Many reviewers praise Paterson (2016) for finding meaning in the quotidian. That’s not exactly true. Some reviewers call it a fantasy, and this gets closer to the heart of things. What makes Paterson such a wonderfully coherent and satisfying film, and what makes every shot meaningful, is its cinematic conceit: We are seeing the world as it is perceived by (but not necessarily from the point of view of) the protagonist, a poet named Paterson (an amazingly understated Adam Driver).
This forced coherence between Paterson’s inner subjectivity and perceived external world is the key to the film. He’s a poet. According to the common, romantic idea of a poet, he should have the knack for seeing poetry where others don’t see anything at all. But not even the world’s greatest poet can see poetry everywhere, all the time. The film convinces us that Paterson can, and reinforces the romantic notion of the poet with classic cinematic sleight of hand: montages, narrative cuts, and selective framing and blocking.
When Paterson’s wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), mentions a dream about twins, Paterson suddenly starts seeing twins everywhere. Is it an ominous portent of his wife’s latent psychic prescience? No, merely the same confirmation bias that makes you suddenly notice, after buying a new car, just how many of that particular model are on the road. The twins, and the cars, were there all the time. (This trick is repeated for the terms “secret book” and “ball of flame.”) Does Laura really do nothing all day but make cupcakes and paint things (and by “things” I mean the curtains, her dress, the walls, etc.)? Of course not—the clearly implied morning dog walk, for one, is never shown—but these are the activities that Paterson notices when he gets home, so that’s all the film depicts. Does Paterson really never get bored with his job driving a city bus all day? Obviously he does, but just as the boring moments slip through the sieve of his consciousness, so too does the film skip over them by showing the speeding hands of his wristwatch.
I’ve said previously that uniform pacing erases emphasis, which is why Paterson doesn’t actually use uniform pacing. The wide shots of Paterson walking around are long and static, but in close-up dialog the shot-reverse shot convention is followed at a naturalistic pace. And like in Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), there is one special shot, used at a unique moment; Ozu’s is a tracking shot that unveils the one moment of contentment in the whole film, while here it is a slow zoom to convey the emotional effect of a gradually dawning epiphany. This epiphany is quietly ironic: Paterson realizes that poetry is not the converting of beauty into lines of words but the ability to capture that beauty for conversion in the first place, a lesson that the very style of the film has been expounding all along.
The fantastical style of the film is noticeable because of the few moments when it’s punctured, much like the “atmosphere” of La La Land (2016). One day, Paterson’s bus breaks down, and he corrals the unsettled passengers while trying to contact the depot. He’s momentarily frazzled by his own refusal to carry a phone and has to borrow one from a little girl. Though the passengers worry about the bus going up in a “ball of flame” (as does everyone who hears the story later), we can see that it’s Paterson who’s deeply rattled, betrayed by the telling tone of voice he uses that projects a self-comforting authority in arbitrary fashion in order to mask the fact that he’s just as puzzled as everyone else.
And in an unexpectedly action-packed scene, a friend pulls a gun at the bar and threatens to shoot someone, upon which Paterson, who’s sitting at the bar table facing away, stands, turns, grabs the friend’s gun hand, and floors him—all in about two seconds. As the proprietor and other patrons stare at him in wonder and he takes deep breaths to settle his nerves, we suddenly remember an image from the panning shot of his night table at the beginning of the film: a photo of Paterson in Marine dress. It’s this scene and that photo that ground this otherwise pure flight of fancy: under his calm, quiet, slightly bemused demeanor lies a hint of violence in a deliberately discarded past.
For such an amazing film, one that deals with the existence of a poet through not the reception of his works but their conception, and divorced from any biographical explication of said conception, it’s a pity that the poems featured are those of the New York School poet Ron Padgett. Maybe I’m just biased against the New York School, but I somehow feel that the diction and metaphors are too down to earth to work in such a cinematically sublime film. Then again, perhaps the entire idea of putting the poems on screen and having them be read in voiceover by Driver is just a means of smoothing over the rough edges of the plot; if that’s the case, it’s quite successful.
Finally, I cannot in good conscience end this review without mentioning the other star of the film: Marvin (Nellie, passing as male), Laura’s dog, the anti-Muse of Paterson’s simple life, and the closest thing Paterson has to an antagonist. She steals every scene and shot she’s in, and won a Palm Dog at Cannes for her performance. Here she is with a belly full of pie.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.