‘Paterson’ is an ode to making art from the details of everyday life

January 19, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
As movies seem to keep getting bigger and louder, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch still sets his own pace. In his latest, a bus driver makes his daily route through the streets of Paterson, New Jersey, taking in the stuff of everyday life to write poems. Jeffrey Brown talks with Jarmusch and poet Ron Padgett, who composed poems for the film.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a veteran filmmaker takes on the art of poetry.

Jeffrey Brown has our look at the new movie “Paterson.”

ADAM DRIVER, Actor: I go through trillions of molecules that move aside to make way for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where does poetry come from? It’s not a question normally posed by a film.

JIM JARMUSCH, Director: I remember giving the script, sending it first to Ron. And he called me and said, wow, Jim, I think you’re really going for the big bucks here, a poet who’s a bus driver in New Jersey, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: The script that director Jim Jarmusch shared with his friend poet Ron Padgett was for the film “Paterson,” and it is indeed about a bus driver, played by Adam Driver, making his daily route through the streets of Paterson, New Jersey, taking in what’s around him, overhearing conversations, using the stuff of everyday life to write poems, which we hear him recite and see on screen.

ADAM DRIVER: Another one. When you’re a child, you learn there are three dimensions, height, width and depth, like a shoe box. Then, later, you hear there’s a fourth dimension, time.

JEFFREY BROWN: That and other plainspoken poems in the film were actually written by 74-year-old Padgett, prize-winning poet, essayist and translator who’s been publishing his work since the 1960s.

He said he was taken aback at first when Jim Jarmusch asked if he wanted to write new poems for the film.

RON PADGETT, Poet: And then we hung up, and I started thinking, why not? Why do I have to be such a chicken? Why can’t I just really accept this challenge?

And not too long there thereafter — and I had read the script, and I kind of had an idea about this character, Paterson. I kind of found myself falling into what I kind of temporarily fantasized to be his world. I tried to make it by him, not by me, but also by me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Poetry was also a longtime love of Jim Jarmusch, who,, beginning in the 1980s in films like “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down By Law,” established himself as a filmmaker with a very personal and distinctly non-Hollywood vision.

As movies seem to get ever bigger and louder, he’s managed to set his own pace.

JIM JARMUSCH: I love the form of filmmaking. I love all the aspects of it, except financing and promoting them.

But it’s such a beautiful form to me. I know that I’m not able to make someone else’s film for them in, say, a studio setting. I can’t have other people’s input who are thinking about the commercial viability of the film affecting how the film is made or what goes into it. I would end up in jail, having kneecapped some executive who previously ran an underwear factory.

You know, I’m a filmmaker. This is what I’m learning to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the film “Paterson,” Jarmusch has also created an ode to an earlier “Paterson,” the epic poem written in the 1940s and ’50s by one of America’s most renowned poets, William Carlos Williams.

Williams lived and worked as a doctor in the area. In the poem’s preface, Williams writes: “To make a start out of particulars and make them general.”

The bus driver in the film “Paterson” is no William Carlos Williams. He’s never published a thing and is unlikely to. But he’d understand the sentiment.

ADAM DRIVER: I’m working on a poem for you.

ACTRESS: A love poem?

ADAM DRIVER: Yes. I guess, if it’s for you, it’s a love poem.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Jarmusch picked up on the notion of taking the particulars of everyday life, looking at them, listening to them and making art from them.

JIM JARMUSCH: Because he’s a bus driver, and we have images flowing past him, both visually and things he overhears, he kind of drifts through his job, which is very — it’s a routine, right? It’s all very set for him.

And this allows him to just take things in. I think that’s what poets — in this case, he’s a poet — all people who create things, this is what they do. They have to get input from something.

JEFFREY BROWN: The stuff of life becomes the details of poetry.

RON PADGETT: I hope so. I can’t figure out where else to get it.


JEFFREY BROWN: I asked Ron Padgett, who’s taught writing to children, college students and adults, what people too often don’t get about poetry.

RON PADGETT: They are given to quote, I think, wrong or misleading or narrow idea of what poetry is or can be.

And, secondly, they don’t value their own imaginations. They just suppress or don’t want to deal with their imagination. And yet it’s so close to being a poet in many ways. So, if we can only bust through those barriers — and maybe a film like “Paterson” will help some people say, huh, maybe I could write something like this, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: The film “Paterson” is now in wide release around the country.

From New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.