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Paterson (2016): A Poem in Vision

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Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016) is a challenging film to watch. With little happening in terms of macro plot-points and without any major build-up, it seems to be another of those renditions that transform commonplace existence into the extraordinary by being a mediator that reinforces the profundity in ordinary life. Initially, the movie appears to tell the story of a man from a small city in America who drives a bus for a living, but is deeply engaged in the art that apart from being very personal, defines him as an individual. But what is it that makes a story-teller want to start a discussion around a simple man who has a mundane job and no ambition whatsoever?

To answer that the poetic sensibility of the protagonist sets him apart from the crowd and makes him an interesting subject would be like stopping midway in our understanding of the movie. The part that makes the answer complete, lies in the way we are trusted by the director to watch the movie. This is essentially a tale about a narrative vision where the character or the individual is not the primary story being told, but a metaphor of, or even a surrogate for the director’s engagement with visual story-telling.

We arrive at a story with expectations of being taken on a ride that will take us through change. Conventions of the practice must admit responsibility for such expectations. Hence, disregarding the lack of any such suggestion from the narrative, I began to anticipate some kind of derailment within the story. Later in the article, I will also state that there are suggestions of impending disaster within the narrative.


I was expecting Paterson to eventually express frustration with his routine, some dissatisfaction with his artistic process, some trouble with his eccentric, equally artistic partner (Golshifteh Farahani) or at least a show-down when his notebook is ripped apart (a dog-jacking for the penny?). I was expecting these despite being no foreigner to Jarmusch films and repeated assertions by Paterson himself that he is okay! If anything, I put the blame on the insinuating ‘Divorce for 299$’ banner stuck on the bus that Paterson drives around

For several reasons I retain the oscillation between the arguments that it is the narrative which has incited me to expect drama and that it is a tendency I have thrust upon a story, which makes me suspect even innocuous details. The issue of the desire for drama and denouement has a compelling impact on story-telling, especially on form and structure. It is a factor that any filmmaker must grapple with, and Jarmusch must have had his share of deliberation in this case (consider the scene with the Japanese poet). More than anything, such consideration predicates on the theme of this film, as stated above, and crucially defines it.

Related to Paterson (2016): Coffee and Cigarettes [2003] – Discerning the Sublime among the Quotidian Banality

Then we have the template of the ‘slice-of-life’ narratives, which believes in portraying life just the way it is. Jarmusch in various interviews has stated that he wanted to make “a love story” which is an “anti-dote to drama, action, entertainment”. He has identified Paterson (2016) as the story “of a poet who is a working class bus driver” and “chooses to live the way he wants”, a story that is “observational” and consciously “anti-significant”.  Talking about this movie, he has described action as the act of listening and how observation of the varied details of everyday life has replaced dramatic tension. This explanation is adequate if we are satisfied with the concern for surface realism.

But what if perspective is the protagonist of a story? Does it still require apocalyptic moments of cinema to make a statement? Or do close-up shots of a partially filled beer mug and shoes of random bus passengers suffice? I am inclined to believe that Paterson, the individual, is not where the plane of vision ends, is not the object of observation, but the lenses through which the process of observing has been perpetuated. This reasons for how shots such as the aforementioned one not only complements the nature of the narrative, but also enriches it. Because the movie is about the way we look at things, the attention is directed towards each and every breath that a shot, sequence or scene breathes in the movie. In the absence of energetic movement, Paterson is the metaphor, emulating the vision of the filmmaker.

Jim Jarmusch prepares us for this difficulty through guile. This guile makes the film more approachable and has helped it garner “universal acclaim”. There is a deception nurtured in the narrative that makes us want to believe that the film throws up issues of transience and recognition, finally willing us to ponder what makes life extraordinary. This is what I meant when I said earlier that this narrative is replete with provocations. The story minutely inspects two strains of Paterson’s life: his artistry that thrives in spite of, or rather, because of his professional choices and his relationship with his partner, Laura.

Paterson has arranged his life in a sedate, staccato routine that nevertheless accommodates his passion for poetry. But he is completely without any ambition when it comes to his art. Regardless of minor hiccups, he leads a comfortable existence that becomes contentious in the course of the narrative. What is a story after all without conflict? Here grows the suspicion that Paterson probably feels stilted due to lack of better opportunities and his relationship with Laura is irrevocably sliding towards rupture. But nothing comes to pass when we follow the two aspects to the end. The only crisis for Paterson is incidental and devoid of narrative accumulation. The strains, however, are not cul-de-sacs in terms of linear progression but comprises the very elements that represent the directorial vision.

The tact used by Jarmusch feeds on the desire for conflict. Laura repeatedly suggests that Paterson should share his poems with a wider audience which is the first challenge to the way he functions. This is compounded by Laura designing the house with her personal aesthetics. The scenes inside their home, which occupies a large section of the movie, are overpopulated by Laura’s vision and it feels like Paterson is on the brink of being smothered by her creativity. So, these must be ill-omens of emerging conflict (or so I thought!). This anxiety is deliberately and meticulously planted and sustained by Jarmusch. It is unnerving that beneath or rather in spite of pacific action the movie can hold so much tension within itself.

Similar to Paterson (2016) – Stranger Than Paradise [1984] – A Charmingly Low-Key Classic of American Indie Cinema

It does not help that we are not given a morsel of additional information about the characters’ past or future (except that one photograph of Paterson in service uniform) and must draw conclusions about the couple and their relationship through a glimpse at just one week of their lives. Only when we reach the end of the movie do we realize that this tension is a ploy. The anxiety rests with the audience alone and is not felt by the characters since they are perfectly in tune with each other, more than we can imagine.

