Catherine Bray falls for Jim Jarmusch’s quietly charming Competition entry Paterson, starring Adam Driver.
Jim Jarmusch films are a bit of an unknown quantity for me – sometimes I want to throw things at the screen because it all seems so unbearably precious, and at other times, I’m utterly seduced by his worldview and characters. Paterson, a gently charming film about a poet/bus driver played by Adam Driver, called Paterson, who lives in Paterson, falls into the latter category. As you can see from the previous sentence, there’s some silliness with names going on, but it doesn’t dominate proceedings. (Was Driver cast before or after the character was written as a driver? It doesn’t really matter.)
Giving the lie to the notion than enormous puppy eyes are inherently more soulful, Driver, whose eyes might be best described as feline, projects soulfulness in every scene and it’s really tough to think of many other actors who could have pulled this role off without making me want to barf. Maybe Oscar Isaac, who did something similar as an unsuccessful poetic folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis, but with roughly 5000% more bitterness and ambition; Llewyn is like Paterson’s evil twin.
For an actor, convincing an audience that you are a poet is a tricky ask, not at all like playing a secret agent or a rockstar. Secret agents shoot people, rockstars put a show on in front of thousands of screaming fans. We can see the secret agent’s effectiveness in the death of her enemy, the rockstar’s success in the screams of the crowd and the adulation of his groupies. Poets… well, maybe it was different back in the day, but in the 21st century the best visual shorthand a screenwriter might hope to come up with to indicate a successful poet is someone earnestly seeking an autograph, or maybe a lecture hall full of starry-eyed co-eds. Either way, cinematically uninteresting.
Jarmusch sidesteps this entirely by making Paterson a poet with an ambivalent attitude to public success. He writes his poems in a notebook, referred to by his girlfriend as his “secret notebook”, and he doesn’t seem to be at all interested in anyone else reading them. The notebook is also the only copy of his work, whereas most people with even half an eye on some imagined posterity are backing that stuff up into the Cloud on a regular basis. Of course Paterson is something of a refusenik in that department – he doesn’t own a laptop or mobile phone, believing that such items constitute a leash, and maybe he’s right. Though as his girlfriend says, they’re “sometimes useful”.
Perhaps because successful screenwriters have themselves had to be ambitious and work hard to get their work seen, it’s unusual for them to write a hero who is largely happy to just exist, quietly writing his poems, drinking his one beer in the local bar, walking his dog and humouring his girlfriend, a woman whose many schemes (cupcake maker, guitar player, painter) he supports unquestioningly. Jarmusch must of course have ambition and drive himself, but it’s on the record that he did at one point want to become a poet, so there’s a sense here of a portrait of the road less travelled. It’s an attractive vision – but we wouldn’t get to enjoy it if this had been the path he chose, so I’m rather glad he didn’t.