One of our greatest directors, Jim Jarmusch’s only folly is also, typically, his greatest strength: a mantra of stylistic overtness, an inclination to pleasure himself with artistic beauty. Most evidenced in his recent Only Lovers Left Alive – a wonderful film that occasionally felt like a parody of a Jarmusch film – he cannot easily resist the lustrous glaze afforded by bold and brash stylistic provocation. In that film, he took the form of an aesthetic kinship with his subjects: withered, ailing souls subjecting themselves to a life of oppressively organized faux-clutter, basking in the ersatz-messiness of high-class low-class pretensions as they erect a wall of Bob Dylan records and Jean Pierre-Melville films to hide themselves form the world. To the extent that Jarmusch is akin to his specimens (and again, he’s among my favorite filmmakers), he risks aesthetic over-commitment and the cloying sedative of self-canonization, returning to his longtime well rather than introducing himself to the wider world away from his mind. It is telling that the protagonists of Lovers both look like Jarmusch and act his films and are, coincidentally, vampires that consume the past to hide their own lack of presence.
As if prematurely sensing the potential for his style to slip into this kind of self-alienation and affectation, Paterson gives Jarmusch a different subject to massage his style around, a man who is, much like the characters of Only Lovers, a very model for the film containing him. In this case, though, he is also a model for Jarmusch’s new lease on life. Paterson is a respite from the ailings of the troubled artist defending himself by walling himself away from experience. To push further, it might register to the Jarmusch aficionado as an implicit critique of the romantic starving artist mantra Jarmusch is sometimes content to lean too heavily on or to use as emotional shorthand from time to time.
Adam Driver plays Paterson, who is, oddly enough, a working-class (bus) driver in Paterson New Jersey. And he writes poetry. But these two actions, driving and writing, are not a dichotomy; Paterson’s very artistic oxygen, much like Jarmusch’s in this film, is the roving spirit of the world around him, not the artistic prison of his own mind. Paterson the man is not hermetic; the film does not implore us to accept that his external life bus-driving is a faux-life that masks Paterson’s “true” idiom of poetry only discoverable when he is behind closed doors. Bus-driving is inextricably linked to his artistic life, since he finds spiritual nourishment in his daily routine. He seeks out experience, keenly observing the world generously, seeking artistic vitality in other people and places rather than pronouncing judgement on them.
Thus, Paterson is a poem about the relationship between the mind and the public world, a negotiation of self and society. But it shuns the artist’s demise found in the impossible dream of mental self-enclosure awash in a sea of self-affirmation. Instead, Paterson offers a resilient vulnerability to the empowering strains of lived experience. It considers the mind not as a domineering agent or an omnipotent and omniscient creator or patriarch that creates its own world, but as an attentive and reactive semi-agent, a moment-to-moment translator of the world that recreates experience in its own idiom. Insofar as the film seeks transcendence, it is as an always ephemeral – thus always re-achievable – and always imperiled – thus always newly possible – project of the material world. It teaches us to not so much to live lives of accomplishment – as we are always told to – but lives of experiential experimentation, approaching intellectual life as an insecure extravaganza always in-the-making.
Which is why Paterson’s story cannot survive being filtered into a narrative of self-growth and the ensuing self-congratulation that adjoins it. This is particularly important for a working-class narrative. Our American lexicon for understanding the world always subjects women, racial minorities, and the poor and working class to narratives of accomplishment and aspiration, linear trajectories of problem and solution, catastrophe and completion. Ultimately, these narratives flatter our sense of the world – particularly the American world – as a perpetual and perennially unfinished story of overcoming and constant progress, denaturing critiques of this language – immanent critiques – by implying that everyone can define their lives this way if they only just try harder.
Most progressive films indulge our sense of American possibility, exploring underrepresented populations as they attain positions of social power – women in the military, for instance, thereby defining power in militaristic, masculine terms. Poor people get middle-class jobs or wealth in films, but they notably do not receive the mental complexity of experience that normative, middle-class people routinely welcome in fiction. Films about poor people are so often defined hermetically in relation to poorness. A lack of wealth totalizes their lives, which become mere quests to exceed poverty, to become “better” as we socially define the terms, to actualize.
