Paterson: Proletarian Poet, by Matt Warren
Look, I love Jim Jarmusch as much as any paunchy mid-30s white dude with an art degree from a major state-run university. And assuming you clicked on this review of your own volition, chances are so do you. And that’s fine. But it’s important, I think, for people like us to acknowledge that the world Jarmusch has been selling us for the past 30+ years is, at its core, no less far-fetched or fantastical than any Middle Earth orc-a-thon or Star Wars space opera.
In many ways, Jarmusch’s fantasy version of a peaceful, languid modern-day America populated by soulful blue-collar bohemians is even more seductive (and insidious) than Avatar’s Pandora. Throughout his films, Jarmusch’s idealized version of Americana has essentially been little more than a hipster-jazzbo remix of Norman Rockwell; it’s the America we all fantasized about being a permanent part of when we were in college learning about art and history and budgeting serious creative time to sit in coffee shops with our sketchpads and moleskin notebooks to do whatever is was we fancied ourselves put on the earth to do. And in Jarmusch’s new Paterson, this invitingly fraudulent vision of America refined and perfected to an almost nuclear potency.
The fraudulent part of Paterson—to me, anyway—isn’t the unlikelihood of a young bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey also being a great poet. The fraudulent part is that Adam Driver’s William Carlos Williams-loving transit jockey (also named “Paterson”) would be as content as he is, drifting reliably through his weekly routine, stealing a quiet moment here or there to craft his shimmering little jewel box verse, coming home each night to confront, with supportive bemusement, whatever new creative endeavor his manic (though probably not clinically so) creative-dilettante wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) has dedicated herself to that day, from cupcake baking to strumming country music.
Oh—what I describe above is also basically the “plot” of Paterson, inasmuch as any Jarmusch movie has a recognizable plot. Structurally, we observe one apparently typical week in the married couple’s life. He’s pretty Zen, she’s an effervescent free spirit—you could almost call her a manic pixie dream wife, except her purpose isn’t to save Paterson or open his eyes to some bullshit idea of everyday magic. Paterson doesn’t seem like he needs much saving, maybe just an extra nudge to go to Kinko’s to make a few extra copies of his poems for posterity.
You’d think there’d be some sort of conflict between Paterson’s steadfast commitment to his one chosen means of expression (poetry) and Laura’s short-lived hummingbird bursts of enthusiasm for this or that pursuit, but there isn’t really. You’d think there’s be conflict between Paterson’s lack of career ambition (he writes essentially for himself) and Laura’s recognition that her husband’s talent deserves a wider audience, but there isn’t really. Even when Paterson gets a gun pulled on him by a distraught actor at the local bar, there isn’t really much conflict. Jarmusch doesn’t do conflict. It’s not part of his America.
Is this a problem? Not as such. Paterson (the movie) is quite good—and it’s not like I look to Jim Jarmusch for a vérité snapshot of how we live now. I think what I’ve struggled with, and what I’m just now beginning to sort out, is that the values expressed in Jarmusch’s work aren’t prescriptive. When I was younger, I used to feel bad that I wasn’t as cool or laid back as Tom Waits in Down by Law or Winona Ryder in Night on Earth (my disposition is more Winona Ryder in Stranger Things). Those characters represented an uncomplicated bohemian ideal I had difficulty living up to, and that made me feel bad about my life, which was regularly anything but cool or artistic.
But now I realize that I don’t have to be just as cool as John Lurie is in Stranger Than Paradise any more than I have to be just as swashbuckling as Harrison Ford is in Indiana Jones. Both are fantasies. And that’s what I mean about Jim Jarmusch movies existing in a fraudulent world. Which is fine—90% percent of all movies, fictional or otherwise, are hugely fraudulent.
It makes sense, then, that Paterson is itself much like the poems created by its titular (?) character: perfect and small and not particularly modern or journalistic. Just be prepared to feel envious of two nice people who aren’t even close to being real.