RIORI Presents Installment #194: Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” (2016)

The Film…

The Players…

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani, with Barry Shabaka Henley, William Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon, Cliff “Method Man” Smith,  Rizman Manji, Trevor & Troy Parham and Masatoshi Nagase.

The Plot…

Paterson NJ bus driver Paterson drives by day and lives by night. More like late afternoon when his route is over. It’s then he’s Paterson the poet, poring over his notebook to get just the right words. Like a lot of poets they find their inspirations in the mundane, and often keep their best stuff from the light of day. His wife Laura thinks his stuff is great and should be published, but Paterson is wary.

He feels, well, what if is his work isn’t great? Unlike Paterson’s favorite son and idol William Carlos Williams, our driver friend figures he’s better off being obscure.

Just another fellow traveller, so to speak.

The Rant…

Bad news, folks. Being a Hollywood star isn’t glamorous anymore. Hasn’t been that way for years considering how the Studio System collapsed and died in the early 50s. Back then the Warners, MGM, RKO and a slough of the rest kept a tight grip on their core stars and the projects they were attached to. Simply put, a classic like Casablanca could not be made without Bogie having a contract with the Warners and director in a pinch Michael Curtiz being beholding to the Warners. It doesn’t work that way anymore and for decades. Today it’s just a dog and pony show. Kinda like free agents in baseball. It’s not the laborious quality of the picture that earns millions, it’s the smiling faces and name directors who earn billions. Considering the average cost of a movie ticket is about $12 and streaming services are averaged are $180, the producers in La La Land probably don’t give two sh*ts about creative control and return customers all they want is the dailies to gauge how to leverage a tenth mortgage on they’re third villa in Switzerland. Does this tentpole star this and whomever? Green light! Skiing is fun.

Well…Sometimes it’s just for the better to not follow the double diamond and just keep to the bunny slopes. I never knew if Irwin Allen ever hit fresh powder, and that’s how I wish it.

We’re talking about filmmaker Jim Jarmusch here, the anti-director. He directs his movies by not directing them. That’s what it feels like. That’s a complement. He finds inspiration in the mundanities of life. A lot his movies do. Almost all of them have a low key tenor about them, which is also nice considering most film auteurs utilize wrenching emotion from their delicate toys to make a statement. More like a STATEMENT, whatever that is. And I hate auteur theory. Hey kids, you don’t need to scream to get yourself heard. Anything more is a desperate cry for attention from people you don’t wanna meet. Ever seen an ep of The Bachelorette? Right, me neither.

From what I’ve watched of Jim’s filmography there is always this omnipresent feeling of calm belying the film’s passive/aggresive tension. C’mon, a week in the life of a bus driver sounds very far from engaging. However, once you shroud this picayune plot in dry humor, thoughtful narrative structure and an almost left-of-center sensibility then you got a story. This is how Jarmusch makes his films, with a sense of unease that provides the tension. That and the proto-Monty Python awareness that like Harvey Pekar’s comic American Splendor claimed that ordinary life is complicated stuff. Jarmusch is a whiz with nuance. That and making—demanding—you pay f*cking attention. Blink and you’ll miss a vital plot point, like Bruce Willis looking for a match in The Fifth Element (watch it to get it).

Hey, figure this: Jarmusch’s films ain’t for everyone. They require a degree of patience—a Masters’ degree—as well a keeping a sharp eye. And being patient. It’ll come to you. Just quite literally sit back and relax. Keep your peepers peeled and enjoy the ride. That’s really all their is to it with Jarmusch’s films. That and the tickling, gnawing sensation at the back of your mind continuously prodding you, “What’s going on here?” Usually, it’s a character study shot in a dead pan style. And I ain’t talking about Leslie Nielsen’s comedy roles (see below).

Just…just hold on. Be patient, remember? Thanks.

I may have touched upon this before here at RIORI, but I’ve been adherent to this aesthetic for over twenty-five years so it’s still relevant. Esp’ watching certain kinds of movies directed by Jim Jarmusch. Or Wim Wenders, Richard Linklater or even Woody Allen to name a few. All of those guys have something similar in their execution which is at both times ineffable and relatable. You don’t quite get it, but you get it on some other level, like in the vein of another aesthetic that I’ve been adhering to for the past quarter century. I may have touched upon it before here at RIORI. Again, thanks for your patience. Now check it.