A shot-by-shot analysis can be tiring, but I feel compelled to write this one hoping it would be the only I indulge in for a long time. In the segment titled ‘Monday’, when Paterson returns from work Laura is seen decorating the house with curtains in an overload of black and white motifs which is apparently her thing. They talk about becoming rich if her dream of having a successful cupcake business kicks off. There can be nothing frivolous about wanting to have a successful cupcake business, but Paterson’s lukewarm response to her enthusiasm makes one feel that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. His understated appreciation of the new curtains implies that he is probably cringing inside and thinking, not more of those! The point-of-view shots at Marvin and his cartoonish portraits add a comic tone to the scene which complicates it. Laura’s suggestion that Paterson share his poems with the world is set in this jumble. Important pieces of information are conveyed in this scene through responses and interactions that are either noncommittal or utterly misleading. The conclusions that a viewer may reach by the end of the segment do not add up to anything. The complications increase as the week progresses and everything ultimately comes together only in retrospect, i.e., ‘looking back’ at events.

                                        ‘Gazes’ and ‘Responses’ in the ‘Monday’ segment

In Down by Law (1986), Jarmusch does not show much interest in the adventures of prison-break as in the interactions between the three prisoners. The story does not make one grab onto the edge of one’s seat and think ‘what next, what next?’ Instead, it makes one contemplate the oddities of the interface between three individuals. Paterson (2016) is similar in the way it deviates from genre expectations and the way it concretizes the exploration of an artist’s vision. This artist is not Paterson, but Jarmusch himself and the narrative speak for itself. So you learn that it doesn’t matter how this scroll unfurls but rather what the scroll consists of.

The movie is a chiaroscuro of patterns, coincidences, inside jokes, references, and the cityscape is connected in a network of meanings only if one knows how to find them. Moreover, the city is connected with the legacy of the famous poet William Carlos Williams and Paterson is a bearer of the memory of his artistic achievements. His meeting another poet, a young girl waiting for her mother with her secret poetry notebook in her hands, is a remarkable moment of the happy collision of creative universes. It replicates the other interaction between two artists─ Jarmusch and William Carlos Williams (metaphorically of course). The contrast between the Indian-origin bus conductor (Rizwan Manji) at the depot and the African-American rapper (Method Man) in the laundry conveys what it means to live with the quality of creative expression.

Point-of-view shots from the perspective of Paterson light up the body of the cinema. While these shots can be cryptic in themselves, they let you under the skin of the city, into the hearts of the characters and inside the mind of Paterson himself. As a viewer, I became his accomplice when in the several scenes inside the bus I was entrusted to observe the passengers on Paterson’s behalf since he could only overhear them. The poems of Ron Padgett are the beating heart of this work. Their appearance on the screen, in the form of written words in conversational font, adds a mystical dimension to the film and challenges the realism of the form.

While the story follows an individual, the setting is a looming presence in itself. Paterson (2016) is tricky in this respect and the sleight of hand (rather, vision) is so subtle that it is easy to miss. Let’s not forget that the city and the protagonist are namesakes and the title can be as transitive as the breadth of our imagination. There is a suggestion that the movie could be either about the city that cradles humanity and a humanity that thrives in a certain landscape that has its own challenges, politics, frustrations and respite.

This is what the director directly gives us. What we can wean, through the love for Jarmusch’s cinema, is that this movie is about the third alternative— the choice between the two, that rests with us, that we can exercise in deciding what this movie is about after all.  The brilliant Adam Driver’s character embodies this choice; he is an allegory of the ability to choose the way we perceive and organize.

The movie is unusually minimalist. Every frame is teeming with details that make one want to revisit the movie and keep discovering this little element and then another. It is like sifting through the sands on the beach for the broken remnants of dead aquatics, except that you are not on a summer holiday. You can be there on the beach for as long as you have been and desire to.

Also, Read – Dead Man [1995]: The Poetry Of The Sinners.

A film about an individual can be reasonably expected to capture a slice of transition, a movement from one point to another for better or worse. It dawned upon me that Paterson would have anyway recovered from the loss of the notebook and pursued his vision, even without the exhortation of the Japanese poet (Masatoshi Nagase). He would continue to write his unrhymed poems the way he continues to fix the tilted mailbox every time Marvin, the most endearing of antagonists in the history of cinema, leaves it raked. The scene with the Japanese poet in fact seemed jarring in its attempt to make a point and quite out-of-sync with the grain of Paterson (2016). The validation seemed unnecessary but I guess it was necessary for reasons of general good.

Paterson will never publicize his poems. Even Laura is not a regular audience and knows only as far as his general writing habit and the occasional topics. Paterson comes alive when he overhears conversations between his passengers which are food for his thoughts. This sensitive man unflinchingly identifies himself as a poet before a suitable interlocutor. His artistic process is personal like Jarmusch, an artist who has carved a space for himself in the cutthroat business of making cinema. His process is important to him and it is this commitment that matters the most. The destruction of his poems, though a setback, ultimately means little for the solitary poet who has constructed his world with authenticity and creativity. He is steeped in his own artistic world of freedom which is infallible and inviolable as long as he is able to engage in his introspections, observations and artistic enterprises. There is no digestible meaning or moral, but the movie is about all the choices a film-maker makes from the first sign of an idea to the phase when a film is made, and beyond.

You can’t watch a movie like Paterson (2016) the way you would a ‘conventional’ drama. You would probably miss the t-shirt with an Arabic-script motif that Golshifteh Farahani wears. That is the spirit of Jarmusch’s cinema.

Paterson (2016) Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes

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