The cinematic poetry of ‘Paterson’: Duality of human nature

Paterson Movie Shot
Amazon Studios/Courtesy

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At first glance, the 2016 film “Paterson,” written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, doesn’t seem to have much to say with its apparent lack of plot, especially compared to the increasingly dramatized and action-packed Hollywood movies in theaters nowadays. But the deceptively simple story “Paterson” seeks to tell — that of an ordinary bus driver and his day-to-day existence in his small universe — is exactly what makes it one of the most unique films I’ve encountered.

The titular protagonist, Paterson, lives in Paterson, New Jersey, and follows the same routine every day. Wake up around 6:15 a.m. to eat breakfast with his wife, Laura. Head to work to pick up bus passengers and drop them off. Take a lunch break in the grassy area facing the Great Falls of the Passaic River, a prominent waterfall in the city. Return home for dinner at the end of the day and walk their bulldog, Marvin, every evening. Stop for a drink at the local bar where he interacts with the owner and the other patrons. And, in the pauses and slow moments of his day, Paterson writes poems in a notebook he carries with him everywhere.

Poetry is an unspoken but clear passion of Paterson’s. He has copies of Frank O’Hara’s poems and a postcard of Dante in his lunchbox; his home library is filled with volumes of William Carlos Williams’ books (ironically, one of Williams’ most well-known epics is entitled “Paterson” itself), and he is a quietly devoted fan of Emily Dickinson’s works.

Paterson is quiet and mild mannered, as well as extremely cognizant of the world he lives in and his fellow inhabitants. He enjoys taking in everything around him, which is evident from the way he eavesdrops on the stories passengers exchange on his daily bus route and how he takes note of miscellaneous items in his house and of the nature outside. Paterson draws inspiration for his poetry from anywhere and everywhere. One of the first love poems he writes in the film was even inspired by a cigarette matchbox lying on his kitchen table.

But, for all of his love for poetry, Paterson refuses to acknowledge himself as a full-fledged poet. He writes, reads and practically breathes poetry but doesn’t understand his own capability of embodying anything other than a simple bus driver. He is quick to praise and call a 10-year-old girl he meets on his way home from work one day (who carries a secret notebook of her own and shares some of her writing with Paterson) a “real poet,” but he is reluctant to reserve this same title for himself.

Much of this reluctance seems to stem from Paterson’s ignorance of the vast, complex potentials of duality in human nature, even though the film itself has shown time and again the dualities in Paterson’s own life.

One of the most obvious signs of duality is presented in the form of twins: Over the entire weeklong span of the film, Paterson encounters four sets of twins, all varying in age, gender, sex and race. The contrasting colors of black and white are also featured prominently in different aspects of Paterson’s life, from the furniture in his house to the shower curtains to Laura’s own clothes, her guitar and the cupcakes she bakes. At one point, Paterson even comes across a man playing chess with himself — a metaphor for the different selves a person contains.

At one point, Paterson even comes across a man playing chess with himself — a metaphor for the different selves a person contains.

This concept of selves is nothing new. In an Atlantic article entitled “First Person Plural”, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom writes of this very capacity of human beings to have multiple selves. He references various psychological studies that provide insight into the nuances of human nature, such as one in which study participants adopted different attitudes (e.g., judgemental versus accepting) in a particular situation with just a subtle change of smell in the room as the trigger.

From Bloom’s perspective, “All of these studies support the view that each of us contains many selves — some violent, some submissive, some thoughtful — and that different selves can be brought to the fore by different situations.”

He argues further that our often contrasting desires and habits are what makes the human experience unique. “We benefit, intellectually and personally, from the interplay between different selves.”

Paterson is not alone in his struggle for self-identification and reconciliation of his different selves. Oftentimes, people feel the need for credentials before presenting a part of themselves to the world. When someone introduces themselves at a party, they start off with their job title, their educational background or where they’re from. Few would share their hobby of taking photos of their pet and declare themselves an actual, qualified photographer.

But it’s undeniable that humans, in fact, do have these contrasting selves and desires, making each individual all the more distinctive. Paterson’s hero, William Carlos Williams, was both a poet and a physician. When Paterson walks his dog past a laundromat, he encounters a man perfecting his rap lyrics (which are sprinkled with quotes from Williams’ “Paterson” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” in a blend of racial agony and philosophical ruminations of life and the city). One of Paterson’s friends, Everett, is both an actor and a lovelorn man who spends his evenings seeking acknowledgement from his ex-lover at the local bar.

Paterson’s wife, Laura, is another clear example of someone with multiple selves. Unlike Paterson, she has no qualms about accepting the fact of her different interests and hobbies. Her quotidian life is a constant oscillation between painting, music, textile work, cooking and baking. She also has big dreams of becoming rich from starting a cupcake business or becoming a famous country singer. 

Laura’s spontaneity is a sharp contrast to Paterson’s easygoing and relatively structured lifestyle, though she tries to impart some of this spirit unto Paterson by encouraging him to make a photocopy of his notebook and share it with the world. 

The film’s most dramatic moment comes near the end and is all the more tragic because of the completely ordinary and relatable nature of it — the loss of his treasured notebook with every poem he has ever written when Marvin shreds it to pieces one day.

In his disappointment, Paterson heads out the following day to seek comfort from his favorite spot near the Passaic falls. There, he meets and bonds with a Japanese tourist who is unabashed about his own love of poetry and identity as a poet, though like Paterson he is neither published nor well-known for his works.

The Japanese man’s two broken fingers juxtapose the subsequent healing effect he has on Paterson over the course of their conversation. He helps Paterson understand the duality of self and even gifts him a new, blank notebook along with a few sage words of advice: “sometimes empty page presents more opportunities.”

With the realization that people can have more than one purpose and more than one identity, Paterson brings pen to paper and begins anew.

As Walt Whitman once famously wrote: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Humans are wonderfully complex beings, and the fact that every individual has different aspects of themselves to offer to the world makes life an altogether more poignant experience.

Contact Stella Ho at [email protected].