Everyday life has a rhythm—the melodic pace of walking, the beat of conversations with friends, the constant background meter of breathing. In general, movies have to crank this rhythm well past its natural tempo in order to cram everything in and to keep the attention of the audience directed where it needs to be directed. Even intentionally meandering films do this. Still, I never realized how much they do until I was sitting in the Criterion, 30 minutes into Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson, set in the New Jersey city of the same name. The film does something I’ve never seen done in a movie before, or at least never seen done so completely. Paterson allows the viewer to follow not just the life of it’s title character (a bus driver and poet played by Adam Driver who is also named Paterson), but the slow rhythm of his careful attentions.
The film is divided into seven parts, each beginning with the weekday scrawled across the screen in a font intended to mimic handwriting. With every new day, we’re given an overhead view of Paterson and his partner, Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani) as he wakes up, checks the time, and turns to her still sleeping form. These morning scenes offer us the most tender moments of the entire film, maybe of any film I’ve ever seen. Each one is slightly different, but they all provide a complete, quiet moment of devotion. Usually, Paterson will give her a small kiss as he checks his watch and musters the energy to rise. In the moment between waking and getting up, we witness an everyday intimacy heartbreaking in its fullness. The sun is shining, the lovers are sleeping, and the scene is so personal it makes the viewer feel almost intrusive. We’re given the space to appreciate this moment not just once, but seven times, the full week—Jarmusch isn’t concerned that we’ve seen this before. It’s monotonous, yes, but Paterson faces monotony boldly and with intention rather than artistic laziness.
The film’s acceptance of monotony is what allows for its particular beauty. Because Jarmusch establishes his main character’s rhythms so thoroughly, we’re able to notice micro-changes in his routine. A shot that lingers on the golden color of light beer; the strange coincidence of twins constantly riding Paterson’s bus; the small interactions with residents of the city, be they aspiring rappers or appreciators of French bulldogs. There’s an attempt to dramatize these moments of attention. Each one is positioned as a treasure to be collected, a valuable find in Paterson’s ongoing project of poetry composition. It is, in essence, the only plot. A man drives a bus; he notices his city and the people he loves; he writes poems about them. While we’re occasionally distracted by a humorous power struggle with his dog, Marvin, and his garden-variety love story with his partner, it’s clear that the creation of poems is what drives the film. It’s an interesting goal—to tell the story of literary creation through a purely visual medium. I’m not sure if it succeeds. The film is beautiful, and it’s littered with delightful moments, but I’d be lying if I said it’s never boring. Some of the acting is a little wooden, and Laura’s character is often frustratingly infantilized—she doesn’t seem to have a job, and instead pursues a couple different “dreams” from home, such as becoming a famous country star and/or owning a bakery. She’s very childlike, a trope that is too-frequently deployed by male filmmakers to make their female characters more loveable. Even so, Farahani’s portrayal is enchanting.
Paterson is not a perfect movie, and it won’t be the one that radically changes your life this year. But still, if you care about poetry, or just need a reminder about the beauty of everyday life, it’s worth seeing.