This Movie Is About You (Put Away Your Phone)

Paterson A film by Jim Jarmusch.  With Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Nellie.

Every now and then people call something a Zen movie, and the candidate this year is Paterson, a film whose script Jim Jarmusch apparently wrote twenty years ago and in which almost nothing happens.  A man (Adam Driver) awakens every morning in a tiny bed with a stunningly beautiful but seriously ditzy wife (Golshifteh Farahani).  The two of them snuggle and talk a little, then he goes to the kitchen for his Cheerios and coffee and heads to work.

He actually walks to work, a true blessing in this world, then drives a bus around Paterson, New Jersey, the site a famous book by William Carlos Williams and a city whose most famous resident, two of our characters agree, is Lou Costello (though Dave of Sam and Dave was also born there).  Paterson seems to be a small funky city with a strong racial mix, reminding me of my own city, Durham, NC.  It has more picturesque sites than I would have guessed.  He listens to various conversations on the bus, returns home to have dinner with his wife, takes his bulldog Marvin out for a walk (played by the magnificent Nellie, the second great movie dog in successive weeks) and stops for one beer in his neighborhood bar, where the same characters seem always to be hanging out.  He goes home to sleep with his wife, where she enjoys his mild aroma of beer.  Then another day begins.

All this sounds realistic, but this is the world of Jim Jarmusch, where nothing is ever quite real.  For one thing, the bus driver’s name, by an odd coincidence, is Paterson, just like the town.  He not only has William Carlos William’s book Paterson, but he is a poet himself, and finds time every day to write poems in a “secret notebook” (but he’s not the only one.  He keeps running into other poets who also have secret notebooks).  His wife has a dream that she’s had twins, and Paterson seems to run into twins everywhere he goes.  And though I’ve run into various ditzy women in my life, and seen them portrayed in film, there’s never been anyone like Paterson’s wife Laura.

She’s a textile designer, doing everything in black and white, sometimes designing the textiles while she’s wearing them.  She also does their house in black and white, and is likely to be painting the place on any given day.  Though she speaks with an obvious accent (Farahani is Iranian), she wants to buy a guitar and start a career as a country singer, like Tammie Wynette, especially if her ambition to be a cupcake baker (all baked in black and white) doesn’t work out.  She’s stunningly beautiful and absolutely nuts, too good to be true and too strange to be believed.  Jarmusch wouldn’t have it any other way.

What I loved about this movie is that it’s a portrait of a conscious human being, of an artist (actually two artists, husband and wife, though the movie tends to focus on Paterson).  They aren’t necessarily good artists, certainly aren’t great ones, but they’re living the life of artists, and seem quite fulfilled.  (I thought some of the poems—written by poet Ron Padgett—were good, some not so good.  I tended to like them more the weirder they got.  My wife, a more astute judge of poetry than I, thought they were just okay)

Without getting all consciously mindful, Paterson obviously pays attention to his Cheerios, his morning walk to work, the people on his bus, and enjoys his walks with his dog and his evenings at the bar.  He doesn’t own a cell phone and doesn’t want one.  He doesn’t say he’s inspired by William Carlos Williams (whom his wife likes to call Carlos Williams Carlos), but he obviously is, by all poets who lived in an earlier simpler time.  He’s living the life of a poet but just for himself.  He never mentions publishing.

I absolutely loved the scenes at the bar, and all the characters who appeared there; the bartender, a man named Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) is himself worth the price of admission, with his wall of fame about Paterson and his puzzling over chess problems.  There’s a scene with a young girl poet that is one of the most delightful things I’ve ever seen in a movie (you can actually watch the scene here if you’re not worried about spoiling the effect in the middle of the film.  If this scene doesn’t make you want to see the movie immediately, then don’t go.  But do go have your head examined).  And there’s a scene at the end with a Japanese tourist and poet, who has come to visit the city that inspired the book Paterson, that is one of the greatest and most moving scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.  It’s absolutely perfect.

Lest the whole thing seem to be a fairy tale—a couple that never argues; a wife that never cares that her husband keeps stopping at the bar; a husband who doesn’t care that his wife basically does nothing all day (though she’s doing all kinds of things); a husband who doesn’t even complain, and manages to choke it down, when dinner is a cheddar cheese and Brussel sprout pie—there is one bad thing, which for most people would be a very bad thing, that happens in this movie, a kind of domestic tragedy.  The ever stoical Paterson reacts, but doesn’t flip out.  His wife is deeply sympathetic.  The meeting with the Japanese poet addresses, and in some sense resolves it.  Without that domestic tragedy this would be a much shallower movie.  Without the scene with the Japanese poet it wouldn’t be as complete.  With those two things, it moves to the level of near greatness.  It’s certainly the best Jim Jarmusch movie I’ve seen.

It’s also a movie—I rarely feel this way—that makes me want to live my life differently, more consciously, and with more appreciation.  I would like to do my writing the way Paterson does his.

It’s an adult movie.  My highest compliment these days.