Poets' Corner

By Lane, Anthony | The New Yorker, January 2, 2017 | Go to article overview

Poets' Corner


Lane, Anthony, The New Yorker


Poets' Corner

"Paterson" and "Neruda."

Adam Driver plays a bus driver with a calling in Jim Jarmusch's movie.

The hero of the new Jim Jarmusch film, "Paterson," is named Paterson (Adam Driver). He lives in Paterson, New Jersey, with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Every day, Paterson wakes up early, has breakfast, leaves the house, and goes to work as a bus driver--piloting the No. 23, which says "paterson" on the front. He stops for lunch. At the end of the day, he comes home and eats dinner. Later, he takes his English bulldog for a walk, leaving it outside a bar while he goes in for a beer. For some reason, the mutt's name is Marvin, which is ridiculous. It should be Paterson.

If all that strikes you as a little unexciting, you don't know the half of it, or the seventh. In the course of the film, the pattern is repeated each day for a week, with minor variations. The weekend feels no different, except when the couple go to a movie: an old horror flick, "Island of Lost Souls" (1932), which is pretty much the opposite of their domestic routine. (Although, as Paterson remarks, one of the actresses--Kathleen Burke, as Panther Woman--resembles Laura.) Followers of Jarmusch will know that he never likes to be hurried or hustled in the unfurling of a plot. Some of the gags are constructed with a degree of patience that Jacques Tati, the grand master of the slow build, would not have scorned, and the payoff to one of them, involving Marvin and a mailbox, is delayed so long that I had actually forgotten that there was a joke in the works at all.

There is more to Paterson, however; there has to be, since he is played by Adam Driver. One glance at the guy, and you instantly wonder, Why the long face? So fine are those pallid features, skittering with anxiety and intent, that his agent must be constantly tempted to skip the movie offers and enter him in the Kentucky Derby. Driver has a hint of Basil Rathbone, but without the dash, and the time may come when he delivers the most highly strung Sherlock Holmes ever witnessed onscreen. Little surprise, then, that Paterson should harbor a secret--a private fixation, known only to his wife, which keeps him down in the basement, after hours. You can be forgiven for assuming that he is a serial killer, or an abductor, those being the only vocations, as far as movies and TV are concerned, that drive quiet men to their cellars, but no. Paterson does something even more inexplicable. He writes poems.

These are not published. Nor, to Laura's anguish, are they copied for safekeeping. Instead, they are written painstakingly in a notebook, while Paterson is on his lunch break or sitting at the wheel of his bus, waiting to depart. He also reads them, in voice-over--word after careful word, as if the lines were being squeezed out of him drop by drop. You can see what Jarmusch is up to. He is making the effort, which few movies have even attempted, to dramatize the act of poetic composition, to suggest what manner of struggle, or reverie, or self-surrender, is entailed. I don't think his plan succeeds (nor can I really imagine what success would look like), but he boosts his cause by picking poems of a curt and plain-speaking simplicity, apparently free from "the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings" that Eliot refers to in "Four Quartets." The poems that Paterson recites are in fact by Ron Padgett, three of them written for the film. We hear a poem entitled "Poem," which begins, "I'm in the house. / It's nice out: warm / Sun on cold snow."

Nothing in "Paterson" is intolerable. The days trot by; the weather is unerringly pleasant; the bus breaks down, but nobody is hurt. As for the kooky Laura, she starts learning to play the guitar, and paints roundels everywhere--on her skirt, on the shower curtain, and, in frosting, on the cupcakes that she bakes to sell at the farmers' market. (So cute is the visual matching that Paterson eats Cheerios for breakfast. …

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