‘Paterson’ Richly Rewards the Watchful

So much depends upon a bus driver, carefully attentive, writing poetry in Paterson, NJ.
‘Paterson’ Richly Rewards the Watchful
Image: Mary Cybulski / Bleecker Street—Amazon Studios

To tell you about this movie, I need to tell you about my wife.

Sometimes, lying awake at night, side by side, Anne and I listen to our neighborhood. Traffic becomes the ocean, waves breaking on a beach. Wind in the evergreens is the roar of a crowd. Fire trucks: trumpeting elephants that charge from the circus tent of the fire station next door. Anne’s favorite is the rush of the midnight street sweeper. She has written poems about the driver’s rumbling reverie, out there “tracing the bones of the city.”

Anne’s attentiveness to poetry is what drew us together in the first place. I strive to learn from her compulsion. Like the angels in Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire, she carries empty journals with her into her days and fills them with glimpses of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Her patient watchfulness quiets my fears and helps me hear the still, small voice of the Spirit.

That’s why Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s meditative new comedy, feels so necessary, essential—even medicinal for me.

Movies about poets are a hard sell. Perhaps I can get moviegoers’ attention by telling them that the movie’s lanky leading man, Adam Driver, is the same guy who threw spectacular tantrums as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (He’s also onscreen this month as a brave and emaciated missionary in Martin Scorsese’s masterful Silence.) But here, Driver’s a driver, steering a bus around Paterson, New Jersey, the town that shares his name and wins his heart. His bus is non-articulated, but he’s as articulate as they come.

The movie’s heartbeat is our driver’s creative process—his line-by-line composition as he makes his introspective way about town. And if we surrender to the film’s meditative pace, we may find ourselves discovering suggestive implications in common sights along the route: a road sign that says “Prospect Street,” a building’s bold letters that say “Department of Recreation.” As in the poems of Paterson’s favorite poet, local legend William Carlos Williams, “so much depends upon” details that seem commonplace.

I’m not the first to notice this film’s formal resemblance to Groundhog Day (Variety’s Justin Chang got there first). But although every well-structured day looks alike—he begins each one by checking the time, then puts on the same old uniform—he’s vigilant for variations on the form. Paterson proposes, “Hey, what if you woke up each morning and discovered, to your delight and astonishment, that it’s another day?!”

Jarmusch seems to take an almost perverse delight in teasing us with familiar plot possibilities, and then bypassing predictable turns. He’s too in love with his characters to reduce them to “delivery devices” for meaning. That’s been the strength of his films from the beginning. Down By Law, Broken Flowers, Coffee and Cigarettes, Only Lovers Left Alive—in these films, the people, in their exquisite idiosyncrasy, are the purpose.

Paterson never knows what to expect when he comes home to his impulsive, dream-driven wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). One moment she’s an aspiring country singer, the next a painter, the next the cupcake queen of Paterson. But there’s no crisis brewing. He just loves her. And so do we.

Then there are his mass-transit passengers, the familiar faces at his daily happy hour hangout, and unlikely pedestrian encounters—a high-school girl waiting for a ride, a subwoofing carload of vaguely threatening punks, a dejected actor recently heartbroken. None of them exist to advance the plot; their value is in the moment to which Paterson closely attends.

Even the crowdpleasingly adorable bulldog, Marvin, who scowls jealously at Paterson as a rival for Laura’s attention, refuses to be leashed to any movie-dog conventions.

But not even the dog can steal the show from Driver, who makes Paterson one of the most interesting men I’ve encountered at the movies. His younger self, in uniform as a Marine, stares dutifully from a picture frame at home, assuring us that he’s ready for action. But what kind of action? As Steven Greydanus notes in his review at The National Catholic Register, Paterson’s “an unconventional if appealing icon of masculine virtue: the farthest thing from a Hollywood action hero—humble, quiet, poetic, committed, yet capable of heroism if necessary.” Think Taxi Driver reimagined by Fred Rogers.

That’s why Paterson is so refreshing. Our hero’s not watching for a way to save the day. He’s watchful because he’s interested. And his watchfulness makes him capable of action when it’s necessary. But even though his story is, in fact, headed to a moment of heroic decision, it arrives without fanfare, in a quiet exchange, a serendipitous gift for both the character and the audience. Call it an “a-ha!” moment. And it comes as a reward for Paterson’s willingness to be open, to listen, even at a most inconvenient time.

That humble watchfulness, more than any Braveheart bravado, shows me the kind of man I want to be. These small but carefully calibrated expressions that he scribbles in his notebook make me want to love my world the way that he loves his. Paterson’s story isn’t about something he does for the world. It’s about the way that he is: an open satellite dish catching glory, his humble posture enabling him—and by virtue of our proximity, us—to receive such rich rewards as love, friendship, and the contentment of belonging.

In his meekness, he inherits the earth. Or at least the part that bears his name.

[I recommend Paterson to viewers 17 and up.]

Questions for Discussion

  1. Paterson is divided into chapters that begin each time he wakes up. How does this structure accentuate the film’s focus on poetry?
  2. Describe Paterson’s relationship with Laura. Are they a good match? How or why? What words would you use to describe the nature of their love for one another?
  3. How are Paterson and Laura different from other movie couples?
  4. How do people treat Paterson, and why do you think that is?
  5. How would you describe Paterson’s poetry? What does it reveal about him and the things that are important to him? How does the discipline of poetry influence his life and demeanor?
  6. When the crisis comes for Paterson, what challenge does it present for him? What might he learn from the experience?
  7. Is there anyone who resembles Paterson in your life — who seems unburdened by angst, contented with their work, and consistent in their demeanor? Are they appreciated for their work and reliability?
  8. Who are the most joyful characters in the film? What makes that joy possible for them?
  9. Look up a few of William Carlos Williams’s most beloved poems and read them aloud with each other. Discuss what you think they might be about, what their details suggest to you about the world.
  10. Have you ever kept a daily journal, either for poems or other creative expressions? How might that discipline change your own day-to-day routines?
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‘Paterson’ Richly Rewards the Watchful