Paterson (2016)

by Afra Nariman

Paterson (2016)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Stars: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Method Man, William Jackson Harper


“When you’re a child 
you learn 
there are three dimensions:
Height, width, and depth. 
Like a shoebox. 

Then later you hear
there’s a fourth dimension:
Then some say
there can be five, six, seven…

I knock off work, 
have a beer 
at the bar.
I look down at the glass
and feel glad.”

The term “magnum opus” is typically used to refer to what somebody considers a filmmaker’s unequivocally best, or most important film. Personally, I believe Jarmusch’s best film is Dead Man (1995), and his most “important” is probably either Stranger Than Paradise (1984) or Down by Law (1986); but if there had to be only one, I would call Paterson (2016) Jarmusch’s magnum opus. This is because it is in this film that Jarmusch’s career vision becomes fully actualized. Paterson is not only a film told through simplicity, but it unequivocally is about simplicity; it is about celebrating it and finding beauty in it, which offers a contextualizing lens to viewing Jarmusch’s cinema — again, one which has always story-told simplistically — as a beautiful one. Poetry is the form of literature that celebrates the small details of human life; and Jarmusch’s cinema is the cinema that does the same. Paterson is an effort to express the sentiment that we should stop more often to appreciate the details.

The love poem at the film’s center, regarding the box of matches, illustrates that even the smallest details which fill up our daily lives but that we often refrain from giving much thought to — such as a box of matches — contain the necessary beauty that inspires art, and is what love demands to be expressed through. 

The character of Paterson (played by Adam Driver) is a character, who as the film’s “hero” embodies not only the celebration of simplicity that the film exudes on multiple levels, but also represents a fascinating complex grounded in modern day human existence. Adam Driver’s Paterson is someone who stays neutral as often as he can. He refrains from ever getting too high or too low about anything. In a sense, he simply abides. He is okay with ordinariness, in fact he prefers it. But importantly, Paterson is not passive. 

Existentialists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, pointed at “taking action” as a necessity when dealing with the modern world — for him, cowardice was one of the worst characteristics for someone to have. Although Paterson is not particularly ambitious, such as his wife Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani) is, he is not without desire, passion, or conviction. In other words, he takes action and cares about the things that happen to and around him. There are a handful of scenes where this is most evident; such as when he acts fast to disarm Everett in the bar, when he feels the pain of his notebook being shredded to pieces — he even tells his dog Marvin that he hates him for it — and most obviously when he writes his poetry. Paterson clearly loves his wife and expresses this continuously; at one point writing that if she were to ever leave him, he ‘would tear his heart out, and never put it back.’ He is simple, he enjoys the ordinary details in life; but he is not lacking passion or conviction where it matters most, and he is notably not disengaged with reality. 

The complex that we can observe through Paterson’s character is the contentious concepts of desire and of living in the moment. Paterson was never one to express his desire to ever publish his poetry, he never showed that he truly cared for his words to become eternal. He only ever thought of the moment he was in, which further allowed him to stay grounded in the simple, ordinary existence that he had created for himself. Yet in the end, after his dog ripped up his notebook of poetry, we see that Paterson did have some desire for these things. After the accident, we see him staring at a book of his favorite poet, William Carlos Williams — who we learned earlier in the film, also kept a “secret notebook” of his poetry that became his first published work — and Paterson realizes that the poems he has now lost will never be published. The question that comes to be interrogated here, at the end of the film, is: Can one ever be without desire? The film’s response is: Perhaps not, but we can learn to live with moments of un-fulfillment. 

The main reasoning that someone typically has to rid themselves of a life led by desire, is so that they would avoid failure or disappointment. Although as a film, Paterson seems to embrace such a life that is not motivated by desire — resembling elements of Eastern philosophy — it also seems to express the necessity of taking action in vital moments — resembling the ideas of Western existentialism. Desire and disappointment are presented in this film as unavoidable ingredients of the human experience. Rhetorically, the film leaves us with the question: “or would you rather be a fish?”

While Driver’s Paterson is an endlessly fascinating character study hidden behind the veil of ordinariness, Farahani’s Laura is also an interesting character, one who seems more comfortable with expressing her passions and convictions. She resembles the excitement and curiosity that human beings must live with in order to most successfully survive the harsher factors in life. 

Over the course of all of my previous viewings of Paterson, I never gave this much thought, but Laura’s life seems to be dipped in an embrace of her (Farahani’s) Iranian background. Her home, which is mainly filled with handmade decor and her own unique artwork, also features multiple Persian carpets. Laura plays Persian music while she works, and sometimes sings along in Farsi, too. She dreams of ancient Persia, and wakes up to share these dreams with her husband. I’m not sure if these are just details without particular significance, or how deliberate these details even are; but I do think, whether intended or not, there is something to how these details relate to Farahani’s own life. The actress left Iran in exile in 2008 and moved to the West to create a new life for herself. Laura, in Paterson, is living a simple life that on the surface does not represent elements of her culture — i.e. She hopes to be a country singer, etc. — but these details, these small inklings pertaining to her Iranian identity, fill her day, showing that her culture has never truly left her mind or her heart; and the dream she has of ancient Persia, to me, illustrates that she yearns for a day when she can return and show Paterson the beauty of where she comes from, a culture which is rich in its art and poetry — two things that are of paramount importance in their lives in the film.

There are films that tell the stories of famous singers, of royalty, business executives, lawyers, doctors, actors, or detectives. There are also films about people who don’t have these elaborate jobs, but who have their stories told as they try to achieve something that they consider to be a better way of living. Then there is Paterson — a film that celebrates the ordinary life of a bus driver who also happens to be a poet. Nothing is overdramatized. At no point is there any notion that a “story” needs to be told about any of the characters in the film, or that they shouldn’t be elated to live the life that they do. It is simply a week in their ordinary lives. Paterson is effortlessly profound without being esoteric. It is a truly special film that celebrates the human experience like no other.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

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