This week, I fell in love. With a film. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m counting down the hours until I can see it again. In my melodramatic way, want to live in it forever. It’s called ‘Paterson’ and it’s the latest offering from director Jim Jarmusch. Given my new found infatuation, you’d think I’d be able to giddily reel off a list of the film’s characteristics, or give a neat precise of the narrative at least, but that’s difficult because…..well, not very much happens. And that’s exactly what makes it so entrancing.
I’d planned to see ‘Paterson’ with friends, but ended up at Manchester’s ODEON at an afternoon screening on my own. There’s always a kind of melancholy glamour to the daytime cinema, the huge silence in each auditorium. It makes me think of Birmingham, twenty years ago – going to watch a cartoon with my step gran as a kid on the same day Independence Day was released, finding we had the screen to ourselves. It felt a bit like being trapped in a vast aquarium. As the trailers before ‘Paterson’ played, I glanced round and counted seven people in the room, each watching alone. As the film began, our solitude began to seem strangely appropriate.
‘Paterson’ follows a bus driver in New Jersey who lives and drives in the town made famous by William Carlos Williams. Both the town and the driver are called Paterson. The film begins with Paterson and his wife, Laura, waking up in sunlight on a Monday morning and unfolds as a kind of visual diary, each episode tracking a day of the week. Paterson is a poet and his partner is an artist, aspiring musician and cupcake-baker. They seem to love and understand each other entirely. We follow Paterson as he drives his bus, walks their dog (incidentally – some excellent canine acting on show), drinks beer in the same local bar and writes poetry.
Nothing sensational(ist) happens. The most dramatic event of the film is when Paterson’s bus breaks down. There’s no apparent tension between him and Laura, just a great deal of patience and care. We never see them make love. Jarmusch said in interview that he didn’t want to show sex on screen “….because I find it very cliched. Sex is very varied. Sex can be funny, tender, a little rough, wild, soft, frustrating, incredibly satisfying… so when you isolate a sex scene between two people, are you going to define their sexuality in that one way? It makes me a little nervous as a storyteller.”
Paterson’s poems were in fact written by the New York School poet Ron Padgett and they seem to rise naturally from the routine of the bus driver’s life. Jarmusch himself studied poetry under Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro at Columbia University and has long been interested in it in his work. There’s so much space and quiet in the film and – crucially – so much attention paid to the words Paterson forms in his head as he works, the poems he scribbles in his secret notebook. They are given appropriate weight, the words written across the screen slowly, mimicking the writer’s thought process. And they are brilliant (especially the opening piece about Ohio Blue Tip matches). The film feels rather like a William Carlos Williams poem in itself.
Some people might find this film contrived. A review in The Guardian suggested it ‘wants to be your life coach’. But for me, it’s simply the most engrossing films I’ve seen in years and perhaps the best film about poetry I’ve ever watched.