Paterson and the Magic of the Everyday

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PATERSON_D10-0148.ARW Adam Driver in “Paterson”. (Mary Cybulski / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street).

Every day I wake up with low-level anxiety. I usually scan through my thoughts trying to figure out what’s causing it, and most times there’s no specific reason. But once I start that process my subconscious works in the background trying to probe my mind. Eventually, I realize the anxiety is rooted in the several different issues- and those can actually differ from week to week. I think this year, most of my stressors will be triggered by U.S. politics.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

I may be assuming too much but I think tens of millions of people around the world begin their day just like I do. Modern life is stressful- especially for those who work 9-to-5 jobs, have demanding bosses, mortgages, kids, debt, taxes, etc. The rat-race can be merciless and those who can’t keep up usually end up falling by the wayside to live crushingly disappointing lives.

You’re probably asking yourself why I’m painting such a grim picture of life in the 21st century, but I’m still waiting for someone to show me a different way of looking at the world. So far, no one’s been successful in doing so. Of course, the more enlightened among us choose a different path if they can afford it, and that may entail dropping out of the rat race altogether and move to the country to live the simple life. Unfortunately, that escape is increasingly only available to people comparable to Donald Trump, the wealthy, or individuals who are willing to drop out of life and shed all responsibilities and obligations.

But for most of us, withdrawing from the world isn’t an option. We have to continue to slug it out. Those who have staying power and the dogged will to survive are the only ones who come out on top. All the others have to live ordinary lives and learn to be content with being insignificant cogs in an uncaring universe. For some, that’s a truth that’s inescapable and one that they have to wake up to every day. Are you depressed already? I can go for days.

My friends have told me that- in so many words- if I continue on this trajectory, my mind will probably shatter into a million little pieces, never to be put back together again. Of course, I’ve tried to rip my mind from negative modes of thinking but nothing has really worked out long-term. So most times I seek to escape by some questionable means, which may or may not be considered illegal. But one coping mechanism I’ve tried to avoid is cynicism because that’s what will give me cancer. But even with all my negativity, I can find some bright spots every so often. I believe in the beauty that can be found in art in all its forms- whether it be paintings, sculptures, poetry, or film. There’s something cathartic about looking at something sublime. It reminds me that the world isn’t all ugliness and meanness.

The search for this kind of beauty is at the center of Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson. The protagonist, played by Adam Driver, is a bus driver who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey. His character is also named Paterson who- coincidentally or not- was also born and raised in the city with his namesake. Jarmusch’s latest work is the culmination of decades of refining his style. This film though is not for everyone. It’s not disturbing per se, but it’s very, very subtle.

There are no grandiose statements, dramatic conflicts, or vivid displays of emotion. Instead of a conventional plot that builds to a climax and a denouement, Jarmusch succeeds spectacularly in crafting a very realistic and believable slice of life. But the way he achieves it is through repetition, slowly building a rhythm that’s almost hypnotic. This style, however, is simultaneously its greatest strength and most glaring weakness. Depending on the viewer, this film is either a masterful work of art or a painful drudgery. If you haven’t seen any of Jarmusch’s earlier work, this film won’t make sense. But for those familiar with his style, this is probably one of his strongest movies in terms of theme.

Driver’s character, Paterson, is stuck in a seemingly dead-end job and an endless cycle of plainness. He gets up in the morning, kisses his wife before he rises from bed, dresses up for work, eats his cereal, gets to the terminal, waits for his supervisor to give him the green light to start his day. He then sets out for his daily route, going through the same parts of town, picking up passengers and then clocking out, and then getting some r-and-r by walking his dog and saying hi to his friends at the local bar. It’s a cycle that would have driven me, or anyone else, insane.

