“You must change your life,” the German-language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke urges us in the final lines of his poem “Torso of an Archaic Apollo.”
Great art does that to us–it urges us to see our lives and the lives of others in a different way. It drives us to think, love and feel more deeply. It is not polemical or preachy–great art doesn’t tell us what to do or even how to do it. It simply gets into our head, or maybe our heart, and points us in a new direction.
Right now, American culture looks and feels more art-less and art-ificial than art-full and that’s why I’m writing a short series of blogs on art and thought that urges, guides and makes us stop to consider things we are too busy or to angry to consider.
In that regard, then, Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, qualifies as great art because beyond it’s quiet beauty and attention to the inner and creative life of its main characters, Paterson, works as an unusual tale about what’s gone wrong with America and how we might recapture the part of ourselves we’ve lost.
Jarmusch has been turning out small, poignant art house films that go against the grain of the mainstream American film tradition for the better part of 30 years. Jarmusch’s films are in some ways like Hemingway short stories: nothing really happens in terms of plot and there is a low-level tension running through the narrative.
The film is about a city bus driver (Adam Driver) in Paterson, New Jersey whose name happens to be Paterson and who also happens to be a pretty good poet. Paterson, New Jersey was the home of the great American poet/physician, William Carlos Williams, who, like Paterson, the bus driver/poet, drew his artistic inspiration from the streets and the people of Paterson, New Jersey and whose direct, conversational, koan-like and Whitmanesque poems, in turn, inspire Paterson.
The film is episodic in structure; it takes place over the course of six days (Monday through Saturday). Each day of the film begins with a tender shot of Paterson and Laura waking up in the morning and then proceeds to Paterson eating breakfast (cheerios over milk), walking to the bus depot, driving his bus, walking back home, eating dinner with Laura, taking the dog, Marvin, for a walk, stopping in at the local pub for exactly one beer and then heading back home to sleep.
On the surface, Paterson and Laura lead quite mundane lives, exactly the opposite of the kind of distracted, fast-paced, anxiety-ridden, overwhelmingly busy lives that most Americans currently lead. And, in the hands of just about any other writer or director, the shape of Paterson’s and Laura’s life would be portrayed as monotonous and void of meaning. Under Jarmusch’s care, though, Paterson and Laura and the good people of Paterson, New Jersey inhabit a world that sparkling with creative energy and care for others.
Paterson and Laura live in a tiny, concrete-block house that would be considered more of a pre-starter home. They have little money, they rarely eat out or go to the movies and they don’t talk about their next big vacation getaway. The outside of the home needs serious attention; inside, though, Paterson and Laura have created a world buzzing with creativity and emotional closeness.
After work, Paterson retires to a small room in the basement that’s lit by a single reading lamp. Surrounded by, at once, tools, flashlights, cans of paint thinner and masonry paint as well as rows of books of poetry and prose that includes Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara, David Foster Wallace, Luc Sante, a biography on Monk, and, among others, the collected works of William Carlos Williams, Paterson sits at a makeshift desk where he writes verse after verse of direct, conversational poems that filter the stories and voices he picks up from passengers on his route and that synthesize the shape of his days and the tenor of his thoughts.
Upstairs, Laura, (Golshifteh Farahani) is a dervish of creative activity as she busily designs her own clothes, decorates the kitchen cabinets and the drapery and even her cupcakes with bold, Miro-like swirls and swishes. They meet around the kitchen table or on the sofa and talk of their dreams (Laura’s are funny and bizarre), Paterson’s poems, music, art and poetry.
The world of Paterson is enmeshed in a long line of mid-twentieth-century American poetry, prose and music that tried to get at the heart of what it meant to be an American. The larger literary context for Jarmusch’s Paterson are the short stories of Sherwood Anderson’s short stories of rural, pre-World War II Midwestern lives, Thornton Wilder’s pared down, understated dramas, Philip Levine’s poems of working class life, William Carlos Williams’ poems and short stories of the enchantment and humor of everyday life and, of course, undergirding all of it, the arms-wide-open-to-the-world poetry of Walt Whitman. The background music of all this is, of course, tunes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.
In one of the best scenes of the film, Paterson is walking home from the bus depot one afternoon when he happens upon a young girl sitting on a loading dock outside an abandoned factory. It’s a rather dodgy area, so Paterson approaches the young girl and asks if everything is all right. All is well, she tells Paterson, explaining that she’s just waiting for her mother and sister who have gone in the building next door. Paterson, concerned for the girl’s safety, asks if it’s okay if he waits with her until her mother returns. The girl readily accedes and when Paterson sits down on the dock, he looks down at the girl’s notebook, which is full of lines of poems that she’s working on. “Are you interested in poetry?” the girl asks and when Paterson says he is, the girl asks if she can read him a poem she’s written. It’s called “Water Falls” and Paterson listens intently as the girl reads her poem.
