2 Aug 2016

Paterson and the fine line between innocence and naivety

12:43 pm on 2 August 2016

White guy character studies are dime a dozen, but NZIFF entry Paterson manages to avoid a bevy of the classic pitfalls.

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Photo: NZ International Film Festival

A week ago, were you to tell me I’d love a movie about a white male poet bus driver who refuses to get a smartphone, I would have been very stern with you. On paper, Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature Paterson sounds like a total misstep for such a legendary director. It sounds cute, or quirky, or even the dreaded twee. But it’s not. It’s beautiful.

We are privy to a week in the life of Paterson, Adam Driver’s titular busdriver-slash-poet, his wife Laura, and the routine that structures their sweet, strange, nostalgic suburban life in the small New Jersey town, also called Paterson. Each day is the same and the significance is in the minutiae: the woes of his supervisor; the conversations he hears on the bus; the ever-changing whims of his wife; his encounters at the local bar where he enjoys a single nightly beer.

Were it not for his poetry, it might be hard to tell how Paterson feels with his lot in life. Do the people he meets, all of whom somehow reflect fragments of himself, cheer or depress him? Does his restless, curiously jobless, wife exasperate or charm him?

But the film is not about dissatisfaction, disaffection, or disfunction. Paterson’s poetry, which we hear and see, both in Driver’s voiceover and in written onscreen text, gives a window to an interior sentimentality, in which his fears and melancholy are drawn mainly from a genuine appreciation of what he already possesses.

There is something super innocent about Paterson. His contentment, his humour, his seemingly endless patience, coupled with a great deal of financial ambiguity, are total throwbacks, and I doubt this kind of single income lifestyle is particularly more plausible in New Jersey than it is here in New Zealand.

Nostalgia is always a risk and Paterson, with his leafy suburb, nice manners and modest, technology averse lifestyle, is perhaps a little bit more loaded than intended. God knows the NIMBY’s will love it. It has also been noted elsewhere that the primarily African American cast that Paterson spends his time gently observing, suggests a problematic fetishisation on Jarmusch’s part. And certainly, coupled with the romanticisation of yesteryear, it does feel like a somewhat flat take on race in America.

This is not to suggest any ill will on Jarmusch’s part; more that there is a fine line between innocence and naivety. Perhaps what is most troubling is that diverse casting is so unusual in mainstream American cinema that it is hard to see it as apolitical. And in spite of Paterson’s aesthetic and narratives ties to certain ideologies, there doesn’t seem to be any greater social message at play.

Paterson is not so much a story, in the traditional sense, as it is a meditation: on creativity; on counterparts; on contentment; on love. It’s the kind of film my parents might describe as “just a nice film”, which could sound insulting but isn’t.

Films like Paterson are the antithesis of sensationalism and cynicism, without having to resort to Wes Anderson pastels, and it is a great thing to see. For some, the lack of drama or conflict may make the film feel less weighty, or important or memorable, but there is subtle substance in its gentle meandering. Best of all, Paterson is a study in empathy. He may be voyeuristic but there is no judgement or exploitation in how Paterson sees, engages with, and relates to those around him. And in spite of the proliferation of chance encounters, cute coincidences and identical twins in matching outfits, Jarmusch keeps them strange and dreamlike and never twee.

White guy character studies are dime a dozen and Paterson isn’t without its flaws, should you wish to find them. But as a study of sentimentality it’s sweet, funny and, yes, totally beautiful.

Paterson is currently screening at the NZ International Film Festival.