Jim Jarmusch's thorough adaptation of William Carlos Williams' poetic motto "No ideas but in things," should be no surprise. After all, the film, like Williams' epic poem, is called "Paterson" after the New Jersey city where it's set. Its main character is also named Paterson, who is a Williams-obsessed poet and a bus driver (it must be another inside joke that this Paterson who is a driver in Paterson is played by the purrmanently sad-faced actor Adam Driver).
"a man is indeed / a city, and for the poet there are no ideas but in things," Williams wrote in a preface to his poem.
Looking back on his oeuvre with location in mind, almost all of Jarmusch's films have been meditations on place (except his previous feature "Only Lovers Left Alive," which is, I think, a more of a meditation on time—place becomes more or less irrelevant if you are immortal).
If "no ideas but in things" defines Williams, "no culture but in place" could be Jarmusch's watchword. But we could also say that for Jarmusch there is no place without a collision of various cultures. In the world of Jarmusch, we don't recognize the culture of a place when we are too immersed in it, since it effectively is us.
In "Stranger than Paradise," the great John Lurie's archetypical Jarmusch character Willie can't really see America until his cousin Eva comes in from Hungary blasting Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
And in "Mystery Train," Hawkins serves as a conduit to the Memphis stuck in the minds of Sun-records obsessed Japanese tourists or a British expat everyone calls Elvis.
But in all of these, we can see Jarmusch's adherence to Williams' dictum "no ideas but in things"—especially the things of pop culture.
In "Paterson," it becomes even more explicit, as the titular character sits in his bus before his shift begins, writing poems about boxes of matches and their fonts, which both main characters compare to megaphones. But this move toward explicitness also highlights what is perhaps Jarmusch's greatest weakness. Too often he allows the pop-cultural cross references to stand in for the actual stuff of character, so that the mobsters of "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" are defined almost entirely by the fact that they are mobsters who love shoot 'em up cartoons. Pop culture tells us who they are but it also allows them to define themselves.
Often this method of defining characters, especially secondary ones, works for Jarmusch. But in "Paterson," Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), Paterson's partner, seems overly defined by her interest in black and white patterns and her incongruous desire to be a country star (we first meet her singing a Persian song, so when she announces her desire to sing country music, it comes as a bit of a surprise).
For the first half of the movie she seems almost empty outside of these quirks and her evident love of Paterson. It is annoying. But as the film progresses, we actually see her character develop more than we see Paterson's, which seems, outside of his poems, ferociously flat.
Like Immanuel Kant, Paterson does exactly the same thing at the same time every day. He gets up without an alarm, eats cereal, walks to work, writes in his notebook, drives his bus, comes home and eats with Laura, and then walks their bulldog, tying him up outside the bar where he drinks beer and talks to the owner, a chess player. Sometimes he sits in the basement and writes.
But not everything is so predictable. One night in the bar, a man pulls out a gun and Paterson acts with surprising speed and precision to disarm him. And a photograph of him wearing a Marine uniform on the dresser hints that this film may not be as inspired by Williams' epic poem as it is by 'The Big Two Hearted River,' a short story written by Williams' contemporary Ernest Hemingway.
That story, about trout fishing, focuses so resolutely on the sensory and physical details of Nick Adams' time in the woods—the coffee, cigarettes, campfire, light glancing off the water—that it takes a couple of times reading it to realize that its focus on "things" is a strategy to avoid thinking about the First World War and what was then called "shell shock" and is now called PTSD.
A focus on the immediate, on the sensory details surrounding us, is a great way to block out the trauma of the past and the uncertainty of the future.
At the very moment it seems the film will end without the accidental but revealing cross-cultural exchange that has come to define Jarmusch films (think Ghost Dog and the Haitian guy who owns the ice-cream truck; they don't speak the same language but understand each other better than anyone else), Paterson meets a Japanese poet, whose works have not been translated, at the park overlooking the city's waterfall (the essential location of Williams' poem).
The exchange between the two poets somehow manages to resolve much of the unspoken tension in the film in a way that is surprisingly satisfying. Many people, even Jarmusch fans, will hate the idea of a movie about poetry. But, as things here in America continue to get worse, this visual reminder of Williams' dictum may help us find refuge in the fiercely ordinary.
"Paterson," directed by Jim Jarmusch, is now playing at the Charles Theater.