Thursday, February 2, 2017

Paterson - the Film

A bus driver named Paterson and his wife live in a small house with their English bulldog in Paterson, New Jersey. He walks to work every day carrying a metal lunchbox. She mostly stays home painting curtains, designing dresses, or baking cupcakes to sell at the local farmer's market. She's very sweet, not to mention beautiful. He's agreeable, soft-spoken. He walks the dog after dinner every night, hooking the little fellow up on a post along the sidewalk so he can go into a bar and drink a single beer, very slowly, while he chats with the bartender or whoever sits down beside him.

During the day he listens to conversations between the passengers sitting near the front of the bus. He also writes poetry in the Imagist style, inspired by the work of Paterson's most famous son, William Carlos Williams. He often starts a poem while sitting at the wheel of his bus, waiting for his route to start. He spends some time in the basement when he gets home from work, polishing.

She has a dream of purchasing a guitar she's seen advertised on TV, and maybe becoming a country-western star. She's never played the guitar, but stranger things have happened. He encourages her, though it's pretty clear money is tight. For her part, she encourages him to Xerox his book of poems. She thinks he should share his verses with the world.

Minor characters add variety to the scenario. Paterson's supervisor at the bus terminal has a litany of little complains to share each morning. The bartender has taken some money from his wife's cookie jar to enter a local chess tournament. A young woman at the bar is trying to dump her boyfriend, an actor who seems to be more in love with the drama of being in love than with her.

Anyone who's seen a Jim Jarmusch film will be familiar with the slightly stilted dialog. There are long gaps between remarks, while the interlocutors ponder what's just been said and come up with a thoughtful response. Although there are moments of danger, surprise, and anger scattered here and there, for the most part Paterson flows along like a gentle brook. And that allows the viewer to begin seeing the people, the city, the passing urban scene, and the domestic tranquility shared by the protagonists in the same poetic light as Paterson himself does. A sort of calm, slightly bemused wonder takes hold and grows, like lichen.    

It's remarkable to see a film like Paterson on the big screen—quiet, almost methodical, yet humming gently with quirky characters and unexpected incidental remarks.  It's a celebration of the quotidian, though such a word would never appear in one of Paterson's poems. As he writes, or recites, slowly, handwritten words appear across the screen. His voice carries a degree of sincerity, but it sounds as home-spun as the words themselves. 

Here's one of them.

Love Poem
We have plenty of matches in our house
We keep them on hand always
Currently our favorite brand
Is Ohio Blue Tip
Though we used to prefer Diamond Brand
That was before we discovered 
Ohio Blue Tip matches
They are excellently packaged
Sturdy little boxes
With dark and light blue and white labels
With words lettered
In the shape of a megaphone
As if to say even louder to the world
Here is the most beautiful match in the world
It's a one-and-a-half-inch pine stem
Capped by a grainy dark purple head
So sober and furious and stubbornly ready
To burst into flame
Lighting, perhaps the cigarette of the woman you love
For the first time
And it was never really the same after that

All this we will give you
That is what you gave me
I become the cigarette and you the match
Or I the match and you the cigarette
Blazing with kisses that smolder toward heaven

I haven't seen all that many films about poetry. The only ones that I can think of off-hand are a Korean film called Poetry and a biopic about Keats called Bright Star. Both are excellent.
Back home, I pulled a little volume of William Carlos Williams' selected poems off the shelf. (Paterson's wife calls him Carlos William Carlos for a little joke.) I've never been a big fan, but now that I've seen a few scenes from Paterson, I'm starting to like him better.

No comments: