Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is resolutely undramatic. It’s difficult to describe its plot because there’s so little of it: the film follows Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver living happily with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. He writes poetry in his spare time, hears portions of his passengers’ conversations, and stops at a bar during evening dog walks. Paterson is more of a poem than a story; bus passengers act as vignettes similar to the ones in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, and Paterson’s bartender waxes lyrical about Lou Costello. Paterson’s own lovely unrhyming poems, heavily indebted to William Carlos Williams, appear on-screen in softly curled handwritten script.
Paterson is anti-dramatic: practically every beat actively works against traditional storytelling structure. Familiarity with how films tell stories causes us to anticipate dramatic events that never come — this writer reflexively said “oh no” in an early scene where Laura impulsively spends money on a guitar, because in most films, this would be to set up the couple’s financial problems. But not in Paterson.
Laura seems to have mental health problems: she has flights of fancy bordering on delusion, including her becoming a country singer, but it’s nothing that indicates looming disaster. This is just another part of the fabric of their life. Paterson turns away from dramatization to focus on small, everyday events — not imbued with significance despite their smallness, but because of their smallness. The film treats ordinariness as a form of intimacy, and revels in the beauty found there. Paterson writes poems about Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes.
Paterson’s poetry is good, but not noteworthy. At one point in the film, he reads ‘This Is Just To Say’ by William Carlos Williams (his favorite poet) and the work demonstrates what Paterson is stumblingly aiming for. Typically, this might make him look a hopeless figure. In cinema, professionalization is often the ultimate goal, and day jobs are a slog that artists dream of leaving, but Paterson likes being a bus driver — he doesn’t dream of getting published. He writes his poetry in one notebook and promises his wife he’ll get around to making back-up copies someday.
Paterson is a film in praise of amateur artists. Capitalistic values consider unmonetized hobbies worthless and pose that everything must be converted into a side hustle, but Paterson doesn’t write for money, glory, fame, or even the more noble reasons that narratives about artists lean on — like wanting to change the world or exorcise a demon — he doesn’t write for any reason other than the joy of it.
In one scene, Paterson speaks to a ten-year-old girl, and it turns out she’s a poet, too. She reads him a poem she wrote. Stylistically, it’s a close cousin to Paterson’s work, but better: it has some undefinable spark that his works lack. The girl’s hits you in the gut, while Paterson’s poems are merely pleasant. The girl thinks she’s messed up by not having her poem rhyme. In a more traditionally dramatic film, this might have led to insecurity. Instead, he’s simply impressed and pleased by their intergenerational connection and reassures her that she did a great job.
Paterson‘s title refers to both the man and the city, and the film presents poetry as an indelible part of both. Paterson is concerned with the small and mundane, and that applies to its approach to poetry, too: poetry is everywhere, not only in special people or special moments.
After subverting would-be drama at every opportunity, Paterson does take one dramatic turn: Paterson and Laura go on a date night, and when they come home, their dog has torn up Paterson’s poetry notebook. It’s an accident, one that — out of context — might not seem like much of a big deal, but because everything up until now has been so low-key, it registers as unspeakably tragic and devastating. He never did get around to making copies.
The hope the ending offers is humble and regular; a chance encounter with another poet gives Paterson the spark he needs to get going again. He meets a Japanese tourist on a park bench who is reading a translation of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and they strike up a conversation. He asks if Paterson’s a poet, and Paterson haltingly says no, he’s a bus driver. But the Japanese man says that the artist Jean Dubuffet was also a meteorologist, and when he asks about Williams living nearby, Paterson tells him that he was a doctor. Poets aren’t just poets, the film says. There’s no contradiction between Paterson being a bus driver and being a poet.
As a parting gift, the man gives Paterson a blank notebook. He seems to have instinctively recognized him as a writer. Paterson cracks the notebook open on the first page, fishes a pen out of his pocket, and writes a poem. Then the film dissolves into morning. It’s Monday, and he starts all over again.