Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a love poem to the Rust Belt

Adam Driver in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson

Though it opened before the end of 2016, in time to be nominated for an Academy Award, Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie, Paterson, got no Oscar love. That’s too bad, because this charming “little” film is just about perfect in its modest way, and deserves to be seen (by audiences who have high tolerance for stories that unfold very very slowly onscreen). You can still catch it hereabouts, as it’s finishing up its run at the Rosendale Theatre on the publication date of this issue of Almanac Weekly and will continue screening for one more week at Upstate Films Rhinebeck.

Kinetically, the most exciting things that happen in Paterson are a bus engine conking out, a jilted lover brandishing a toy gun in a bar and a consequential act of vandalism by a very naughty, very homely bulldog. But if you enjoyed Jarmusch’s early works like Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train, with their low-key, offbeat, mostly nonverbal humor and excruciatingly hilarious pacing, you are likely to love Paterson. There’s at least one moment (also involving the jilted lover in the bar) that is the most Jarmuschy scene that I’ve seen in a movie since the 1980s. Only Lovers Left Alive, the director’s moody 2014 vampire movie, had its virtues; but it’s in Paterson that Jarmusch reverts to his quirky indie roots big-time.

Unlike those early films, Paterson is filmed in glorious color. Its protagonist, named Paterson (Adam Driver), is a working-class poet with considerable talent (his poems read aloud in the movie are actually written by Ron Padgett) who drives a city bus in Paterson, New Jersey. As is usual in a Jarmusch opus, the run-down neighborhoods depicted are caressed by the camera, with exquisite attention paid to lighting and framing and reflected images. Paterson the character doesn’t mind the dull routine of his work because it frees him to devote himself to observation, and through his eyes we see the fleeting glimpses of luminous beauty that somehow leak through all the cracks in the eroding cityscape. At the center of his universe are the Great Falls of the Passaic River, where he stops to eat his lunch and contemplates the cataract that inspired his poetic role model, Paterson-dweller William Carlos Williams.


What inspires most of Paterson’s poems, however, is the solid romance that he has managed to build with an Iranian wannabe-artist, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). While he drives his bus and snatches opportunities to scribble lines of verse in his “secret notebook,” she bakes gourmet cupcakes, dreams of becoming a country singer and paints absolutely everything in their house in geometric patterns of black-and-white (a tongue-in-cheek callback, perhaps, to Jarmusch’s own 1980s visual aesthetic). Laura believes fervently in Paterson’s writing talent, and if she seems to be more flaky dilettante than naturally gifted creative type, well, he’s not bothered about it. They clearly love each other and are willing to make space for each other’s sometimes-irritating proclivities. It’s a romantic comedy for grownups, about real commitment and mutual support and acceptance, rather than being dramatic for drama’s sake (that’s the jilted guy’s job).

But Paterson is also about the joys of intellect, language and art and the slant of autumn light in a brick-built Rust Belt town that will feel very familiar to urban Northeasterners. The bar where our hero regularly repairs for a postprandial beer while giving the dog an evening walk is very much a working-class hangout, frequented mostly by people of color; but Doc, the barman (Barry Shabaka Henley), is old-school, refusing to install a TV so his blue-collar patrons can watch ballgames. Instead, they play chess and listen to jazz and talk. Doc keeps a “Wall of Fame” with newspaper clippings and other memorabilia of hometown heroes like Lou Costello and lots of musicians; even William Carlos Williams’ medical calling card has its tiny place of honor.

In the world that Jim Jarmusch won’t let us forget, high culture is by no means the sole provenance of the upscale elite. He cherishes and celebrates the roots of art in appreciation of the mundane details of existence. Even Driver seems to have been scooped up via some temporal warp from when he was a not-so-well-known, workaday actor – before he became Emo Kylo Ren in the Star Wars universe. He does a smashing job in a part that requires no smashing, and not even a whole lot of dialogue. In a Jarmusch film, it’s all about the long, slow appraisals, the embarrassed glances away from the person who is playing the fool, the awkward things left unsaid. Within our humdrum lives, we are given to believe, there is beauty and revelation in so many little moments, and humor in many more – if we just shut up and pay attention. Not a bad lesson to take with us on the way home from the cinema.