The other night I watched Paterson, by Jim Jarmusch. In theory this movie ought to have been insufferably twee: it's about a Paterson, N.J. bus driver, named Paterson (as much in honor of the William Carlos Williams poetry as his residence, it seems), and played by Adam Driver (I'm not sure that was deliberate), who secretly writes poetry. But it's the kind of sweet, low-key moviemaking that I enjoy, if only because so much modern filmmaking is not in this vein, and also because one of the dilemmas in the film is close to my own heart. I will talk about that part of it here, so this is not so much a review as a reflection on a theme.
The movie is mostly plotless, set over the course of a week in, I think, October. (Halloween decorations are up here and there.) Paterson gets up every morning at 6:10. His wife, a flighty creative type, mentions one of her off-the-wall dreams. He eats his cereal, heads to work, composing a poem in his head all the way. In the few minutes before he starts his route, he scribbles down what he's composed. He drives his route (#23), writes down some more at lunch while sitting near a waterfall, drives the other half of his route, listens to the chatter of his passengers. He heads home, fixes his leaning mailbox, takes his dog out for a walk, enjoys a single glass of beer at the corner bar, where the bartender and various assorted neighborhood characters stick in their two cents. An onlooker would not think of him as "creative".
Paterson's poems are little slice-of-life, everyday-beauty things, very much in the Williams vein. (They were written by real-life poet Ron Padgett.) They are not any competition for William's work, but they aren't meant to be. The point is not so much that Paterson is some amazing talent crying out to be discovered by the world, but that he does this stuff naturally, without expecting reward, without seeking it out. And why not? Williams was a doctor, too, and a successful one; he was a poet by choice, not necessity.
What drama -- in the sense of conflict -- emerges gradually. Paterson's wife has a whole slew of creative impulses that never seem to take proper focus, but are fueled by the ambition to be someone, something. Paterson, on the other hand, writes his poems clandestinely. No co-worker, nobody at the bar, knows about them. Only his wife. And his wife is worried that this lovely work will vanish along with him.
But Paterson isn't interested in fame or even justification. He just wants to produce the work, to let all the little slices of life that come his way distill down through him and turn into these pearls. His wife wants very much to be famous for her cupcakes, but he doesn't really want fame or attention for his poetry. Does that make him a coward? Or is he just being practical, because one of the best ways to kill something like poetry is to try and call the wrong sort of attention to it? (When at one point someone asks him if he is a poet, he says, "No, I'm a bus driver.")
At one point Paterson bumps into a young girl who's also writing poetry. "Secret notebook!" she gushes, showing him the diary with a locking clasp that she keeps it all in. It's lovely stuff, and right as she walks off to join her mother she asks him: "Do you like Emily Dickinson?" He is conscious of at least one other kindred spirit now, and in the following scene, he recites the opening lines to his wife over dinner. Someone else is writing these things down and keeping them to herself. At least, for now.
Then one night Paterson and his wife return home after a fun time out to find out their dog has destroyed his notebook. No backup copies, either; Paterson only had that one hand-written journal with everything in it. He tries to keep a stiff upper lip -- "It's okay. They're just words ... written on water." -- but it's clear he's wounded by all this. Then he has a chance encounter with another poet, a visitor with his own book of poems, and he gives Paterson a blank notebook as a parting gift. And the last scenes imply he will use them to begin writing again.
Not everything works. There's a fairly dumb subplot involving a guy with a crush on one of the girls in the bar that starts okay, but ends in silliness that feels like it belongs in another movie (and not even a Jim Jarmusch movie, either; more like a Naked Gun movie). But the real center of the movie, and to me the most interesting part, is the gentle and never-dimmed fire of Paterson's creative urges. He lost those poems, but he can't lose the part of him that makes poems even if he wanted to. The artifacts are not as important as the artificer. The process is the higher good. Whether or not Paterson decides to share any of this stuff is less important than the mere fact that he will keep at it, no matter how many dogs come along and chew up his manuscripts. He is a poet, even if he also has to get up at 6:10 a.m. every day and drive a bus.
By the end of the movie, two things came to mind. One, I was convinced I would be happy to see Driver in just about anything from this point on. I already liked him in Silence, in big part because he looks like an actual person you'd see sitting in the chair next to you at the DMV, not a Movie Star. Two, I wanted a blank notebook to write poetry in too. They didn't need to be good poems. Just mine.
[Footnote: Towards the end, Jarmusch sneaks in a scene with none other than one of my favorite Japanese actors, Masatoshi Nagase. It took me a moment, but then I realized Nagase and Jarmusch go way back -- as far back as Jarmusch's 1991 masterwork Mystery Train. It's nice to see him again here.]
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