Cutting a Man to Pieces: "Paterson"

“Your poems should belong to the world,” Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) tells her domestic partner Paterson (Adam Driver). And he responds, as if imagining that looming and capacious force of phenomenological otherness, “The world.” Every morning while beginning his shift for the city of Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson opens up his notebook and transmutes what the world gives him into poetry; he continues during his lunch break, maybe wrapping up some lines while unwinding in the evening, before taking Laura’s bulldog Marvin out for a walk and enjoying a solitary beer at a local bar. He’s unpublished and apparently doesn’t share what he writes with anyone except Laura, herself a resourceful visual artist always finding new ways to express herself, in paintings, photos, fabrics, shower curtains, drapes, and cupcakes (she’s also taking it on herself to learn music so that she can maybe become a country music star in Nashville). In Paterson, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, the unremarkably prosaic cycle of an everyman’s week doubles for the poetic arrangements in Paterson’s book, the everyman encountering uncanny presences that suggest the creative personality is his own cosmos, the inflections and shadows of his actions and circumstances implying not only the poetic-in-the-everyday, a theme we’re kind of used to, but the terror of such reflective uncanniness, as if each individual’s interplay with “the world” were removed absolutely from our power and will, and in the hands of someone else’s Book of Life.  Paterson is about a man named Paterson in a town named Paterson just as it may be an “adaptation” of William Carlos Williams’ poem collection Patterson (WCW, a name implying doubleness, being a big influence on Paterson), and meanwhile everything and everyone Paterson encounters could be dreamed up by Paterson.

At the risk of sounding like “that guy” (and I kinda am ‘that guy,’ whatever), but elaborating how the picture worked on me, Paterson is like an exercise of Schopenhauer’s “An Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” where one’s life is a dream wrought by a single dreamer in which the dream characters also dream. Jarmusch studied literature at Columbia and perennial mythic fragrances echo in his sardonic, stripped down stories of hipsters and drifters. From one vantage, what we see in Paterson‘s movements and dream characters (or dreams, as the first two mornings have Laura telling Paterson her dreams, which come to haunt his waking life), simply enhance our perspective focus, and the picture itself, which is ostensibly bereft of antagonistic forces and troubling conflict, is an affirming journey of pleasantness and politeness (one reason such a film, so well constructed by its makers, is quite welcome right now), and yet from another angle, and one that’s looming behind the sunny and still countenances, Paterson is suffused with dread alongside its humorous pleasantries. As Paterson wonders to his bartender of the connection between Abbott and Costello and Romeo and Juliet, the film to me is about the thin line between comedy and tragedy.

Jarmusch opens each morning on Paterson and Laura’s modest bed where the two of them are in various sleeping positions (or conspicuous absences). While he doesn’t have an alarm, it seems his biological clock is perfectly timed as his watch the first few days is at a little before a quarter of 7:00 (this changes later in the week). Laura tells him her dreams, such as having twin children, or being a Persian princess and riding a silver elephant. Thrown into the world after his morning cup of cheerios, Paterson thusly encounters twins in several forms: as old men on a bench, young sisters in pink crossing the street, or two young guys playing pool in the bar. Alongside that is the doubling of real life and its artistic figurations, early intimated as Paterson overhears two kids talking about the story of boxer “Hurricane” Carter, the historical personage’s dramatic life story concluding with one of them remarking how Carter “looks like Denzel Washington,” who (presumably unbeknownst to these kids) portrayed Carter in Norman Jewison’s 1999 film The Hurricane. Later on, viewers are struck by the appearance of Moonrise Kingdom‘s adolescent lovers (Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman) as a pair of high school anarchists, their presence a blatant evocation of how viewers met them four years ago. Pairs of opposites, of sex or race or age, may meld together as inseparable lovers and complements of each other, or exist in unbearable tension: Abbott and Costello (Lou Costello being a Paterson resident with his own memorial park and statue), Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, the pool playing brothers (named Sam and Dave, after the soul singing duo), Sam and Suzy of Moonrise Kingdom (who, similar to Paterson, existed in a “private space”), or Paterson and Laura. Paterson’s bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) plays chess by himself (and seems to be “kicking his own ass”), the dual colors of the board reverberating in Paterson’s home life of black-white art, and then his healthy relationship with Laura in contrast to a pitiful bar regular, actor Everett (William Jackson Harper), pining hopelessly for Marie (Chasten Harmon).

The strained (non) relationship of Everett and Marie may be the closest Paterson gets to “structural conflict,” as Everett, whom we learn “needs drama in his life,” pulls a gun at one point after Marie, who “would rather drop dead” than be with him, once more rejects him. Paterson, whom we know through background photographs has military experience, instinctively reacts and wrestles Everett down and the gun is revealed to be a harmless toy with foam bullets. The scene ends with the awkward actor lamenting, “Without love what reason is there for anything?”

