Thursday, April 06, 2017

Paterson, Movie and Poem

Director Jim Jarmusch, writing the screenplay for his film Paterson, surely was inspired by lines early in William Carlos Williams's book-length poem of the same name, the doctor-poet's effort to "reflect" his own mind through aspects of his hometown of Paterson, NJ.  Williams writes:
"Rigor of beauty is the quest.  But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?"

To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling 
up the sum, by defective means --
Sniffing the trees, 
just another dog...    (Preface, Book I)
The movie follows the daily routine of a bus driver also named Paterson (Adam Driver) "rolling" through the streets,  gathering "particulars" of his town and home life, "[making] them general" in lines of poetry.   There is no plot, only "incidents" that vary his daily routine over a week's time, plus the weekend.  Every night, he walks to a bar with a sniffing, snorting English bulldog adored by his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).

Where Williams begins his poem picturing the town Paterson as if it were a man lying asleep, Jarmusch begins each of seven days with a shot of the man Paterson in bed, just as his internal clock awakes him. 

Williams writes the gist of the movie early in Book I:
Say it! No ideas but in things.  Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write.  Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter--  (Book I, p. 6)
The first "things" that Paterson transmutes into poetry are matches fingered idly while he crunches his cereal.  In voice-over, he drafts a poem, words also appearing on the screen.  The poem isn't much, at first, just a prosaic statement about "our" preferred brand of matches; but, as he walks to the bus station, makes his rounds, and takes a break for lunch, he revises the poem, until we can relate the matches, packed tightly in their little box, heads ready to burst into flame, with the poet himself, staid and gentle in his boxy little home, head preoccupied with love for his wife Laura.

Driving the bus, Paterson tunes in to conversations behind him.  Reflections in the bus window superimpose the sunny streets on the driver's face, his eyes focused ahead, with glances at passengers whose words enter his thoughts.  It's reminiscent of Williams's next stanza:
Who are these people (how complex
the mathematic) among whom I see myself
in the regularly ordered plateglass of
his thoughts, glimmering before shoes and bicycles?
Williams is writing here of shop windows, but I doubt it's coincidence that Jarmusch always gives us the shoes of these incidental characters, whether they're pre-teen boys, working men, or a couple of self-styled anarchists. The shoes, scuffed, or flirtatiously close, tell tales.  The people on the bus and in the bar where he goes every night are not so tough, virile, or smart as they encourage each other to think they are, so Adam Driver's "Paterson" smiles a lot.  As he does, we do: Driver is the straight man, and everyone else is a character, making just about every scene funny.  It can't be coincidence that Jarmusch works into the movie several references to Lou Costello, funny half of Depression-era comedy duo Abbott and Costello, native of Paterson.

Adam Driver's "Paterson" is the straight man to Golshifteh Farahani's "Laura."  While Paterson drafts poetry in a "secret" notebook during his breaks, Laura bounds from one artistic expression to another, brushing black and white stripes, circles, and waves on everything from  curtains to cupcakes, baking pie from incongruous ingredients, and taking up music on a whim, attracted to the black and white design on the guitar she saw advertised.  Paterson watches her in wonder and encourages her.

Jarmusch and Driver present the poet as considerate, not just in the sense of attentive and kind: Before Paterson responds to dialogue, Driver shows a moment of uncertainty when his character seems to be considering what the other needs to hear from him.  "I dreamed that we had twins," Laura whispers upon waking. "Would you like that?"  After a moment, he says, yes, "one for you and one for me."  It's just the right thing.

Our bus driver meets three poets during the course of the movie, all of them referring to Williams.  A rapper who works on his lines in a laundromat to the beat of the washer also says, "No idea but in things."  A girl with a "secret notebook" like the bus driver's own shares with him her poem "Water Falls," (a poem by the director that begins "Water falls through the air / like hair of a young girl..."), recalling the waterfalls of the town described so vividly in Williams's poem.  A devotee of William Carlos Williams leaves Paterson with a gift that serves as a kind of benediction for the work of a poet.

Naturally, Paterson recites for his wife William Carlos Williams's greatest hit, "This is just to say," touching and funny.

Poet Ron Padgett, personal friend to Jarmusch, composed four original poems for the movie.  He told the Poetry Foundation that he found his images from reading the script.  His work for this movie had to be substantial but also accessible at first hearing.  Between Jarmusch's visuals and Driver's interpretation, he scores.

Finding patterns is a part of the pleasure in poetry, music, and jokes. In this film, patterns abound: the daily routine, a proliferation of twins, Laura's mania for black-and-white, and big laughs set up through repetition.  In narrative art, we also have the pleasure of getting to know people.

That's the "mathematic": patterns + persons = Paterson.

Padgett, Ron. How to Be Perfect. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2007.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1995.

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