Paterson: An Amateur or a Masterpiece?
By Natalie Moey
In our postmodern era, excess of production has given birth to a generation of consumers who accept about all forms of eccentricities as art. If one compares art from the modern period and today’s works, a vast difference is evident. Despite the changes art has gone through, one thing remains the same – art will always be derived from nature. In Aristotle’s “Poetics,” he adopts the view that art “imitates” nature, or in Hamlet’s phrase, holds the “mirror up to nature” (Halliwell and Aristotle) This is especially relatable to film, which reproduces raw material of the physical world within the realm of art. Kracauer even goes as far as to insist that it is film’s clear obligation and privilege to “record and reveal, and thereby redeem, physical reality” (148). Based on these theories and beliefs, Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” (2016) would clearly qualify as a work of art. However, “Paterson” is not your typical romance/comedy drama. Centered on a bus driver/part-time poet Paterson’s (Adam Driver) life in a week, the film’s minimal plot and quiet nature sparks controversial debates about whether it’s a masterpiece or just boring and plain amateurish. This paper will focus on the realism apparent in the film and take a stance to defend Jarmusch’s “Paterson” as a phenomenal work of art.
Realism as Art
What is the definition of realism? In “Realism and the Cinema,” Rossellini states in an interview that realism is a “response to the genuine need to see men for what they are, with humility and without recourse to fabricating the exceptional; it means an awareness that the exceptional is arrived at through the investigation of reality” (Liehm 137). A similar thing can be said about film art. Kracauer believes the distinct function of art is to help humans possess the concrete world once more as it literally “redeems this world from its dormant state, its state of virtual nonexistence, by endeavoring to experience it through the camera” (Braudy and Cohen 142). Thus, realism is considered a form of art despite it just replicating reality as they both aim to showcase and appreciate the beauty of the real world. Similarly, the film “Paterson” embodies both qualities of realism and art. The plot (if one can consider it a plot) of the film basically depicts Paterson going about his daily routine in a week. This includes routinely tasks like waking up around 6:15a.m., walking to the bus depot, writing poems in his Secret Notebook, piloting the No. 23 bus line, eating lunch by the waterfall, straightening his mailbox, returning home to his stay-at-home wife, Laura (Goldshifteh Farahani), walking his bulldog, and getting a drink at a nearby pub. This repeats five times for the weekdays, and the weekends aren’t very much different either. Jarmusch’s unique take on storytelling eschews traditional narrative structure, and his reasoning is that his goal is to “approximate real time for the audience” (Robinson, "BOMB Magazine — Men Looking at Other Men by Lindzee Smith"). In the same way, everyday life does not often contain big moments or big reactions. Thus, his film adopts a quieter tone and is devoid of drama or action because it derives from the everyday life where nothing very dramatic happens often.
In addition, Jarmusch incorporates other realistic elements such as realistic relationships, characters, and dialogue in “Paterson.” Albeit being a romantic/comedy drama, “Paterson” is a love film that does not involve its leads falling in love. Instead, it is about a more realistic love in the sense that it’s about grownup love and work. Also, realistic relationships are not perfect; both Paterson and Laura are so different. Paterson is quiet, conservative, likes to keep to himself, and has a relatively lower self-esteem. On the other hand, Laura enjoys exploring new things and is constantly switches hobbies such as decorating her home with black and white patterns, aspiring to start her own cupcake business, and even dreaming to become a country-western star (just by buying a guitar and learning how to play it). Yet, Paterson and Laura love each other and live independent lives without requiring the other to change to become more alike. It is a realistic film about the mutual understanding needed to make a relationship last. “Paterson” realistic characters is made possible because of Jarmusch’s specific casting. For most of his other films, he usually writes his film scripts with the actor/actress already in mind. Although he didn’t use his unique technique for “Paterson,” he chose a suitable cast that matches Paterson and Laura’s personalities in real life. Jarmusch says of the two, “Adam isn’t an analytical actor, which I love, He doesn’t like to overthink things, he likes to react, and that’s a lot like Paterson. Goldshifteh is so radiant and energized and warm and intelligent – and Laura’s like that too” (Levy, “Paterson: Jarmusch on Writing and Casting his Film”). By playing to his casts’ strengths, Jarmusch is able to make the film even more realistic. Besides realistic relationships and characters, Jarmusch incorporates realistic dialogue in “Paterson” by using actual dialogue he overheard. For example, in the scene on the bus where two guys talk about girls is a verbatim of something Jarmusch overheard during a luncheonette about fifteen years ago. Jarmusch thought the sympathetic macho cover for their unsuccessful experiences with women was heartbreaking, so he decided to use it in his film. Thus, it can be concluded that realistic relationships, characters, and dialogue can add to the realism of a film.
