Nicholas Laskin / Medium
There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through Jim Jarmusch’s best film, “Down by Law,” that encapsulates the director’s predominant creative philosophy better than just about any other example I can think of. Three wrongly imprisoned men — a gregarious Italian tourist, a surly bayou DJ and a would-be pimp, played respectively by Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits and John Lurie — are making an escape by boat through the endless dirge of the Louisiana swamplands. Finally, they happen upon an old shanty house, sitting incongruously on top of the water. Once inside, our heroes are dismayed to discover that their temporary sanctuary is, in fact, virtually identical to the prison cell that they’ve just recently been sprung from. “Well,” Lurie’s character deadpans, “this looks a little too familiar.”
It’s a marvelously dry comedic moment in Jarmusch’s back alley fable, but it’s also a subtle and profound distillation of the writer/director’s primary creative preoccupation, which is this: the self is a construct. Life itself is grander and more compelling than the ego/self. If you’re looking for something, it will inevitably find you. The true route to discovery is circuitous and paved with fanciful detours and strange coincidences. Jarmusch is and has always been interested in the universality of life: the invisible connective tissue that binds all our shared experiences together, regardless of our various pronounced differences.
The commonality of shared experience and the notion of an amorphous self, soaking up the world’s influence like a sponge, is at the heart of Jarmusch’s new film, “Paterson”. A bluesy, deceptively slight seriocomic miniature about a working-class bus driver who writes poems in his spare time, “Paterson” is, as of now, the best film of 2016 and one of Jarmusch’s finest accomplishments, period. Radiant and wry, teeming with the kind of wisdom and luminous humanity that comes from age and hard-won experience, “Paterson” is a warm, soothing blanket of a film that will sate your raw nerves and make you believe in the power of cinema as an art form again. I’ve declared a couple truly great films — “Moonlight,” “Midnight Special,” a couple more — to be the best of 2016 at various points throughout the year, but unless “Silence” just blows us all into dust, “Paterson” will remain the one to beat for me this year. It’s a movie that’s so purposefully modest, whose rhythms are so languid and lovingly wayward, that it’s possible to underestimate just how emotionally potent the film actually is.
Jarmusch has always favored characters that exist outside the margins of acceptable society. His heroes think profound thoughts but work menial jobs. They appreciate classical European literature and art, but they drink American cheap beer and listen to Motown. They doubt claims of Shakespeare’s authorship but can recite Raekwon verses from memory. Their greatest aspiration is to break away from the norm — to, as Richard Edson’s laconic drifter says in “Stranger than Paradise,” Jarmusch’s breakout picture, “get out of town and see something different for a couple of days”.
Of course, Jarmusch has been littering his own films with references to his various heroes and inspirations for some time now, including (but not limited to) Walt Whitman, William Blake, The Stooges, Carl Perkins, Nikola Tesla, Arthur Rimbaud, Akira Kurosawa, the Wu-Tang Clan and many more. The director’s critics have sometimes accused him of elitist-cool name-dropping: conspicuously quoting his artistic forbearers (and peers, like Waits and rocker Iggy Pop, who are also his friends and collaborators) to boost his hipness quotient. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jarmusch, unlike many other American directors, is a truly democratic filmmaker. He knows his place in the pantheon of film history, and is keen to honor the artists who’ve come before him, and to neatly tip his hat to those who will follow in his footsteps. “Paterson,” like all of Jarmusch’s best work, exists in a land where there is no invisible hierarchy of artistic merit. It’s the kind of film where William Carlos Williams gets as much love as Patsy Cline, and deservedly so.
You’ll notice that several of the names I’ve just mentioned in the earlier paragraph are poets. While “Paterson” is the first of Jarmusch’s film to explicitly feature a writer as its protagonist, it is also informed by the rhythms and structure of poetry itself. Like a great poem, “Paterson” makes smart and poignant use of repetitions and repeated motifs to bolster its shape. The film takes place over the course of one week in the life of its nominal protagonist, with only the most minor deviations in routine to distinguish one day from the next. In doing this, Jarmusch underlines the tiny moments of magic that exist before our eyes during the course of what might be an otherwise unremarkable week. Whether it’s an aspiring rapper ad-libbing verses while his laundry dries or a pair of teenaged lovebirds chatting about famous Italian anarchists on the bus and, in the process, revealing their own innermost desires and dreams, “Paterson” itself is rife with unexpected moments of splendor and bliss. It’s a film that dares to look for moments of pure creation in the glut of life’s otherwise mundane grind. It is more than just great art: it is heroic, and it is what we as a moviegoing public need right now.
