© 2017 by James Clark
Poetic filmmaker/ musician, Jim Jarmusch, has been bringing to our consideration singularities of dynamics for a long time. The effectively eccentric apparitions populating these works, often far from the dominant sagas of the struggles, treat us to white-hot energies paradoxically muted and doomed. With his recent creation, Paterson (2016), a memorable motif from the past resurfaces for the sake of contemplating 21st century dotage toward lives having erected fire-walls the better to confine themselves to tepid and myopic cocoons. The off-beat motif in question is the positioning of a dog being too-carnal to well-coincide with busy escapists. In that hipster/inventor’s Broken Flowers (2005), a TV-comic-like winning sensibility having made a fortune with IT has to rein himself in to avoid laughing in the face of an old flame who claims to derive insight from wild animals, especially the instance of her now-dead dog. In Ghost Dog (1999), a connoisseur of samurai methodology is far too preoccupied with practising his underground art to notice (twice) a black mutt who would love some attention from the ascetic self-server.
The protagonist, Paterson, of our film today is, like those just mentioned, a technician of sorts (being a local bus driver and poet of rigid literalism stifling the volatility of his muse); and he’s numbingly negligent toward his English Bulldog, Marvin. The legions of reviewers holding this paragon of modesty, civilized expression and citizenship as a new-wave every man have no time for what he’d be like to a non-rational being. Clearly never having expended any time and energy on fathoming Jarmusch’s discoveries, they stumble into the axiom/meatgrinder which could be put as, “Mess with the dog and you get covered with shit.”
Notwithstanding The New Yorker Seal of Approval, the figure of Patterson, as we’ll get going discerning, is a hero with feet of clay. He being, in his source of income, a source of motion strictly scheduled, we eventually find that virtually everything he does consists of a high degree of predictability. He wakes at the same hour, he gives his wife, Laura (who has no salaried work and so sleeps late) a rather inert cuddle, he silently spoons his Cheerios and tramps along a verdant deciduous pathway to the textured red-brick center of the small city of Paterson, New Jersey, where he spends a few minutes at the wheel of his parked bus with his poetry production. Paterson, having been a gritty 19th and early 20th century manufacturing centre, now consists of remnants of industry, retirees and those, like a pair of college students being regular riders, who are quick to describe and slow to do. The girl recounts the exploits of a resident anarchist more than a century before, who travelled to Italy to assassinate the King. She, and the boy with her, pivot the incident to the situation that the killer could not be executed because there was no provision for the death penalty but died in prison either assassinated by guards or having committed suicide. They show some liberal disfavor about America’s still using the death penalty and dovetail that outrage with lightly knocking the absence of an anarchic spirit in Patterson and lightly enjoying the good fortune of having time for a coffee before their first class. From the flotsam and jetsam of this civic dip our protagonist records the mundane products and services as if seeking a bracing mystery within so much retreat. Here is the first incantation we hear: “We have plenty of matches in our house/ We keep them on hand always/ Currently our favorite brand/ Is Ohio Blue Tip/ Though we used to prefer Diamond Brand/ That was before we discovered/ Ohio Blue Tip Matches/ They are excellently packaged/ Sturdy little boxes/ With dark and light blue and white labels/ With words lettered/ In the shape of a megaphone/ As if to say even louder to the world/ Here is the most beautiful match in the world…”
This reading of a mixture of doggerel and the Dadaist/ Surreal spreads out to his purporting to be inspired by wordsmith, William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). But the latter was (although stylistically drawn to the obvious surfaces of domestic life) a medical doctor eager to maintain that life is nasty, brutal and brief. Paterson’s poem cited above has the title, “Love Poem” and its home stretch reads, “So sober and furious and stubbornly ready/ To burst into flame/ Lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love/ For the first time/ And it was never really the same after that…/ I became the cigarette and you the match/ Or I the match and you the cigarette/ Blazing with kisses that smoulder toward heaven.” The central image of fire and loving dynamics (“Blazing with kisses”) in mysterious conjunction with a solid materiality (“Here is the most beautiful match in the world/ It’s one-and-a-half-inch of soft pine stem/ Capped by a grainy dark purple head…”) comprises the heart of Jarmusch’s filmic architecture. But whereas the poetasters beside themselves with a portrait, like themselves, talking the talk and in addition going on to mincing hyper-civility, Jarmusch, as always, is on the trail of walking the walk in serious accordance with the dynamics of fire. In the passage, “Sturdy little [match] boxes,” we are to know about the anonymous, ritualistic and yet very physical hit man in Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009), who handles nicely-designed match boxes in the course of his (open to adjustment) métier bringing a comprehensively poetic twist to the nasty, brutal and brief.
