'Paterson'...and My Paterson

With the exception of Ghost Dog (1999) and Broken Flowers (2005), I’ve steered clear of Jim Jarmusch films for reasons I cannot begin to justify. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t resist his latest offering.

Paterson is the story of Paterson, a NJ Transit bus driver and poet, who lives and works in Paterson (NJ).  Paterson (the city) also happens to be the place my grandparents immigrated to and where my wife and I were born and raised. Thus the attraction, despite my misgivings about Jim Jarmusch, in general, and the story line, in particular.

Paterson (the title character) leads a spectacularly ordinary life, which Jarmusch chronicles in daily segments, beginning with Monday. Played with an Everyman affect and remarkable restraint by Adam Driver, Paterson wakes at just about the same time every morning without need of an alarm clock. He caresses his sleeping wife (Golshifteh Farahani), grabs his neatly folded work uniform, and eventually makes his way to the kitchen for breakfast. The audience lingers with him over his cup of cheerios and mug of coffee as he muses about ordinary objects that stir his poetic imagination.

He walks to work, lunch pail in hand. Sitting in his bus at the terminal, he turns those musings into poems, recording them in his journal and then refining them in his mind as he drives along his route. (Contemporary poet Ron Padgett supplied the poems.) Most days, he eats his lunch, lovingly packed by his wife, at the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park. He heads home after work, eats dinner with his wife, and later in the evening walks his dog to the local bar. He has a glass of beer and trades stories about famous Patersonians with Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), the bar’s owner.

Spectacularly ordinary. Only, this is a Jim Jarmusch work, and the ordinary is not so ordinary after all.

Paterson’s wife, Laura, is a woman-child who spends her days compulsively decorating their modest house and herself with black-and-white fabrics of her own design. Her other favorite activity is baking cupcakes, which she frosts with black-and-white icing. She dreams of being a country-and-western singer. And, amid all the decorating and baking and dreaming, she somehow comes across Petrarch and giddily tells Paterson that Petrarch’s muse was named Laura. Imagine that!

Marvin, the couple’s English bulldog, is a hulking, glowering presence in their lives. He growls whenever Paterson shows affection for Laura and acts out later in the film (on Saturday) to devastating effect. He’s not all that eager to go on his nightly walk, and not without reason—Marvin is tethered to a pole outside the bar while Paterson enjoys his beer and Doc’s company. And for those in the audience who don’t realize that a purebred English bulldog is a very expensive pet and likely beyond the couple’s means, the director clues them in: a carload of inked, bling-laden, big-fashion Latinos rolls up on Paterson and Marvin in a tricked-out, stereo-blasting convertible to caution Paterson that such an expensive dog could get ‘jacked—dog jacked—if Paterson isn’t careful. Geez!

Then there are the not-so-ordinary happenings that intrude on Paterson’s daily life:

  • When Laura tells Paterson that she dreamed she had twins, he suddenly begins seeing twins everywhere—in the bar, on the bus (twice), in the streets along his route.
  • Paterson has chance encounters with other poets: a ten-year-old girl whom he meets outside the bus garage and who shares her poem, “Water Falls” with him (Jarmusch wrote the poem); a rapper in a dingy laundromat whom Paterson overhears on one of his nightly walks. (The rapper is played by Method Man, a member of the Wu Tang Clan. The RZA, another Wu Tang Clan member, appeared in Ghost Dog, set in Jersey City, NJ. Hey, shouldn’t all films shot in gritty urban environments have at least a cameo appearance by a rapper?); and a Japanese tourist who comes upon Paterson at the Great Falls park during one of the film’s most poignant moments and engages Paterson in a conversation about poetry.
  • On an otherwise average night at Doc’s the ever-placid Paterson reflexively leaps off his barstool and disarms a gun-waving love-besotted regular who has stormed into the bar threatening to shoot the woman who rejected him and then himself. As surprised by his response as anyone in the bar, Paterson shrugs it off, and returns to his beer.
  • SPOILER ALERT: Coming home from a rare Saturday night dinner and a (black-and-white) movie, the couple discovers the shredded remains of Paterson’s poetry journal on the living room floor and Marvin lurking nearby.

Which brings us to my Paterson (the city). I had expected, naively I admit, that the city would be the film’s co-star. I expected more than just familiar locales passing outside the bus’s windows as Paterson drives down Main and Market streets, up Ellison Street passed Lou Costello Park, and over the Spruce Street Bridge, the Falls framed in the background. I expected the city’s rich history to be woven seamlessly into the story; instead, the narrative is interrupted at several points by didactic conversations about famous people from the city’s past. The city seems little more than a generic urban backdrop, much like Yonkers, where the couple’s house is located, and Queens, the site of Doc’s place. This is, I confess, less a criticism of the director’s location choices than a nostalgic reflex of someone whose own story began in those Paterson streets.

Despite the cavils, I found the story deeply moving. The film is a meditation on the rhythms and rituals of (mostly) ordinary lives. Adam Driver’s performance is mesmerizing. You’re drawn in by his everydayness and equanimity, by his ability to see poetry in the most mundane objects and circumstances, by his deep love for his wife, and by his self-effacing manner. You feel his sense of loss and despondency as he sits staring at Falls after his journal is destroyed. And when the Japanese tourist arrives at the Falls, you root for Paterson to re-engage with his art, a hope that is buoyed when he accepts a new journal from the visitor after telling him, “I’m just a bus driver.”

Paterson isn’t my Paterson, nor could it be—too much water over the Falls. The city my wife and I left all those decades ago was a vibrant mix of cultures, ethnicities, and races, a place where life lessons abounded. Fittingly, Paterson imparted another lesson: check your expectations at the ticket window, take your seat, and focus on the director’s art. I plan to visit Paterson again and do just that.

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James Hannan is Commonweal's business manager.  

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