Paterson himself is played with wide-eyed, almost childlike contentment by Adam Driver, who is quickly becoming one of our most indispensable actors. Paterson shares his name with the old, sleepy and distinctly American New Jersey industrial city that he calls home, though whether or not he’s been named for the place itself is a question goes tantalizingly unremarked upon. This kind of detail would seem annoyingly precious in the hands of a lesser storyteller, but it’s one that Jarmusch wisely underplays.
Every day for Paterson is more or less the same. He wakes up at exactly 6am, always checking his antique watch. He heads to work, where he drives a city bus, but not before leaving some sweet morning kisses for his lovely wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). At night, he takes his bellicose bulldog Marvin — who gets some of the movie’s biggest laughs through simple reaction shots — for a walk before heading over to the local watering hole for a beer.
Paterson and Laura live in a shabby but charming old house whose interior is dominated by Laura’s ever-changing obsessions. The ebullient young woman’s focus on a distinctly chic black-and-white color pattern has taken over everything from the curtain drapes to her famously delicious cupcakes. Hell, she’s even teaching herself how to play country music on the guitar. The thing is, Laura is no shoddy composite of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: she’s a real, thoughtful and intelligent woman with hopes and dreams of her own, and Jarmusch makes note that she’s actually becoming quite good at all the many things she’s set out to do. She’s a dilettante, but Jarmusch doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with that way of life. When you can live in a marriage as blissful as the one Paterson and Laura seem to enjoy and still make time for individual creative pursuits, what’s there to complain about?
Paterson writes poems on his lunch break, which he usually takes at an idyllic outpost near a waterfall. His poems don’t seem to be about much of anything at first — his first is a sing-songy, strangely beautiful rumination on Ohio Blue Tip Matches that turns into an ode to his beloved wife — but, we come to learn, they are in fact about everything. In this sense, Jarmusch himself is Paterson: composing hypnotic minimalist art out of the seemingly ordinary details in life that most of us would hastily brush past in our hopes of getting to the next “revelation”. Paterson keeps all his poems in a small black book, one that he somewhat stubbornly refuses to share with the world at large. Whereas Laura is all about externalizing her creations, Paterson — like William Blake in “Dead Man” and the Man in “The Limits of Control,” and even Bill Murray’s lonesome Don Juan in “Broken Flowers,” which is the Jarmusch film that “Paterson” most closely resembles — is noticeably inward.
And yet Paterson’s isolation is not born from some clichéd blue-collar malaise; Jarmusch is far too sensitive an artist to stoop to the ruinous poverty porn that can cripple an otherwise noteworthy and artful film like Andrea Arnold’s recent “American Honey”. Jarmusch — a former punk who has himself written a poem or two — has always been one of our most uniquely American directors. Like Bob Rafelson and John Sayles before him, Jarmusch looks at the melting pot of our weird, messy country with an earnest and curious gaze. God only knows what he thinks of these latest election results. He is perpetually inside the beating nexus of our culture and also forever outside of it, playing the role of permanent observer. “Paterson’s” utterly lovely gallery of bus stop wordsmiths, working stiffs, vagabond travellers and lovesick barflies come to constitute a vision of our nation’s shared collective imagination, with Paterson (a.k.a. Jarmusch) as the omnipotent spectator of it all, floating patiently above the noise.
There are dark clouds around the margins of the director’s otherwise sunny story. At one point, Paterson is threatened by a gang of would-be tough guys while on his nightly walk with Marvin — though, true to the Jarmusch style, the conflict hardly resolves in a manner of predictable aggression or violence. Later, Paterson’s bus breaks down mid-service. His perpetually aggrieved co-worker can’t stop complaining about his troubles at home. Perhaps most devastatingly, Paterson ultimately loses his book of poems to the casual destruction caused by Marvin the dog, and when the moment hits, it’s truly crushing — not the least because Paterson promises Laura to go and make copies of his work by the week’s end.