As dysfunctional as Everett and Marie are, it would seem that Paterson and Laura are models of a healthy relationship without jealousy, ownership, or drama. And yet something I think Jarmusch would have us notice is that Paterson’s patience and concentration, compartmentalizing what he encounters onto his private pages, in tandem with Laura’s tireless inventiveness, work together in a delicate balance that could very easily stumble, under the weight of an unexpected variable, into mutual resentment. We can sense some unease, for example, when Laura asks if she can spend $400 for a mail-order guitar starter kit (it’s implied that this couple with one steady income flow doesn’t have a lot of disposable income), and later when she surprises him with an improvised dinner dish blending brussels sprouts and cheddar, of which Paterson feigns approval while chugging a full glass of water to wash down each bite (it’s a sublimely funny moment). Laura’s whims, the stuff of an artistic temperament, vacillate from country music plans to starting her own bakery, and if this relationship was under a little more pressure, or if Paterson was a little less patient, the center may not hold. Similarly, Laura could just as well hold against Paterson his procrastination and broken promise to make a copy of his poetry. When compared to either Everett, bartender Doc (who has money problems with his own demanding partner), or Paterson’s bus driving co-worker Donny (Rizwan Manji)–plagued with bad luck from his wife’s demands to a weird rash–Paterson is blessed on fortune’s wheel. How easily could that revert, considering so many practicalities are handled by his “better half”: the iPhone, the iPad, the laptop, things he doesn’t use but sometimes, such as when his bus breaks down, are practical modern-day necessities. And as fortune works out, sure, that broken down bus could have “exploded into a fucking fireball” (as is playfully repeated as a poetic leitmotif following the episode), but what stands out in that particular scene is how Paterson’s bus is advertising a law firm charging “$299 for Divorce” rates. Paterson is “fine,” but misfortune bites at his heels.

The most important double for Paterson is, naturally, the book of poems, a physical object where the inward meets outward, a construction of musings on water and “Blue Tip Matches” that, in a couple instances, are poems where he can express, nakedly (in a way that’s unique for Jarmusch), his emotion for Laura. She knows she’s his muse, inserting postcards of Dante (whose Divine Comedy was written for the noblewoman Beatrice) into his lunchbox and telling him how “Laura” was also the name of the woman who inspired Petrarch’s sonnets. And while Everett’s jealous attachment to Marie (“without love, what reason is there for anything?”) is the stuff of which we may rightly categorize as “toxic masculinity,” there’s a whiff of that, as if it’s tragically an unmovable aspect of the self colliding with the world and attaching to people, when Paterson writes, “If you ever left me I’d tear my heart out and never put it back.”

And perhaps such a confession is best left unread. The poetic realizations of Dante and Petrarch were inspired by unrequited, unconsummated adoration (Beatrice had died before Dante began composition of his his great poem). Maybe then there’s a hidden blessing in how Paterson‘s unexpected antagonist, Marvin the bulldog, does away with his master’s book, ironically serving as “protector of the palace” even as he apparently defiles it. In his adorable bulldog guise, Marvin is a mythic interloper or trickster, tipping over Paterson’s mailbox every day (which Paterson then has to reposition upon arriving home), and who vies for dominance during their walks. The thin line between comedy and tragedy within creativity plays out when Paterson and Laura have a Saturday night movie date where their choices are either Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or the Dr. Moreau fantasy Island of Lost Souls; they choose the latter, and as Paterson and Laura see Richard Arlen stumble into Charles Laughton’s laboratory, there’s the horrified lament, “They’re cutting a living man to pieces!” which is happening just as Marvin, at their home, is tearing up the living text of Paterson’s other self.

Seeing the paper carnage, Paterson and Laura restrain themselves, though the titular hero is perturbed enough to finally articulate a negative judgment on another character: “I don’t like you, Marvin” (and indeed, there does seem to be an undercurrent of malevolence to the dog, who after all belongs to Laura and is asserting dominance). Laura preserves the dissembled raw materials, as maybe one day a computer program can reassemble the decimated corpse of Paterson’s writing. It’s Sunday morning and the broken poet with no evidence of his craft has to unwind, by himself. Stolen of his paper double, he chances on another, Everett, who apologizes for his foolishness and admits, “I lost myself,” something that often happens when one’s afflicted (or blessed) by love, or wrapped up in their creativity. The opposing chess pieces go their separate ways and our hero, hollowed out by his loss, refreshes by the waterfalls that inspire and relax him, chancing on a visiting poet from Japan (Mystery Train‘s Masatoshi Nagase), who, through broken English, leaves Paterson some sage words–and some new blank pages. The sun still rises and sets after all.

While Jarmusch’s style plays out in his typically withdrawn manner, he’s never seemed closer to one of his characters. It’s his warmest effort, something supported by Driver’s beautifully relaxed performance as a totally conscientious individual, open to surrounding material (“trillions of molecules” as one of his poems elaborates, his body moving forth in the perplexing dimension of Time) and in cautious, introverted wonderment. Paterson’s withdrawal and self engagement keep him in check, even while our better consciences as viewers might expect–or even foolhardily demand–he involve himself: get an iPhone; assess judgment on those working class jerks bragging about what women want from them (though, huh, they never seem to actually ask for it); lament those young twin girls walking with their mom in front of a tacky strip club; interject earlier with Everett; tell Laura that no, he doesn’t like this particular abomination of brussels sprouts and cheddar. But as Doc the bartender says, “Try to change things, you make’em even worse.” That’s one of the most problematic aspects of an artist’s relationship to the world, as the creative exhibitor is in the precarious axis where self-interested expression abrades against social responsibility (I mean, c’mon, the Hot Take Industrial Complex craves new blood). That unsettled tremor sticks with Paterson through its seven days and is unresolved–indeed, renewed with fresh blank pages–at its conclusion. Maybe artists can change the world, but more to the point, in its two dreaming lover artists Paterson reveals how artists are unique in how the world changes them. Fortunately for them, the extended object that’s most instrumental in how they move forth in the world is each other.

Originally published in L'Etoile Magazine, January 16, 2017.