'Paterson' Paints A Delicate Portrait Of A Bus Driver Who Writes Poetry

Jan 6, 2017
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jim Jarmusch has a new film called "Paterson," which was loosely inspired by William Carlos Williams' epic poem of the same name. The film was shot on location in New Jersey and stars Adam Driver. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Paterson," directed by Jim Jarmusch, charts a week, Monday to Monday, in the life of a Paterson, N.J., bus driver and poet whose name also happens to be Paterson. He's played by Adam Driver, whose face is amazing even when it's still. You can see the ripples of thought. And in a movie as cerebral as this one, that matters.

Driver's loopy charm infuses the film, which is likable and moving for reasons that aren't always easy to pin down. Paterson has a set routine. His internal clock wakes him at the same time every day. He kisses his wife Laura goodbye, and he walks to the bus depot, stopping at the city's Great Falls - that's not a superlative; that's what the falls are called - to write poetry. His poetry, actually written by Ron Padgett, is good. And it's faithful to the most famous tenet of the poet Williams Carlos Williams, whose epic poem "Paterson" inspired this film. Williams called for, quote, "no ideas but in things," which basically means you begin by focusing on something physical and from that make the leap to metaphysical. The concept of no ideas but in things keeps the movie grounded - not realistic, but grounded.

On his city bus, Paterson listens to different sorts of people having intense conversations behind him. He notices patterns in passersby, many of whom happen to be twins. He's in a kind of alert trance. Here is Driver's Paterson driving through Paterson - and that Driver plays a driver is like an internal rhyme in Jarmusch's larger poem. The lines of poetry appear onscreen in an elegant scrawl while Paterson speaks them aloud.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PATERSON")

ADAM DRIVER: (As Paterson) Another one. When you're a child, you learn there are three dimensions - height, width and depth, like a shoebox. Then later you hear there's a fourth dimension, time. Then some say there could be five, six, seven. I knock off work, have a beer at the bar. I look down at the glass and feel glad.

EDELSTEIN: In the evenings, after dinner, Paterson parks his little bulldog, Marvin, in front of a bar and nurses a beer while dramas erupt around him. He chats with the bartender, Doc, played by Barry Shabaka Henley, about the photos on the wall depicting former Paterson residents, including Lou Costello, Allen Ginsberg, and of course William Carlos Williams.

Jim Jarmusch's work is a funny blend of casual and deliberate - mundane yet highly symbolic. Paterson might be a blue-collar worker tied to a potentially numbing routine. But within that routine, his artistry can flourish. It's a Japanese kind of idea, a formal ritual that can be spiritually freeing. And it's no accident that a Japanese poet arrives out of the blue at the Great Falls to rekindle Paterson's creative spirit after a setback late in the film.

The only thing I never figured out was what to make of Paterson's marriage to Laura, played by the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. Laura maintains a lively patter while designing black-and-white clothes or black-and-white cupcakes. But she's a bit like Eva Gabor in the sitcom "Green Acres," dizzily beautiful and in a world of her own. The couple goes out only once together in the film, to see the 1932 movie "Island Of The Lost Souls," which might or might not be a metaphor for everyone in "Paterson."

Something happens to his notebook while they're gone, which raises a disturbing question. Is Jarmusch saying that by taking an artist away from his or work, an intimate relationship poses a threat? I don't know. What I do know is that in "Paterson," Jarmusch captures something you rarely see in films about artists - how they have to seesaw between observation and insularity, being open to everything while maintaining a kind of bubble of privacy in which to work. I've never seen a film that evokes that inner state with such delicacy, such poetry.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

On the next FRESH AIR, Jeff Bridges - his performance in the Western "Hell Or High Water" has been nominated for a Golden Globe. We'll talk about Bridges' life and films, his Oscar-winning performance in the 2009 film "Crazy Heart" and his cult-favorite character The Dude from "The Big Lebowski." Hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIA SKONBERG'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed the show.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIA SKONBERG'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.