‘Paterson’: Indie quirks can’t hide masculinist frameworks

Beneath its quiet indie surface, venerated U.S. filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson relies on so many clichés — about people of colour, about women and men, about artists, about relationships both romantic and platonic, and even about animals — that it feels, in the end, less like a work of art than an artfully-filmed advertisement designed to flatter the “creative class.”

The film centers around a white guy named Paterson who lives in the city of Paterson, New Jersey and drives a NJ transit bus. He lives in a little bungalow with his gorgeous, ambiguously ethnic partner, Laura. In spare moments he writes poems. Laura, too, is an artist, who paints, cooks, and is learning to play guitar. Every night, Paterson walks Laura’s dog, Marvin, along the way stopping at the neighborhood bar. The film unfolds over the course of a week — each day is predictably, and not unpleasantly, like the last.

There is a lovely anti-apocalyptic relationship to time here, where the characters enjoy small pleasures and seem, for the most part, dreamily disconnected from mainstream systems of attainment and meaning: they don’t have kids, they don’t yearn to “advance” or “get away,” they don’t seem worn down by the repetition of their days.

And yet, Paterson’s got problems.

The film is almost comically post-racial. Poet Paterson’s world is populated nearly entirely by people of colour: his boss at the bus station is south Asian, the chummy bartender is black, Laura is Iranian, the mysterious stranger who arrives at the film’s end to encourage him is Japanese. Yet none of these people represent any kind of challenge to Paterson’s worldview (which is, we assume, “universal”) — in fact, they exist to encourage and inspire him. While, in some ways, Jarmusch’s interest in representing interracial relationships is admirable, he misses the boat in assuming that such relationships are uncomplicated, effortless, and common. (I want to emphasize here, before I go on, that such critiques as the one I am making stem not from some principled commitment to “political correctness,” but rather from a desire for art that is revelatory and complex — which is, after all, usually what we are asking for when we ask for materials and ideas regarded as “PC.”)

Further, Paterson normalizes a hetero relationship pattern at which all actualized feminists will groan. No amount of playful oddities and distracting quirks can hide it: here we have a man who, for no apparent reason, struggles to string two words together to speak meaningfully with his partner. She showers him with praise, shares her artwork with him, and encourages him to share his with her and with others. He falls silent, mumbles mumbles that are sometimes a little mournful and sometimes sweet. When two-thirds of the way through the film he watches her decorate cupcakes (I follow her lead in counting the cupcakes among her genuine creative endeavors), he smiles and says, “I like your technique.” The moment reads as hugely affirmative — I think we’re meant to feel that Paterson really sees Laura, and I’m reminded of my own past relations with wide-eyed, mumbling men wherein the occasional “you’re awesome” passed for perception and attention. Disturbingly, Paterson’s most communicative moments occur in bed each morning, when he kisses the half-asleep Laura passionately on the shoulders and neck — and even, one morning, sucks on her earlobe — before getting up. It’s hard not to want to shake him and say, “Dude! Use your words.”

“Malestream” indie filmmakers have long been convinced they are reinventing relationships, presenting something largely different from ye olde patriarchal couplehood, by throwing in an eccentric lady (the “manic pixie dream girl” trope, for example, that started with Garden State) and leaving out, say, explicit domestic violence. In reality, all they are doing is revealing their inability to imagine a genuinely reciprocal relationship between hetero lovers.

Laura’s art is truly odd and outsider: she’s a dreamy lass who paints portraits of her beloved dog, paints the shower curtain (and everything else in the house) black and white, and gets seized by passionate dreams and desires (she wants to become a country music star, and a successful cupcake-business owner). While it’s clear we’re meant to chuckle at her whimsy –Paterson, after all, is down in the basement writing poetry — I find her works charming and evocative of the great outsider artists who did what they could with what they had, often completely unaware of, or uninterested in, the hierarchical judgements of the “professional” art world. Paterson, by contrast, seems all-too-aware of such judgements, hiding his poems away in what can only be described as the reticence which belies great arrogance.

Confession: I am a poet, and I find Paterson most disappointing in its rehashing of some of the most tired ideas about artists and writers. Americans have long cherished the notion of the artist as solitary, set apart, and fundamentally different from other kinds of people, and there is perhaps no artist so expected to conform to this idea as the poet. When we watch Paterson walk to and from work, sit by the waterfall at lunch time writing in his notebook, and at work in his basement study, we are encouraged to see his poems as occurring in a vacuum — as, even, mystical in their origin. In spite of the fact that he is a bus driver who spends his days overhearing myriad conversations among the people of his city — the scenes during which he drives and listens are the most compelling in the film — none of that experience makes its way into his (real-life poet Ron Padgett’s) poems.

While I have plenty of admiration for poems that are quiet, interior, and domestic, I tire quickly of the poet-at-a-distance-from-others trope. Paterson could go to a creative writing class at his local community college, attend an open mic, or mentor a youth poetry group. He could engage in a meaningful conversation with Laura about their respective creative practices. He could ask the guy he admires rapping at the laundromat to read his work. But he does none of these things. Ultimately, the film’s major premise is that Paterson is set apart; in that proposition it reinforces fundamentally colonialist notions of the artist as someone who operates and exists outside of the human sphere (while someone else, we may note, does the laundry and cooks).

William Carlos Williams, the famed modernist American poet and author of the long poem Paterson, with whom the film is in conversation, himself was no shy hermit. Rather he was deeply involved with other people in his professional and literary life. As a doctor he cared for people’s bodies; as a poet he kept up voluminous correspondence, influenced and was influenced by other poets and artists, and wove his encounters with other people into his work. How odd that a film which engages Williams’ legacy would present a 21st-century poet so radically different from him in every way, save that he is also a resident of Paterson and a man.

Abby Minor makes poems, paintings, essays, and quilts in northern Appalachia.

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