Deep Focus

The Beauty of Routine

Living Between the Lines in ‘Paterson’

While many films try to emulate the everyday, few capture the beauty of repetition and mundanity the way that Paterson does. A slow-moving lyrical film, Paterson follows a bus driver by the name of Paterson, and his daily routes driving in the city of Paterson. There’s almost a palpable dullness to the set-up, his ho-hum name and regular job, and his routine: eat cereal, go to work, eat dinner with his wife–Laura, walk the dog, grab a beer at the bar, and go to bed. But during his spare time, he writes poetry, and this changes him. He’s not different for writing, but rather because he sees everyday as a poem. Paterson reads between the lines and finds the beauty in the routine.

The routes for his bus may follow the same pattern, but the conversations don’t. Paterson listens in as two guys partake in crass guy talk–earning them a well-deserved side-eye. He then hears two young anarchist wonder out loud whether they’re the only radicals in the city. He even spends some time listening to a little girl share some of her own poetry.

When Paterson listens, the world comes to him, even as his physical body remains tied to the bus. The physicality of the literal in relation to the freedom and limitlessness of the interpretation presents an opportunity for Paterson. In a cynical sense, it’s a way to escape when reality is too rigid, but this imagination also taps into how the human mind can continuously bring out a sense of awe–regardless of scenario.

Paterson conveys this in his poems as well. They often focus on commonplace objects, such as a matchbox on a countertop, and follow a simple structure. The beauty–as with much of poetry–lies in the arrangement and symbolic weight of each word. The matchbox is beautiful because it might light the cigarette that will be smoked by the love of your life. And while this is applicable for any art form, the brevity of poetry forces a closer look.

Paterson applies this attention to detail during his daily routine, and the film does as well. Every time he walks the dog or commutes to work, the camera patiently lingers around. It feels wrong to focus and highlight on the mundane, and yet, as each scene plays out and is reiterated, it becomes easier and more delightful to pick out new details. Some of this comes from the character, Paterson continuously fixing the tilting mailbox is a fun shtick. Some of it comes from how the narrative unravels daily routines. It’s not until later in the film that we finally see that it’s their pet dog that knocks over the mailbox everyday.

Director Jim Jarmusch relishes the chance to dispel the predisposition of eventfulness with the reality of normalcy. Paterson encounters a group of people that warn him that dog-jacking is commonplace, and of course, the next scene has Paterson leaving his dog outside as he gets a drink at the bar–as he does everyday. And like everyday, nothing happens. Later on, the bus that Paterson drives breaks down. Other than a few disgruntled riders, there’s no discernable long-term impact. Even a request by Laura to get a cell phone after the incident only results in a shrug from Paterson.

Laura, acts as an antithesis to Paterson in many ways, and yet retains the core thought process. She’s an eccentric artist who spends most of her time painting new things or learning unique trades. At one point, she buys a guitar on a whim, banking on the dream that she will be a country star. Laura’s head is full of dreams, not to escape reality, but to enhance it. She repeatedly insists on the viability of a cupcake shop, and indeed, this helps her sell out a batch of cupcakes at a farmer’s market near the end of the film. As with Paterson, an attunement to the finer details of life–supplemented by an active, creative mind–allows Laura to be transported to somewhere greater than the four walls that surround her.

This central philosophy allows Paterson to paint a pleasant outlook, without falling into the typical trappings of fantastical idyllic portraits. The couple’s grounded attitude and simple, but fulfilling lifestyle work in conjunction with a film that’s neither demanding nor flashy, producing a positive realism that avoids feeling fake. For Paterson, that realization is just another attentive day, but for the viewer, it’s something a little more special.