William Carlos Williams invented modernist poetry with his college chums Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle in between cups of coffee and mugs of beer at the turn of the 20th century at the University of Pennsylvania’s Quadrangle dorms on Spruce Street.
Or so the story goes.
But Williams, who studied medicine at Penn, composed his greatest works — including Paterson, his loving tribute to the people of that North Jersey city — while living the quiet life of a family doctor with his wife and children in nearby Rutherford in Bergen County.
I think he would have been delighted by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s equally loving treatment of the city in Paterson, a celebration of the creative spirit as it manifests itself in everyday life.
A subtly comic, minimalist film composed of rhyming scenes structured around the daily routines of an ordinary man, Paterson follows a week in the life of a young, unassuming Paterson bus driver. His name is Paterson, and he spends his free time writing poetry in a notebook he keeps hidden in his pocket.
His poems, which were composed for the film by acclaimed New York School poet Ron Padgett, are wry, gently ironic observations that find beauty and grace in ordinary objects, ordinary people, and ordinary events.
Broadway actor turned blockbuster star Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is revelatory as Paterson, a quiet, thoughtful, even-keeled former Marine who is never less than friendly but who always seems a little distant. His sphinxlike demeanor reveals very little of the buzzing, bubbling hive of creative activity and literary reflection he keeps hidden from the outside world. It’s fitting then, that he works on his poems in a tiny makeshift office in his small basement.
Paterson seems content simply to read and write and shows no interest in publishing his work.
Is it because his work isn’t good enough?
So asks the only person who knows Paterson is a poet, his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). While he’ll sometimes share a poem with her, Paterson won’t allow her to touch his notebook, which she refers to with great reverence as “your secret book.”
Jarmusch is famous for populating his films with off-the-wall personalities, and Laura is no exception. Portrayed with obvious relish by the radiant Farahani (About Elly, Les Deux Amis), Laura is an eccentric, if not entirely deranged, woman-child who is obsessed by black-and-white patterns.
She spends her days daubing black and white paint on everything she sees around the house – the curtains, the bed sheets, her clothes, the walls, the dog’s collar. She bakes black-and-white cupcakes, buys a teach-yourself-guitar kit, and dreams of becoming the next Patsy Cline.
Wipe away the couple’s goofy exterior, however – including their weird relationship with their neurotic English bulldog Marvin – and it’s clear Paterson and Laura share a kind of love that’s almost mystical.
Driver and Farahani are backed up by a terrific ensemble cast that includes William Jackson Harper, Barry Shabaka Henley, and Chasten Harmon as the odd and goofy denizens of Paterson’s neighborhood bar.
Paterson is easily one of Jarmusch’s most accomplished films. He portrays the life of the mind and the workings of the creative soul as a kind of secret love affair, a deep, hidden well inside the most ordinary, mundane existence.
In so doing, he inspires in viewers something magical, akin to those little epiphanies that Williams’ poems evoke.
A true work of cinematic poetry, Paterson manages to convey the inner workings of the creative process like few films before it.