Tuesday, April 21, 2020

When Worlds Collide: PATERSON

by Jan Bottiglieri
Welcome to When Worlds Collide, an exciting new temporary column being brought to you only during the cruellest month*.

This week we take a purposeful yet leisurely stroll through Paterson, NJ—home of the great American doctor and poet, William Carlos Williams, among other notables; and home of the fictional American bus driver and poet, Paterson, subject of Paterson, the 2016 film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. We never find out if Paterson is the bus driver’s first name or last name. In fact, we learn very few facts about him except that he’s never driven a fire truck and he once had a grandfather. Yet by the end of the film, we feel as though we’ve walked in his skin and seen his corner of the universe, for a few fleeting moments, through his eyes.

I love Paterson. It’s a poetry movie (#pomo) that captures on film something I can never quite capture in words: what it feels like for me to try to move through this world as a poet. Part of the problem with describing that, of course, is how embarrassingly cringy it sounds. “Move through this world as a poet” sounds like something one can only do wandering barefoot through a field of daffodils, dressed like Stevie Nicks.
But for me—and for Paterson the bus driver— “moving through the world as a poet” is the opposite of arty or abstract. If the “poet” thing feels too precious, think of it like “moving through the Famer’s Market as a chef” or “moving through the DSW as a person who desperately needs new shoes for a wedding tomorrow.” Our Paterson is an observer of nuance: the shape of words, the color of a matchhead. He listens without comment to the conversations on the bus. He is a man of routine habit, but extraordinary alertness. For Paterson, the predictable pattern of his life is not a dull prison; it is a guiderail that gives him the freedom to notice what is around him and the time to spend turning what he sees into poetry. He writes a sublime ordinariness.

Jarmusch balances Paterson’s narrative, image, and character to amplify the idea. As for narrative, there’s very little “plot” here. The movie takes place over the course of a week during which at least three major “plotty” things could happen, but don’t. In my column on HOWL, I talked about “aboutness”—Paterson’s “aboutness” is not weighed down by a bunch of stuff happening, and that’s the point. “No ideas but in things,” the poet Williams writes in his famous poem “Paterson,” a line repeated like a mantra by a young rapper (played by Method Man) we overhear practicing his flow in a laundromat. The line is not “things happening” – it’s just “things.”
Practically every frame of this film is gorgeous. Run-down house? Gorgeous. Decaying street scenes? Gorgeous. Cinematography is by Frederick Elmes, who has also worked with David Lynch and Ang Lee; he’s a master of image and framing, and the attention his lens pays to texture, light, and detail help us literally see through Paterson’s poet-eyes as he walks to work or eats his lunch behind the chain link fence surrounding the Passaic River’s Great Falls.

Finally, there’s the character of Paterson himself, as played by Adam Driver. (A guy named Driver plays a driver named Paterson in Paterson? YES, and whether or not you think that’s delightful may help determine whether you enjoy this film.) I find Driver always interesting to watch. He stays just on the pleasant side of the uncanny valley: he’s physically big but can be convincingly understated; his unconventional looks register simultaneously as odd and handsome. I think he’s terrific in Paterson—we believe what he shows us, but we know he’s not showing us everything. He’s on screen for 98% of the film, so the role needs an actor that can bring that kind of depth, who we can watch wake up in the same bed over and over, who can be ordinary without ever being dull.
WILL POETS LIKE THIS #POMO? YES. First, the movie is full of “real” poetry (Paterson’s poems, which Driver beautifully reads aloud in voiceover, are by Ron Padgett, a prize-winning American poet with more than 20 collections to his name.) Also, Paterson himself is a wonderfully genuine “real poet” to whom writers can easily relate; he’s not wealthy or famous, and he doesn’t spend his time waxing philosophic. Like most of the writers I know, he eats his Cheerios and bides time during his day job living for the moments he can write. Poetry is not a means to an end; it’s his way of being in the world. As I’ve mentioned in this column before—few films get that right.

WILL MOVIE LOVERS LIKE THIS #POMO? This movie was very well received and well-reviewed. Plus, almost any film about one art can clock to another, so substitute “film making” or “film watching” for poetry, and there’s a lot here for movie lovers to love. A CAVEAT: Reading reviews of Paterson, you’ll notice words like “deliberate,” “lyrical,” “the camera lingers,” “unhurried,” etc. These are all code words for “SLOW.” Do I find it slow? Nope. BUT I READ POETRY. Your mileage may vary significantly.

FINAL LINE: A beautifully shot film about a person trying to wring the extraordinary from every ordinary moment. That’s worthy work. As Williams also writes, “it is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”
BONUS! Not only do film makers sometimes make movies about poets, poets sometimes make poetry about films! #sciencefact

Here are some poems/poets that movie lovers may want to check out:

“This is Just To Say” -- In Paterson, Paterson reads this WCW classic aloud to his wife. You probably read it in high school English but you should read it again. Then write a poem-note to your significant other! C’mon! Do it! You have time! Share it with us in the comments! Or don’t, it’s okay. #acceptance

I Found It at the Movies: An Anthology of Film Poems. Have I read this anthology? No. But I read the table of contents and it looks really cool! Some good names I recognize among the poets represented. My birthday is in June!

Anything by Chicago poet Chris Green. He’s fantastic. Like Paterson, Green has an uncanny ability to find the sublime in the everyday. His latest is Everywhere West; to read his poem “In the Locker Room I Introduce Myself to a Naked Mickey Rourke” you should pick up Epiphany School, or get The Sky Over Walgreens to read “Ode to Julie Christie.”

*breeding/lilacs out of the dead land

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