Poetic License

Jim Jarmusch, Paterson, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Paterson (Adam Driver). Photo: Mary Cybulski.

“THAT A MAN IN HIMSELF IS A CITY” is the high theme of William Carlos Williams’s modern epic Paterson (1946–58). Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, identically titled, is also about a man who is identified, at least by name, with his city, though the tone of the film is considerably lower-key than that of Williams’s poem. Jarmusch’s Paterson—we never learn the rest of his name—is a bus driver (played by Adam Driver—is there some Oulipian doubling going on here?) who lives with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and their dog, Marvin, in a cottagey little house on a scruffy street. But Paterson has a second life: In his basement writing cave, chockablock with books ranging from Frank O’Hara to David Foster Wallace and beyond, and with a framed photo of Doctor Williams himself on the wall, Paterson painstakingly composes his poems (actually the work of Ron Padgett, the esteemed poet and translator whose many honors include, natch, winning the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Poetry Society of America two years ago).

Laura—not exactly an artist but possessed of a “unique visual style” (her words) that manifests itself mainly by painting black-and-white patterns on everything in the house, though the colorful portraits of Marvin that also adorn the place are presumably her work as well—assures Paterson that he is a great poet and begs him to share his work with the world, or at least to Xerox his writings so that the notebook in which he inscribes them won’t be the only copy. (Chekhov’s rifle is being loaded.) Like many of Jarmusch’s films, Paterson has a manifest temporal structure: It begins with Paterson waking up on Monday morning to head to work at the bus depot, and wanders its way through the week, day by day, until the following Monday morning. It’s the structure of ordinariness, and Paterson might be dailiness personified. Poetry is part of his routine, and he’s averse to making more of it than that.

A persistent question hangs over the film: How plausible is it that the very ordinary guy, detached from anything like a literary community, could write the slyly deadpan-quizzical poems we see Paterson scribbling? The film conveys no sense of “process” in writing; for instance, he never seems to revise, though the poems are not messy and effusive in the “first thought, best thought” tradition of another Patersonian poet, Allen Ginsberg. What makes Paterson convincing as a poet is not the way he writes but the way he listens. The best of Driver’s performance comes in the look of attentiveness that plays across his face as we watch him listening to his passengers’ conversations as he drives. Those snatches of talk never find their way into the poems we see him produce, but somehow it makes sense that someone attending with such pleasure to unknown others would find something similar to hear in his own passing thoughts. And it’s not only talk he listens to; the sound track suggests that he hears random sounds in a particularly acute way. (I’m not the kind of guy who normally scans a movie’s closing credits to find out who the sound designer was, but in this case, I’m sure Robert Hein, a longtime Jarmusch collaborator, deserves special mention.)

Paterson takes in much more than he ever expresses outside of his secret notebook. I thought of Williams’s lines, “Eternally asleep, / his dreams walk about the city where he persists / incognito.” In his reserve, he is pointedly unlike his acquaintance Everett (William Jackson Harper), a fellow patron, described as an actor, of the bar at which Paterson sips his nightly after-work beer. (The easy mixing of races at the bar does not reflect the Paterson I grew up in, unfortunately; maybe things have changed for the better, but probably this just reflects the understated idealism that is part of Paterson’s charm.) When Everett’s girlfriend, Marie (Chasten Harmon), breaks up with him, he pulls a gun and threatens to shoot first her, then himself. Paterson impulsively lunges at Everett and knocks the gun from his hand. It turns out to be a toy. Everett’s feelings are genuine but his theatrical expression of them, false, ridiculous. The event nonetheless leaves Paterson shaking.

This scene seems to point to the anti-histrionic ethic Jarmusch wants to endorse for the everyman poet who might be any of us. But to be a poet, it helps to find yourself in encouraging circumstances. The very fact that Paterson (the city) has already produced poetry might help propagate it there again. Paterson (the character) works under the sainted Williams’s guardianship. High school students on the bus talk about Gaetano Bresci, the Italian-born Patersonian anarchist who assassinated King Umberto I of Italy in 1900; the bartender, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), says that Sam Moore of Sam & Dave once lived in town. The numerous historical references can feel a bit stilted, though I was sorry that there was no mention of Larry Doby, who followed Jackie Robinson to become the second black player in major-league baseball. But the movie is sweetly aware of the difference it makes to know one belongs to a place that’s been touched by extraordinary being—it somehow makes you see yourself differently.

But is it true? Can growing up in a city that’s been grounds for poetry make a poet? I can’t say for sure, but I know that when, as a high school student on Paterson’s east side, I heard or read that someone had written a book-length poem about my own cruddy hometown, I was flummoxed enough to want to go to the library and see what in the world that book was. It changed my life. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn, years from now, that this Paterson might have changed someone’s life too.

Paterson opens in select theaters on Wednesday, December 28.