On Paterson and American Poverty

I haven’t watched all the movies written and directed by Jim Jarmusch yet, but I am a big fan of his cinema. From Dead Man to Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes to Night on Earth, I have admired the ways that Jarmusch shows the lives of his characters in the new, modern America. Dead Man is about an accountant who encounters native Americans. Ghost Dog is the story of an African American mafia member who models himself after the samurai. Coffee and Cigarettes and Night on Earth are both a series of short scenes/stories within a bigger picture that is both entertaining and leaves you thinking. The most recent movie written and directed by Jim Jarmusch is Paterson (2016). It covers one week of a bus driver’s life named Paterson in a small town in New Jersey, Paterson.

Paterson’s life is a series of routines in a way that he doesn’t even need an alarm to wake up at the exact time every day. We follow him around. Every morning at the exact time, he goes to the garage and sits behind the wheel. Since he’s always a few minutes early, he opens up his yellow-cover notebook and writes some lines of poetry. We hear him reading the words as he writes them. His boss shows up and complains about his life, and then his work starts. On the streets, as he turns or looks straight ahead, we hear him reviewing his poetry and this time, we can read them on the screen, in front of the bus. Nothing is extraordinary in his life, and his poetry may or may not be good. Even at the moments when we expect something out of his boring routine of daily life to happen, we get disappointed –for example, his bus breaks and the worried passengers get out. Paterson calls the garage, and then tells the passengers that another bus would arrive shortly to pick them up, and that is it! If you are not a fan of slow-paced movies, I am sure you would leave the theaters right after this scene.

While Paterson’s creativity lies in his poetry, underneath his boring man-of-the-routines character, every day in his wife, Laura’s, life is a new adventure. One day, she wants to bake cupcakes and become rich. The other day, she wants to beat the Nashville musicians as she watches the basic lessons of playing guitar on Youtube. Yet, despite Laura’s creative and crazy daily ideas, we know that she’s more of a big dreamer than a game changer. We know, because in one way or another, we all have been there.

But Jarmusch doesn’t disappoint us: Laura finally makes about 300 cupcakes and sells them in a farmers’ market. With the money she earns, they go to movies and eat dinner at a restaurant. That is when they come back home to find out that their sweet bulldog, Marvin, has chewed up Paterson’s yellow notebook, the only copy of his poems.

The sad Paterson goes out the next morning and sits on a wooden bench, in front of the waterfall where he eats his lunch on weekdays. He stares at the waterfall, and the miracle happens. In true Jarmuschian way, a Japanese tourist comes and sits next to Paterson, and when he leaves, he pulls a blank notebook out of his shoulder bag and hands it to Paterson.

Let’s put aside Jim Jarmusch, his previous movies, and his signature –which in my belief is his obsession with Japanese culture, black and white colors, and twins. Let’s think about this movie objectively:

A bus driver in a small American town loves his adventurous wife and writes poetry. He drives on the same streets over and over, and goes to the same bar every night. He is not a dreamer and has accepted his life the way it is. He doesn’t even have the tenacity to publish his poems. Does that sound familiar in a movie? No, it doesn’t! Hollywood characters are usually ambitious, greedy, and always think they deserve better. Paterson, in sharp contrast, is poor. In most Hollywood movies, Americans are rich, or dream to be rich, or do anything to become rich.

Paterson, the town, is worn (old and rusty) and somehow resembles towns in third-world countries. This face of America barely appears in Hollywood movies, unless the character is from a poor uncultured area and someday something extraordinary happens to them and they become a superhero, famous, and/or rich.

So as a big fan of reality myself, I would say that the movie grips you with the modesty in showing ordinary people’s daily routines day after day.

But as you observe Paterson and his wife, and get invested in their life, something else happens to you: If you are even slightly passionate about social justice, the fact that these lovely people are so poor that Paterson gets anxious as Laura tells him she has purchased an expensive guitar online, aches your heart. And when you start to like Paterson for who he is and how comfortable he seems to be with his routine, it hurts to realize that thinking of words and writing poems are the only luxury Paterson has in life; a small pleasure that would seem like a joke to the millionaires of Wall Street and the owners of the big companies of America.

Then the movie reaches to its last scene: Sad, angry, and hopeless Paterson sitting on a bench with a Japanese wanderer. What happens at the end of the movie is a hopeful message: Paterson’s only out-of-routine yellow notebook which had been destroyed and so his creativity, gets replaced by an innocent, white, blank notebook. He can continue to write his poems. Wow! What a great life he would have from this moment on! He may even consider making copies of his poems this time, in case Marvin chews this one too.

I was happy for Jarmusch’s Paterson at the end, and I wished I could have read more of his poetry. I couldn’t help but think of the Patersons of the real world.

Based on this happy ending (more real and believable than Hollywood’s happy endings), the life of a blue-collar worker would continue the way it was. There is no hope that his lifestyle will improve; he is poor, and he will be for the rest of his life.

Paterson seems not to want anything more, but I do. Why shouldn’t a bus driver in America have a decent life with a good salary? Isn’t his job as hard and important as an engineer’s or a doctor’s? Just imagine yourself driving on the same streets over and over for eight hours straight everyday. Do you think it is easy?

I am fully aware that Jim Jarmusch does not want to overtly address politics, and that is fine. What interests me most is the message the average young viewer might take away watching Paterson, where they can see that the only promise for a better life for an American poor is depending on random miracles to save them from their misery.

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