Paterson, or What I Know About New Jersey

What I know about New Jersey, I know from three main sources:

  1. My undying, all-encompassing love for Bruce Springsteen
  2. The Sopranos
  3. Visiting a few years ago

New Jersey gets a bad press: at best it’s considered a place you pass through en route to shinier and glitzier locations, rarely a destination in itself. The Jersey geography is a tale of two halves: to the North is a wasteland of containers and industrial areas (and, in the Sopranos collective unconscious, a series of perennial building sites perfect for dumping bodies decked with cement shoes); to the South is a sprawl of boarded-up boardwalk towns and unglamorous malls that have seen brighter days. None of this is actually a lie. But it is only part of the picture: the New Jersey I encountered when I spent some time there is unexpectedly much more pastoral (not in the Philip Roth sense, although he is also a New Jersey son), a place created by a combination of myth and urban poetry that is very much alive in Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson.

Paterson as played by Adam Driver is a bus driver in the town of Paterson, New Jersey. There is something so utterly poetic even in this basic sentence that transcends the high-concept nature of the set-up: Paterson is a bus driver who writes poetry. He has a girlfriend, Laura, who bakes cupcakes for a living, dreams of becoming a country singer, and may be suffering from some sort of endearingly artistic OCD. Their family is completed by Marvin, an English bulldog. So far, so Girls. And yet nothing in the idyllic suburban world of Paterson is touched by the hipster cynicism of Lena Dunham’s Brooklynites.

The watercolour picture (lightly tinged with blue) that Jarmusch paints of this town is all red-brick factories, rooftop reservoirs, and “Main Street whitewashed windows” straight out of Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’. The sun always shines in the film’s early autumn week, as Halloween draws near. Ghosts, ghouls and the darkness that’s always, inevitably, on the edge of town, are seemingly kept firmly at bay; even as the threat of danger is there, hummed underneath the surface by a droning soundtrack (composed and performed by Jim Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL), and made manifest in encounters with an aggressively forlorn spurned Romeo and a wannabe gangster who outlines the risk of owning a pedigree dog. Their threatening masculinities are at odds with Paterson’s thoughtful, sensitive and peaceful approach to life and its troubles, but the cracks of an untold backstory do appear in a shocking moment within Driver’s subtle and rich performance. At that moment, as a picture of a younger Paterson in a Marine Corps dress uniform on his bedside table suddenly clicks into logical (if vague) revelation, you realise just how deep the layers run through this delicate and beautifully composed ode to simple living.

Frank O´Hara reading his poem "Having a coke with you" in his flat in New York in 1966, shortly before his accidental death. Taken from - "USA: Poetry: Frank O'Hara" produced and directed by Richard Moore, for KQED and WNET. Originally aired on September 1, 1966.

Paterson carries a copy of Frank O’Hara’s 'Lunch Poems' in his lunchbox. O’Hara’s odes to the observations of a frantic world celebrate the act of drinking Coca-cola with one’s lover after a visit to a museum; or the colour orange, and sardines, “kangaroos! Sequins!”; or going to the movies and falling in love with Greta Garbo or Rock Hudson; or even the black busker playing guitar just around the corner. They are flowing, jazzy ditties that seem to bubble and evaporate after their initial caffeinated sugar rush, leaving no trace behind. But. There is of course much more to them. Another fictional character who loves Frank O’Hara is Mad Men's Don Draper, who read “Meditations in An Emergency” during a desperate, boozy lunch break, and all the way home from Manhattan on a commuter train. O'Hara's lines: “I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern” tear his life apart. O’Hara’s poetry is this and that: light, simple, insubstantial - and cutting, deep, devastating. And Paterson is a film that could have been written by Frank O’Hara.

