In Paterson, Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson. He lives in the New Jersey town by the same name and, living up to the town's poetic tradition (it was home to both Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams), jots down verses in between bus shifts.
Jim Jarmusch's latest is just as precious as that description makes it sound and that's before I tell you that it's structured around a week in the life of Paterson, with every day marked by the same routine...
Wake up, drive bus, get home, indulge live-in girlfriend in whatever new creative endeavor she's obsessed with at that given moment, walk the dog, have a beer at a local bar, go to bed, start anew. Every day is presented like a new verse in the poem that is Paterson's life, with the day scribbled on screen in the same handwriting that adorns the screen whenever the affable if aloof bus driver thinks up another line to add to the poems he keeps in his secret notebook. Lines like,
When you are a child
You learn there are three dimensions
Height, length, and depth
Like a shoebox.
Driver keeps Paterson a closed book; he’s an attentive listener (eavesdropping on his riders’ conversations) and a keen observer (scanning the world around him constantly) but he rarely exposes himself. He doesn’t even let his girlfriend read his poetry. Amidst the mundanity of Paterson’s week and writ-large, his life, Jarmusch creates a poignant portrait of an artist contained by his very artistry. Whereas his girlfriend Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani) is constantly leaving her creative imprint on the world (frosting black and white cupcakes, styling herself as a country singer with a new guitar, endlessly redecorating their apartment with new curtains and paintings), Paterson coils himself around his fleeting words which careen out of him and onto the page with the syncopation of O’Hara or his fellow Paterson poets. The stillness and the repetition of the film all but call out for literary readings of the film even as it pulsates with a clear cinematic eye (so much focus on textures and montages mean Jarmusch had more on his mind that pretty words). Is it obvious I was smitten by the film even as I was aware that in my description I would undoubtedly turn some people off it? Well I am if for no other reason that it’s a film about the unvarnished mundanity of the creative process—no uplifting story of success; no meditation on failure; just a portrait of the daily grind of finding reasons and ways and avenues to make something and make it well, if just for oneself.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography
Errol Morris introduces us to Elsa Dorfman at her studio where she's picking out photographs from her thirty-plus year archive. The shooting setup is such that as she pulls out small black and white pictures from a box or 20x24 color polaroids from a filing cabinet behind her, Morris' many cameras catch her from enough angles to encourage a free flowing conversation about (among other things) her career, her friendship with Allen Ginsberg, and that pesky issue of photography and polaroid's ephemerality.
In an era of endless selfies and Instagram likes the very conceit of Dorfman's photography evokes a long gone era. When she first picked up a camera at age 28 so as to have something to say when people asked her what she did or who she was (since she was then unmarried, an unthinkable identity for a "nice Jewish girl") she used it to discover herself, shooting bathroom selfies before we even had that neologistic expression for it. When she graduated to working with 20x24 polaroids (just pause for a moment to ponder the sheer size of those photos and of the camera itself) she was tied to a technology that was as necessarily cumbersome as it was simple. Her large scale portraits, shot (mostly) against a white background have that mall-picture quality that, only in their cumulative power, speak to Dorfman’s gift: here a smiling family, there a happy couple.
Dorfman may be by a number of imaginable rubrics (thought not actual size) a small-scale artist. She made a living with her work and, as she admits, she was at the lower rung of the ladder when it came to the artists treasured by Polaroid itself, whose studio she was a part of. Dorfman was never brazenly ambitious and forsook New York City (where no woman she met wasn’t an alcoholic) for the quaint town of Cambridge. She’s also uninterested in the brooding, affected world of misery: her portraits are, almost exclusively, about contentment. That means she doesn’t neatly fit into the type of artists we’re trained to enshrine: there’s no addiction, no tragedy to overcome, no demons to fuel her work, and no complicated darkness to unravel within her work. That doesn’t stop Morris from imbuing his portrait of her with depth and feeling. What we’re left with is a picture perfect picture of an artist, one who demurs when trying to intellectualize her work (she tries not to think of the fleeting nature of photography lest she find herself pondering about the way the present escapes from us even as we try to capture it) and who is content sitting for her own portrait with a big grin on her face, happy to be both subject and object while refusing to be either.