In my salad days I signed up for a college class called “Shakespeare In Film.” Self-explanatory. The prof not only played English speaking films based on the Bard, but also adaptations from other cultures. A BBC take on The Taming Of The Shrew (starring ex-Python John Cleese as would-be playboy Petruchio) was an uproar. There was quite a bit of scenery chewing by Sir Laurence Olivier across several movies. There was this very baroque take on Hamlet by some German troupe which had this whole vibe that wafted, “Sorry about the war and all.” And interpretations in Japanese cinema. Films from esteemed directors like Juzo Itami, Ishiro Honda and of course Akira Kurosawa.

I was hooked. No, not with Shakespeare. I dug his sh*t years prior to the class. Japanese films. No shocker, they sure had a different aesthetic to making movies than us in the West. I found it engaging and refreshing. It was nice to not have exposition rammed down our rifles. Take Kurosawa, for instance. He had this economy to all his movies, from dialogue to action. Say what needs to propel the story only. Engage in action that propels the story. And go bonkers when needed so long as it propels the story. And end the story when it ends. No gag reels. In a sense of artless inspiration, Kurosawa got into filmmaking because it was easier than being a painter.

Noting Kurosawa’s filmmaking ethos, a great deal of his muse stemmed from traditional Japanese art forms and styles. Most Japanese directors do; there’s very little cross-pollination with influences with a culture that were staunch isolationists for centuries. Unlike Western design that one nation culls of from an other (EG: traditional opera is only in German or Italian). What Kurosawa did, like Jarmusch has, was making tropes his own. Something new, something old, something else, pass the salt.

Here, before I get lost in the brambles…

That artistic sensibility I’ve been trolling you with is called mono no aware. It’s Japanese, translates to “moment of transience.” Perhaps you’ve heard of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Tokyo, where in spring the cherry trees bloat with pink petals that fall like snow for a few weeks. Right. Nothing beautiful lasts so appreciate it while you can. Be it cherry blossoms, a month at the beach, or a gourmet meal. Nothing good lasts. Kurosawa was a master of projecting mono no aware. So is Jarmusch, albeit left of center. As for Kurosawa here’s a proper example, all to the right. The final scene of Seven Samurai screams this.

Here. The man’s revisionist take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran follows the basic plot lines, but with a lot of expanse (EG: lots of drawn out scenes). Shakespeare’s dramas are quick and clipped and bouncy (read: all of them). Kurosawa’s adaptations take as much time as they need, be it longer or shorter. Mostly longer. There was this scene in Ran showing a scene of samurai on horseback crossing a river. Pretty standard for a film about a battle. The crossing scene took over ten minutes to film and the creek was barely a yard wide. My prof pointed out to the class to watch this scene. And again. And watch it again. And watch it again. I did, and I got it.

Mindfulness. Listen to the bubbling of the river. Take note of how muscular the horses are, and how they trode to avoid the rocks. The stern, blank expressions of the samurai. Watch this. And watch this again. Again.

It was a moment of satori, which informed the dire matter of why the samurai had to venture into enemy territory. This scene was a grave matter, alluding to future conflicts on a not so distant horizon. Be mindful, watch this.

In Japanese, Ran roughly translates to “chaos.” It’s the opposite of Jarmusch’s muse. Be patient, watch and wait some more. It may be rewarded.

One more thing before I lacerate Paterson this old story. It’s kind of a joke, and you may have already heard it before. If you haven’t, please follow along:

A simple man climbs the mountain to speak with the wise man. Once there he asks, “Wise Man, what is the meaning of life?”

The wise man replies, “Life is a flower.”

The simple man was confused, “What do you mean ‘Life is a flower?'”

The wise man blinks, “You mean it’s not?”

Bestow to Jarmusch’s work and muse, it is.

The Story…

Paterson (Driver) is an average bus driver in Paterson, NJ. Very auspicious, since he’s a part time poet not unlike his hero poet William Carlos Williams, Paterson, New Jersey’s favorite son. Most likely the best thing that came out of the grimy town.

Paterson lives a simple life. Wakes up early without aid of an alarm clock. Enjoys his cereal while pondering his next poem. Taking his moody dog Marvin for a walk after work on the way to tie one on at the local bar. And he’s always especially encouraging—albeit reluctantly—his wife Laura’s (Farahani) creative outlets. Be it an amateur interior designer, guitar student or would be cupcake baker no matter what flighty flight of fancy his bae chases, Paterson’s there for her, with the right complement.