So why make a film about boring events that have no real story? According to Reklis, “Artistic creation uses daily life as fodder for its work. It doesn’t denigrate the ordinary as something that has to be left behind. Instead, the work of making art transforms life and elevates it” (“How Paterson Sidesteps the Clichés Embraced by La La Land”). Paterson proves that art derives from the everyday when he wrote a love poem after being inspired by the logo of a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches. He starts with “We have plenty of matches in our house.” In yet another poem Paterson entitled “Poem,” it begins with “I’m in the house. It’s nice out: warm. Sun of cold snow.” Here, it is clear that homey details and things around him are the focus and inspiration of his poems. In addition, films about normal day-to-day events showcase and beautify the typically un-showcased, helping people to appreciate and become more aware of the blessings they have in life. For example, Paterson is just an average guy who does not become a published writer at the end of the film. This is better than a typical rags-to-riches or doom-to-gloom storyline that is typical to Hollywood films. Jarmusch avoids such clichés because he aims to depict life as it is, and including a sudden dramatic change would be unrealistic. Two interviewers, Peter Von Baugh and Mika Kaurismaki even commented on Jim Jarmusch, “In every respect your films reflect a love for small, important things, the things that are really the basic fabric of our lives” (Hertzberg 71). Paterson may not have the best life, but the film certainly shows the beauty of it.
Another reason for the uneventful and repetitive plotline is due to necessity. Paterson’s character needs to drift away and observe the world around him and the beauty within its mundane existence. He often floats through the world of anarchist college students, up and coming rappers, and co-workers just waiting to have a soul to pour theirs out to. He then takes such information and other worldly factors, using it as an influence for his poetry. This is made possible due to Paterson’s routine lifestyle. Within it, his mind is free to observe the world and listen to others. On top of that, being spaced out is in Paterson’s character. He sometimes only half listens to Laura when she goes on telling him about her day and creative aspirations. He may be present in part, but the rest his mind is busy contemplating his next poem. For example, after Laura tells him three times about her cupcakes, he still asks her, “Hey, Laura, what’s all the flour for?” Hence, the silent, uneventful plot of “Paterson” was born out of necessity to add depth to the main character.
Since realism in cinema possesses such appealing qualities, why aren’t there more films like these in the cinema? The reason lies in funding. In order to achieve the realism Jarmusch envisions in his films, he is required to make them without the interference or input of Hollywood. In the American independent filmmaking sector, success is tied to “landing a big-time distributor and/or a studio contract – the exposure, in short that goes hand in glove with dependence of large institutional backing, hence loss of independence.” While Jarmusch depends on such funding for his films too, he’s “strong enough to afford the luxury of brooking no creative interference when it comes to making production and post production decisions” (Rosenbaum 15). The main reason Jarmusch chooses to work independently is because he wants to protect his ability to be “the navigator of the ship” (Hertzberg 151). This is because his “idiosyncratic and at times absurdist vision… shuns the modes of mainstream commercial cinema” (Quart 28). According to Deleuze, in classical Hollywood cinema, “situations typically occasion actions that in turn create new situations (the SAS structure). All these elements are governed by the intelligible causal relations that make traditional narrative possible.” The realism in “Paterson” would have “disrupted the orderly narrative procedures of the commercial Hollywood film and inaugurate a more difficult cinema whose images are no longer linked by rational cuts, whose spaces are empty, fragmentary, and discontinuous, and whose characters are seers rather than doers, visionaries rather than agents” (Braudy and Cohen 145). In a sense, “Paterson” is like an antidote to mainstream Hollywood movies that are full or action, chaos, and crisis. The biggest action found in “Paterson” is the bus breaking down, sending people into crisis. They discuss about how it might explode into a fireball, which anticlimactically does not in the name of realism. Jarmusch even says it himself, “We need other kinds of films. With my films, my hope is that you don’t care too much about the plot. I’m trying to find a Zen way where you are just there each moment and you’re not thinking too much about what’s going to happen next” (Quartz 29). Ironically, Jarmusch’s film depicting realism can be considered more artistic and creative compared to Hollywood movies because it does something different rather than following a cutout mold. Even though Jarmusch could have gone down an easier path had he signed a contract with Hollywood, he believes that creating something he is proud trumps in importance.
