Paterson (2016)

It takes chutzpah to write and direct a movie as on-the-nose as Paterson.

Which I loved.

Adam Driver plays Jim Jarmusch’s title character Paterson, a bus driving poet in Paterson, New Jersey, who loves William Carlos Williams, who wrote the epic poem Paterson. Glenn Kenny’s review points out that Williams’ poem contains the line, “and so to man, / to Paterson.” That’s what the filmmakers are going for; embracing the movie requires a tolerance for twee, but the payoff is worth it.

A filmgoer conditioned by Scorsese’s loner anti-heroes will spend the first half of Paterson waiting for the snap. The music contributes to the unease, suggesting Jarmusch is pranking the audience a bit; two scenes late in the film are shot and edited to anticipate a particular outcome which is then subverted (I could have done without the director’s giggle.)

It’s hard to imagine this material working with another actor. Adam Driver is one of the few heirs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a performer whose characters exist before and after a movie, live and breathe between the scenes. Decency isn’t particularly dramatic, but Driver embodies Paterson’s inherent goodness and also shows his constant effort to do the right thing.

The citizens of Paterson reflect the character’s decency. If most urban dramas lean toward alienation and man’s inhumanity to man, Paterson’s bus riders and blue collar workers and bar dwellers aren’t glued to their phones, but interact with curiosity and respect. Driver’s character observes it all with delight, the sound design and cinematography gently nudging our attention to what enthralls his imagination.

Williams said, “The purpose of an artist, whatever it is, is to take the life, whatever he sees, and to raise it up to an elevated position where it has dignity.” The movie’s achievement is capturing that spirit (Paterson’s poems in the film are by Ron Padgett, and Jarmusch composed one that’s recited by a young girl, all in Williams’ modernist style.) The concept of “twins,” both literal and figurative, is a recurring internal rhyme of sorts. By the time Paterson finds himself on a park bench in front of the Great Falls, seated next to a Japanese poet, Jarmusch gathers up his carefully laid threads and reveals a sublime tapestry.