Originally published on October 11, 2016. Paterson is now available on Amazon Prime’s instant streaming service.
Overview: Jim Jarmusch’s latest film gives us a week in the life of a poet. Amazon Studios; 2016; Rated R; 113 minutes.
Disaster Strikes: I nearly missed my first New York Film Festival press screening this morning. I hadn’t yet picked up my badge, so the goal had been to budget an hour of time (the screening started at 8:30 ) to stop by the press and industry office to retrieve it (as I would soon find out, this would not be necessary. The press and industry office is literally ten feet from the screen). But, thanks to a distressingly frequent screw-up wherein I set an alarm on my phone, but forget to turn the ringer on, things started to go wrong. Instead of waking up at 6:00, as planned, I kept sleeping, completely unaware of the logistical nightmare that I was unconsciously creating for myself. It wasn’t until 7:30 that I was violently shot awake by my roommate, who had gotten up earlier and was already putting on his pants, recklessly tightening his belt far past the point that common sense would dictate. It could not last, and the belt snapped under the pressure, sending the metal buckle careening directly into my left cheekbone.
Forty minutes later I’m sitting on the Q train, eating Total cereal out of a styrofoam cup, and nursing the strawberry shaded, blueberry sized blot on my face. At this point I figure I’m going to miss the screening entirely, so the best that I could possibly hope for is that I’ll travel all the way across town, and maybe, just maybe I’ll be able to pick up my badge so that I can go to the six other screenings I have planned for myself— that is, if this entire awful experience hasn’t turned me off of festivals for the rest of my life. So I get off the train at 8:45, and walking any faster than two miles an hour seems like a sick joke. So I amble up the steps of the Walter Reade theater, reach the courtyard, and, of course, nobody is there. Not waiting in line for the movie, not sitting in the press and industry office, they’re all inside. I sit down on the stoop, bury my bruise in my hands, and start to c- *a tap on the shoulder* “Screening’s not till ten, kid. We need to set up.”
A Man Writes: Why do I tell you all this? Well, as you can see, attending the New York Film Festival has thrown a real wrench in my circadian rhythm. It was apropos, then, that the film I so mucked up my life to see, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, be so intensely concerned with the nature of routine. The film gives us 7 days (and one morning) in the life of New Jersey working joe—you guessed it, Paterson (Adam Driver). Whether that’s his first or last name… eh, it’s immaterial. What isn’t is that we follow him as he wakes up every morning (like me, Paterson doesn’t set an alarm; instead, he trusts in his analog wrist watch), eats a bowl of cheerios, kisses his girlfriend goodbye, heads off to work (he drives a bus), returns from work, walks his dog, goes to the bar, and goes to bed. Minus the work part on the weekends, that’s every single day without variation. Then why make this movie, you ask (I don’t ask. I’m a weirdo so anything that doesn’t have a plot is automatically intriguing to me)? Well, he’s a poet.
Everything that happens to Paterson in his life bleeds into his writing, though it’s not always clear how. He’s a quiet guy, so we’re very attuned to the fact that he’s always observing. Whether it be the random (often hilarious) conversation between passengers on his bus, the way his girlfriend walks, or merely the curvature of the font on his matchbox, Paterson picks it all up. And then, around the halfway point of each day, Jarmusch stages a sequence where Paterson composes his poetry offscreen while a shot of a waterfall is overlaid with assorted imagery from earlier in the film. It’s terrifically sensual. In fact the whole movie exudes a strong sense of calm; and despite entering the screening room with a headache, I left the film feeling entirely refreshed, even healed.
Jarmusch Gripes: The only trouble, such as it is, is that Jarmusch kinda fucks it all up. Now don’t get me wrong, the film is consistently warm, kind, affecting, and funny from beginning to end. But what Jarmusch is fundamentally incapable of doing is making films that aren’t—in some way—closed systems. Be it in the way that Paterson keeps encountering the same—for lack of a better word—stuff (he keeps running into sets of identical twins, keeps hearing the word fireball, keeps randomly meeting poetry fanatics on the street) or just the fact that the city Paterson lives in is also called Paterson, Jarmusch is pretty plainly showing his hand here.
While in the past this sense of coincidence and interconnectivity has served his oddball visions beautifully, the internal rhyme here is at odds with what the “artistic process” is actually like. What artists— both good and bad— do is they take the messiness of the world around them and they funnel it into something specific. Having Paterson exist in such a hermetically sealed universe makes him see less like a poet and more like a journalist. While you could argue that, seeing as the film sticks entirely to his point of view throughout, what we’re really seeing is Paterson’s filter after he’s already made sense of the world… but eh. I don’t buy it. Jarmusch has always made films this way, it just so happens that this time it didn’t match up with what he’s going for thematically.
Overall: Paterson gets so much right about life, love, and humanity, that it’s fairly easy to overlook how much it inadvertently gets wrong about the artistic process.
Featured Image: Amazon Studios
New York Film Festival review