Paterson is a unique piece of work. As I described to my girlfriend last evening it’s a movie that somehow manages to simultaneously be about nothing and everything. It’s a beautiful zen koan of a film in which nothing happens but the vast wonders of life emerge in the details. This is a very, very deeply Buddhist film – it is a meditation on mindfulness and being. It’s about art, creativity, love, despair – all the Big Issues…while remaining grounded in a simple plot revolving around the life of a city bus driver.
And it is absolutely wonderful.
The film takes place entirely in Paterson, New Jersey and follows the daily routine of a quiet, unassuming man (Adam Driver) similarly named Paterson (whether Paterson is his first or last name we never learn, and frankly it’s not relevant). Paterson has a routine life. He drives a bus. He lives with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) – a sweet, creative woman with a strange artistic bent who can’t resist decorating everything in sight (including her clothes) with black and white patterns. He has a dog, Marvin, who like all dogs is demanding yet lovable. He also writes poetry.
Notice I didn’t say ‘he’s a poet’. This is not a film about classification. Like the zen koan about the pitcher Paterson is engaged in the act of writing poetry, but does not call himself a poet. He is. Contrast this against those around him – like the lovestruck actor pining after his childhood love in the bar, or even Paterson’s wife who spends several hundred dollars on a guitar because she wants to be a country singer…or the co-worker who is constantly wrapped up in his problems. These are all people projecting their desires into the future seeking happiness through things outside themselves. Paterson, however – just is.
He wakes up every morning, shares a quiet moment with his wife Laura, drives his bus, writes his poetry, comes home from work, takes Marvin for a walk, has a beer at the bar, then goes home. We follow this routine for a week and in doing so are treated to an exercise in mindfulness…in being in the moment, experiencing the world through Paterson’s patient eyes. As he composes his poems, either at the bus depot, at a picturesque waterfall where he spends his lunch breaks, at home…we see the words scrawled across the screen and hear his voice intoning them. Sometimes we hear the poems several times as he hones in on the perfect phrasing, trying to capture his thoughts just so. His wife implores him to publish his work, despairing that these beautiful thoughts stay locked up in Paterson’s journal – but Paterson clearly doesn’t write poetry for the world. He writes poetry – just that. The act itself is what is important to Paterson. As he says to his wife late in the film ‘They’re just words – written in water…’ Indeed – his journal represents something of a sand mandala…ephemeral, impermanent beauty destined to be washed away by time.
The film is full of strange details – notice, for instance, the reoccurring twin motif. Or the black-and-white swirls and decorations that Laura obsesses over (suggesting duality, perhaps representing Paterson and Laura themselves). Paterson (the film, but I suppose also the man) is a strange little mystery – indeed, a koan in film form – which demands patience and attention…not unlike meditation.
Adam Driver’s performance is pitch-perfect. Understated and reserved, often enigmatic…while Iranian-born actress Golshifteh Farahani brings a wonderful energy to Laura, serving as something of a counterpoint to Driver’s contemplative calm.
Like Solaris and Wings of Desire, I believe Paterson is a film I will return to time and time again to remind me that the truly wonderful things life has to offer are less about the grand achievements but rather the simple pleasures inherent in the act of being alive.
Paterson is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years and is highly, highly recommended.