spend together, or the way repetition allows Paterson to unlock his words, or how Paterson’s random encounters—with his beleaguered bartender (Barry Shabaka Henley), with a rapper in a laundromat (Method Man), or with other poets, glimpsed, unexpectedly, like rare wildlife—add just enough of a twist to his days to bring his life into focus. Paterson is beautiful throughout—both visually, in how Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes capture the wondrousness of an urban morning, and aurally, with Paterson’s poems (written by Ron Padgett) becoming as much a part of the film as Laura’s bulletproof optimism or the rumble of the 23.
But there’s something else beautiful about Paterson: Jarmusch’s clear-headed, straightforward reminder that the most worthwhile art is made by those who scrounge, who have day jobs, who are the same as us: The people who drive and ride the bus, or who try to take up guitar and wonder if they can sell their cupcakes, or who hone their rhymes while waiting for the washing machine. The people who get through each day, finding and sharing bits of hope and truth as the world crumbles around them. Sometimes Jarmusch tells stories about modern-day samurais, and sometimes about ancient vampires; with Paterson, he tells the story of getting by—of putting in hours of work to find moments of art, of finding solace in the unwinding of each night, with a beer and a grumpy dog.