Review © by Jane Freebury
Would this film have attracted much attention without the name of Jim Jarmusch attached to it? About a loving and contented couple, each with creative aspirations, it is just a gentle story devised to remind us of the secret to a good life. Which is not to say that Paterson doesn’t have its qualities.
This independent writer-director will be noticed whatever he does. Since distinctive films like Ghost Dog, with its samurai-inspired hitman, and Dead Man, a postmodern take on the western, his reputation has been secured, but he leaves us with too little to work with here. With simplicity the guiding principle in style and subject, this is the story of a modest man who only needs life’s simple pleasures, however, it leaves you feeling a bit bemused and unconvinced, against your better instincts.
So Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and resident of Paterson, New Jersey (a bit cute), wants nothing more from life than to go home in the evening for dinner with his wife, to enjoy a beer at the local, and have the steady job which affords him creative outlet. While at work he can eavesdrop on his passengers’ conversations, meditate on his own life and find the head space for creative reverie. He also writes poetry.
For a few short minutes while alone in the cab of his bus each day, Paterson distils the feelings that have arisen in him. His poetry probably won’t go anywhere, even though Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) encourages him to publish. We see this confirmed when at his invitation, a schoolgirl reads a poem about falling water from her own collection. It is superior. Even so, you gotta have a dream to sustain you in the humdrum everyday.
Laura’s aspirations are loftier. She would love to be a country and western singer, and spends her day at home learning guitar and giving everything in their cottage a makeover in black and white. The black and white cupcakes she cooks for the local fair are snapped up and there is perhaps is the inkling of a suggestion that one day in the future, she will want more from life.
Paterson is nothing like the apocalyptic, digitised, de-sensitising fare that the US movie industry has been feeding into the mainstream for years, and I am grateful for it. There’s no crime, period. No bus hijacking here, just some mechanical problem for which Paterson has to call the depot. In a context like this, Jarmusch’s film is a standout.
Time has passed Paterson’s residents by, yet the film searches for dignity in its circumstances. There is crumbling infrastructure, there are tall weeds, and some of the people seem to have lost the vitality of their former selves. Yet the city has a proud industrial past. Its famous sons include Lou Costello of the comedy duo Abbott and Costello, the great poet William Carlos Williams, boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The idea for the film was apparently precipitated by Jarmusch’s visit there to research Carlos Williams, one of his favourite poets.
The film’s treatment of Laura is problematic, in my opinion. Her character isn’t well drawn. In an effort to stress the importance of simple pleasures in life, Jarmusch has written Laura as child-like, though undoubtedly not intended that way. The relationship between Paterson and Laura at times resembles that of parent and indulged child, patron and fledgling artist. It is also entirely chaste, which is rather difficult to figure, given Farahani is gorgeous. Perhaps the writer-director’s self-confessed disinclination at representing sex on screen has contributed to this.
So, Paterson, in its determination to make its point about the importance of simple pleasures and the life well lived, strives too hard to bend its material to make it. A pity, because the point is right.
Also published by Canberra Critics Circle