It’s a win-win. Laura is his best fan and critic of Paterson’s poetry. In truth, she’s his only fan. Paterson doesn’t share his passion with the world. Publishing never entered his mind. Just writing poetry and his daily routes—which are one and the same—is all he needs to get by. That and just trying to be Paterson.

No. Not being Paterson the aspirant poet. Being Paterson, Williams’ opus.

Which route to take?

The Review…

It was kind of tricky to wrap up Paterson. I should’ve offered up enough of the story to inform/interest you, but not to blow the wad. It’s hard to do that with films like this. Jarmusch’s style is like reading Thoreau’s Walden. The penultimate “you had to be there to get it” story (the eventual being the Bible. Refute me). You have to watch the films, enjoy them and are incapable to explain to others what you liked about what you saw. Framing and nuance and dialogue are all an actor in themselves. It’s really hard to tell the curious why you loved a certain Jarmusch film. Sure, one has to watch it to get it. Watching Paterson is akin to trying to read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: this is inscrutable “the hell’s going on?” There is a story here. The movie attendant is a lot more attainable. Chill.

Running the risk of sounding too academic—again, sorry—Paterson is kind of like that Joycean aesthetic. Really more like an ep of Seinfeld: amusing, but with a cogent understanding of how to twist words to one’s own advantage. That’s akin to Paterson, as well as Paterson. If I’m using too many big words, you louts. Observational comedy is designed to amuse. But what about the day to day sh*t that is decidedly unfunny? Please, help is on the way.

Unlike “deadpan humor,” where jokes are internally impassive and tossed off, “dead pan camera” movies are framed in emotionless imagery. In simpler terms, you figure out what’s going on here and come to your own conclusion. Jarmusch’s films seldom, if ever, using panning and tracking shots. Y’know, to show momentum. No. I repeat, his stuff requires passive attention. If something seems out of place it’s deliberate (sorry to spoil the moment). Everything is fixed camera work. Dead pan. This technique makes good sense with a story like Paterson’s. It’s a slice of life piece about an amateur poet. Chances are thoughtful scenes of satori deny any Arriflex.

Paterson’s bus route is his muse, and Driver’s (kind of a pun there) performance is nothing short of elegant. Always serene, always trying to be positive and his ears always a-twitchin’ the the urban patois that he smiles with on his ride. The guy makes multiple stops, both literally and metaphorically. My experience with Driver as actor is lamentably lax. Yeah, yeah Star Wars blah. Truth be told, I’ve never seen an Adam Driver film ever, save this one. I liked what I saw. In true Jarmusch style, it’s always refreshing to have a lead who is laidback. Driver’s face is perpetual wonder. To me, Paterson was like a well-adjusted Travis Bickle: a genuine guy with a goal, not a mission. Refeshing. Most of Jim’s protags are victims of circumstance (most created en toto by their bad choices). The only bad choice I saw with Driver as thoughtful Paterson was lack of self-confidence when it came time to put pen to paper. That and his haunted need for a fix. I’m not talking about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to get his imagination churning. He has to be in every moment, every moment in order to write. The man has a codependency issue with his entire environment. If it doesn’t stimulate him, he can’t—won’t—write. That’s normal for every writer, poet or otherwise. It’s intrinsic to the film after all. However most writers need to kickstart their muse if she ain’t talking with them someday. Inspiration favors the single man, and won’t come easy if you just wait around for it. Kind of what Paterson does for a good chunk of the movie. Waiting for the words to come based solely on outside influence.

This is a good thing, and thanks to Jarmusch’s tasteful deadpan camera work we can see our titular friend occasionally straining to write something. If there’s any message to be found in Paterson is at the end of the day, all you have to rely on is yourself. Don’t wait for your ship to come in. Row out to meet it. This Hallmark card drivel leads me to a story I read about prolific author Stephen King. Now, regardless of what he writes—mostly horror, yeah, but also sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries and journalistic endeavors—the guy does spin solid yarns. Some better than others true, but reliable nonetheless because of a schedules he’s kept for years. Whenever he needs a break, mull over his current project or to battle writer’s block he goes for a long walk in the afternoon to clear his head and resume writing refreshed. He isolates himself to think clearly, get inspired by his own imagination. Paterson’s struggle, on the other hand, is not really a struggle. Driver’s both sweet and frustrated face hints at that. Despite our hero has a well-off enough existence, he doesn’t have a life. I believe what he scratched down in his notebook after his route was a life he wish he could have had, Williams fandom or no. Just a thought.

