The film that helped me get to grips with poetry
Why I’ve been thinking about Paterson a lot lately.
I guess it never made sense to me. Poetry was just one of those things that I was forced to learn in school and would always be beyond me, case closed. Whatever words were put on a page, whether they rhymed or not or had a certain rhythm; it didn’t matter because I couldn’t see the meaning of it. It was just words on a page, and it didn’t matter what it meant to one person, that didn’t make it good art.
Or so I thought.
It all started with a driver
I can’t remember how it grabbed my attention, but when I first heard of a (on first impressions) simple film about a bus driver in New Jersey and his working week, I was intrigued.
And seeing that it starred Adam Driver — who as a Star Wars fan thought turned in a great (and I believe underrated) performance as broody Vader-fan Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens — only sweetened the deal.
As you can tell from the time of writing, I sadly didn’t make it to the cinema. But seeing Driver so sadly demoted to a secondary character in Martin Scorsese’s Silence only managed to make me more keen to see his role in Paterson once it was released on DVD.
All in all I was determined to see this film, and I guess I’d have to deal with it containing a bit of poetry…
Paterson is the story, and name, of a bus driver who goes to work every day, in the city of the same name, in New Jersey.
Paterson wakes up at 6.30am every day, goes to work along the same route, eats his lunch in the same place, and comes home to his ‘manic-creative’ wife and grumpy bulldog every evening and then heads to a bar. He’s a simple man with a simple life, but also a real passion: poetry.
Every day, the smallest of things inspire him to write elegant and simple poems that help him through the day. Not that those around him would know it, though.
Paterson is determined to keep his artistic side a secret, perhaps because of the military past alluded to in the opening shots of the film. He lives in a town of drama and famous faces — the owner of the bar he goes to every night revels in finding stories relating to stars of the stage and screen and plastering up on the wall — but his art remains shut away in his ‘secret notebook’.
For Paterson, there is no ‘creative time’, for him life and poetry go along together. He’s constantly thinking up new verses as he drives around the city in his bus, noting them down in the notebook he carries with him when he can. And it is this crossover between life and poetry that really started to make the film shine for me. And writer/director Jim Jarmusch took some deliberate steps to show this.
Life as poetry
Think of a poem, and what do you see? Probably lots of short lines, grouped together into short stanzas of similar shape, cascading down a page in a linear way.
Sound familiar? Lots of brief experiences, grouped together in blocks of time of similar shape, cascading unceasingly through time. This similar structure is — albeit in an arty-farty way — perhaps how you could describe a working week.
Paterson’s daily life unfolds in just the same way as the poetry he loves so much. The discreet days as stanzas, minute observations eking through from overheard conversations and glimpses of the city, internal rhymes that echo throughout the week from Paterson’s wife mentioning twins in the opening minutes. It all adds up to make the film — and perhaps demonstrates that life is also — like one giant poem.
Paterson’s daily life unfolds in just the same way as the poetry he loves so much.
Jarmusch himself has said that the film was inspired by William Carlos Williams’ famous epic poem, also named Paterson, because of a visit he took there over 20 years ago. He liked the idea that the beginning of the poem showed the city as a metaphor for a man.
Indeed, Jarmusch has taken this even further here. Paterson himself produces great things, but nobody knows who he is. He wants to keep himself to himself. The same could be said for the city of Paterson in the film, an unassuming city that seems to have been home to many famous names (including poet William Carlos Williams), as well as a few famous stories.
But I think Jarmusch has also taken this metaphor full circle. With the poem inspiring a film about a man whose life is a metaphor a city and for poetry. And it’s only when the rhythm of the poem is lost in the final act of the film, and Paterson questions himself, that we truly see how his life reflects art.
The seeds for this third act are sown throughout the first two acts of the film, and further demonstrate how Paterson’s life is linked to poetry.
Conspicuous creativity — is it the only art with any meaning?
There’s a portion of this interview with Time magazine that I think is very telling of the way that Jim Jarmusch approached Paterson:
‘There are all kinds of ways to make films or art or poetry. And one reason I’m attracted to the New York School of poets is this idea of writing to one person. Not standing on top of the mountain, saying, “Here is what I believe!”’
Here we have an artist that is determined to make art for himself, not just for other people or just to be seen to be making it. And that way of thinking is certainly apparent in the film.
Take Paterson’s wife, Laura. She is constantly in the process of trying new creative things, painting everything with her own conspicuous style of black and white shapes. She wants to leave her artistic mark on the world, and feels that Paterson should do the same. She even asks him to photocopy his secret notebook so that more people can read it.
Laura could be seen as the definition of a creative person. She’s constantly doing creative things. She’s either being creative for everyone to see, or she isn’t being a creative person.
However, Laura’s artistic temperament seems to flit between mediums every day. One day she’s making cupcakes, the next she’s painting the shower curtains, then she sees a guitar and feels she just has to learn to play. It’s yet another step away from Paterson’s quiet dedication to poetry.
It is in her choice of black and white patterns that I think we get a glimpse into what Jarmusch is trying to say about creativity.
Laura could be seen as the definition of a creative person. She’s constantly doing creative things. She’s either being creative for everyone to see, or she isn’t being a creative person. It’s a case of black and white. People are one or the other, there is no grey area.
But Paterson is the absolute refutation of this way of thinking. To someone on the street he’s just a normal bus driver, not a ‘creative’ person. But with him creativity is much more than skin deep.
Take those that choose to show their talents and interests conspicuously (or not) throughout the film. The bar owner who abandons the chessboard he’s set up very openly to go and chat with someone, but we never actually see him play unlike others who quietly play in a corner. The rapper who only practices his craft alone in a laundromat. The two men on Paterson’s bus who loudly tell stories of the great women they’ve met at parties, but who are still, strangely, single. Even the teens who proclaim themselves ‘anarchists’ while riding public transport.
All of these examples ask a simple question; does something have to be shown to everyone for it to mean something?
What Paterson the person, and Paterson the film, seem to argue is: no.
Now, how does this fit in with my hang-ups with poetry?
Well, shock horror, it turns out that my teenage views on poetry were completely wrong. And Paterson was the thing to prove it.
Poetry isn’t something that has to immediately make sense. Nothing fantastic or awe-inspiring has to happen on the page for it to be a good poem. In fact, it’s just this fact that can make poetry so, well, poetic.
Poetry is what it means to the reader at that moment in time. Forget what the majority of people think, reading a poet’s work is about understanding what they saw at that moment, without thinking how it would be received by other people.
Paterson seems to have been made just like this. It was never designed to show off to a rampant horde of fans (and I count myself as being one of them for Star Wars), but seems to have been made for the sheer joy of making it. And that matters.
At a time when there’s so many big things happening across many movie franchises, it is a film devoid of ‘big events’ that has had the most impact.
At a time when there’s so many big things happening across many movie franchises, it is a film devoid of ‘big events’ that has had the most impact. It drew me inexplicably to it before it was released, it’s got me writing my longest film essay since university, and — obviously I never thought I’d say this — it even has me interested in reading some more poetry.
Perhaps when very little is said, there is much more that can be understood. And with that in mind I think many films could do with being a little more poetic.