“A man like a city and a woman like a flower —who are in love.”
– William Carlos Williams
In our confused, racing, flickering world of mass media and “politics via Twitter”, it is difficult to describe how refreshing a peacefully measured, slow paced film about poetry and marriage can be. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is such a film and it was quietly one of the very best films of 2016. While the theological necessity of stillness and quietude has been traditionally taught for thousands of years (see I Kings 19:12), they are qualities too scarce in our modern life. These are the very qualities that make Paterson rare, which is one of the many reasons why you should see it.
The story itself follows the ordinary routines of a bus driver which turn surprisingly poetic. Suffice it to say that the film Paterson is about a bus driver/poet named Paterson who lives in the small town of Paterson, New Jersey, which is the subject of the five-book epic poem “Paterson” by the poet, William Carlos Williams. Paterson (Adam Driver), an ex-marine, is the sort of fellow who still doesn’t have a cell phone and who sits down for his lunch break with a copy of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. If you were to describe Paterson’s ordinary, daily routine (waking up early enough for work, sitting quietly in his bus writing in his notebook, coming upstairs to sit and talk with his wife, walking his dog), it would not sound very meaningful. Yet as you go through each day with Paterson in the film, you find that his mundane existence is shot through with meaning, signs, and glimpses of a greater more significant whole.
There is something about modernity that rebels against the routine, the mundane, and the ordinary. We want the original, the novel, and the innovative without any of the regular practices or daily, normal work that it takes to get there. But this film, as critic Joel Mayward writes, “follows the rhythms of Paterson’s life, the liturgy of each day as a worshipful celebration of the transcendent found in the mundane.” It revels in the routine. I find Mayward’s suggestion that Paterson is about daily liturgy to be compelling. Liturgy itself is an old-world, anti-modern concept that repudiates our rushing culture of speedy gratification and fast-paced workaholism. Liturgy is, in fact, closely related to the Aristotelian habitus – the idea that repetition and practice ultimately form who you are.
Paterson’s daily rituals are very important to who he is. In an interview about the film, director Jim Jarmusch explained that “Routine is very liberating and nurturing for him,” that as a poet, Paterson’s routine is what helps him to observe the small details of life, that it has an effect upon his attention and his capacity for observation. If one stops to think about it, this is true for everyone. Our habits, routines, and daily practices – our liturgies – form who we are and what we can see. In her recent book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren writes:
“Whoever we are, whatever we believe, wherever we live, and whatever our consumer preferences may be, we spend our days doing things – we live in routines formed by habits and practices … We don’t wake up daily and form a way of being-in-the-world from scratch, and we don’t think our way through every action of our day. We move in patterns that we have set over time, day by day. These habits and practices shape our loves, our desires, and ultimately who we are and what we worship.” (pg. 30)
The ideas here are ancient and simple. Habits form you. You do not always or often think through your own habits and routines. You move through your daily routines without giving them conscious attention. But you can, if you pay attention, select and cultivate them intentionally. Jarmusch’s Paterson takes us through the daily habits of Paterson’s day, and Paterson’s daily habits are carefully designed to increase his attention to details. Paterson looks at the world wide-eyed. He looks and listens. He sees trouble and beauty, folly and joy, humor and mystery. Critic Steven D. Greydanus writes that “Paterson could be called an exploration of what one author, a phenomenological philosopher, has called ‘the Ecstatic Quotidian’: that is, with the world of seemingly banal everyday experience mirrored and transfigured through aesthetic contemplation …”
The pleasure of this film is just not in the measured repetitions of Paterson’s day. It is also the pleasure that you take with Paterson in individual little moments which constitute some of the best scenes in the film – listening to a rapper compose his own rhyming lyrics while doing his laundry, coming home to discover his wife’s latest lovingly created decorations, checking on a girl all alone in a rough neighborhood to find that she is writing a poem, sitting on a bench near a waterfall only to be joined a mysterious visitor who claims to “breathe poetry,” listening to occupants on the bus discuss the stories of Gaetano Bresci or Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, contemplating his sleeping wife in the morning light. Jarmusch somehow imbues these moments with a childlike wonder, and Paterson’s reception of them invokes the same feeling. It is a spiritual, fully awake view of the world. Most films do not show us such moments.