Those who have been in this cycle know that days in such a world begin to bleed into each other, sometimes to the point that you can barely tell the difference from one day to the next. This terrifying sameness is what I struggle with. Most of that sameness nowadays comes from Trump. If there’s one consistent thing in my life, it’s his stifling presence in my work and personal life. He’s omnipresent at work for obvious reasons, and personally, I breathe the same air he breathes and travel the same roads he travels because we’re practically next door neighbors in Washington D.C. I just have to walk three blocks and I’m in front of his house. But I digress.

Unlike me, somehow Paterson is unaffected by the drudgery of his world. Instead, he thrives in it and relishes every moment of the day- no matter how uneventful or gray it is. You then realize it’s his inner life that provides the solace and the strength to withstand the crushing sameness of his every day. To express his inner life he writes poetry and is a big fan of one of the greatest American poets- William Carlos Williams- who’s also from Paterson. From his verses, Paterson (the city) is elevated into this mythic place of beauty. It also informs how Driver’s character lives his life. He doesn’t take anything for granted- and Jarmusch points to the sublime that’s actually around and inside Paterson (the character).

Jarmusch reveals the beauty of Paterson’s world in a subtle way with his own quirky style. It’s spread throughout the film- funny coincidences, oddball characters, and deadpan humor. He also uses a lot of visual cues to reinforce the central themes of the movie. In one scene, you can clearly see two books on the shelf above Paterson’s desk at home. One is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and the other is William Trevor’s Collected Stories. Trevor is a master of finding the sublime in his characters’ everyday lives, even though a lot of them find themselves in very ordinary circumstances.

If you’re not familiar with Wallace, he was considered one of the greatest literary wunderkinds of his generation. But he suffered from a crippling depression and struggled with it every day. He would eventually lose his battle with it, taking his own life in 2008. If you know ‘This is Water’ the now-legendary commencement speech he gave to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005, it fits in perfectly with Paterson’s themes concerning existence. He says large parts of one’s life involves ‘boredom, routine, and petty frustration.’ To sum up his message, you can either choose to get crushed by them or you can see those things as ‘not only meaningful but sacred on fire with the same force that lit the stars- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.’

Wallace’s sense of the sacred in everyday life is very much present in Paterson for both the city and the main character. As you fall into the hypnotic rhythm of the film, Jarmusch drops hints of beauty using both visuals and sound. He’s slowly stripping the gray, dull sheen of a quotidian existence layer by layer and revealing a hidden brilliance in everyday life. That’s why Adam Driver’s portrayal of a character very much in love with the world around him is perfect. He carries himself with the right mix of levity and gravitas. Just like Jarmusch, he’s mastered the art of subtlety.

Near the end of the film, we find Paterson sitting in front of the Passaic falls, his city’s most famous landmark. His favorite poet Williams Carlos Williams actually wrote about the body of water at length in his epic poem ‘Paterson’. He’s a little sad for several reasons- mostly because of what his very naughty dog has done- and has stopped writing poetry.

While he’s looking at the waterfall, a Japanese tourist happens to drop by. He strikes up a conversation with Paterson and finds out that he’s also a Williams fan- and he’s there to see the Passaic falls as well. Without getting into too much detail, the tourist somehow convinces Paterson to keep writing. When his Japanese interlocutor leaves, he turns to poetry again as a cure-all salve.

Paterson never succumbs to bitterness or caustic cynicism, despite the seemingly crushing drudgery he goes through day by day. Indeed, you see him never take anything for granted throughout the film. He loves his wife and dog dearly and finds magic in everyday things and conversations. He is witness to some very interesting talk when drives his bus around town, and he’s genuinely concerned for the people in his life- whether it be the bartender at his local watering hole or his heartbroken friend who’s trying to get over a former lover.

Paterson, in the end, is really a film about gratitude and the million little things in life we take for granted. Modern life- especially in the west and every developed economy- is a series of contests to determine who can end up with most toys and trophies before one dies. Everyone seems to get so caught up in the rat race- myself included- that we overlook what makes us truly happy. After seeing Paterson, I felt calmer and bit less concerned in the face of the real world’s onslaught. Because in the end, ALL of it is just background noise to the infinite poetic rhythm of life.