“Paterson” & the Secret Poet Hearts That Beat Within Us

Paterson Adam Driver in Paterson (Amazon Studios)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January we’re celebrating the work of godfather of independent film Jim Jarmusch. Read the rest of our coverage here.

“What does a poet look like?” 

The first (and only) documentary I ever made asked this very simple question. To answer, I lined up the poets from my creative writing program—from the sporty sorority sister to the quiet bespectacled shaggy-haired dude—and simply… asked. Their answers?

Not a single person described themselves. 

It was as if the notion of being “a poet” was too lofty, too pretentious, or even too impossible to conceive as valid thought. Somewhere along the way, a startling disconnect formed between these poets and the very art they so loved to create. I found this dynamic both heartbreaking and completely understandable. But what I love about Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson is that it not only understands this disconnect, it actually works to repair it.

If one were to try and describe the plot of this film, it would seem lacking. A young man named Paterson (Adam Driver) lives in a small town and thinks of himself as a bus driver first and writer second (or perhaps writer not at all). We follow him through a single week and learn his routines, from his bus route to his marriage to his town, and learn how all of these things come together to inform his writing. We see the world so carefully through his eyes, which is why the film is obsessed with the smallest details of his day.

At first glance, Paterson is a pretty boring guy with a pretty boring routine. He wakes up. He eats breakfast. He goes to work at the bus depot. He drives his route. He comes home. He has dinner with his wife. He walks the dog. He stops at a bar and has one, single beer. He goes to sleep. Rinse. Repeat.

But Jarmusch never looks at Paterson’s routine the same way twice. He films that routine in a way that rejects the monotony. Even if his bus route never changes, how we look at it does. Every time he starts to drive, Jarmusch uses a different shot to show us new details. It may seem small, fixating on a handle one day, or a rearview mirror the next, but it’s startlingly effective. We also see his passengers, but it’ll be new faces every time, new conversations to overhear. You get the impression that Jarmusch could film this bus route indefinitely and you’d never get the same sequence twice. But what is also no accident is how many of these shots come as follow-up cuts to where Paterson’s own eyes lead us. We realize: he’s looking at his world differently every time he can.

Adam Driver in Paterson (Amazon Studios)

This mentality is crucial to poetry, it’s “thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.” The Wallace Stevens poem specifically chooses the most everyday creature, the plainest bird, and unveils thirteen completely distinct ways of understanding it. The bird never symbolizes the same thing twice. Its lofty metaphor in the seventh stanza calling out to the “thin men of Haddam” is looking at the same bird as in the fourth stanza which says simply that “A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.” By the end of the poem, it’s clear that these aren’t even the only ways to look at a blackbird. There are infinite ways and Stevens’s poem is but the smallest sampling. The point of this tactic, like in Paterson, is to break the barriers that exist between the audience and what we would simply call “the poetic viewpoint.” In reality, we are often driven to just see the unthinking routine, the mundanity of a blackbird, but we must open ourselves to details that lay beyond.

It may seem like a cliche to say “poetry is everywhere,” but it’s true. And more importantly, the film does not treat the notion as some trite aphorism. It’s ingrained in the fabric of every little decision. Take the town’s name—Paterson. By making them one in the same, the film is directly equating the two. There is no barrier between the man and the place around him.

It’s also the reason Paterson’s favorite poet is William Carlos Williams. We repeatedly see Paterson’s copy of the beloved author’s collection named, you guessed it, Paterson. The man is the town is the poetry itself.

Also take the film’s constant presence of twins, which again is an attempt to throw what we would first think to be “sameness” at us, but really ends up highlighting the small, but important ways each twin is different from their counterpoint, even if it is just a gesture.

It may seem like a cliche to say “poetry is everywhere,” but it’s true. And more importantly, the film does not treat the notion as some trite aphorism.

Some people think that poetry is best used to characterize the extreme parts of life, whether its eulogizing great figures or invoking the horrors of solemn tragedy, but poetry’s real power lies in the mundane. In its ability to paint a picture of moments and feelings so fleetingly small they would be eternally forgotten otherwise. It sounds silly to describe the basic methodology of poetry out loud, but it does this by using evocative language that wouldn’t normally go with such observation. In short, it substitutes the lyrical for the mundane, or perhaps the mundane for the lyrical. In doing so, it unlocks a whole world of feelings, thoughts, and stories unto themselves. Poetry’s great power, then, is its ability to contain the entirety of existence on the head of a pin.

