Parametrics on Sweeteners: PATERSON (Jarmusch, 2016)

Paterson is perhaps the most textbook example of parametric filmmaking I’ve seen in some time. It’s also perhaps too much on the nose in this regard.

Fig.1. Poster of Le diable, probablement/The Devil Probably (Bresson, 1977).
Plot-wise, it’s almost as if the film’s director, Jim Jarmusch, had asked himself, what if I made a film about the bus driver we briefly see in Le diable, probablement (1977), by one of the masters of parametric cinema, Robert Bresson? (It’s one of the best scenes in all Bresson, incidentally–for a close analysis, see my new book!) And what if I gave the driver a home in Paterson, NJ, a place where ordinary people have the gift of rhyme and, not unlike the passengers in Le diable, are prone to philosophizing about politics while awaiting their stop? (In this case, high school children discuss the finer points of anarchism.) And what if, like Bresson’s Michel (Martin La Salle), from 1959’s Pickpocket, this bus driver writes in a secret notebook, but composes poetry instead of a diary? And what if I structured the film like Pickpocket, offering a “strange path” plot, where the final scene features an unexpected moment of emotional connection between the protagonist and another character, offering him a new lease on life and buoying his spirits and our own?

Structure, now: The film is divided into eight distinctly marked episodes (one Monday to the next). From this, we pick up, too quickly and with far too much ease, on stylistic patterns that organize our access to the plot. For all its delicate and reflective qualities, the movies hits the viewer over the head with these patterns.

Fig.2. Where the patterns begin: an overhead shot, every morning.
Typically, each episode–each day–begins with a bird’s eye view shot of Paterson (Adam Driver) and Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) in bed (Fig.2). A title will appear announcing the new day. Paterson will awaken, check his watch, and we cut to a reverse angle showing the watch face–it’s usually somewhere around 6:15am, give-or-take. As he warmly kisses his wife good morning, we sometimes cut to camera positions showing objects on desks and dressers around them: photos of him in uniform, etc. A new angle shows Paterson pulling himself out of bed and picking up his neatly stacked clothing for the day. We move quickly to an over-the-shoulder shot of him scoffing some Cheerios and examining a packet of matches, which inspires a love poem he writes every day while driving or sitting near a waterfall. As he writes, his words slowly materialize onscreen, usually over New-Age-y sequences showing superimposed close-ups of streams of water flowing this way and that, each shot eased into view with a silky dissolve.

Fig.3. Repeated camera angles during Paterson’s conversations with Donny (Rizwan Manji).

More routines (in terms of plot and viewing experience): Every morning, he exchanges the same pointless banter with a depressed supervisor (it’s charming, of course, and almost always shot from the same two-angle set-up, with one camera inside the bus and one showing Paterson from the outside (Fig.3)); we come back over and over to the identical camera positions inside the bus (over his shoulder as he faces offscreen right and the road ahead; mounted to the front of the bus at a canted angle, facing a windshield that reflects spaces beyond the frame; and high-angle closeups of passengers’ feet, always paired off); and every evening, after dinner (which we sometimes see, and sometimes do not), he takes their dog Marvin, a jealous, moody, funny looking English bulldog, for a stroll (when Paterson stops for a beer at a local watering hole, we get a nice variety of planimetric compositions as the dog is tied up). Even the film’s sound design conforms to this parametric, theme-and-variation regime. Marvin is often heard whining or letting out a low growling groan at Paterson (Marvin is something of the villain of the film). At one point, that groan morphs into a snigger of sorts, one that mocks Paterson as his wife feeds him a cheddar cheese and brussel sprouts pie for dinner one night. Unlike him, Laura reports, Marvin loved the pie. We cut to a shot of Marvin, stiff competition for Laura’s affection, snoring from his usual perch, his churning stomach “chuckling” at Paterson’s predicament.

Fig.4. Parametric repetitions turned into a gag.
This exercise in style and storytelling is not without its charms. The quiet feud between Paterson and Marvin is one of the film’s many delights. Jarmusch plays with form yet again here, by reversing the order of the cause-effect chain. On a daily basis, Paterson comes home and checks the mail, and the ritual is repeatedly shot from the same angle–a flat frontal view of their modest townhouse (at times the camera is closer to the house, at times it’s farther away). And each time, he sets his mailbox, which leans left, straight (Fig.4). As the days pass, Paterson begins to look about quizzically, wondering how and why this is happening. Only late in the film are we given an answer: it had been the devious Marvin all along.

Unlike Bresson, then, some of the film’s repetition structures work themselves out as gags. Others approach the uncanny. Almost unthinkable in a Bresson film, Jarmusch’s protagonist seems to develop an awareness of these strange, incongruous, implausible repetitions. In Paterson, far too many everyday things begin to rhyme, to feel and look the same, for things to be “normal,” for this to be a “real” space. Similar objects, shots of objects, and even types of people and lines of dialogue come in twos, sometime threes, and so on. The town seems weirdly populated with twins. In some cases, pairings and triplings of things appear so close together that Paterson becomes conscious of them. Uncanny repetitions soon govern his life in ways he finds strange, even unnerving. When his bus breaks down from an electrical malfunction, he hears the same curious expression from three separate characters–an elderly passenger, his bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and his wife–in three consecutive scenes. They each express concern that the bus might have “exploded into a fireball.” Hardly a common expression. On the third occasion, Paterson chuckles nervously at the “coincidence.” Like the character in a metanarrative who becomes aware of the fictional construct that encloses him, Paterson is perhaps the first character in a parametric film to begin to awaken to the devices the film is using to organize the viewer’s experience of his life.

For all of its virtues, Paterson is far too cute and quirky for my liking. Perhaps this just a matter of taste. For me, it often feels like Hallmark parametrics, Bresson lite, cupcake minimalism. Like the icing on Laura’s cupcakes, the film’s patterned designs are tempting and have a sweet taste, but they somehow leave me unsatisfied, yearning for something more substantive to consume.