Indeed, most of us, most of the time, do not exercise the careful attention and wonder that Paterson exercises. We are too distracted, too rushed, too preoccupied with the loud, the fast, and the flickering. We do not have the liturgical habits of Paterson that slow us down and give us quiet. As Harrison Warren writes:
“Yet so much wars against these little moments of glory in our day. For me, anxiety and needling worries are always clanging in the background, robbing me of the ability to simply exhale. I have to learn to surrender, to give up my flimsy illusion of control, and relax into beauty. As busy, practical, hurried, and distracted people, we develop habits of inattention and miss these tiny theophanies in our day. But if we were fully alive and whole, no pleasure would be too ordinary or commonplace to stir up adoration.” (pg. 135.)
To take these ideas even one step further, Paterson just doesn’t explore habit, ritual, and liturgy in the life of a poet driving a bus. The film also explores them in the context of a marriage. This is particularly striking when we apply all our modern horror of routine, living in a rut, and everyday sameness to marriage. Last week The New York Times published Susan Dominus’ essay, “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” The essay explores the stories of married couples who have, tired of the sameness of only being with one person, decided to, instead of divorce and remarriage, try consenting to being able to have affairs and sex with other people. “Do you ever miss that energy you feel when you’re in love with someone for the first time?” one husband asked his wife, trying to convince her to consent to his having an affair. Ms. Dominus refers to how marriages can “suffocate” due to the “laziness of habit,” and explains how if “marital attachment involves a more fluid idea of connection” to one’s spouse, then the mixture of one-night stands and additional romantic relationships can help the marriage by breaking up the sameness of boring old routine, and provide “new relationship energy,” which “for polyamorists” Ms. Dominus seriously reports “is another technical term, frequently abbreviated as N.R.E.”
Routine, habit, liturgy, monotony, everyday familiar sameness are all considered the enemy of a healthy marriage. “What helps to fight familiarity is choosing to do things that break up the routines in a relationship,” declares Licensed Professional Counselor Paul R. Shaffer. We are constantly told that we don’t want daily routines and practices. “Routine often proves an enemy of marriage,” advises Pastor of Calvary Revival Church B. Courtney McBath. “After all, the entertainment industry depicts marital infidelity as exciting and adventuresome. Amid such suggestions, a boring day-to-day life with our husbands or wives doesn’t help us,” he adds rather despondently. “It came to my realization,” reflects Dr. Anniekie Ravhudzulo, “that after the first year of marriage, routine begins to set in and togetherness always ends. The emotional high that both spouses had been experiencing is gone. This leaves a void.” A void because the “highs” of the new, of novelty, of constant ceaseless change are gone. “If married life is meant to be a great adventure, why does it so often seem to get stuck in a dull routine?” asks a Focus on the Family self-help book. “What happens that leads a couple away from wide-eyed wonder and into stoic routine?” When you are married, you are with the same person all the time, and you end up doing the same things. This gets repetitive and monotonous. Answer? “Try spicing things up with your spouse” suggests Pastor McBath. “Try being more ‘fluid’ in your definition of your commitment to a sexual partner,” suggests The New York Times.
Despite this modern aversion, Paterson offers us something different. Paterson is married to Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Just as routine, habit, and liturgy forms who we are and enables us to increase our awareness and attention, Paterson and Laura cultivate and form their marital life and love by routines and liturgies of their own. Their marriage consists in a set of rituals and patterns. Every night, they both stop whatever they are doing, sit down, and talk to each other. Every day, Laura has a dream or activity to share with Paterson. Every day, Paterson finds a way to encourage Laura in whatever it is that she is pursuing. Every evening, Paterson compliments Laura’s experimental and whimsical cooking. Every night, Laura praises Paterson’s poetry and pleads with him to find a way to preserve it for posterity. As far as the definition of liturgies go, Paterson and Laura have their own conjugal liturgies that strengthen and deepen their relationship.
As William Doino, Jr. writes in First Things: “It is no exaggeration to say that Paterson is an homage to marital love,” a love that does not depend upon “emotional highs” or “new relationship energy” for its life or survival. Doino reports that at Cannes, Farahani attempted to describe the film’s portrayal of Paterson and Laura’s love, not as exciting but rather as “‘an eternal, long lasting love,’ the kind the best marriages are made of.” Richard Brody tried to describe it by contrasting how their differences work and combine together. Laura’s “idiosyncrasies, her surprises, her caprices, her stylish inventions — all coupled with her unfailing, worshipful devotion — are the stimuli to [Paterson’s] creation, the irritants and inspirations that sharpen his perceptions and bring his emotions to life.” But, as Greydanus points out, “Laura doesn’t exist for Paterson’s sake and isn’t in the story to break him out of his rut. The beauty of Paterson and Laura’s relationship is that they enjoy one another but respect the differences between them. Laura adores Paterson’s poetry, but she has her own dreams” and Paterson’s constant support for her is not just humoring her. “Some critics have objected to Laura’s domesticity as old-fashioned, but every day she does exactly what she wants.”
