After two months of tension and rage, with politicized threads and themes running even through media that could not have possibly expected the results of last November’s election, a movie like Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson comes like an oasis in the desert. It’s difficult to express just how necessary it feels to have a film like this, cool and sweet, right at this moment.
Paterson (Adam Driver) lives in Paterson, New Jersey, with his partner — wife? girlfriend? it doesn’t seem to matter much — Laura (Golshifteh Farhani). He drives a bus. On his lunch break, he sits on a bench in Overlook Park and watches the Great Falls of the Passaic under the latticed arch of the footbridge. And he writes poetry. Eschewing mobile phones and computers, he jots his imagist verses in an unlined notebook, which Laura begs him to make copies of.
On his nightly walks with his bulldog, Marvin (Nellie), he stops off at a quiet neighborhood bar to chat with Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), who’s usually puzzling over a chess board or negotiating a cease-fire in the breakup between Marie and Everett (Chasten Harmon and William Jackson Harper). Doc keeps a wall of clippings about Paterson — the city that is; the man wouldn’t attract that much attention — and all the famous people associated with the city. Lou Costello, Allen Ginsberg, Hurricane Carter, Uncle Floyd, Alexander Hamilton, William Carlos Williams.
Each day passes by with little change. Laura paints curtains and dresses, and bakes cupcakes, decorating each with her striking patterns in either black-on-white or white-on-black. She asks for a guitar she can learn to play, and dreams of country music stardom in her Persian accent. It’s the sort of movie where you never think that could be an obstacle.
In fact, it’s the sort of movie where nothing much seems to go wrong. Jarmusch has a talent for feinting in that direction, but the tension quickly dissipates. Things are fine after all. Until they’re not; into every life a little rain, after all. But even then it’s not the end of the world. His supervisor, Donny (Rizwan Manji), seems to be a nervous wreck with a hundred problems on his mind at any given time, but Paterson remains calm.
Jarmusch always makes audiences slow down, but this time it’s clearer than ever what his purpose is. We must slow down to meet Paterson at his own contemplative pace. A bus driver like him can almost fade into the urban infrastructure, as much a part of the city as its 19th-century brickwork and the concrete stairways that cut footpaths between neighborhoods. To bring him out, we must do what he does all day, every day, whether turning a box of matches into a love poem, or driving a bus along its route: look.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.