Paterson ★★★★★

Jim Jarmusch made his debut with Stranger Than Paradise, a film so relentlessly grey, flat and confined that it ended up making Cleveland, Ohio seem almost indistinguishable from Florida. It's hard to imagine that young upstart evoking an under-appreciated gem of a city like Paterson, New Jersey with as much specificity and vision as the now-veteran director does here. The place is so tangible, so alive with its own energy that it has given birth to a human manifestation of itself in the form of Adam Driver, playing a bus driver and poet called Paterson. Well, he both is and isn't the city's embodiment; it might be more accurate to say that he is, for as long as the film lasts, but he's so fully characterised, so easy to live with, that he must still be living at this very moment, in his own right.

We only enjoy the pleasure of his company for a week, though, starting on Monday, seeing he and his wife (Golshifteh Farahani, who warrants her own parallel film) wake up to the silence of his 'magic' watch. Paterson spurns technology in hyper-Jarmuschian fashion, even the electric shriek of an alarm clock. The bar he frequents every night refuses to install a TV, even for sporting events. He's in extremely pleasant disagreement with his wife about whether his poems are worth creating copies of, or whether to keep them solely in his one 'secret' notebook. Each day contains some combination of the following: waking up. Cereal. Walking to work. Talking to his colleague. Driving the bus, listening to the passengers' conversations. Eating the lunch his wife packed for him. Sitting by the waterfall. Writing poetry. Walking home (often enhanced by the dappled sunlight of some exquisite 'magic hour' cinematography). Sorting out the mailbox (it keeps leaning). Talking to his wife, mostly about her day, supporting her aspirations. Walking her bulldog, Marvin. Leaving the dog outside while he gets a beer at his favourite bar. Eating dinner.

That's it. But with each day that passes, the subtle variations, reprises, evolutions, the ways that these things overlap and blur together, the ways that we experience and appreciate the passing of time, space and people, and get to know all three intimately... all of this coheres into an affecting city symphony that satisfies so many of my needs regarding art that Paterson becomes inhabitable in itself, a place in my mind that I can forever return to. Each plot thread is so fine-spun that it's impossible to tell at first glance which are made of steel, and which will fade away more easily. Incidents keep threatening to take place, but (with one exception) everything that happens is unanticipated and yet, in retrospect, forms part of a rhythmically complex but never jarring sequence.

A bus driver and poet. It risks enticing Jarmusch's most hipster-sentimental tendencies, his shallowest name-checking of favourite authors, but in practice neither driving or writing is adorned with any glories that won't stick to it. Paterson isn't worth our time simply because he drives a bus, or because buses and poetry are inherently beautiful or noble, or because his hybrid lifestyle confounds our unfair prejudices. What's beautiful and good is his careful attention to his passengers, to his surroundings, his unflappable patience, and the way he smiles wryly but without judgement when overhearing conversations. Those exchanges between unnamed passengers are a highlight: informative, sometimes bawdy, sometimes youthfully rebellious, and never flatly expository or thematic; at one point an anonymous woman shoots a delightfully withering look at two men trying to one-up each other with sexual (and sexist) boasting. But the men aren't made of straw, either; their insecure one-upmanship is made endearing by Jarmusch's dextrous powers of observation.

Does the poetry show off his skills as easily? It's not exactly great, but it doesn't need to be, and the film never elevates him to greatness, instead making the quieter, more humanist argument that he is someone worth spending time with, and that his craft is worthwhile. The chief pleasure of his writing is seeing it take shape and morph over time, seeing his diligence towards his craft; a half-formed thought emerging from his fidgeting with a box of matches blooms into something else over the course of a day or two. The only explicit access to Paterson's interiority is in Adam Driver's unsteady voiceover reading of each poem as it is being (re-)written. How many poets I, and no doubt Jarmusch, would wish for such privileged access to! Still, Paterson's mind is worth settling for. His poems, while not groundbreaking, are robust, unadorned, clear yet open to interpretation. They suit, and are a credit to, both their real writer and the fictional one.

There's a lingering static shot on Adam Driver, panting yet somehow still bemused following a brief, low-key outburst of violence, that is probably my favourite of the year. It was at this point, rather than because of the earlier hypnotised stare at the fizzing bubbles of the main character's drink, that I realised what a deliberate counterpoint to Taxi Driver this film is. Paterson celebrates and immerses itself in the diversity and variety of a city, refuses to indulge in cynical repulsion or toxic masculine posturing, finds truth rather than bitter self-deception in the inner monologue of its main character. That feeling of staring into bubbles, or at a lit flame on the end of a match, is not an emblem of volatility. It stands for effervescent contentment, of steadfast determination steered in creative directions, the cyclic yet continuous waterfall of artistic endeavour. Paterson is not great because it says anything new, or does anything surprising. It's the greatness of being introduced to a place, and to people, and knowing the immense gratitude that comes with establishing common ground with them.

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