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Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” – The subversiveness of banality

Jim Jarmusch has been making films for more than thirty years which show the world in a different light. His latest film “Paterson” also keeps his audience on tenterhooks about incidents that aren’t really of interest to anyone. By Phil Butland

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver and a poet who lives in – nominative determinism alert – Paterson, New Jersey. “Paterson” is also the name a collection of poems by William Carlos Williams, which also appears in the film in various guises.

Carlos Williams’s almost haiku-like poems concentrate more on rhythm and mood than with what is being said. Perhaps the most famous goes:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white chickens

The tone is similar to that of Jarmusch’s gnomic and languid films.

Paterson”: Nothing happens

In “Paterson”, the film, nothing happens. Several times over. Paterson, the man, gets up early every morning and drives his bus. He spends his lunchtime by the local waterfall working on his latest poem. At the end of his shift he hands over to the permanently disgruntled Donny (Rizwan Manji), goes home, straightens his postbox, and sees which part of the house his artist partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) has painted black and white today. Later, he takes Laura’s bulldog Marvin to the pub and watches other people’s lives.

Everyday life in a working-class area

The film is set in an unspectacular but ethnically diverse working-class neighbourhood. There aren’t any car chases or large explosions – its not that sort of film. “Paterson” is about daily life. And like most lives, most of the time not much happens. Until an untypical flash of excitement late in the film, the biggest event involves a bus breaking down.

The relationship between Paterson and Laura is almost entirely free of conflict or even excitement. When they decide to go out to the movies on Friday night, its a big deal. For the rest of the time, they exchange loving but banal chatter. In real life, you’d probably do your best to avoid any unnecessary contact with them, but somehow in the film they come across as sympathetic individuals.

The action lies in the background conversations

The limited excitement in the film appears mainly in the background conversations. In Paterson’s bus, a black kid tells his mate the story of Ruben “Hurricane Carter”, construction workers bullshit each other about missed romantic opportunities, and a pair of student types discuss Italian anarchists. These stories drift into our consciousness and then are never mentioned again.

Similarly, Paterson’s normally mundane life is occasionally interrupted by bizarre vignettes – a car full of black youths advise him on canine security, he bumps into the rapper Method Man practising in the local laundrette, Laura presents him with her newest culinary offering of Brussels sprouts and cheese pie. We share Paterson’s visible discomfort as he slowly swallows.

Is “Paterson” a comedy?

“Paterson” is billed as a comedy, but the humour is less “laugh out loud” than wry observation. We are not presented with actual jokes, but with quirky characters – from actor Everett (William Jackson Harper) and his catastrophic love live to bar owner Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), with his gallery of press cuttings of celebrities with vague links with the town.

Occasionally, you get the feeling that Jarmusch is trying too hard, and that the characters are more cutesy than charming. Some hearts may melt at a ten year old precocious poetess who prefers “the ones that don’t rhyme” and is astounded to meet a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson. Mine just shuddered. And as for the stereotypically inscrutable Japanese tourist … well, we’ll get to him later.

Who is Jim Jarmusch?

But first, a recap. It’s now over 30 years since Jarmusch’s debut film “Stranger than Paradise” marked him out as one of the more interesting of the New Wave directors who emerged in the early 1980s. Partly in reaction to (then) expensive blockbusters like “Jaws” and “Star Wars”, they produced intimate films with unknown actors and a low budget (“Stranger than Paradise” cost $110,000 to make).

Punk rock films

Jarmusch went further, often casting musicians like Tom Waits (“Down By Law”), Joe Strummer (“Mystery Train”), or various members of the Wu-Tang Clan (of whom Method Man is one). He is himself a singer and musician, indeed his band Sqürl provides the soundtrack to “Paterson”. He often compared his process of making films to punk rock, with its emphasis of style over natural talent.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Jarmusch was never explicitly political – he didn’t make films about racism or the class struggle like Spike Lee and John Sayles. Yet partly as a result of how and when they were made, the films ended up being political despite themselves. Peter Biskind explains this in the introduction to “Down and Dirty Pictures”, his book about the New Wave of film. After explicitly mentioning Jarmusch, Biskind says the following:

“Indie films were never programmatically left wing, or even ‘political’ except in the most attenuated fashion, but many were infused with an Us/Them attitude toward the studios and other American institutions … they were almost by definition outsider films and therefore – however tenuously – oppositional in nature.”

Jarmusch’s films didn’t just champion outsiders and underdogs, but also social outcasts, who have few links to society. Whether William Blake in “Dead Man” or the eponymous figure in “Ghost Dog – The Way of the Samurai”, Jarmusch’s heroes (who are usually male) are happy in their own company, and have only a passing connection to modern life.

No self-contained art-house atmosphere

Yet at the same time, Jarmusch was able to do what seemed beyond many other Indie directors – he showed a functioning society, which was not just populated by middle-class white academics. While we may not fully believe that bus drivers regularly drink with actors, Jarmusch’s characters are much more interesting than the white affluent people who agonise about their little first world problems in a safe arthouse environment (“Maggie’s Plan” I’m looking at you in particular, though there are enough other “alternative” films to which this description applies).

Jarmusch’s films do not just occasionally contain people from outside white élite society. Because they take place in ordinary working-class areas, the non-white characters are well-rounded individuals and not unwilling spokespeople for their race. Most people in “Paterson” just happen to be People of Colour – with the unfortunate exception of the Japanese tourist, they don’t stand for anything other than themselves.

Rage at the superficiality of modern capitalist society

While few viewers would fully recognise themselves in Paterson and Laura, or their annoyingly content relationship, we can feel some empathy for then – here are working people who are nonetheless creative and intelligent. Laura has occasional pretensions, which you can forgive as she is not trying to impress anyone. Her enthusiasm and desire for new experiences is similarly addictive (if often underwritten – she does occasionally stray into manic pixie dream girl territory).

“Paterson” provides us with a self-contained universe, and it is perhaps at its weakest, when this universe is visited by other people. In one of the last reels, a Japanese tourist turns up, engages Paterson in conversation, and provides him with the words of wisdom that may profoundly change his life. This is typical Jarmusch, who’s rightful fury at the superficiality of modern capitalist society sometimes leads him to look for solutions in glib Eastern philosophy. This can lead to sudden appearances from people outside white US-American culture offering sage advice. Until you think about what they have just said, and it turns out to be gibberish.

Paterson has no need for a SmartPhone

This can, ultimately, lead to a form of “othering” – treating people from different cultures as being somehow different to you or me. The intention may be to salute their wisdom, and yet it can mean that we view them as something to be uncritically worshipped rather than taken seriously (one could argue that the film sometimes treats Laura in the same way. Laura is played not just by an Iranian but also a woman).

Yet “Paterson” is at its most enjoyable if we don’t think too hard. It has no need for the stress of modern life – Paterson eschews a SmartPhone and won’t even store his poems on a computer. The film works best when we just let it flow over us. If you try to break the flow and start to ask awkward questions, I can see where you could find problems with the film. But why would you want to do that?

The subversiveness of banality

With its Abbott and Costello routines and poems about Ohio Best Tip matches, “Paterson” is depicting a less stressful universe, that no longer exists for us – if it ever really did. It is the exact antithesis of a Michael Bay film – which is always tugging at our sleeve and demanding our attention. This alone is reason enough to celebrate its existence. Jarmusch has managed to make the mundane interesting, even exciting. There may be ultimately little substance, but sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.

This article originally appeared in German in the marx21 magazine and Website.

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