New York City-based filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is widely recognized as a founding father of modern American independent film. Early Jarmusch masterworks Stranger Than Paradise and Mystery Train helped define a new aesthetic for indie films in the 1980s, one that valued small-scale personal expression over mass entertainment or the requirements of the marketplace. Thirty years later, Jarmusch's films continue to celebrate the poetry and humor found in quiet, seemingly mundane moments experienced by everyone.
Paterson takes the writer-director's distinctive worldview to a surprisingly literal extreme through its title character, a talented but unpublished poet who works as a bus driver in the small New Jersey city also named Paterson. The fleeting moments of humor and insight that characterize Jarmusch's work are present, but they are used as building blocks for something new. The film quickly moves beyond merely finding inspiration in the work of what is known as the New York School of poets, instead taking on the difficult task of essentially functioning itself as a poem.
Associated primarily with the 1950s and '60s and featuring primary exponents Frank O'Hara and John Ashbury, the New York School is known for poetry that is ironic and sophisticated yet plainspoken and direct — often written in the form of personal observations of daily life as they might be told in conversation.
Paterson is a two-hour expression of that style and approach "designed to just drift over you," as Jarmusch has described the film. Drama and conflict are notably absent. It's all meant to induce a meditative state of mind in which the only currency is observational detail. Think of the film as requiring audience participation — those not willing to go with its peculiar flow are likely to find it long and plodding. But pleasures await those with the fortitude and presence of mind to accept Paterson on its own terms.
Paterson (Adam Driver) is not a man bothered by routine. He wakes up at the same time each morning and quietly marvels at the beauty of his wife Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) as she sleeps. He overhears intimate conversations between passengers on his bus, has spontaneous verbal encounters with interesting strangers on the street and steals brief moments to write his elegant poetry. When not applying her unique visual aesthetic to everything from curtains to cupcakes, Laura encourages Paterson to publish his poems and pleads with him to make a copy of his "secret" handwritten notebook.
Driver, who recently has graduated from indie-film darling to playing Darth Vader's grandson in the rejuvenated Star Wars franchise, brings a wonderfully unaffected presence to the film, and Farahani is radiant as Paterson's exuberant muse. Even the poems, which appear in handwritten form on screen as Paterson recites them in endearingly matter-of-fact style, have an air of authenticity. All were written — some expressly for the film — by 74-year-old New York School poet Ron Padgett.
Paterson is largely about how creative endeavors enrich our lives in crucial, personal ways apart from issues of recognition or fame. It's easy to imagine a spiritual connection between Jarmusch's fictionalized town and our city of New Orleans, where people spend months creating costumes for a single, special day and world-class artists perform on the street. The larger message has to be that life, like art, only is what you make it.