There is a moment at the bar Paterson frequents every night where the owner-bartender consults him about putting on his wall a newspaper clipping with a photo of extreme rocker, Iggy Pop, chatting up some Paterson residents. The proprietor—a middle-aged African American and chess devote, named Doc—presides over a pool and beer centre bringing to mind the black Memphis lair of a British psychopath named, Elvis, in Mystery Train (1989). The careful Doc knows there is something about that musician a bouncer should deal with, but Patterson, having some vague recognition of the name and no real interest in rock (Doc’s place being a retro-Motown bailiwick [with a pair of customers named Sam and Dave]), thinks it would be fine to show the home-town in the spotlight. There is, in many Jarmusch films, a running joke about the effete qualities of Motown; and here, with the very different Detroiter, it shoots to us another take on florid poetry and action running on empty. Iggy’s ragged drive to dangerous heights is not only an irony in that context, but the very idea of paying homage to such an alien demonstrates the workings of vitiating anything requiring painful effort and replacing it with a bland facsimile. Paterson drinks a single innocuous bottle a night at the bar; but he’s been overrun with a process of soporifics from which he will never sober up. (A visually salient and far-reaching impact within this reflection stems from the undertaker-sober, deadpan body language of actor, Adam Driver. Such evasiveness engages the notion of “jerking off,” most directly exposed in Down by Law (1986), but rampant in all of Jarmusch’s films.) His wife urges him to publish or at least back up by duplicating the sweet little sentiments which repose in a “secret book.” (One afternoon, on his way home, he encounters a young girl in an alleyway who tells him of her fondness for writing poetry. He had been primarily making sure she was safe while waiting for her mother and sister. But soon the kinship takes over and his new, brief friend leaves him with, “A bus driver poet! Awesome!” That latter cheapened word gives us a taste of the omnipresent instinct whereby precious articulation [the child asks if he ever drives an “accordion” bus; and he tells her, increasing her vocabulary, the official word is “articulated”] becomes an end in itself, stifling wild, adult syntheses to be risked by those knowing the exigency of shutting up and delivering.) He’s remarkably unmotivated to bid for awesomeness, and we have been given the sightline to see that, for all the consistent effort and charm of his production, what is lacking is the full point about moving another or others to join in taking to heart the incendiary countering of that superficial dominance to which literary poetry is an entrenched partisan.
In a bemusing binary association with the introverted endeavors of Paterson, there are the off-the-grid researches of homebody Laura, pulsing with extroverted zeal. We see her adding touches to their cramped bungalow which would bring an illusion of space to a warren where her husband is most at home in a cluttered unfinished basement bent over his filling the “secret book” forming the bedrock of his experience. One day she pries him upstairs to ask for financing a guitar (including do-it-yourself learning accessories) she’s found online (a dimension he never visits). Though never having till then thought of herself being a musician, she feels there’s a real possibility that with her “Harlequin” model (with a black and white color scheme from which she never departs in her home renovations and clothing designs) she could be the next Tammy Wynette or Patsy Kline. “Nashville here I come!” After a few seconds of assimilating the 300 dollars involved, he endorses her shot in the dark with the same muted and stilted tone by which he circulates elsewhere. “Maybe you could be a country singer…” Do the black-on-white circular patterns, she finds right, seep down into her perception of an earthy circularity which would prepare her for the slippery slope where her heroes, Tammy and Patsy, were hardly avatars of simple contrasts and making nice? The day before, while on his lunch break by a picturesque river racing with rapids and a soaring, minty bridge, he had broached, from a very different angle, the universe of possibilities. “When you’re a child you learn there are three dimensions/ height, width and depth/ Like a shoe box/ Then later you hear there’s a fourth dimension/ Time/ Hmm/ Then some say there can be five, six, seven…/ I knock off work/ Have a beer at the bar/ I look down at the glass and feel good.”
