One of the sweetest scenes in Paterson, Jim Jarmusch's whimsical film about life and art, shows two poets discussing a poem. One is the film's title character, the bus-driving bard whose highly sensitive yet uncritical observation of the people and things around him is so touchingly relayed by Adam Driver. The other is a little school girl who Paterson happens to meet outside the city bus depot on his way home. Neither the bus driver nor the film condescend to the child; when she offers to read him one of her poems, Paterson listens intently to a convincingly offbeat description of rainfall, and tells her, in all sincerity, that the poem is beautiful. Everyone, it appears, is capable of art.
As for Paterson's own offbeat poems, we hear them in a voice-over as the bus driver pens them before his shift starts or rewrites them on his lunch hour. Slowly building his themes through gentle comic repetition, Jarmusch follows this likeable protagonist through his daily routine, from home to the bus depot, through the streets of Paterson, N.J., at the wheel and then home again to a dinner prepared by his loving wife before walking the dog and stopping at his local pub for a beer. As Paterson makes these rounds again and again, Jarmusch unhurriedly crafts a cinematic ode to finding both art and delight in the quotidian.
Several sets of twins appear in the film, but one of the filmmaker's most outrageous repetitions is simply the name Paterson: Paterson drives his bus in Paterson along a main street named Paterson in a bus labelled Paterson – since that's its route. Paterson is, of course, a real town, memorialized in Paterson, the mid-century collection of poems by William Carlos Williams, who is, not coincidentally, this Paterson's favourite poet.
Seventy years later, the town appears in the film as one of those small, forgotten postindustrial cities where nothing much ever happens. "Do you think there are any other anarchists in Paterson?" one political poseur riding Paterson's bus asks his friend. "Besides us? Not likely," she scoffs. One of the film's few dramatic moments occurs when the bus breaks down – without doing anything more than inconveniencing its passengers.
And yet, in this unvaried and anti-dramatic place where there aren't enough words to give a character and his setting separate names, the bus driver finds meaning in language. His poetry is entwined in the mundane: he is working on a poem about a box of Ohio Blue Tip Matches that sits in his kitchen. His writing seems to both flow from the sameness of his routine and to summarize the comfort he takes in it.
Still, not everybody in Paterson inhabits their own creativity with this unambitious ease: Jarmusch includes two characters whose relationship with art is more troubling. One is an obsessive actor who is stalking his ex-girlfriend, angrily pestering her in the bar where Paterson drinks his nightly beer. She tells Paterson that he is just trying on emotions, play-acting jealousy, but his inability to distinguish between life and art proves dangerous (in another of those infrequent moments of drama).
The other figure is comic: Paterson's wife Laura is an effervescent dilettante, passionately committed to a black-and-white colour scheme as she throws herself into fabric painting, cupcake baking and guitar playing. The Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani makes her charmingly giddy as a character and her wacky routine provides a nice foil for Driver's magnificently understated delivery of the generous and long-suffering Paterson, but the character's ludicrous naivete about her talents sounds a discordant note in the film.
Ordering a harlequin-patterned guitar and music lessons on the Internet, she defends the expense to her husband – she doesn't seem to work for a living – by explaining that now she will be able to pursue her dream of becoming a country star in Nashville. As she stands there in a black-and-white costume of her own design strumming the showy instrument, she appears comically confused about music and unlikely to succeed: She is the one character in his film whom Jarmusch will allow to look ridiculous.
If Laura seems to suffer from delusional amateurism, Paterson himself is testament to the notion that there is creativity in everyone, a democratic ideal that makes little distinction between jobs and hobbies. One of the most compelling aspects about Paterson as a film about art is the effortless way in which it declines to ask its audience to judge whether Paterson's poems are any good: their quality seems immaterial to Jarmusch's point. It is the act of writing them, both expressing and amplifying Paterson's sensitivity to his world, that seems important.
And if that world is a place as uneventful as Paterson, N.J., the sameness of it all only serves to underline that the creative act belongs to all of us every day.