In one of the opening scenes, we see Paterson pick up a matchbook. He studies it and suddenly he starts to compose a poem in his head and his words (Editor’s note: penned by poet Ron Padgett for the film) fill the screen: “We have plenty of matches in our house / We keep them on hand always.” At first it seems like a small thought, evoking a notion of utility, but then he presses deeper into the minutiae…  

“Currently our favourite brand

Is Ohio Blue Tip

Though we used to prefer Diamond Brand

That was before we discovered

Ohio Blue Tip matches

They are excellently packaged

Sturdy little boxes

With dark and light blue and white labels

With words lettered

In the shape of a megaphone”

But from crafting those details about his preferred purchase, he takes that final image and coasts into a larger simile…

“As if to say even louder to the world

Here is the most beautiful match in the world

It’s one-and-a-half-inch soft pine stem

Capped by a grainy dark purple head

So sober and furious and stubbornly ready

To burst into flame”

In that passage we see how his language has grown from factual and observational to something far more evocative. How he has lent the object personality and emotion. Like the match itself, the poetic instinct then comes erupting right out and leads to the poem’s actual subject matter and theme…

“Lighting, perhaps the cigarette of the woman you love

For the first time

And it was never really the same after that

All this will we give you

That is what you gave me

I become the cigarette and you the match

Or I the match and you the cigarette.

Blazing with kisses that smoulder towards heaven.”

Here, the poem has exploded into a fiery remembrance; the notion of an enrapturing love that changes everything with its existence. He inverts the idea that only one of them is the cause of the spark, instead calling them both the source of the flame and the thing lit on fire. Their kisses don’t merely burn out, but instead smoulder toward a better place, a better plane of existence. It’s not only powerful, you could probably call the poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Match.” But instead, Paterson simply titles it “Love Poem.” Which, within the context of the film, brings us an understanding of his relationship with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).

Their relationship is one of immeasurable equality. Theirs is a true partnership of two startlingly creative people eagerly supporting each other’s dreams, even when that doesn’t look exactly like what we’d expect. Laura literally wears her creativity on her sleeve—in one scene we watch her go from painting the walls to directly on herself, streaking her clothes with her classic white brushstrokes—which is a far cry from Paterson and his secret notebook. But just as Paterson encourages Laura in whatever she pursues, whether it’s cupcakes or country music, so does she encourage him.

She makes Paterson promise to make copies of his poems and put them into the world, but we can feel the fears within him. They’re the ones we know too well. The fear of being seen, fear of being judged, and most of all, fear of being known. But right when Paterson finally gets his courage to do so, there’s an accident and their dog destroys his poetry notebook. Laura is overwhelmingly heartbroken and sorry for what has happened. So is he. But the two just sit quietly in their stoic solemnity, unsure what to do next.

Paterson ends up going to the park and right at the moment he’s feeling his lowest, a stranger outright asks Paterson if he’s a poet to which he replies… no. He’s just a bus driver. But as the audience, we know this isn’t true. We’ve seen the world through his eyes, we’ve felt his words echo in our brains. All of which makes his denial enough to make us want to shout at the screen, “Yes you are!” But luckily, we don’t have to fret for long. Soon, Paterson quietly re-answers that question on his own by getting a new notebook and beginning to write again. There is nothing that took away his will to create.

“What does a poet look like?”

I made the documentary that asked that question because I was 22 and writing poetry while still too scared to call myself a poet. Turns out, so is everyone. The fear of being laughed at makes cowards of us all. But what Jarmusch is doing in Paterson is so simple and elegant and empathetic to that fear. He knows that making art is one thing and thinking of yourself as an artist is something completely different. 

What Jarmusch is doing in Paterson is so simple and elegant and empathetic to that fear. He knows that making art is one thing and thinking of yourself as an artist is something completely different. 

Jim Jarmusch likely knows there’s some overconfident guy out there who calls themselves a writer and never writes. But the movie isn’t about him. It’s about us. And Jarmusch knows that we can be too afraid to label ourselves, no matter how much we perform the very act in question. He knows we may not see ourselves as “valid” if we are not published or getting paid or if our names aren’t known. He empathizes with those fears and then hopes to convey a much simpler truth in what might be more apparent if we asked a broader question:

“What makes someone a poet?”

Being a poet is just the act of looking at the world around you in a more curious fashion. And so we all have a poetic side, even if we’re not writing poetry. It’s the impulse to create, to find a way to express our view of the world, it could be a poem or not. It could be an essay or a film or song or hell, a tweet. But the proverbial match to our act of creation always lies in that curiosity and perspective. The will to look at “it,” whatever it is, just a little bit different. To do it every day. And to understand that there is no barrier between ourselves and the poetry of our lives, just as there is no barrier between ourselves and our participation in the world around us. We are all a Paterson in Paterson in Paterson. Everyone has that potential inside them. Everyone.

No one is just a bus driver.

Paterson Trailer:

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