Yasujiro Ozu, one of my favorite directors, never cared much for incident in his films. He made films about ordinary people leading normal lives. Ozu himself loved routine, establishing a house style that he used in almost all of his work. Jim Jarmusch, on the other hand, defies categorization, making a wildly different film each time he works. Paterson comes about as close as Jarmusch ever has to an Ozu homage.
Paterson is the name of a small city in New Jersey and the film’s setting. It is also the name of the main character, played by Adam Driver, in just one of the film’s many examples of gentle whimsy. Paterson is a bus driver (yuk yuk) who lives with his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a free spirit who dabbles in varying forms of art. They have an English bulldog named Marvin on whom Laura dotes and with whom Paterson maintains an uneasy armistice. The film covers a week in their shared life.
Each day, Paterson rises just before his alarm and heads to work. He drives a bus around town, writing bits of poetry in a notebook on his breaks. He takes advantage of his occupation to eavesdrop on his passengers, gathering inspiration for his work where he can. He returns home and eats dinner with Laura, before taking Marvin on a nightly walk, during which he stops at a neighborhood bar for a beer and occasional conversation with the locals. We see this play out numerous times in the film.
As long as a counterculture has existed, art has attempted to convince us that a patterned life is inherently humdrum, and that we have to escape at all costs. Now, with recent films like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, mainstream Hollywood has taken up the clarion call against ordinary living. In Ozu’s quietly profound tradition, Paterson is a subtle rebuke against the sound and fury perpetuated by most popular art. The characters are content with their lives, and the disruptions that do occur feel all the more significant – and universal – for it.
Paterson has other antecedents, at least in form, that range from Groundhog Day and Jeanne Dielman. Jarmusch, distinctive as he is, has always worn his influences on his sleeve, transmuting and combining the ingredients with which he works like an alchemist. His camera is generally still, planted near its subject like Paterson is to the people around him. Frederick Elmes’s cinematography casts an ethereal glow that conveys the vivid manner in which Paterson perceives the world around him. It lends the film a touch of magical realism, bolstered by the way Paterson sees twins and pairs everywhere.
Driver, whose short career has seen him play eccentrics and zealots of different kinds, is dialed way down here. He straddles the line between passive and active, with the film based around his reactions to other people who live louder lives than he, like Louie without the grim absurdity. His calm performance is not one that is often recognized by people who hand out awards (not to ignore the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s recognition of him), but it is extraordinary in its restraint, not unlike Ruth Negga in Loving. Despite his taciturn presence he is the centerpiece of the film. Farahani, conversely, recalls Maria de Medeiros in Pulp Fiction, all breathy beauty but not much of an actual person. She is the platonic ideal of a supportive partner, a heterosexual man’s fantasy without being offensive. This is not Farahani’s fault, but rather it is simply the way Jarmusch wrote her.
I wish I had seen Paterson before 2016 closed, because it likely would have ranked highly on my year-end list. Few films can change your state of mind after watching them. The glacial pace of Paterson may put off viewers who are used to films with more plot, but it put me into a Zen-like trance. I was reminded of the films of Thai filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who works in a completely different, decidedly Eastern mode, where you may not be witnessing action all the time (if any) but there is nevertheless a constant feeling of motion, like a gentle undertow. That is what Paterson will do for you, if you are open to it.
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