And yet, while Paterson’s loss is undeniably something to be mourned, Jarmusch’s neatly contained narrative implies that poetry is an act that can be practiced joyously, if for no other reason than the simple pleasure to be had of making something from scratch. A fateful encounter that Paterson has late in the film with a wandering Japanese tourist — played by Masatoshi Nagase, who was a rockabilly fanatic travelling to Memphis to search for the ghost of Elvis Presley in Jarmusch’s third film, the underrated, rambling musical picaresque “Mystery Train,” thus suggesting a kind of Jarmusch Shared Universe to rival Marvel’s — suggests that, in spite of Paterson’s personal loss, that the true merit of art lies in the process of creation itself. Like the film’s refusal to paint Paterson’s dead-end job as the catalyst that forces him to break away from his life of routine and domesticity and become a “successful” artist somewhere in the city, this notion of art for art’s sake is one of the movie’s most lasting pleasures. “Aha,” indeed.
Adam Driver has had quite a year. He stole the show in Jeff Nichols’ already-impressive “Midnight Special” and will be seen next in Martin Scorsese’s hotly-anticipated religious epic “Silence” alongside Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson. As Paterson, Driver acquits himself to the relaxed, Zen-like rhythms of the film, giving a master class in soulful understatement. With his warm, slightly lopsided, undeniably handsome face and slightly delayed reactions, Driver occasionally recalls the hilarious aloofness of Jarmusch’s onetime muse John Lurie: another lanky, loping man-out-of-time who can say a great deal without saying much of anything at all, at least verbally.
Alas, Driver is a more nimble and skilled actor than Lurie (who, admittedly, is a beatnik jazz musician first and foremost) ever was. He’s matched by the luminescent Golshifteh Farahani; whose unwavering devotion to her husband and the life they’ve built together is a refreshing counterpoint to so many strained portraits of marital discord that we typically see in independent films. If this and the director’s previous film — the spooky, sultry vampire comedy “Only Lovers Left Alive” — are any indication, then Mr. Jarmusch, as the song goes, truly believes in a thing called love. Paterson and Laura’s marital connection feels as honest as any relationship I’ve seen portrayed on a movie screen this year and it’s a joy to simply bask in their company for about an hour and a half, even when they’re doing nothing more compelling than cuddling in bed or eating a massive pie made entirely of cheddar cheese and brussel sprouts (Paterson attempting to meagerly eat spoonfuls of the rich pie, while sucking down at least a half glass of water per bite, is one of the movie’s many winning sight gags). If these two invited me over for dinner in real life, I might never leave their house.
The movie’s structure is simple, but it betrays a thoughtful narrative shape that is very much there. By distilling each segment of the film into days and allowing us to follow Paterson over the course of one week, Jarmusch builds on a recurring series of strange and arresting instances. In the process, he summons a kind of emotional swell that’s as fruitful as anything he’s ever had a hand in, while also seeming completely incidental. The film takes time to appreciate Paterson, NJ’s many famous inhabitants (everyone from screen comic Lou Costello to rapper Fetty Wap gets a shoutout), while Paterson himself — after his wife recalls a dream she had where she gave birth to twins — begins seeing identical human couplets on his morning drive. A small, piercing moment where Paterson listens to a teenage girl read a poem she’s scribbled into her notebook while she waits for her mother to pick her up is so imbued with rich subtext — about the nature of artistic jealousy, about the elliptical trajectory of how creative expression changes from generation to generation, about the unfettered simplicity with which children see the world — that I almost shed a tear whilst watching it. And at the center of it all, there’s Paterson himself: another one of the director’s humble ambassadors of the backroad, our guide through a forgotten America.
Jim Jarmusch has been producing challenging and consistently satisfying work in the independent film sphere for over thirty years now. Whether or not you respond to his particular worldview, there’s no denying the significance of those numbers, and there’s no repudiating the immense and complex legacy he’s had on lo-fi cinema. While some of his peers have unapologetically gone the commercial route (Richard Linklater) while others seem to have lost their minds and talent in a haze of megalomania (Kevin Smith), Jarmusch has stayed true to his punk spirit in a way that qualifies him as an essential American artist. “Paterson” is one of his very best, and it might just be the most important American movie of 2016. It’s a love poem for everyone. Grade: A.