A canny beer with Iggy Pop pinned to the wall is as good as it gets. Time and its uncanny spray of dimensionality merits “Hmm…” Brought to mind by this caution is a night in the Sam and Dave chapel where two other regulars don’t find the kind of peace in the valley Paterson believes in. Marian and Everett, sweethearts since grade school, are no longer feeling born to be wild. Marian wants him to disappear and Everett has begun to disappear in a quicksand of failing to ween himself from her. During one of the nightly melodramas, Paterson is happily attached to his glass while behind him Marian accuses her ex of acting out and he reminds her he is an actor by trade. (Self-absorbed artifice and disinterested passion making a painful brew.) The scene is filmed with the nice guy in the foreground and the hobbled relationship further back. That induces the poet to stifle revealingly a laugh at the suitor’s lack of self-control. Everett sees the slight and makes things worse for himself by claiming to be insulted. (Here is the moment to note that we’ve been given two quick glances of a framed photo of Paterson in his Marines parade uniform [linking sharply to the image of gung-ho Iggy]. Along with Laura’s Middle-Eastern make-up, they exude an innate expertise in survival tactics, especially in coming up roses while making sure to do nothing decisively difficult. As we keep shaking our head about something systematically amiss, we are caught up with the question, “What kind of dark alley do a pair like that represent?”)
There is, however, one creature stirring who dares to change the prevailing tempo, dares to want more. Paterson arrives home from a day like every other and the only recurrent event he doesn’t control comes up in his front yard, where the letter box is always, somehow, askew (though it was straight, by his hand, in the morning when he left). Peering from a front window there is Marvin. He had taken the measure of Paterson’s scratching in the basement for hours and seen fit to not only shake things up but feel a bit of the play he never gets directly. Laura’s rendition of taking him for a walk being opening the front door to let him pee (a rendition on the same level of her deadly guitar-accompanied version of, “I’ve Been Working on the Railway” and her occasional reflexive baby talk to him), the virtually invisible full-of-beans has settled upon pushing the post in order to see Paterson (sort of) play with him. The other “contact” in Marvin’s life speaks volumes about the putative Humanities luminary. Marvin gets to stretch his legs, as far as Doc’s bar. On the first outing we see, he’s belting along as vigorously as he can, with Paterson in tow, grim and obviously bored. He treks past the destination and Paterson drags him back, ties him to a pipe and leaves as if he were dealing with an inanimate object. (We can extrapolate that, in a considerable past, the small, going concern would have tried his utmost to generate some affectionate fun. But, as with Everett, full-scale ardent life is, at best, an odious joke to our antiseptic protagonist. In accordance with a Tephlon basic body jacket which Paterson would never be without, the dark and perhaps criminal-infested streets where he accesses his nightly Mass provide figures on the scale of the awesome child—spilling into view from out of that vein of ritualistic blandness which beats being mugged or otherwise having to dig down for something more and exhausting. At a laundromat a scrawny gangstah works, with some verve, on his rap routine of stepping on toes, and our good humor man rewards him with an elbow salute. “You’re on to something,” he purrs donnishly. Before Paterson comes into view here, Marvin is the gambit and the town crier regards him ominously as possibly uncontrollable. The emotional animal emits a growl/ purr, ready for both possibilities. “Shut up, Marvin,’ is the master’s ingratiating himself with diversity-safety. Another time, the silent walkers come upon a convertible full of non-9-to-5ers, and, with an unmistakable eye for value that could be theirs, the driver rallies the pedestrian with “Yo, c’mere!” Marvin growls, and the spokesman moots, “That’s an expensive dog…” The impasse, punctuated with the pup’s seeing the possibilities and offering a threat, dissipates with the Neighborhood Watch all-clear, “Be careful he don’t get dog-jacked…Be safe” At the hitching post a moment later, Patterson, in the only mode he’d be interested in engaging Marvin, mocks, “I’m cuffin’ you, Marvin…Don’t get dog-jacked…” During the festivities within, Doc’s wife spoils the mellow with barging in to complain about his stealing her pin money with a view to the all-important chess tournament on the week-end. She shows a bit of Metaphysical wit, probably not to be found in the resident poet’s repertoire, in linking his event to his need for a tourniquet if the cash doesn’t return. On this occasion, Paterson doesn’t laugh. But, in face of molten currents a real poet would take to heart, he reflexively asks his friend, “Are you alright?” and looks into his glass to restore feeling good. That pacifier code is also frequently in trusty shape while he gives short and dry shrift to the transit dispatcher’s domestic and medical woes.)
