Poetry is a bus driver in Paterson
By Zeke Trautenberg
William Carlos Williams, one of America’s greatest poets, was an acute observer of the quotidian. The doctor-poet wrote about his neighbors and patients, and, in his most ambitious work, the epic poem Paterson (1946-1958), he chronicled the story of his hometown in New Jersey in verse. America’s first planned industrial city, Paterson was a symbol of the country’s economic power and its motley makeup, where African Americans, Irish, Italian, Polish, and later Latino and Muslim immigrants lay down roots on the banks of the Passaic River. For Williams, this diverse city of factories and humdrum working class life was a quintessentially American place.
Like Williams’ poems, Jim Jarmusch film is a perceptive and sensitive portrait of the inhabitants of this northern New Jersey city. The film’s protagonist is the symbolically-named Paterson (Adam Driver). He is a bus driver and ex-Marine who lives a quiet existence in a small house on a hill with his bulldog Marvin and his artist girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). His life is a series of workaday rituals: he wakes up at 6 am, drives the number twenty-three bus route, and takes nightly walks with his dog to the neighborhood bar. This fixed routine is mirrored in the structure of the film, which unfolds over the course of a week.
Paterson’s exterior discipline and quiet demeanor mask an interior creative wellspring. His poetry, which he scribbles in his secret notebook, affords him the possibility to see the world from distinct points of view (the poems in the film were written by Ron Padgett). Among other things, he draws inspiration from the passengers on his bus route, which takes him zigzagging through the city streets. Seated in front of the lumbering machine, Paterson eavesdrops intently. He overhears a young woman recount the life story of local anarchist and two men fib about their pickup skills.
These conversations form part of the fabric of the city, as do the poems the Paterson writes and rewrites in his notebook and in his head. Underscoring their connection to the city, these verses are transcribed on the screen. In several instances, we witness the transformation of these poems from raw ideas (one is inspired by a pack of Ohio Blue Tip Matches) to evocative and pointed verse. This process of revision is both a metacinematic device—the film itself is the result of editing and multiple takes—and a window into the nonlinear process of artistic creation.
Jarmusch’s portrait of a working class poet and city echoes his earlier films Stranger Than Paradise (1984), a tale of the rust-belt and the elusive American dream, and Mystery Train (1989), a story of the South of Elvis and Stax Records. All three of these films explore the myths of America, whether it be the road, African American culture, or, in the case of Paterson, the legacy of verse in a country founded, or so it would believe, on the bedrock of prose.
The film’s coda subverts this misconception of America’s relationship of poetry. Next to his favorite bench overlooking the Paterson Great Falls, the lanky Paterson encounters a Japanese poet (Masatoshi Nagase) visiting the city. When Paterson declares himself to be “just a bus driver in Paterson,” Nagase observes: This could be a poem by William Carlos Williams.”
Jarmusch’s Paterson is a fitting tribute to the doctor-poet, who wrote about “pieces of a green / bottle” and plums in the icebox with the same intensity and affection as the bus driver-poet writes of the “half inch soft pine stem” of his beloved Ohio Blue Tip Matches.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Running Time: 118 min
Photo: Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street