A Man in Himself Is a City: Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”

By Charles TaylorJanuary 19, 2017

A Man in Himself Is a City: Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”
WAS JIM JARMUSCH WAITING for middle age or was middle age waiting for him? As the young director of films like Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down by Law (1986), there was no doubting Jarmusch’s commitment to deadpan hipster cool. What you couldn’t be sure of was his emotional commitment to his material. His movies seemed to mock the very idea of expecting a picture to add up to something, or even expecting drama along the way. And because of that, his dedication to old music and outmoded clothes often seemed to exist on the level of somebody who just happened to have a lucky trawl through the thrift shops.

But Jarmusch’s 1995 Western Dead Man, a work deep in the American grain, had the dark oddity and threat of the fables, murder ballads, and novelty songs that turned up on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. And his 2013 Only Lovers Left Alive, which more and more feels like a key movie of our era, was a love song to cultural memory, a bulwark against the planned obsolescence of the digital age. Except for smartphones that allowed them to keep in touch across the continents, the vampire spouses of the film were strictly analog — books and records, old houses and old clothes, even wooden bullets. It seemed that eternal life was, for them, a sacred duty: somebody had to keep alive the memory of Christopher Marlowe and Wanda Jackson and vintage Gibson guitars. It was a brilliant conceit: Jarmusch’s realization that today having any knowledge and love of the past can make you feel like you’re 150 years old.

The bus driver-poet of Jarmusch’s new film Paterson — he has the same name as the town’s setting, Paterson, New Jersey, and he’s played by Adam Driver — is spiritual kin to the vamps of Only Lovers Left Alive. When he writes his poems, which are the work of the poet Ron Padgett, we see the words appear on the screen haltingly, bit by bit, in something like the way Picasso’s brush strokes appear on the screen-turned-canvas in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso. Paterson writes his poems in a notebook he carries with him to work, or keeps at home in his basement writing nook. He refuses to carry a cell phone. He still wears a wristwatch. Like generations of blue-collar workers before him, he brings his lunch to work in a hard military-green Stanley lunchbox. When Paterson and his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) go out to the movies on Saturday night, they see the 1932 black-and-white horror film Island of Lost Souls. (“It’s like we’re in the twentieth century,” she says excitedly about the prospect of seeing a movie in the theater.) Jarmusch even has the wit to present that love of the past as an inadvertent joke played on some. In one scene, Paterson encounters a pair of young black men, twins, whom their parents, soul music devotees, named Sam and Dave.

The last lines of Padgett’s poem “The Future of Your Name” are “the future won’t have any meaning / left for it. It will be all used up.” Jarmusch isn’t waiting for the future. Faced with a mindlessly voracious present, in which all images, ideas, stories, and music are not so much built on as cannibalized, Jarmusch is taking a stand, perhaps a quixotic one, against the idea of culture being used up. He can still do deadpan, as he shows in almost everything having to do with Marvin, Paterson and Laura’s comically grumpy bulldog (played with a trouper’s panache by a female named Nellie, who died shortly after the film was made). But on the whole, he has traded deadpan for subtlety. His films are quiet now — not because he is affecting cool but as a means of unshowy resistance against the incoherent noise and bash that constitutes so much of contemporary movies. I’m not ready to compare Paterson to Ozu’s great Tokyo Story. But I do think that, just as Ozu did, Jarmusch wants us to believe in the past as a real place whose inhabitants weren’t fools or buffoons. And I believe he wants us to treasure what has lasted, to see that, whether it’s the William Carlos Williams poems Paterson reveres or the soul and blues playing softly in the background of his local watering hole, art from the past can be as devastatingly present to us as anything contemporary.


There was a moment in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Café Lumière — a film that the Taiwanese director made in homage to Ozu — where the heroine sits down to dinner with her father and stepmother, and the father, knowing his daughter loves the rough, bark-like outer skin of a roast, takes a piece of it from his plate and slips it onto hers. Nothing big is made of it, but it’s redolent of the love that comes from knowing someone as well as you can. That, in more comic form, is the loving forbearance you see when Paterson reassures Laura that her latest scheme — whether it’s to get rich from the cupcakes she bakes, or to become a country star by learning to play the guitar she orders, along with instructional DVDs — will surely bear fruit. Laura, who only seems to leave the house to sell her cupcakes at the local farmer’s market or to go out to dinner and the movies with Paterson, spends her days at home, giving free rein to her creativity, which consists mostly of painting black or white circles on the curtains, her clothes, or in frosting on the cupcakes. She’s something of a ditz, but a loving, attentive one, and she adores her husband, who is clearly mad about her. In one of his poems, actually Padgett’s “Love Song,” Paterson goes from a disquisition on how Ohio Blue Tip are the favorite brand of matches in his house to imagining him and his spouse as match and cigarette “blazing with kisses that smolder toward heaven.” It’s domesticity as the stairway to passion.