Marvin lacks classical, radiant canine presence. His eyes don’t twinkle, his coat is a dirty sand color with a pronounced whitish bib, like a bit of errant foam, and his feet are too big for his body. He knows his rights and assumes they should be respected. He needs a family to coincide with his own kinetic gifts. He very pointedly doesn’t have one. He’s a vigorous and often contrary puller on his leash, as if the tugs between them might miraculously amount to affection. Many viewers purport to be bowled over by a Zen-like magic emanating from the mundane processions of Paterson and Laura. The young Japanese tourist to Memphis (in Mystery Train) who surprises himself with an epiphanic (brief) moment in face of a homely home-town of Elvis, had gone 7000 miles out of his way and fervently reflected on Rockabilly for years—leaving him with dour facial qualities—before reaching that reward. Paterson’s dour facial qualities perhaps have to do with a similar long trip. But they come by a vaguely humiliating retreat, the opposite of a full-scale and daunting encounter. That’s not Zen. That’s anesthetics.
Though the regime of feeling good has had a solid check-up in our presence, Marvin brings tidings from an exigency worth risking a lot for. Another of Laura’s pipe dreams is to convert her skill in baking to a cupcake empire. On Saturday, she attends a food market (alone—the deep thinker not wanting to be involved [he telling Doc, “She understands me,” in his good times dividedness, and hoping that she’ll bring along Marvin [she won’t]); and, on returning, she claims to be a “sensation.” In the meantime, Patterson’s extraordinary afternoon dog-time showed a particularly peeved and difficult entity no one wants. Thus, as they celebrate her coup with dinner at a restaurant and a movie—Paterson forgetting to put away his secret book—they return home to find that nobody’s dog has ripped to shreds the only versions of those bemusing preoccupations. The movie they chose was a classic from the Depression Era, once again circumscribed by the kind of Hays Code they live by. Their first response is to do what they both had wanted to do since the Gigigi whim wore off, namely, dump him in the garage. After a sleepless night, Paterson has restored the vandal to the living quarters and he regards the latter with a listless glare. He drones, “I don’t like you, Marvin,” (as if Marvin needed to be told). Laura, probably the purchaser and trying to make a decisive statement from out of a spigot of semi-consciousness, drags the misfit back to the garage.
In one of his stressful ruminations, he insisted, “They were just words…” During a walk to try to still the paradox of verse of no significance and yet of great significance, he comes to his lunch spot by the racing river and a Japanese tourist devoted to local-legend William Carlos Williams declares, “I breathe poetry!” Paterson first describes himself as “Just a bus driver;” but his conversation reveals how knowledgeable he is about poetry and he’s left with a gift of a leather-bound journal. (Marvin could be described as a leather-bound vehicle for filling up a lovely void with dimensions ripping past mere reading matter.) When last we see Paterson, the soulmate to the stranger has come to resume his string of poems. The first one, in homage to a long-gone relative, is far from a triumph. In fact it derives from a Bing Crosby movie, “…or would you rather be a fish? / Or would you rather be a mule?/ Or would you rather be a pig?/ Our pick is the fish/ We started with…” The original, which the family elder (like Paterson, a Paterson native) loved, speaks to an exigency of going full-tilt, with grace. “Would you like to swing on a star/ Carry moonbeams home in a jar/ And be better off than you are? / Or would you rather be a mule…” The several instances of twins, beyond Sam and Dave—Laura’s dream of their having twins; the old-timer twins on the bench he passes that first day; the girl poet waiting for her twin sister—would seem to cut two ways. Identicalness in retreat. But also the rising above Paterson (person and place) being in play from the same launch-pad bringing forth such paltry and widely acclaimed results.