Paterson (2016; directed by Jim Jarmusch) is a cinematic poem in seven stanzas, a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey.
The movie’s central conceit—“a man in himself is a city”—is taken from William Carlos Williams’s poem, Paterson. Williams’s free-verse epic is an ode to the city of Paterson, its history, its eccentrics, and its natural features, especially the Great Falls of the Passaic River. “Carlo William Carlos,” as Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), Paterson’s wife, jokingly calls him, gets several nods in the film. Paterson reads “This is just to say” to Laura, and he meets a Japanese poet who is visiting New Jersey to learn more about Williams. Lines from Williams are sprinkled through the film.
Formally, Paterson the film couldn’t be more different from Paterson the poem. The latter is a pastiche, with philosophical observations, prose narratives, letters, and conversations pasted into a Joycean scrapbook recording the “roar of the present.”
Paterson the film is as structured as a sonnet, as rigidly scheduled as the city. Paterson wakes up on Monday next to his beautiful Iranian wife, her monstrous hair sweeping across her pillow. He checks his watch (he needs no alarm clock), grabs his neatly folded clothes from a chair, and sips coffee and eats Cheerios at the kitchen counter under the watchful eye of Laura’s English bulldog, Marvin. He walks to work, drives his bus, walks home, collects the mail and straightens the mailbox post, which is always mysteriously tilted. After dinner, he takes Marvin around the corner to a pub. (“Right on time,” says Doc the bartender.) He chats with friends at the bar and drinks one beer. Fade out. Repeat. For reasons that I won’t reveal, the rhythm is broken over the weekend, but it’s restored the following Monday, with the help of the Japanese visitor, who functions as a poet ex machina.
Despite their formal differences, the poem and the film share a poetic sensibility. Paterson is a cinematic poem about poetry. Paterson wakes up writing poetry in his head and mentally rewrites on his walk to work. Before embarking on his daily rounds, he scribbles some lines in his “secret notebook.” When his shift is over, he sits on a bench at the Great Falls, watching, listening, writing.
Williams has been called a “demotic” poet for his populist themes, his Whitmanesque affirmation of America, and his attention to the poetry of life. Williams’s Imagist motto, “no ideas but in things,” is a protest against abstraction. Read back to front, it’s a confession of the fecundity of ordinary experience. There are no disembodied ideas, but the smallest bodies and the most mundane actions are packed with intellectual and emotional potential.
Paterson the bus driver has learned from his master. “Love Poem” celebrates Ohio Blue Tip matches, “sober and furious and stubbornly ready / to burst into flame” to light “perhaps the cigarette of the woman you love / for the first time.” (Many of the poems in the film are by Ron Padgett.) In another poem, he thinks of the “trillions of molecules” that stand aside to let him walk by, and at the end of the film, “The Line” muses on the song lyric, “Or would you rather be a fish?”
The metronomic regularity of Paterson’s life throws tiny variations into high relief. Much of the variation comes from Laura, Paterson’s bemusing muse. (The parallel with Petrarch’s Laura is explicit, the link with Dante’s Beatrice subtler.) While Paterson drives, Laura spends the day at home painting black circles on the white curtains, half-painting the bathroom door black, painting white stripes on her black dress. On Monday, she dreams of getting rich baking cupcakes; the next day, she must have a black-and-white guitar from “Estaban,” along with the instructional DVDs, so she can pursue her dream of becoming a country-western star.
Throughout his day, Paterson eavesdrops. On Tuesday, two young bus passengers one-up each other with hilariously pathetic stories about romantic non-conquests. On Thursday, two teenage anarchists talk about the anarchist tradition of Paterson. Walking Marvin to the pub on Wednesday, Paterson passes a laundromat where a rapper is perfecting his lines. “No ideas but in things,” the man chants to a window of churning, sudsy water. We see Paterson through Paterson. “A man in himself is a city.”
Laura has a phone, computer, and tablet, and she consults Wikipedia to learn about poetry. Paterson’s basement study is full of books. He doesn’t even have a cell phone, and he resists Laura’s insistence that he Xerox his poems. According to Sherman Paul, Williams believed poetry arose from the “imaginative action of men in contact with their environment.” Paterson touches the world without the mediation of a screen. Little things—no-things—become the everything of the film.
Williams writes in the preface to Paterson that the Great Falls are “a speech” to which “the poem itself … is the answer.” Sitting with Paterson on his bench, we might learn to imitate his gentle response to the cascading roar of reality.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.