This twinned combination of light and darkness is intrinsic to a film pervaded by a recurring motif of identically dressed pairs of twins: Paterson’s girlfriend tells him at the beginning that she’s dreamed they are going to have baby twins, and he keeps seeing double throughout. This is partly to show how a poet's inspiration may come from the experience of things recollected in tranquillity, but it is also a cinematic way to replicate the workings of literary rhyme. Such dreamy leitmotif places Jarmusch firmly in Wes Anderson territory - a connection made all the stronger by Paterson’s longing for an analogue retro-land without mobile phones and digital watches, no alarms and no surprises. It is particularly lovely to see this hat tip between indie American auteurs made explicit in a scene featuring Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, the two kids from Moonrise Kingdom - now fully formed hipsters riding Paterson’s bus - as they compose the ballad of a New Jersey Italian anarchist, a claim-to-fame of the glory days.

Jarmusch’s claim in this low-fi masterpiece is that New Jersey is a land of poets. Three great poets of the 20th century (William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and - YES - Bruce Springsteen) were born there. But the poets in this film are not generational dividers seeking enlightenment and new worlds; rather, they are poets of the everyday, accidental bards at the bar on the corner, tellers of mini-epics of local heroism and celebrity, regular Joes for a crowd of regulars.

Bruce Springsteen in Haddonfield, N.J., 1978 - photo by Frank Stefanko 

In Springsteen iconography, the New Jersey myth is one of cars and Interstates, of racing in the streets, taking a ride out of the badlands and into the promised land - essentially, of roaring the engine of an old convertible as far away as possible from small-town, in search for the great, big, old American Dream. (It bears mentioning that rarely in Springsteen world is that Dream actually found.) By contrast, in Paterson, the favourite means of transportation is a bus. This is incredibly apt for a film that posits that poetry is to be found in the little things that shine a light on our small lives. For what more mundane, ordinary thing is there than that great social leveller, that democratic, almost socialist form of collective transportation that is the bus?

I once missed a travel connection in New Jersey and spent two hours in Red Bank station waiting for the next coach to my final destination (Princeton). For a long time, I was the only white person in the waiting room. A group of African-American children played football in the parking lot; two Latino ladies who had obviously just clocked out from a cleaning shift in a five-star Manhattan hotel shared giggly gossip; an elderly Asian man fell asleep reading the local newspaper with his glasses on the tip of his nose; two Hasidic men carried a huge trunk full of hats and other samples, followed on the platform by two women with seven children in tow - boys with long side curls awaiting their Bar Mitzvahs. That waiting room was basically Donald Trump’s nightmare: a rich, colourful, loud, glorious picture of American multiculturalism. You'll see the same picture of America in Paterson. Over the course of those two hours I had the following conversation four times:
- Hey miss, are you I-talian?
- Yes, sir.
- I’m I-talian too! My family was from <insert name of remote village in Campania/Apulia/Calabria/Sicily> and they came over on the boat to be < delete as appropriate: factory workers/opera singers/restaurateurs> and I really like <pizza/fettuccine Alfredo/The Godfather>

The Sopranos, courtesy of HBO 

I don’t know how my jet-lagged face, clothes and baggage communicated so effectively that I have an Italian passport, but clearly Italians are big in New Jersey. Here is where the Irish and the Germans, the Dutch and the Jews gathered once New York became too industrial, too crowded and too expensive. But as you’ll know from The Sopranos, it is the Italians who really made Jersey their home. Amazingly, the way Jarmusch connects Paterson to Italy has nothing to do with stereotypical mafia, greasers and pork sausage tropes. He opts, once again, for the road not taken.

A portrait of the Italian national poet Dante Alighieri rests inside Paterson’s lunchbox, as means of inspiration. Paterson's girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) loves Petrarch, and shares a name with the Italian inventor of the sonnet’s great love and muse. Both Dante and Petrarch are renowned poets of impossible love - love from a distance, love that moves the soul to such extent that God’s creation becomes intelligible in the eyes of the beloved. On the other hand, Paterson is a great love story between two people who adore each other’s quirks and encourage and support each other’s creativity and ambition, while firmly accepting their respective mediocrity. Everything they do together is profoundly human, far from the divine longings and cosmogony of Italian medieval poetry. And yet there is something so universal in the little things they do, the small town the call home, and the tiny details of their lives that makes Paterson a perfect song of innocence and experience, twinned together.

[Irene Musumeci, Curzon Head Office]

Paterson plays at Curzon Cinemas from Friday 21 November. With thanks to Soda Pictures.