By Michael Koresky
Dir. Jim Jarmusch, U.S., Amazon Studios
Often when we talk about movies that focus on texture the discussion is tagged to films set in the natural world. Hands diving and swooping through air or brushing up against tall grasses and wheat fields; water lapping beaches and rocky shores; sunbeams cast through forest canopies. Jim Jarmusch, a director whose work has always been extraordinarily keyed in to textural detail, reminds us that the beauties and mysteries of our world can be manmade and incidental in his new film Paterson, a senses-heightening experience that feels like a riposte to our entire sensation-saturated culture. Near the beginning of the film, protagonist Paterson (Adam Driver), who lives and works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, and, in his downtime, writes poetry partly inspired by William Carlos Williams’s poem “Paterson,” sits in his kitchen eating breakfast before heading out for his morning shift and notices the eye-catching blue of a box of matches sitting on his counter. He picks it up and feels it around his fingers; the Ohio Blue Tip matchbox is in close-up, and the viewer can practically feel it, too.
Part of the matchbox’s appeal comes from the instantly familiar vintage font, and one can certainly see why it would be an aesthetically pleasing object to Jarmusch, many of whose films, from Mystery Train to Only Lovers Left Alive, have been said to have an extravagant devotion to objects. But increasingly this quiet obsessiveness has come to feel fundamental to his art and essential to our moment, in which the tactility of culture itself feels in danger. Only Lovers Left Alive was especially moving because nested within its tale of the stylish undead was a marvelous elegy for the objects that have defined human beings for centuries and which feel endangered in an era when everything is dispersing to the ether. Suddenly the adoration of a scratchy vinyl recording of Wanda Jackson or a musty copy of Cervantes or Beckett with cracking binding took on a cultural resonance far deeper than mere fetishism. Two years later, the desire many of us feel to want to not just see something, but touch and smell it, has only grown deeper, and it will continue to with each passing year. Paterson’s noticing the Ohio Blue Tip matches on the counter is crucial, because noticing them at all requires his undivided attention—an increasingly rare concept these days. The matches prove to be the inspiration for a love poem Paterson begins writing that day, but they’re also the catalyst for Jarmusch’s entire film, immediately inviting the viewer to think small.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of thinking small these days, both because mass culture has become so large, all-consuming, and crass, and because the things we talk about, great and small, are often shared with the largest possible community of people via online outlets. How many of us even have thoughts these days that we do not immediately go on social media to share with everyone we know there? People talk about the value of privacy, but it doesn’t seem to extend to what’s in our minds, as opposed to our actions. Poetry is at its essence a shared expression of our innermost thoughts, desires, and feelings and as such is an unbearably public private event; the torture of sharing those thoughts is what seems to be missing. Now each of us is a proverbial tree in the forest. Paterson keeps his poems in a notebook, not in a public online forum, not even on a computer. The notebook is carried with him on his daily rounds, to his lunch breaks, to his tiny writing room, and then locked up overnight. He has no apparent intention to publish his poems, although his unflaggingly supportive girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), strongly encourages it. They remain attempts to describe his world, whether a blue box of matches or a waterfall. In trying to give the life around him meaning, they give his life meaning, though he doesn’t forecast this, and neither does Jarmusch, who simply watches as Paterson watches.
Paterson doesn’t seem to have a cell phone or a computer, and that’s crucial, far beyond the perception of Jarmusch as a legacy media–loving Luddite. Paterson is a film about attention and attentiveness; to be a scrupulous examiner of one’s surroundings it’s important to somehow live outside the world you’re simultaneously immersed in. Over the course of seven days, Jarmusch lets us see how Paterson both takes part in and gently palpates the exterior of life. He listens to conversations on the bus, equally amused whether it’s one prepubescent kid telling the other about Hurricane Carter or a couple of blowhard guys dissing women or two innocuous looking high schoolers (played by Moonrise Kingdom’s kid lovers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) declaring themselves anarchists while musing on Italian assassin Gaetano Bresci, who lived for a spell in Paterson. It’s all part of Paterson’s routine, depicted as a gradual conglomeration of events, moods, and meetings. Every morning, before his daily rounds, he has to hear the hilariously disgruntled ramblings of his depressed supervisor (Rizwan Manji), for whom life is a litany of endless Job-like hardships. Every afternoon he maneuvers the bus down the clogged, beautifully gray city streets of Paterson. Every evening when he comes home he has to readjust the mailbox in front of the house, its post mysteriously uprooted and crooked in the ground. Every night he takes his English bulldog Marvin for a late walk to the local dive bar, where he gets into conversations with bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) and a handful of recurring denizens, including violently lovelorn Everett (William Jackson Harper). And then every morning it starts all over again, with an overhead shot of Paterson rousing from sleep without the aid of an alarm and checking his watch, which reads somewhere between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m.
The poetry itself, free verse spoken in Driver’s deliberate staccato and frequently depicted as on-screen text accompanying his voiceover, is the film’s driving conceptual force, but it’s not the point. The quality of the poetry feels incidental, as the film seems to make no direct or clear hierarchies between types of art, high or low, good or bad. Laura, for instance, is depicted as something of a dilettante, dabbling in all kinds of different media and forms appealing to different senses: she bakes, she paints, she envisions herself a country singer. She has put her creative stamp on almost everything in their house, creating a visual uniformity of black-and-white patterns on the drapes, her laptop, her ottoman, even her guitar. There’s a strange, goofy beauty to what she does, and Driver’s inscrutable reaction shots to her Brussels sprouts and cheddar pie or her lopsided, childishly earnest portraits of Marvin invite an ambiguity in how we respond to her work. Conversely, her eager insistence that he keeps writing and even publishes his poetry neither convinces nor dissuades us of his talent. Paterson’s value lies in the doing—and more importantly, the seeing, the experiencing.
If good art has to on some level be working against something then lately Jarmusch, with this film and Only Lovers Left Alive, seems to be valiantly fighting time and tide. In his ever gentle way, he has found a new urgency. Paterson lives out his days in his own tiny sliver of the world, but Paterson doesn’t exist in a bubble. With its repetitions and daily calendar set-up, the film is a kind of pop structuralism; when Paterson’s bus breaks down on the fifth day, the deviation from routine carries a weight, like when Jeanne Dielman burns the potatoes. Jarmusch doesn’t let us forget that Paterson’s world is part of a larger, scarier one. There are inklings of violence or sadness—a hold-up at the bar; a warning to not let Marvin get “dog-jacked”—but with no payoff. We can choose to not be ruled by fear, and a lesser, more didactic film, would underline this. Threats are everywhere, but so are sublimities. All is ephemeral; it’s up to us to decide what to try and hold on to.