There’s something almost monk-like about Paterson’s devotion to his job, his art, his marriage. The movie spans seven days, and for most of them we see Paterson in the same routine morning after morning. He wakes without an alarm clock at 6:15, has his Cheerios and coffee, walks to work, writes in his bus until his perpetually put-upon dispatcher Donny (Rizwan Manji, executing a neat caricature of comic complaint) sends him on his route, drives the streets of Paterson until lunch, when he writes a little more or contemplates the snapshot of herself Laura has wedged into the top of his lunchbox, walks home after work, has dinner, and takes Marvin the bulldog out for a walk, which always ends with him stopping for a beer at the local bar where he talks to the owner and barkeep Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) about who does and doesn’t belong on the Paterson Wall of Fame behind the bar, or to Marie (Chasten Harmon), the lovely young woman trying to break up with her self-dramatizing actor boyfriend Everett (William Jackson Harper), who doesn’t get the message.

Paterson doesn’t deviate from the routine, and the humanity of the movie is that it doesn’t present that routine as deadening. While driving his routes, Paterson listens good-naturedly to the chatter of his passengers — two co-workers giving each other excuses for not pursuing the women who’ve shown interest in them; a pair of teenage anarchists grooving on how cool they are because they are probably the only anarchists in town; a young boy educating his buddy on the injustice done to the imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, another Paterson-area native. One evening on his way home, Paterson talks to a young girl sitting alone waiting for her mother. The girl turns out to be a poet and reads him one of her compositions, a clever and lovely thing that sends him on his way, savoring her words. Best of all are the solitary moments of his walks to and from work, or to the bar with Marvin. The cinematographer, Frederick Elmes, gives this industrial and probably unlovely city a weathered grace. The worn bricks of the buildings, the enveloping darkness of the nighttime sidewalks, with the neon from Paterson’s favorite bar casting an aura more inviting than garish: all of these speak of a place that welcomes life instead of buffets it. Even the town’s Great Falls, a place of serene contemplation for Paterson as it was for his hero William Carlos Williams (or Carlo William Carlos, as Laura calls him), is a human-scaled natural wonder. The way it’s presented to us, watched by Paterson from the bench of a small park, recalls Dickens’s line about Scrooge’s house — that “one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.” Jarmusch has achieved a wonderful decency in this picture. This is a movie which insists on the dignity of work, which paints a life, gone for many in this country, of blue-collar work which isn’t soul crushing, of a community where no one talks about diversity but where your neighbors or the guy behind the bar look different from you and yet are as familiar as any other part of your life.

And yet, despite all of that, we can’t ignore the soulful stoicism on Adam Driver’s face. It’s the look of a man who has accepted his life and his responsibility for maintaining it. There is, in the way he nuzzles the still-sleeping Laura when he wakes in the morning — tenderly, exploringly, the edge of hunger kept at bay — in the way he wakes to the aroma of her baking and says the word “cupcakes,” savoring it and relishing its familiarity, the ability of a man who, as a poet should, appreciates the ordinary moments given to him. And yet, in some part of him, we see the uncertain longing for something more. His simultaneous dedication to his writing and determination to keep his poems to himself (there’s no indication he has ever tried to get published) suggest a man who wants more and yet is reluctant to admit it and thus upset the applecart of his life. That Adam Driver does this all with almost no words should alone attest to the eloquence of this lovely performance. Driver does what an actor can do in the movies, aided by a director who has the patience to watch him, who has the faith that the wait will yield something worth seeing and the knowledge of how to use the camera to bring us close to the actor without violating the air of emotional privacy that he has cultivated. Driver marries the surface stoicism of the classic male hero with the rich inner life of a man of deep feeling. And that’s why we feel so close to him.


Jarmusch takes his title from William Carlos Williams’s book-length poem, and, in some indefinable way, his spirit too. A resident of Paterson, Williams wrote a five-book poem tracing the history and life of Paterson and the figure of a man who seems to meld with the city. In a note to his poem, Williams wrote, “A man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate connections.” It’s not an easy read. Williams braids history, metaphor, and reverie, and the result could seem knotted if the words didn’t flow. (Williams said the poem followed the course of the Passaic River.)

What Jarmusch has taken from it is the notion of man and place sharing more than just a name, but an ability to find poetry in the careworn and quotidian, and vibrancy in the structures of a life which might otherwise seem numbing. Paterson, New Jersey, was home not just to Williams but to another great American poet, Allen Ginsberg; like Williams, he was rooted to the earth and reached for transcendence. It seems the place for a man who, through the course of the movie, is being brought to an acceptance that his life can contain both those possibilities, to the realization that the familiar is often the necessary starting place of art.

We see Paterson attain that knowledge in a gorgeous late scene, an encounter at the falls between himself and a tourist, a Japanese poet who possesses that ability strangers sometimes have, to see into you more clearly than the people who know you best. In Williams’s Paterson he wrote of “a wind or ghost of a wind / in all books echoing the life / there.” The wind Williams spoke of can’t be kept inside books because art can’t help but connect itself to life. That is the realization we see dawn on Paterson in the graceful, emotionally generous denouement of this beautiful movie. The spirit of all those poems he’s loved has become the breeze blowing in his face, the soft roar of the Great Falls in front of him; it has become life itself.


Charles Taylor’s writing on movies, books, music, and politics has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, The Nation, Dissent, and other publications.

LARB Contributor

Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s. He lives in New York.


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