Keen to see the latest Jim Jarmusch film, Paterson, following a recent DVD refresher binge of his earlier works, I was delighted to find a late-night showing as part of the Cambridge Film Festival. It’s a gentle, slow film admiring and appreciating the minutiae of everyday life. It also considers the importance of art in life, not as something reserved for self-styled “artists” but as a necessary creative outlet for everyone.
Poet and bus driver Paterson lives in Paterson, New Jersey. This is one of many coincidences (another involves twins), throwaway observations and overhearings all of which would be excellent creative writing source material. The town of Paterson and its notable residents are also significant characters. Somehow Paterson’s poetry doesn’t seem to be particularly influenced by much of this, unlikely as that seems. It is lovely, though, to see the act of creating the poems – fragments of lines repeated in his head to make sure he remembers them until he can write them down in his notebook – captured so charmingly on film.
But here’s a thing. I fundamentally misunderstood one of the key elements of the film. I thought the poems themselves were rather poor. (In fact, the best poem of the film came from the mouth of a ten-year old girl). I assumed this was deliberate because it was irrelevant whether he made good or bad art. The important thing was how he saw himself – as a bus driver or as a poet – a point which becomes clear in his chance meeting with a Japanese poet. Then, as the end credits rolled, I saw that genuine, published poems by a real poet had been used as Paterson’s poems for the film. I guess I wasn’t meant to think they were bad poems, after all. Whoops. Sorry, poet, you’re just not my style.
If Paterson really does have talent then, despite his lack of Byronic charisma, his wife Laura’s devoted belief is at least not misplaced. It takes away any imbalance between her wild, impulsive creativity and his steadier stream. They really are equal and mutually supportive partners.
But there’s still an odd asymmetry to their relationship. After almost two hours, I know Paterson’s daily routines inside out, but I have no idea why she doesn’t accompany him to the bar when he takes the dog for a walk each evening. Why does Paterson promise to read his poetry to her, but never does? She’s a mystery, intriguing. Is she quite well? She seems blissfully happy, an amazing person, yet strangely isolated. What little we see is restricted to the house where she spends her days producing decorative fabrics, baking cupcakes and learning the guitar – everything done in black and white. With luck, Jarmusch’s next film will be called Laura and I’ll get to find out.