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Film: Paterson: A Review

By Christina Turczyn
arttimesjournal April 6, 2017

            There are many kinds of open.
            How a diamond comes into a knot of flame  
            How a sound comes into a word, coloured
            By who pays what for speaking.
                                                                   Audre Lorde, from “Coal”                                                                                                                              


Paterson, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, begins with the line, “Here is the most beautiful match in the world.” Starring Adam Driver and Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, it is a quiet but powerful film that unfolds through the routine of a bus driver’s week, yet is about so much more. I immediately think about whether the spark alluded to is poetry. Or the city itself. It might also be desire, or love, as this is a love story. The poet, Paterson, takes his name after his birthplace. William Carlos Williams is his favorite writer, yet he derives inspiration from the conversations that he hears, as well as from his passion for Laura, his partner.

My own recollections of Paterson are real. I remember two of my students, holding hands before a college-wide exam, while summoning the gods of history to help them pass. I remember owning one pair of red sneakers, which I wore every day, and hearing the class participants cheer me on, despite my lack of urban fashion, “It’s all right, professor. It’s all right.” I remember a person who had become homeless on the day that he came in to complete a course. This is the wisdom of Paterson—you are alive. You might be William Carlos Williams. You might be yourself. You are rushing from place to place. Time will not wait for you. Trees cry ice. The streets are full of music. Houses sing. Allen Ginsberg is around the corner. Brick mill buildings recall strikes. Silk City hums with poetry, beneath ground level, and you are there.

I remember the poetry. I remember reserving an historic space, so my students could speak their poems—among the best I have ever read--there, just before the building next door burned down. “Professor,” said one of my students, who had stepped outside to look. “Grab your books. Now. Run!” So we wrapped up our powerful reading, as firemen broke windows with axes and the students walked quickly away with me, as though this were just another day. It did not matter. Our words had been released into the world, like storm clouds.

Above all, I remember the Poetry Center. Once a month, seasoned poets would gather at the museum or college to hear Mark Doty, Sapphire, Haki Madhubuti, Sondra Gash, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Joe Weil, Joy Harjo, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Marge Piercy, among others. Still in my twenties, I had studied poetry, but this was where I lived it. I am not sure that I believe solely in universality, since the living particular is etched onto the skin, written on the sidewalk—intonations of place lend power to the Spoken Word. This is where I met my mentor Ruth Stone, whose words contained the rain, the cadences of her life. I recall Phillip Levine reading What Work Is, which begins with the words, “We stand…in a long line, waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.” The poet admires a brother who works eight hours on a night shift so that he can sing opera. How will he tell his brother that he loves him? The question of what emotional work is underlies Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson, as does the rich, historical legacy of the city. In a region where most residents earn little over $15,000 a year, dreams are life-saving.            

Jarmusch has given viewers a gem. Although Paterson’s days seem the same, his words move sensitively around their contours. Later, his poems are torn apart. Whether walking his willful dog, or stopping by the laundromat to watch a poet practicing his verse, Paterson is writing because he loves the work. As did William Carlos Williams, between house-calls. As did, the director reminds us, anyone who really cared about poetry. In an interview with National Public Radio, Jarmusch observed: "These people are like innovators and rebels. They deal with changing your consciousness. Their form is not a commercial one.”                                                                       


            We have plenty of matches in our house
            We keep them on hand always
            Currently our favourite brand
            Is Ohio Blue Tip
            Though we used to prefer Diamond Brand
                                              —Ron Padgett, from “Love Poem, Paterson


Recurring images and montage subtly suggest the contrasts in Paterson’s life. The steering wheel of the bus is always turning, as is the hand on the “silent alarm watch” that wakes the main character, every day. I am reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. Every night, Paterson visits a bar, where Everett (William Jackson Harper) is desperately in love with a friend who scorns him, until he pulls out a fake gun. Laura’s dream is to become a country singer. Paterson writes on the bus, which leaves from Market Street. Now and then, water from the Great Falls crashes into his line of vision, suggesting a transparent force. It is a counterpoint to fire. It might be thought, or the woven time that is poetry. It might be the future.

Walking home one day, Paterson encounters a ten-year old girl who writes verse. She writes about rain in a way that is deeply beyond her years. Jim Jarmusch wrote this poem, “Water Falls,” for the film, and one can see how much the main character connects with the child. Like him, she carries a “secret notebook,” in which her poems are hidden. We are reminded that the substance of poetry is not rarefied, but in the dialogues that we have with our younger selves, conversations not neatly packaged, at times sad. “No ideas but in things,” is often repeated as a leitmotif.

The people we meet in the film are poised at the edge of ideas and things. Students discuss turn-of-the-century anarchists, while a phone receiver hangs from its wire, disconnected, on the day the bus breaks down. Lives emerge and lives are buried.

The haunting, final poem that Paterson writes after finding his book of poetry destroyed, asks, “Do you want to be a fish?” What the poem is really asking is: Do you want to be alive in a way that allows you to breathe? To live against daily erasure, drowning? In a final scene, a visitor from Japan (Masatoshi Nagase) hands Paterson an empty book, so that he can begin to write again. “Poetry is breath,” he says, through he does not believe in the possibility of translation. Again, Blake’s grain of sand is foregrounded. Paterson belongs to Paterson, yet not only. Paterson belongs to history, as well as to all of the people in the film and beyond. The poet is ambivalent about publishing. His words, he mentions, “were only words.” “Words on water.”


            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… 
                                                        —Ron Padgett, from “Another One,” Paterson                                                           


What I remember of my Paterson are the books that writers routinely gave me in the cafeteria, in class, and in the gym. Walking through the metal detectors that lined the library doors, I thought that the fourth dimension—something like water or time— must make us free. Their poems were bound with yarn, with fishing line, with tape. I carried those words home with me, powerful as they were. Everyone had a secret notebook. Everyone knew someone who had died.            

Jim Jarmusch has created an original, lyrical film about the life of a city. A long time ago, I would ask poets if they could write about a landscape as a person. Paterson is that person. The film avoids shallow representation by making the city as complex, changeable, deep, turbulent, and philosophical as it is. By showing, perhaps, that the greatest longing comes from life “beneath the wheel.” By showing that industries need to go beyond dehumanization and routine.                                                                       

I wish I could know more about Laura—about her inner life and art. This is where I grew up. This is where I worked with poets who wrote books for their children, while studying literary theory. Poets who worked the night shift, then did homework with their families, then attended classes. Poets who, as adults, read their first books. Poets who were about to be deployed, who wrote memoirs. This is where I met some of the best artists I know, who gave their poetry to the world. I want to hear from Laura. I am saddened that she remains, as a character, incomplete. I want her to be more than a foil for Paterson. I want her to talk about politics. In a place where instruments are hard to come by, I want her to write songs. I want to know why she is obsessed with black and white. I am deeply troubled by the identification with her apparent double, Lota in the Island of Lost Souls. Why the Harlequin guitar?                                                                                                                                                           

When I think of the many people I have met in Paterson, I will never forget one colleague. In the first years of my career, I was involved in a statewide, unionization effort for part-time faculty. I remember working in Paterson during a snowstorm, and not having the funds, in emergency, to take the bus home. This friend, then in her seventies, offered the fare from the bottom of her bag. She apologized that she could not help the faculty at our protest, because her husband was very ill, and she needed to take care of him. She needed to teach. This is the heart of Paterson. I return.

                                                                                    It is difficult
                                                                                    to get the news from poems
                                                                                             yet men die miserably every day
                                                                                                         for lack
                                                                                    of what is found there.    

                                                                                                              William Carlos Williams
                                                                                                                  from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”