Paterson Movie Review: Seeing the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

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“The mere exercise of attention—eyes wide, ears pricked, heart open—is not a bad way to move through the world.”       Mary Karr

Paterson is a movie by a writer/poet, about a poet, for poets, artists, and lovers of poetry.

It is also for anyone who holds onto dreams and aspirations while plodding through what seems to be a mundane, monotonous, and maybe even meaningless life.

The movie is written and directed by Jim Jarmusch (Coffee & Cigarettes/ Broken Flowers) and features an amazingly nuanced performance by Adam Driver (Star-wars: The Force Awakens/ Silence)

The movie follows a week in the life of Paterson (his first name is never revealed), a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey.

Each day Paterson follows the same routine. Waking at 6:15 am every morning without the need of an alarm clock, he leans over and kisses his wife, gets up and eats a small bowl of cheerio’s.

He then walks to the town bus depot, sits in his bus scribbling in his notebook until time to depart for his daily route. After work, he writes in his tiny study in the basement until dinner. After dinner, he takes his dog on a walk and stops in the local pub for exactly one beer, and then home to bed where his wife says he smells “faintly of beer”.

This is his life. At least that is what it looks like to an outside observer. What makes this film so remarkable and unusual, is with a minimum of dialogue and action we are made privy to the inner life of this “poet/bus driver”.

Paterson moves through his day like a poet/monk, wearing the events and circumstances of his life as loosely as his bus-driver uniform. He is pensive, yet frequently amused and humored by the many little surprises of his day—those surprises that to an inattentive person are never seen.

The box of matches on the counter grab his attention, and you can almost see his thoughts rolling this object over and over as if it was the first time he had ever seen it. You could almost hear his poetic hero William Carlos Williams whisper to him his mantra “No idea’s but in things”.

You can watch the surprised smile come over his face as Paterson hears a clip of conversation and seems to make connections that will later find their way into his little notebook of poems.

This interior, silent, hidden process of creating poetry is ingeniously depicted. There is a voice-over of Paterson as words seam to just appear— slowly, deliberately, just as they would for a poet constructing a poem.

First, the poems title appears on the screen. Then, there is a pause – a silence, as the poet struggles to find the right first word—for every other word must fall in line behind it.

You can see through his eyes what is happening in his mind as he rolls images and words around until they emerge out onto paper—the right words in just the right order, painting a word picture, a sublime and surprising reflection of life and love—all from ordinary everyday objects.

The wonderful Irish poet Seamus Heaney describes the poetic process this way:

“The poem is given over to the extraordinary from the ordinary –when consciousness is given access to a dimension beyond the frontier where an over brimming, totally resourceful expressiveness becomes suddenly available; and this entry into a condition of illuminated rightness becomes an entry into poetry itself.”

Paterson is unencumbered by modern technology. He is the iconic poet/monk with a day job. No TV, no cell phone, no background noise of any kind—all which allows him to remain attentive to everything around him; his wife, who is exploring her dreams as well, his dog, the conflicts and emotions of those around him.

He moves through his day, gently, quietly, open, and unafraid—Unafraid of those who don’t look like him, like the aspiring rapper practicing his own brand of poetry while he washes his clothes in the laundromat, or the gangbangers who stop him to ask about his dog. And the patrons in the neighborhood bar, all different, yet all comfortable with each other.

And he is generous. Generous to his wife, who is reaching out in several directions for her dream. He is generous to the young poet he meets on the street. And he is generous to his friend who is going through a heartbreak.

This is not to say all poets are generous, patient, contemplatives. Many poets could not hold a job, or stay in a relationship. Some poets spilled out of bars into the streets brawling with each other out of jealousy (sorry, Frost and Stevens). But, Paterson is, and I liked him for it.

The film slowly and beautifully unfolds a picture of the way of the poet in the world— a way of approaching the ordinary with eyes and ears wide open, and with a heart that is able to make connections between what is seen and heard, and the underlying extraordinary that is hidden and waiting to be discovered. This is in essence the definition of art.

In the last fifth of the film there is terrific inner conflict for our poet. Without revealing it, this part of the film demonstrates that our poet is in love with words for the sake of words themselves, and not for any other reason. A true poet, who happens to drive a bus. He has a gift that propels him to write, no matter what.

If you enjoy poetry, if you write poetry, or if you want to know that there is another way to be in this world besides what outside stimulus may indicate, then you will not be disappointed. You may even, as I was, be given the courage to pick up the pen and begin.

Kind Regards,

Bob Toohey


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