Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The film chronicles beautifully banal life in the New Jersey city.
Can post-industrial, working-class urban life in America be enjoyable and fulfilling—even poetic? Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Paterson—the tale of a man named Paterson who drives a city bus in Paterson, New Jersey—answers that question with a definitive “yes.”
All of those “Patersons” may seem like an indie film affectation, but they’re an homage. Paterson, who writes poetry when he’s not ferrying passengers, has a favorite poet: William Carlos Williams, who worked in the nearby town of Rutherford during the first half of the 20th century. Williams is probably best known for his simple, elegant poem, “This is Just to Say.” But he also wrote an epic, five-part poem called, yes, “Paterson.” In a 1943 letter to the author and poet Robert McAlmon, Williams declared that “Paterson” the poem would be “a psychological-social panorama of a city treated as if it were a man, the man Paterson.”
Jarmusch’s portrait of Paterson the city is similarly drawn through Paterson the man. We follow him for a week, mapping his movements as he navigates the metropolis, walking to the bus depot each morning, driving his route through downtown, and taking his bulldog, Marvin, for a constitutional every evening, ending at a neighborhood bar.
Paterson’s life is a good one: He has a happy marriage, and while he occasionally appears unsatisfied at being “only” a bus driver, the details of his everyday existence—the Ohio Blue Tip matches in his kitchen, his wife’s face when she is sleeping, his glass of beer—are portrayed as beautiful, and are transformed by Paterson into verse. He writes before he starts work in the mornings and on his lunch break, which he often spends at the Great Falls of the Passaic River.
The falls, which powered mills for textiles, paper, and other industries, are the reason the city of Paterson exists, and they figure in both Williams’s poem and the film. The Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures—co-founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1791 to boost U.S. industry—purchased 700 acres of land around the Great Falls. It was in Paterson, writes the National Park Service, “that the Industrial Revolution got a foothold in the New World.”
Williams viewed Paterson as a city of great success, but also of misery. The poet and editor A.M. Sullivan wrote that Williams chose Paterson for his epic because it was:
…the prototype of the American industrial community…the self-sustaining city of skills with the competitive energy and moral stamina to lift the burdens of the citizen and raise the livelihood with social and cultural benefits…The poet of Paterson understood the validity of the hope of [Alexander] Hamilton but also recognized that the city slum could be the price of progress in a mechanized society.
In the fourth part of the poem “Paterson,” Williams portrays the Great Falls as polluted and dead—a place destroyed by industry. Yet he also includes images of hope. According to the late poetry professor James E.B. Breslin, “Paterson…[shows] that the process of disintegration releases forces that can build a new world. [The poem] confronts...the savagery of contemporary society, but still affirms a creative seed.”
The city’s mills began to shutter toward the end of Williams’s life. By the 1960s, only a few cotton mills were in operation. Like so many cities of the time, Paterson went into decline, and its once-bustling downtown became dilapidated and desolate. In the past decade or so, the city has seen somewhat of a resurgence—thanks in part to thriving immigrant communities and the designation, in 2011, of the Great Falls as a national historical park. In the film, Paterson the man embodies this story of a creative force rising from the post-industrial landscape.
Paterson has been accused (not unaffectionately) of depicting an unrealistic utopia, particularly in terms of racial harmony. Indeed, Paterson the man is friendly with everyone, and aside from a young white girl with whom he converses briefly, he is the only white character in the movie. (His wife, Laura, is Iranian, his friends at the bar are black, his colleague at the bus depot is Indian.) Jarmusch’s city is also a utopia of post-industrial working class life. The mills are long gone, and they’re not coming back; still, Paterson’s life is a good one.
Paterson’s happy life is also made possible by the urban space in which he lives. The city is quite concentrated: At around 17,000 people per square mile, its density is similar to that of San Francisco (and not very far behind New York). So, unsurprisingly, Paterson walks everywhere—to his job, to the bar, to the Great Falls to sit and write. Though he and his wife own a car, it appears only twice—once when Laura is transporting cupcakes to sell at a farmers’ market, and once when she and Paterson are returning from seeing a movie, and then we only catch a glimpse of the garage door descending. The city’s central streets, though a little tattered, are lined with small, thriving stores, and pedestrians are everywhere.
Paterson leaves one with a feeling of appreciation, if not hope. Not just for America, for the working class, and for race relations—but for walkable, dense, public-transport-loving, inclusive cities. If CityLab gave out movie awards, it might very well get Best Picture.