VIFF 2016: Notes on Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)


“…I dreamt that we would have twins..”

I didn’t catch these opening lines until my second viewing of the film, & as elegant and moving as the initial one was, the film opens up considerably once these added dimensions are openly defined. The film is frequently introducing us to twins or doubles, not within dreams but in reality, culminating with Paterson being given ‘new’ pages by what is in essence, a spiritual twin. Does the ‘real’ then, become influenced by our own subjective impressions, rather than our impressions be designed by the real? Or is there a kind of middle ground whereupon these are arbitrary forces? Paterson only writes in isolation, almost in secret – yet this writing manifests as both compression/paring down of the outside world to abstract essentials, and amplification/elaboration of romantic feelings into romantic gestures.


The private nature of Paterson’s work, however, speaks to their being essential to his being – there is no market within this art. He doesn’t even have a phone! Yet this does not address the question of doubles implied by the film’s opening – if the relationship of Paterson and Laura should be included in this dynamic, then why does Paterson need complete solitude to create? It’s quite a simple answer: Paterson simply exists within the world, not outside of it – that this necessity to create is necessary for one’s own assumption of individualism. Yet this poetry does not shelter Paterson from the mundanity of the world by becoming lost in his own interiority – rather, through his poetry he can recognize that the world is not mundane at all.

“When you’re a child
you learn
there are three dimensions
height, width, and depth
like a shoebox
Then later, you hear
there’s a fourth dimension:

One of the most common criticisms of the film I’ve noticed is that Golshifteh Farahani’s Laura is not a well-developed character and that furthermore, that the film treats her comically. But this seems disingenuous to me – firstly there is no apparent reason why Laura should be found humorous unless it’s on the part of the viewer themselves, and secondly because this takes for granted how much care Jarmusch gives to Laura’s work and designs within the films mise-en-scène. While the film revels in superimpositions as Paterson writes poetry in his head while working, every shot within P & L’s shared home is fixed and purposeful, each time lingering more and more on a new creation of Laura’s, culminating in my favourite shot of the film: Laura and Paterson sitting at a dinner table surrounded by black-and-white stripes & circles, as they eat a pie stuffed with cheese.

In a way, Paterson and Laura are complete opposites: the former is shy and has difficulty expressing his feelings outside of writing, the latter is openly affectionate and easily expresses herself within a visual form. As Isiah Medina commented, “Paterson writes poetry almost in secret as an exception to his daily life, Laura’s life is lived as a daily exception, finding new artistic practices to openly pursue.” And this is why to my mind Paterson is one of the most romantic films I’ve seen in recent years – almost spiritually Lacanian: To Paterson, Laura is the poetry to his poet. And to Laura, Paterson is the artistry to her artist.

This is a film really about living well and more – essentially a romance about the arbitrary forces of emotion and logic – Paterson needs to turn his emotions into poetry in order to make sense of them. The poetry then becomes a living testament – when the writing is destroyed, Paterson is incapable of functioning. Yet I’m perhaps moving too far away from another key aspect of the film – the simple experience of experience. Is there meaning to Paterson that his bus shuts down in the middle of a run? Or to the randomness of a disheartened romantic who takes to threatening an ex-lover with a false pistol? Even so, these events do not disturb the superimpositions of Paterson’s imagination but rather seem to flow through it like a river. There is another shot in this film which I adore, or rather it’s a cut. Throughout Paterson’s work-days we listen in with Paterson to the conversations of other passengers, joining his subjectivity. These conversations range from charming to cruel, humorous to embarrassing – or both. These generally reveal themselves in shots of the faces of the passengers themselves conversing, followed the face of Paterson reacting to these words. But suddenly Jarmusch cuts to a shot of the feet of two of the passengers.

These feet on the bus are not in Paterson’s eyeline, nor would he be able to hear them. So this cut then becomes a deliberate break with the film’s formal unity, but it’s a necessary one – it reveals that the viewer is not expected to relate to the characters but observe them. By making this decision, Jarmusch is hoping to ensure that we are experiencing Paterson’s own subjectivity in a way that is objective.

Would it be possible then, to give an equal balance to what is ‘seen’ within this relationship if we are already in a dynamic where we are observing one’s subjective impressions? If Laura doesn’t seem an active character, perhaps this is because we are seeing not her but Paterson’s impressions of her. Maybe it is another question of Lacan: that it is impossible for one to not-objectify their loved one, yet it is love itself which makes up for that void. But is it really that unrealistic to have an equally fulfilling relationship in both art and romance?

Then some say
there could be five, six, seven…”