The poetry in Paterson #LIFF30

6 November 2016

A review of the 30th Leeds International Film Festival's opening film Paterson.
America is a country that revels in the romanticisation of its small towns. The high school dramas that centre around the beloved sports team; the films that chronicle the microcosm of a high street; the musical odes by well-known singers that celebrate an old-fashioned way of living. 

In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch takes this idea and pushes it even further. Not only do we find ourselves immersed in a small town, but also within the home and daily lives of the title character, Paterson (played expertly by Adam Driver, the master of introverted charisma) and his ever-enthusiastic stay-at-home-wife, Laura. 

We watch curiously as they arise at the same time each morning, as Paterson patters to work as a bus driver each day, and as he returns each afternoon to Laura, who's more often than not spent her time channeling her energy into some zany, artistic task - whether it's baking cupcakes for the farmer's market, incessantly painting, or playing guitar. She commits herself to each endeavour which such tremendous gusto, and perseverance, that one can't help but be swept up by her passion. 

Paterson himself finds a creative outlet in his poetry, which is shared with us on the screen as small, swimming words. In the same vein as his heroes and much alluded to fellow Paterson, New Jersey patrons, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, his poetry concentrates on the material things around him. "We have plenty of matches," he muses, proceeding to describe simply yet imaginatively a matchbox. There is never a sense of cyniciscm surrounding Paterson's poetry, never a flicker of the 'struggling artist' trope we're so used to seeing. Instead, his words flow out of him, simply as his method of chronicalling the beauty he views around him. 

Finding joy in the small moments is the central message of the film. In the dull monotony of their weekly routine, Paterson and Laura are never defeated, and never pessimistic. Instead, they breathe life into the daily pint of beer in the bar while walking the dog, the daily dinners, and in their relationship - so calm and yet so packed with an ignited sense of love and dedication. She's the yang to his yin. Paterson smiles each day as he opens his prepared lunchbox to a different photograph of Laura that she's inserted, and a different assortment of foods, painted with circles.

Circles are another theme we see frequently. This is a film in which many symbols are repeated in ways that are often open-ended and unexplained. At times this can become infuriating, as you search for the fact behind the fiction, the meaning behind the menial. One morning for example, Laura energetically tells her husband of her dream in which she bore them twins. From then on, identical twins appear everywhere in the town, to a comical degree. What should we make of this, we wonder? Should we infer this to be attributed to their lack of children? Perhaps it's Paterson's desire to procreate, later solidified by his tender meeting with a little girl who appears as a prodigal daughter figure. Is it purely a red herring inserted by Jarmusch to pique our interest? Or maybe, we should simply see this as just an interesting detail in their run-of-the-mill lives. 

Along with twins and circles, it's worth nothing that watches and waterfalls also appear repeatedly, a testament to the circular, repetitive, infinite loop of the film, and of life -- its structure reminiscent of a comfortable, intimate, self-assured Groundhog Day.

I imagine Paterson to be a very divisive film. For those that appreciate a linear storyline or a copious amount of action, this will most likely make you grimace. You may even be bored to tears. For me, I see it as a film that becomes more enjoyable after you've seen it, like a food with an intoxicating aftertaste, as you ingest slowly the weird array of moments you've witnessed. It is after all a sum of these small cohesive pockets, from Laura's hilarious English bulldog Marvin, who's every pant and wiggle illicits a laugh from the audience, to the many conversations Paterson overhears as he drives through the city each day, to bar-room brawls and rappers in launderettes. 

It assesses the grandeur of history, of the legend of creative greats, and interposed with this the everyday things that inspired them. The streets and things and people emboldened by their loving gaze, poured into glorious verse. I view the film as a poem in itself, a post-Modern ode to small-town America. Strange to watch, a little disconcerting, jarring and at times overtly mundane, but ultimately timeless. 

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