For three decades I've been asking why someone can't make a movie about a writer that portrays the creative process in a remotely credible manner. At long last, I can stop. Someone finally has — the last person I would have expected to try.
And not because writer-director Jim Jarmusch isn't a great artist or doesn't know his literary stuff — he is and does. (He studied poetry at Columbia University.) Until now, however, his work has been characterized by detachment and dry wit that wouldn't easily lend themselves to the subject.
Paterson isn't merely unlike any movie the indie legend has made; it's unlike anything anybody has made. It depicts a week in the life of a Paterson, N.J., bus driver (Adam Driver) whose name is Paterson. If that conjures memories of the hopped-up hipster Driver portrayed in Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, imagine the actor with a dial under his shirt and Jarmusch turning it way down.
Paterson enjoys a regimented existence. He's a human being who seldom gets beyond second gear. He shares his life with Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who's manic by comparison. Both are creative. She bakes black-and-white cupcakes and sews black-and-white curtains. Even the movie she chooses for their date night is in black and white.
He writes poetry, often while driving. As Paterson stares ahead and steers, short, simple lines of verse stream across the screen. We hear them on the soundtrack, haltingly read by Driver as his character composes them. The process is probably way more dangerous than driving while texting, but the result is so exquisite that one is charmed into giving him a pass. Jarmusch recruited Ron Padgett to write poems for the film, a move that pays off brilliantly.
Paterson's favorite poet is William Carlos Williams, who worked as a doctor in Paterson and composed a five-volume epic poem titled — wait for it — Paterson. Like Paterson the literary work, Paterson the movie offers a celebration of the everyday. You won't come across a more compatible film couple this year. Paterson and Laura inhabit an irony-free world, blissfully devoted to each other. In creating the pair, Jarmusch has written the cinematic equivalent of a love poem.
And when I say "everyday," that's what I mean. Paterson goes through the same routine — wake up, walk to work, drive his bus, drink a beer at his neighborhood watering hole, go home — every day. The movie couldn't have less drama. Except for a comical barroom incident, there's zero conflict.
Periodically, an observation will evolve into a thought. That thought will pop into Paterson's head, which will perform the magic trick that is writing. Then he'll scribble the result in his notebook. That's as action-packed as it gets. The filmmaker has said he aspires to "approximat[ing] real time for the audience." He's never come closer.
The finest film of Jarmusch's career, built around the best work Driver has done to date, Paterson is the opposite of most American movies in virtually every respect. It's the essence of gentleness, intelligence, simplicity and warmth. If there were an Oscar for Most Zen Vibe, it'd be a lock.
If that isn't reason enough to see it, Paterson is the most convincingly drawn creative character you're likely to encounter on film. I never doubted for a second that every line taking shape on the screen had been summoned from his subconscious an instant earlier. How difficult an illusion is that to achieve? In more than a century of cinema, Jarmusch is the first filmmaker to achieve it.
This film will open in Vermont theaters soon.