Speaking of Stephen King, here’s how I assessed Paterson’s arrested inspiration in the mundanity of his bus routes. Back in the 80s there was this anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theatre, hosted by the sci-fi great. It may have been staged, but Bradbury introduced each episode where all of his story ideas came from: his office. From the camera eye Ray’s “studio” was crowded with curios, fetishes, models and an occasional stuffed animal (and we ain’t talkin’ plushies here). This guy wrote Fahrenheit 451, A Sound Of Thunder, The Illustrated Man, and The Martian Chronicles inspired by junk? Yep. So goes Paterson, sans stuffies. His passengers are his stuffies, and het gets kinda empty when there’s no business from the gallery. Poets are genuinely like that: if the muse sends them astray, so goes the art. And Paterson always need his fix. It makes his boring life worth it all. Pretty amazing performance by an actor all flat affect. Even when eating quiche. Moving on.

Once you go along with Paterson’s worldview, the rest of the flick falls into place. Passivity, remember? Finish the popcorn already. This is a Twizzlers kind of movie. Chew chew chew. There’s a slow unravelling here. My implication of codependency carefully creeps into our bittersweet narrative. Anyway, there’s the other side of Paterson’s romantic ideas. His life with Laura, his somewhat overly artistic wife. Brash, outgoing and whimsical—everything Pat is not—she seems grounded yet flighty yet with an agenda. She has no routine, and her days are always different. Unlike Paterson. Driver was very good at being guarded, but not in cross-armed kind of way. Not defensive. You gotta admit, having a free spirit like Laura married to everyman Paterson makes a lot of sense. She’s his life coach. Try this, do that. A new dinner. Publish something. She’s gotta lotta designer cupcakes to bake (remember that weird trend in the mid-teens? I served them at my wedding). The more Driver plays a sort of passive/agressive aw shucks routine, the more Laura tries to shuck her clam. Farahani was not Paterson’s cheerleader, and never drifted in magic pixie territory. She was there to stir the soup (EG: the guitar lesson scene), perhaps be the balm to Paterson’s fragged mind and also a stroll with Stephen King. Maybe. Jarmusch’s films allow a lot of room for interpretation. Also overthinking. Both are good things.

Here I reach a quandary. I must admit—begrudgingly—although Paterson fell under the criteria of The Standard (remember that little thing) we should not fool ourselves. A film like this was never intended to be a tentpole. Anyone who’s worth their salt knows all about Jarmusch’s indie cred, and he doesn’t seem concerned with the box office. Me taking on a film like Paterson is a bit of a lame duck. I did it before a lifetime ago with Broken Flowers. That movie like this one was designed to be under the radar, which I believe is how Jarmusch likes it. It’s akin to Prince when he made records for his own pleasure, and if they sold or didn’t it was no big deal to him. He just followed his muse and didn’t wait up for it. Like Jarmusch. Like Paterson.

Simply said, Paterson was a fine example of Jim’s cool process over three deceptively simple acts.

Go tell your friends.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Duh, rent it. It’s like a vacation for your mind. Tune in, drop out and pay just enough attention. Learn patience.

The (Many) Musings…

  • “Just remember—cupcakes.”
  • Laura’s a pretty clever designer, albeit black and white (rimshot).
  • Note: Marvin’s collar.
  • “I am an actor.”
  • (K) Three sets of turns. For every child you see there’s a twin. I had no clue as to what she meant, but it sounded right.
  • Note: the picture of Williams.
  • “Look out Nashville.”
  • Marvin’s a tough critic.
  • Note: and his photo. Keeps wandering around the house.
  • “I know a lot sh*t about that.”
  • loves me some Sam & Dave.
  • (K) NoteTwenty-three is a lucky number. Route 23 is where Paterson finds inspiration.
  • “I’m gettin’ my ass kicked today.”
  • My aunt used to live in Paterson. It was decidedly not as pristine then as it appears here.
  • (K) Note: the chalkboard. WE ARE ALWAYS CHEAP.
  • “Sometimes an empty page presents more possibilities.”

The Next Time…

Boy, have I a whale of tale for you!

Well, actually it’s more like a Shark Tale. But still!


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