Routine is almost always subconsciously related to the banal, the unremarkable. Contemporary culture, obsessed with sensation and experience, has deemed it as something that is to be avoided or, at the very least, as something to be endured without little in the way of thought. Cinema often operates on this same understanding of routine. The movie going experience is usually treated as escapism. A film like Guardians of the Galaxy is popcorn fare, light entertainment providing us with a momentary distraction from all that worries us outside of the dark, air-conditioned theatre we are occupying. The popular trope of an “Average Joe” being thrown into extraordinary circumstance is just as common, seen in everything from Kingsman: The Secret Service to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There is nothing wrong with escapism necessarily, but it becomes a problem when a culture desires escape over everything else.
So, in its very conception, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is, paradoxically, an extraordinary film. Receiving a very limited release in the first couple months of 2017, it went without much notice from the public and received no recognition from the Academy Awards, despite receiving near-universal critical acclaim. The way in which it went unnoticed was incredibly fitting; there is no reason for a film this unassuming to be a box office smash.
Paterson concerns itself with seven days in the life of a man named Paterson, played by Adam Driver. He lives in the town of Paterson, New Jersey, where he drives a bus. When he is not working, he leads a quaint life with a girlfriend he adores. His free minutes are taken up with the writing of poetry, and his evenings are spent walking his dog and having a drink at the neighbourhood bar. Beyond these mundane activities, little else happens during Paterson’s 118-minute runtime, save for an ending that is surreal in the mildest sense of the word.
In its very nature, the life of a bus driver is routine, visiting the same stops at the same times every day. Yet, Paterson is a character that not only invites routine, but is also inspired by it. In Heraclitan fashion, Paterson understands that the world around him is in a constant state of change, and that even if his day-to-day actions remain the same, he is bound to experience the world around him in a unique way. The character’s philosophy is best represented in his poem, Another One:
When you’re a child, you learn that there are three dimensions
Height, width and depth
Like a shoebox
Then later you hear there’s a fourth dimension
In his reflective existence, Paterson is always glad, seeing beauty in every detail of his life. He values the conversation he has with the middle schooler he meets on his way home from work, who shares with him her poem about rain. The conversations that he overhears on his bus route never fail to fascinate him. His girlfriend, Laura, redecorates their house daily – always with her distinct black and white visual style – and finds a new dream to chase several times throughout the week over which Paterson takes place. These happenings never really alter Paterson and Laura’s life in any way; what they do is provide colour and life to their existence. It is these small changes, things that others would see as uninteresting or pointless, that Paterson finds himself inspired.
Without doing much of anything, Paterson manages to be one of the most beautiful films of recent times. Possibly ever. The satisfaction that Paterson finds packed away in his lunch box or in the small revelations that come to him as he writes a new poem, reveal him to be among the most purely good characters ever seen on screen. He is simply a man who loves life, celebrating it not through world travels or by chasing experiences, but through contemplation on what he has been blessed with. In this, there is something very wise about the film’s titular character (look no further than Proverbs 16:8 to know that he is living close to the meaning of life). Jim Jarmusch has always been in love with the banal – Night on Earth is a series of vignettes documenting conversations held between cab drivers and their passengers, for instance – but with Paterson, he reaches new poetic heights.