A poet of abrupt accelerations and fanciful asides, William Carlos Williams is the last artist I’d associate with Jim Jarmusch. This director, whose fascination with stasis has produced some of the most enervating films of the last thirty years, has released Paterson, its title a nod to the New Jersey writer and its protagonist a different kind of stand-in. As played by Adam Driver, Paterson can live in his head because the contours of his routine delight him. This lanky goofball tries to reassemble the world into imaginative patterns; he thinks like a poet. The rhythms of Jarmusch’s film are inseparable from Driver’s own beats, and the result is a movie of rare, light charm.
The wisp of a plot is a parody of minimalism. Paterson drives a bus. Passengers and sights inspire verses, heard in voice-over. After hours he hangs out at a bar called – har, har – Sam and Dave, accompanied by his rather dim English bulldog Marvin. At home wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), clad in cheap rubber sandals, projects a pathological optimism, encouraging him to publish his work and discomfiting him with strange recipes; observed from a distance, she seems proud not to have an inner life (Jarmusch obliges). With an insistence that borders on the lulling that’s reminiscent of South Korean master Hong Sang-soo (whose 2016 Right Now, Wrong Then experiments with the ritual of repetitions), Jarmusch restages scenes: overhead shots of Paterson and Laura in bed; Paterson, alert to the ephemerality of inspiration, noticing his shoes and their position relative to the floor; Paterson in profile or in isolation on his bus, operating on two discrete levels of experience.
Jarmusch permits one ripple: coming home from dinner one night, Paterson and Laura find that a contrite Marvin has chewed Paterson’s notebook to bits. Driver uses his hangdog looks and air of immobile melancholy to shrewd effect; for Paterson rage would have been out of character, a violation of the spirit of his observational, po-faced verse. He will not decapitate Marvin with a scarlet cross-hilt lightsaber. Paterson’s moment of Zen grace occurs the day after the disaster: the would-be poet refreshes himself by sitting on a bench before the Great Falls of the Passaic River; a Japanese man familiar with William Carlos Williams gives Paterson an appropriate gift.
Synopsizing this moment would make it look like purest corn. That’s why I enjoyed it. After startling me in 2014 with a juicy vampire film called Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch succumbs again to observing the weirdness of humans when they strive to be most normal. On a whim, Laura paints their apartment black and white. She wants to start a cupcake business (she’s a little late for that, if my Food Network viewing is to be trusted). Then she buys an awful guitar online in the hopes of becoming a country singer. Other directors would have reduced her to a figure of fun, a dumb housewife; the Jarmusch of Mystery Train and Night on Earth would have had no attitude towards her at all. Thanks to his attention to patterns and Driver’s warmth, Laura emerges as a woman whose caprices are her poetry. Similarly, Paterson and the regulars at Sam and Dave, middle-aged black men, interact with ease – no elitism about the poet’s position vis-à-vis the working class here.
As I’ve suggested Paterson is not a film in which audiences understand the sensibility of a force that, to quote Williams’ half great gnarly epic after whom Jarmusch’s hero is named, conjures “the air full/ of the tumult and of spray/connotative of the equal air, coeval,/filling the void.” I recoiled from the Jack Handey earnestness of Paterson’s poems, particularly the work in progress called “We Have Plenty of Matches In Our House,” but criticism is beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether Paterson is a good poet; his alertness to possibilities – to seeing beyond three dimensions – is its own reward. Williams understood: self-evaluation can inhibit the imagination in the act of creating new art.