'Paterson': A Love Poem To Poetry, From Director Jim Jarmusch

Dec 27, 2016
Originally published on December 28, 2016 11:13 am

Cities are almost like characters in the films of director Jim Jarmusch — think of New Orleans in 1986's Down By Law, or Memphis in 1989's Mystery Train. In his latest film, Paterson, Jarmusch takes that idea one step further. The film takes its name from three things: its setting, Paterson, N.J.; its main character, a bus driver named Paterson; and William Carlos Williams' epic poem "Paterson," one of Jarmusch's inspirations.

Paterson unfolds like the stanzas of a poem. Every morning, the main character (Adam Driver) wakes up and goes to work. He drives a bus around the New Jersey city that shares his name and writes in his notebook on his lunch break. At night, he comes home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), then walks the dog and stops by the local bar for a beer. He does the same thing every day.

"Routine is very liberating and nurturing for him," Jarmusch says. "To be a poet and to drift around and observe small things, overhear conversations, you know, whatever strikes him."

Jarmusch says he got the idea for the script more than 20 years ago on a trip to Paterson, where one of his favorite poets set one of his most famous poems. William Carlos Williams worked as a pediatrician in nearby Rutherford, N.J., and much of his work draws on the lives of his working-class patients.

"The beginning of the poem 'Paterson' has a metaphor of a man being the town, and the town being a man," Jarmusch says. "And I took something from that — a small idea of maybe someday I'd make a film about a man named Paterson, who lives in Paterson, is a poet and like a working-class guy."

There are other ways that Williams is woven into the film. One of his business cards is tacked up behind the bar that the main character frequents, and there's this line from the poem "Paterson": "no ideas but in things". That line turns up in the movie spoken by a rapper practicing his craft in a laundromat. The phrase became a sort of mantra for some 20th-century poets who focused less on big abstractions and more on specific objects and images.

"That dictum has always kind of been in the back of my head when it comes to writing," says poet Ron Padgett, an adviser on the film. Padgett also contributed poems to the movie, though he didn't want to at first.

"It was a very slow seduction," Padgett says. "And [Jarmusch] said, 'You know, if you — you don't have to do this, but if you'd like to — if you want to write anything special for the movie?' I said, 'No, no, no. Too much pressure. I can't handle it.' And as soon as we hung up, I started thinking, Why not take the challenge?"

Poetry has turned up in Jarmusch's films before — Dead Man (1995) is about a character named William Blake and Down by Law has a joke about Robert Frost. Jarmusch even wrote a poem of his own for Paterson. He says he's been an avid reader of poetry since high school. "These people are like innovators and rebels. They deal with changing your consciousness. Their form is not a commercial one. Show me a poet that does it for the money, you know? I still think poets are like, for me, like rock stars. They're kind of magical people. They should just be given whatever they want."

Maybe Jarmusch can't give poets everything they want, but Paterson is his own love poem to their work.

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Director Jim Jarmusch treats cities like characters in his films. He did that with New Orleans in "Down By Law" and Memphis in "Mystery Train." Jarmusch's latest film, "Paterson," takes that idea a step further. It's set in Paterson, N.J. Paterson is also the name of the main character, and the film celebrates poetry. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the director drew inspiration from a particular poem named "Paterson."

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: "Paterson" unfolds like the stanzas of a poem. Every morning, Paterson, played by Adam Driver, wakes up and goes to work. He drives a bus around the New Jersey town that shares his name and writes in his notebook on his lunch break. Then he comes home to his wife, Laura, played by Golshifteh Farahani.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PATERSON")

GOLSHIFTEH FARAHANI: (As Laura) How was your day?

ADAM DRIVER: (As Paterson) The usual.

FARAHANI: (As Laura) Get any writing done?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) I did a little, yeah - working on a poem for you.

FARAHANI: (As Laura) A love poem?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Yeah. I guess if it's for you, it's a love poem.

ROSE: Then Paterson heads out to walk the dog and stops by the local bar for a beer. He does the same thing every day.

JIM JARMUSCH: Routine is very liberating and nurturing for him to be a poet and to drift around and observe small things, overhear conversations, you know, whatever strikes him.

ROSE: Writer and director Jim Jarmusch says he got the idea for the script more than 20 years ago when he took a trip to Paterson, where one of his favorite poets set one of his most famous poems. William Carlos Williams worked as a pediatrician in nearby Rutherford, N.J. Much of his work draws on the lives of his working-class patients. Here's Williams reading from his 1927 poem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS: "Paterson" - (reading) Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls, its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He lies on his right side, head near the thunder of the waters filling his dreams.

JARMUSCH: The beginning of the poem "Paterson" has a metaphor of a man being the town and the town being a man, you know? And I took something from that, a small idea of, maybe someday I'd make up film about a man named Paterson who's in - lives in Paterson who's a poet and, like, a working-class guy.

ROSE: There are other ways that William Carlos Williams is woven into the film. One of his business cards is tacked up behind the bar that the main character frequents, and there's a line from one of Williams' poems - "No Ideas But In Things."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: (Reading) Say it - no ideas but in things.

ROSE: That same line turns up in the movie spoken by a rapper practicing his craft in a laundromat. He's played by real-life rapper Clifford Smith, also known as Method Man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PATERSON")

CLIFFORD SMITH: (As Himself) No ideas but in things, no ideas but in things. (Rapping) They call me Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a paradox of straight shots and gun bars. I shoot to give, no gun charge. I run yard.

ROSE: That phrase, no ideas but in things, became a sort of mantra for some 20th century poets who focus less on big abstractions and more on specific objects and images.

RON PADGETT: That dictum has always kind of been in the back of my head when it comes to writing.

ROSE: Ron Padgett's poems are featured in "Paterson," though initially he says Jim Jarmusch just asked him to be an adviser on the film.

PADGETT: He said, well, I just want to make sure I get things right from the point of view of a poet.

JARMUSCH: It was a sneaky way to get him to read...

PADGETT: Yeah.

JARMUSCH: ...The script.

PADGETT: It was a very slow seduction. He said, you know, if you - you don't have to do this, but if you want to write anything special for the movie - I said, no, no, no - too much pressure. I can't handle it (laughter). And as soon as we hung up, I started thinking, why not take the challenge, you know?

ROSE: Padgett wrote original poems for the film. It also includes one of his older works, "Love Poem," read by the main character, Paterson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PATERSON")

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Here is the most beautiful match in the world, 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.

ROSE: Poetry has turned up in Jarmusch's films before. There's the character named William Blake in "Dead Man" and a joke about Robert Frost in "Down By Law." Jarmusch himself wrote a poem for "Paterson" read by a young girl the character meets on his walk home from work.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PATERSON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Water falls. Water falls from the bright air. It falls like hair, falling across a young girl's shoulders. Water falls, making pools in the asphalt, dirty mirrors with clouds and buildings inside.

ROSE: Jarmusch says he's been an avid reader of poetry since high school.

JARMUSCH: And I saw these people are like innovators and rebels. They deal with changing your consciousness. Their form is not a commercial one. Show me a poet that does it for the money, you know? I still think poets are like - for me, like rock stars. They're kind of magical people. They should just be given whatever they want.

ROSE: Maybe Jim Jarmusch can't give poets everything they want, but he has delivered his own love poem to their work. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.