Monday 5 December 2016

The Driver: "Paterson"

Paterson is another of writer-director Jim Jarmusch's studies in stasis, though this time his subjects aren't the usual oddballs and outliers who have nothing better to do than scuff around at the margins, but a comfortably appointed couple who've settled into rewarding routine. Here is one week in the life of a bus driver (Adam Driver) who habitually rises between 6 and 6.30am each day before leaving the home he shares with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their bulldog Marvin to serve the commuters of the titular New Jersey suburb. The driver writes poetry, in his cab before his shift begins, and on his lunchbreak, yet despite Laura's pleas, he shrugs at the idea of making a paid career of it; he writes purely and simply for the pleasure of writing, and the process of converting a thought or sight or sound into words. There's a twist of sorts, though twist would seem too violent a word to describe anything in a film this becalmed and peaceable: our hero happens to be called Paterson, too, a coincidence presented as one of those things - or one thing among many, like the identical twins who keep popping up everywhere, or the way certain phrases recur in conversation, or even, I suppose, the fact that an actor whose name is Driver is playing an actual driver. Huh, the film goes, in its singularly laconic fashion: fancy that.

In the absence of any urgent narrative progression - Paterson gets up, goes to work, comes home, goes to bed - the movie Paterson reveals itself as a film about looking at and listening to the world in a particular way, a paean to keeping one's eyes and ears open. (In a recent Sight & Sound interview, Jarmusch decried the rise of so-called "phone zombies", that generation who, whether lost in Twitter or Tinder, never look up; his film is the antithesis of that mentality.) Rarely can a film have been so stuffed with POV shots: kids jiggling their legs on the bus, a box of matches, the photos of local celebrities framed behind the bar at Paterson's chosen watering hole - all are given due moment and attention. The soundtrack, too, brims with choice snippets: wannabe playas discussing their latest crushes, a man (in actual fact, Method Man) rapping while waiting for his clothes to dry at the laundromat, students picking over the finer points of anarchy. Who's looking and listening? Partly, it's Paterson himself, the big sponge, peering in his rear-view mirror, soaking up the details that will factor into his verse. Yet it's also, surely, Jarmusch himself, taking in the local scenery, pointing Frederick Elmes' camera and the boom mic towards whatever grabs him and feeds his muse. Through the figure of his creative protagonist - who is, in his own way, an independent, unfussed by finance, quietly committed to his art - Jarmusch would appear to be explaining to us how he arrives at his own works: it's in these very rhythms, the routines, and the raw material of everyday circumstance.

This is, it should be noted, a fairly male view of the world, which need not necessarily be a limitation, a failure or a crime: Jarmusch can make a haven out of Paterson's drinking spot, where men come to kick back, overcome heartbreak, or simply carve out a moment or two by themselves to pursue their own thoughts and interests. (We too need safe spaces such as these.) Yet I don't believe Jarmusch entirely knows what to do with Laura, save to observe the first rays of dawn sunshine breaking over Farahani's face, a sight that could, granted, inspire some pretty epic verse. Where Paterson goes out into the world, and sees his own scribblings (penned by poet Ron Padgett) elevated on screen as high-ish art, Laura is left behind at home, her own creative endeavours - fashioning monochrome curtains and dresses, baking cupcakes, striking out in the direction of country-and-western - treated as at best a sideline, at worst a punchline. (And cupcakes are better than haiku, as any fule kno.) Even the pair's physical relationship, arguably being held up as some kind of ideal, felt to me a little lopsided and one-way: where the Adam of TV's Girls gave Hannah Horvath as good as he got - elevating Driver to dreamboat status in the eyes of many - Paterson is an altogether too gnomic presence to let on what Laura gets from him, beyond the steady income that can keep a roof over cloud-filled heads. (He doesn't even read his love poems to her, and it's not as though there aren't plentiful gaps in the conversation within this household to be filled.)

As this week goes on, some form of catastrophe seems to beckon (the bus breaks down; there is, at the last, a loss of words), and yet it's typical of a generally Zen proposition - one that opens and closes with an image recycled from Only Lovers Left Alive, that of lovers in bed, configured in yin-yang position - that these challenges and setbacks come to be regarded with admirable equanimity: Jarmusch's aim here is no more and no less than to turn the world over in his hand like a pebble, and thus encourage us to go with the flow of words and images. The whole is possibly a little too shrugging to count as the best movie of 2016, but it may just stand as 2016's best comic strip movie, the kind of quasi-philosophical doodle - occupying territory somewhere between Peanuts and Andy Capp - that winds up gracing porches like Paterson's own seven days a week. Here are the same small handful of characters in the same setting, performing slightly different variations on the same essential schtick. (Driver's daily struggle to right his recalcitrant mailbox - and the reveal as to what causes it to slope so - is pure comic strip: set-up, continuation, pay-off.) Nobody here is going far beyond their little boxes, but no-one seems unduly unhappy about that fact: Jarmusch ensures they're all provided for one way or another, and each dawn serves to bring a new set of possibilities. It put a smile on my face in this bleakest of Decembers, and I'll take that right now.

Paterson is now playing in selected cinemas.    

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