Directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring the seemingly ubiquitous Adam Driver, I was expecting something interesting but mainstream from Paterson. That’s not quite what this film is. On the surface it is an uneventful study of the routine of a single, ordinary life, with some humour provided by a dog. Underneath, it is a meditation on the difficulty of reengaging and finding meaning in life after military service, or perhaps any trauma.
Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver in the suburb of Paterson, New Jersey, who has a routine life. His wife is beautiful, relentlessly optimistic and obsessed with decorating everything in black and white. Paterson writes poetry in a notebook, listens to conversations on the bus and nightly takes their bulldog for a walk via his local bar. It is at the bar that he seems to have the most real conversations and he watches the conflicts that relationships can bring.
There isn’t much more to the plot than that so it is the recurring motifs and symbolism of some of the elements that I think tell us what the film is really about. The first clue is easy to miss. At least twice, we see an incidental shot showing some framed photos on a table, one of a younger Paterson in military uniform with rows of medals on his chest. This is the only reference to his past, an implication that he had a life very different to the one he has now.
There are several other noticeable repeated motifs – the name Paterson, twins, poetry – and I think these all hold significance. The word Paterson is said and seen often; signs, the title of a book of poetry by Paterson’s favourite author, in the conversations on the bus and in the bar about famous people from Paterson. For me this signified that the character of Paterson is an everyman, no one of note, there are no parks named after him but of course everything in that place is named after him. He is a no one, which makes him the heart of America.
Poetry, I think, symbolises his recognition of beauty in the everyday, his mechanism for staying alive. His poems are about seemingly mundane things but they are all love poems. Poetry is also the vehicle for human connection; there are two moments when he talks to other poets, accidentally met – a young girl and a Japanese man. These are moments where he recognises a commonality and that he is not alone.
The reference to twins begins as a dream recounted by his wife and then he sees twins everywhere. His wife also wants to make a copy of his poems as they all reside in one notebook. This notion of replication, that there may be two of something, that his reality might exist outside of himself, seems to be a concept of wonder but one he struggles to accept.
His wife is the opposite to him, always dreaming of the next wonderful thing that will happen. Her obsession with the colours black and white says to me that this is how she sees the world. He accommodates her without seemingly ever affected by her joie de vivre. His only way to keep going seems to be to follow his routine, to not look to the future, to know that there will be moments of pleasures and beauty, however small, and these will be enough.
I found it hard to stay engaged with the story as there was so much repetition and shallowness. The dog, though cute, seemed to be a clumsy device for humour and the superficiality of the conversations began to grate. Overall, though, it left me thinking and with a little more insight into what might be needed to cope with trauma and depression.
Bechdel test – pass