Paterson is unique in that it doesn’t treat its protagonist’s life as a barrier to real mental, artistic potential; he thrives off of the everyday. The film resists the American cinematic compulsion to dichotomize a life of “heroic” action – which could be enacted in an aspirational narrative, with Paterson raising to new positions in life – with passivity. He is not passive so much as comfortable – or rather, the capitalistic passive-active dichotomy does not apply to his life. Paterson the man’s life draws from Paterson the city, and the film in turn draws from both, always seeking new inspiration and refreshing itself throughout. Rather than follow a myopic story to completion – actualizing a goal – it wanders around, conjuring life as a quiltwork of tangents and digressions.
Thus, Jarmusch’s style – like his spiritual protégé Kelly Reichardt – is ever on the move. It is a stunning dance of semi-free-flowing rhythms, moments that are not neutered but given reason by the regimentation of life into parcels and patterns of time. Paterson lives off of this aesthetic tension between the life of Paterson’s mind, or his habit of moving between sights and sensations for inspiration, and his body, or his daily rhythms and schedules. The poetic style loosens the screen within the narrative framework, massaging moments into diaphanous sequences endlessly suggestible to new perceptions and sensations. Yet the beauty is not enforced onto the streets and people of Paterson. Rather, effuses out of them. As opposed to asking the people of Paterson to improve themselves, the film simply watches them express themselves, finding beauty within life as it is, and the film expresses with them.
So Jarmusch’s film, notionally more “realistic” than his earlier films, is no more stylistically malnourished. Jarmusch’s style complements this melting point between physical experience – visual sensation – and the life of the mind – mental perception. It’s simply that Jarmusch here is not given to the skeleton of melodrama – or even fits of grandeur – so he doesn’t choke his movie with arbitrary style, just as he eschews arbitrary narrative. The aesthetic is quiet, perceptive, seeing rather than knowing. Words of poetry dot the screen, but they aren’t preciously penned with a quirky hand, dominating the screen. Rather, they emanate from the mind, intermeshing with the doldrums of ordinariness they are constructed out of. The poetry of ordinary life is not stimulated by grand-scale shifts in Paterson’s material stature so much as his will – his urge, his itch, one might say – to imbue routine with the split-second differences and wandering refrains of poetry.
Life becomes art, as they say, but Paterson is different in that life does not imitate Elephant art, to reclaim Manny Farber’s term, with its high-scale pretensions and mile-a-way monolithic (and thus myopic) fixation on reimagining all of life as one giant metaphor for artistic invention. No, Paterson is much less programmatic – one might say it is anti-programmatic – in that lives by a mantra of unfinished, silent significance. Furthermore, it treats a working class existence not as an implicit failure or a stop-gap on a way to Something More (copyright pending), but as a way of being. One of the beauties of Paterson is that, while it boasts undercurrents and reservoirs of anxiety and crisis, it is about living within these reservoirs rather than nullifying them or obliterating them with your virile might as a person capable of conquering your emotions.
Befitting its grounded demeanor, Paterson is also wonderfully moored in place, in the mind of Paterson New Jersey, which is itself radical in an era of ersatz and non-descript locational cinematic backdrops that only exist to flavor the protagonist. The film decries the universalism of most films and their knee-jerk compulsion with making their experience relevant to everyone. Instead, it introduces the iterative and endlessly hybridized act of playing with the specific world around you, not presuming that your actions are a model for human experience, but simply for your own. Most importantly, it does not try to relate to us, to wrap us around its fingers to indoctrinate us into its cohort. It does not ask that we make it ours, that it can be our lives.
Instead, it hopes that we interpret it as itself. We must reach out to Paterson, since it does not want to reach all the way into us. Most films flatter us by feeding us our own minds, reaffirming our perspectives. Paterson encourages imaginative empathy with a foreign voice. It asks you to do the work of delving into its mind, into seeing an artistic consciousness at work that is not fully equatable to every audience member that confronts it. It does not speak to moments that “resonate with us” or “speak to our hearts” or “feel true”, to utilize common parlances of a culture that appreciates films for their ability to imitate our life. It does not “feel so real and genuine”. Instead, just as Paterson himself does, the film asks that you identify with a perspective that is not you, that remains outside you, but that you can draw from nonetheless.