It’s a gorgeous moment: two strangers, a young girl and a thirty-something man meeting by happenstance and reading and discussing poetry. When she is finished reading, the girl’s mother and sister appear from the building. As the girl packs up her notebook she asks Paterson, “Do you like Emily Dickinson?” Paterson says, that yes, he likes Emily Dickinson very much and as she’s walking away, the girl looks over her shoulder and says, “That’s cool, a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson.” Why not?
The whole movie goes on like this. Strangers, friends and lovers meet and their conversations drift from everyday concerns like “What’s for dinner?” and “When will you be home tonight?” to ruminations on Petrarch, Walt Whitman, the nature of anarchy and, of course, Paterson, New Jersey’s finest son and poet, William Carlos Williams.
Paterson doesn’t hit you over the head with polemics, but it is, in many ways, a meditation on how technology has driven us apart from each other and even from our better selves. Jarmusch has basically scrubbed all forms of screens from the film. Aside from a few moments, the film is devoid of hand-held devices, televisions, laptops, E-readers, Ipads and computer screens. When the digital and televised world does show up in the film, Jarmusch gently reminds us how our lives have been overrun by data.
The point, though, of scrubbing hand-held devices and the like from the film is to examine what our lives can be like when the buzzing in our pockets, backpacks and purses ceases. Many of us pick up our phones to find out what we are missing, but Jarmusch seems to be reminding us to put down our phone to find out what we are missing.
When there’s nothing, in other words, to distract us from our lived lives, what’s left? Quite a lot, Jarmusch seems to be saying, because as digital connectivity recedes, at least in the world of Paterson, opportunities for emotional, communal and artistic creativity increases exponentially.
Had the young girl sitting on the abandoned dock been using social media instead of writing poems, she would have missed the opportunity to read her poem to a stranger. Instead of checking the scores on his phone before he begins his driving shift each morning, Paterson sits in his bus and quietly writes in his notebook. At lunch time, he drives to Passaic Falls, the Paterson landmark that William Carlos Williams extolled in his long poem, “Paterson,” sits down at a park bench, takes out his lunch as well as a worn copy of Frank O’Hara’s poems and continues to write.
Throughout the film, Jarmusch seems to be quietly reminding us of the damage the digital world has wreaked on our emotional and communal lives. We all know this to be true. Despite the fact that we go to the digital world to feel connected, the whole enterprise makes us more lonely and depressed. Even the social scientists say so and Jean Twenge, in a recent Atlantic essay, demonstrates how this is especially the case, dangerously so, for young adults.
In this regard, then, Paterson can be viewed as a kind of thought experiment that begins with this question: What would our lives be like if they were not so heavily mediated by technology? Or, to put it another way, what would our lives look like if they were not so heavily medicated by the incessant stream of digital information we consume everyday?
There is a deep-seated struggle in America right now about what it means to be an American and who the “real” Americans are and what they want. The truth is, of course, that there are no “real” Americans any more than there are real elephants or red-tailed hawks. They are all real. What Jim Jarmusch has done in Paterson is paint a portrait of a group of Americans who may not represent all of us, but who, surely, we would all do well to model our ever day lives after.
And in this regard, Jarmusch has crafted a story that can help us to navigate our way through the rocky shoals of contemporary American life. It’s easy to blame the current state of the American republic on Know-Nothing, backward politicians. But as I was watching Paterson and as I was attending to the quiet, creative, lives its characters lived I couldn’t help but think that it’s not just #45 and his crazed regime that have overtaken our country as they busily go about trying to empty the republic of its joy, diversity, compassion and, yes, art.
We have all, in some ways, done this to ourselves and to each other and #45 is the baleful, sorry expression of our retreat. By burrowing, as we’ve done, into our identity groups, our class and race divisions, into the satellite shouting matches on the cable networks and into the digital sand of our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and god knows what other social media apps, we’ve lost something of private and collective selves.
I know there is comfort there, but on the flip side of the encased and digital world that beckons us at every turn is the call of the Sirens, tempting us, further into a private, lonely world that’s cut off from what, if anything, truly makes America great and that’s its diversity of thought and experience.
It doesn’t have to be as it is. We must and we can change our lives. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a welcome and gentle reminder to these things.