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Tom Tangney

‘Paterson’ is a poetic film, about a poet, and a bus driver

This new movie, “Paterson,” is just like a William Carlos Williams poem. I’ve reviewed thousands of movies over the year’s and I’ve never been able to say that before.

Related: The best films of 2016 that many are overlooking

You remember William Carlos Williams, don’t you? From that “Intro to Poetry” anthology you probably lugged around in your high school or college freshman days? Still not ringing any bells? How about this?

“The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

That’s it — the entire poem. It’s basically just an image of a wet, red wheelbarrow, next to some white chickens. It’s William Carlos Williams noticing something beautiful or striking about the seemingly mundane.

Jim Jarmusch’s film “Paterson” is very consciously trying to do something similar. In cinematic form, he displays what William Carlos Williams does in verse: notice things.

“Patterson” is poetic

Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson who happens to drive a bus in Paterson, New Jersey. Everything about his life is pretty routine. Monday through Friday, he wakes up a little after 6 a.m., kisses his sleeping wife, gets dressed for work, eats a cup of Cheerios, and then spends the day driving the 23 Bus through the streets of Paterson. After work, he has dinner with his wife, takes the dog for a walk, has a beer at his local watering hole, and goes to bed.

Oh, and one more thing. He writes poetry, on the side. He doesn’t publish his poetry, he just writes it. He writes about his life, his thoughts, the conversations he overhears on his bus … He doesn’t think of himself as a poet who only drives a bus to support his art. He knows he’s a bus driver who happens to write poetry.

For example, take a look at one of Patterson’s monologues from the film:

Another one. When you are a child you learn there are three dimensions. Height, width and depth. Like a shoe box. Then later you hear there is a fourth dimension: Time. 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 glad.

His wife also has creative ambitions. She has tried her hand at painting. She has fantasies that her prized cupcakes will some day turn into a successful business. She also prizes her distinctive sense of personal style — she’s constantly redecorating their modest home with elaborate black and white designs of shower curtains and kitchen cupboards. She even designs her own clothes, and decides to take up the guitar in her spare time. In very different ways, she’s a lot like her husband. She’s finding creative outlets for her rather ordinary life.

This dynamic sets the thematic heart of “Paterson.” Paterson’s wife asks if her painting and decorating “makes everything more interesting.” He assures her that it is indeed more interesting. And his day? Oh, the usual.

The key to this movie is that by paying attention to and bringing attention to our “usual” lives, we are indeed making our lives more interesting. Him, by his poetry; her by her painting.

Like Paterson, William Carlos Williams was not first and foremost a poet. He may have been a giant of 20th Century American poetry, but he was also, quite famously, a full-time family doctor as well. In other words, a working man.

He embraced colloquial American English in his poetry and championed local observation over grandiose proclamations. “No ideas, but in things,” he often noted.

And if the film’s William Carlos Williams connections weren’t already tight enough — there are quite a few random conversations about the poet within the film. “Paterson” happens to also be the name of Williams’ epic poem full of his own observations about life in 20th century Paterson, New Jersey.

I’m sure Williams would have been cheered to see our film’s namesake writing similarly about 21st century Paterson.

As one character observes late in the film, “a bus driver in Paterson. How poetic.” Just like this movie.

Tom Tangney on KIRO Radio

About the Author

Tom Tangney

Tom Tangney is the co-host of The Tom and Curley Show on KIRO Radio and resident enthusiast of...everything. As the film and media critic on the Morning News on KIRO Radio, he espouses his love for books, movies, TV, art, pop culture, politics, sports, and Husky football.

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