Poetry and Realism
Although poetry possesses some cinematic qualities, films about writing poetry are a rarity. However, for a film about realism, “Paterson” also has poetic qualities. Jarmusch used to study poetry, and his films often involve repetitions and subtle variations on themes. Thus, it is no surprise he decided to come up with “Paterson,” which is the best representation of his style in his filmography thus far. The film is inspired by William Carlos Williams (notice the double name), who is also a native of New Jersey like Paterson, and whose most epic work is entitled “Paterson.” Similarly, the film “Paterson” is about Paterson, a part-time poet, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. As if these parallels were not enough, Jarmusch throws in the twins Paterson sees everywhere he goes, “thus further emphasizing the doppelgänger theory, or life’s duality, or some other metaphor that doesn’t quite work except in an amusing, absurdist way” (Meier, “Is Jim Jarmusch's Latest Slice-of-Life Film, 'Paterson,' Minimalist or Just Empty?”). In addition, there is more symmetry in the between Jarmusch’s “Paterson” and Williams’ “Paterson.” In Williams’ “Paterson,” the section of Book I opens with “Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls, its spent waters forming the outline of his back.” In Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” Paterson is seen on his lunch break facing the Passaic Falls. Additionally, Paterson often eavesdrops on his passengers’ chatter while working. Williams too admits that he enjoyed listening to people’s conversations in the park on Sundays in summer (Lane 77). On top of all these parallels and rhyming motifs, Williams emphasizes on his prosaic notion of “No ideas but in things,” which means that one “starts with the things around you and the details of daily life; you find beauty and resonance in them, and poetry grows out of that” (Quart 30). Not surprisingly, this concept is very much used in “Paterson” as well (i.e. the poem inspired by a matchbox). Thus, it is evident that “Paterson” possesses poetic qualities influenced by Williams.
Aside from parallels and rhyming motifs, Jarmusch structured the film in a poetic way that depicts the quotidian. The film’s narrative carries with it a poetic structure, “flowing through each day with brief moments of repetition and an almost rhyme-like build” (Brunsting, “Joshua Reviews Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson”). As a fan of repetition and variation, Jarmusch creates poetic texture by making small-scale repetitions in Paterson’s routinely life. For example, everyday opens with an overhead view of the couple in bed. Although it repeats on a daily basis, the couple’s positions change. For example, one morning, Laura is not even there. Also, Paterson wakes up around 6:15 a.m., but the time always varies, and sometimes the audience does not get to see him check his wristwatch at all. Frederick Elmes, Jarmusch’s cinematographer also played an important role in finding the barely perceptible difference in the routinely life of Paterson. For example, the waterfall does not look the same everyday. Although Paterson does eat his lunch by the same waterfall, the clouds and sunlight helped create a sunny day or cloudy day look, thus varying the shot from day to day. Elmes says, “I knew Paterson was there to create and write poems, and the falls were part of that inspiration. It gave us every excuse to look closely at the falls and to abstract it. To take parts of it away and see just water falling, to see water flowing, or swirling, mist, foam, and the birds. To take all those bits apart and kind of let them come back together in a visual that stands with the poem” (O’Falt, “Jim Jarmusch DP Frederick Elmes on Capturing the Soulful Essence of ‘Paterson’”). Hence, although Paterson’s everyday tasks are repetitive, Jarmusch and Elmes use creative ways to portray similar content in different manners.
Additionally, Jarmusch depicts the realistic life of a poet in “Paterson.” In the real world, many writers keep their writing separate from their work lives. Jarmusch points out that the “non-commercial status of poetry has meant that its practitioners have not been able to make a living from it, thus resulting in ‘an art of amateurs’” (Girish, “TIFF 2016: "Paterson" and "The Human Surge"). Thus, poets are not easily recognized as they are required to take a side job in order to pay the bills, just like Paterson, who is a bus driver and lunch-break poet. According to Alpaugh, “poetry is becoming a sport that multitudes pursue and enjoy,” and is statistically predicted to rise to the extent that “86 million poems will be published in the 21st century” (“The New Math of Poetry). Hence, a poet could come in the form of a bus driver, a doctor (William Carlos Williams), a post office worker (Charles Bukowski), a museum curator (Frank O’Hara), an insurance executive (Wallace Stevens), a farmer (Robert Frost), or a teacher in business school (Marianne Moore). Through “Paterson,” Jarmusch brings to the audience’s attention regarding the hidden talents and lives of poets around them.
Realism in film may initially come off as unoriginal or boring. However, after conducting further study into Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” one will come to appreciate the art of realism in film. Realism is not only artistically pleasing, but makes people become more aware of their surroundings and treasure the blessings in their busy, overly distracted life. When one digs deeper beneath the surface, the slice of life elements in “Paterson” become more than just an everyday occurrence.
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