Despite the fact that they are each engaged in their own pursuits, the fact that Paterson and Laura have created routines such as sitting down together and talking every evening is not only a sign of their commitment to each other, it is also a practice grown into a habit. They have chosen to invest their attention in one another regularly and daily. This has shaped their love and their enjoyment of one another. The fact is that Paterson and Laura now share habits and routines together. And that is just it, some rituals and liturgies are not meant to be practiced alone. There is an added power to some rituals by practicing them together with your spouse, with your family, or with your friends. Paterson has not just developed and cultivated habits that increase his awareness and attention. Paterson has developed and cultivated habits that increase his awareness of and attention to his wife. This shapes who he is, and this shapes who Paterson and Laura are together as husband and wife.
Contrary to the contemporary prejudices of modernity, the new and the novel are not always healthy or desirable. Sometimes it is worth cultivating the old and the same and the ordinary. This insight, whether informed by the classical Aristotelian virtues or by the ancient Benedictine spiritual disciplines, is an insight of poets. Poets like William Carlos Williams study common humanity and the life around them. They carefully develop rituals and liturgies that increase how deeply they can see into everyday details. And this increases their love for the world. Paterson’s contemplative way of seeing the world should therefore be inspiring to us, as Jeffrey Overstreet writes, “These small but carefully calibrated expressions that he scribbles in his notebook make me want to love my world the way that he loves his.”
In the novel, The Pale King, David Foster Wallace explores the nature of routine, boredom, and attention. In doing so, he explores what it would be like to work every day checking over hundreds of tax returns for the IRS. A few of the characters begin to practice disciplines in order to focus and to concentrate that being to look strangely like spiritual disciplines. One of them, a fellow named Drinion, actually masters how to pay attention even to the dry, mundane, and boring. In the novel’s Appendix, Wallace described some of his thoughts for the ideas he meant to explore with Drinion:
“Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss – a second by second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.” (pg. 546.)
Paterson is essentially about Drinion as a bus driver. Few people are going to be able to find a job like driving a bus around the same route, hour after hour, day after day, to be interesting. Nor would it be a job that naturally encourages attention to detail. Yet Paterson pays such careful attention that the world seems alive, and he slowly and deliberately puts his glowing observations down into poems in his secret notebook. This is a way of being awake.
Also contrary to the trends of modernity, married couples like Paterson and Laura who carefully develop routines and liturgies to practice together find that they can increase how deeply they see into one another. And this increases their love for each other and makes it strong. Their habits as a couple form and shape them for the better. Their routines offer opportunities to show their love for each other. This is a way of being in love.
– Brody, Richard. “Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’ and the Myth of the Solitary Artist.” The New Yorker. December 30, 2016.
– Doino, William, Jr. “Paterson: A Film to Remember.” First Things. April 24, 2017.
– Dominus, Susan. “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” The New York Times. May 11, 2017.
– Focus on the Family. The Masterpiece Marriage. Bethany House Publishers. Bloomington, Minnesota. 2014
– Greydanus, Steven. “SDG Reviews ‘Paterson.’” National Catholic Register. January 20, 2017.
– Mayward, Joel. “Paterson.” Cinemayward. February 3, 2017.
– McBath, B. Courtney. Maximize Your Marriage. Creation House. Lake Mary, Florida. 2002.
– Overstreet, Jeffrey. “‘Paterson’ Richly Rewards the Watchful.” Christianity Today. January 30, 2017.
– Ravhudzulo, Dr. Anniekie. Riding the Wave of the Sting of Infidelity in a Marriage. Xlibris, Corp. Bloomington, Indiana. 2012.
– Rose, Joel. “‘Paterson’: A Love Poem to Poetry, from Director Jim Jarmusch.” NPR: All Things Considered. December 27, 2016.
– Sargeant, Alexi. “Open Marriages, Closed Hearts.” First Things. June 12, 2017.
– Shaffer, Paul R. The Top 10 Marriage Essentials. AuthorHouse. Bloomington, Indiana. 2014.
– Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King. Little, Brown and Company. New York, New York. 1997.
– Warren, Tish Harrison. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life. IVP Books. Downers Grove, Illinois. 2016.