My heart sinks when I hear a disembodied voice speaking over contextual visuals in the opening moments of a film. It hasn’t always been like that; I used to be fairly indifferent, acknowledging it as a device of storytelling reminiscent of being told stories throughout childhood. But as my appreciation for film broadened – and my propensity for pretentious criticism ballooned – the voiceover as an introductory film staple started to scrape away at my enjoyment. The best storytellers across all art forms show rather than tell the reader/viewer what is happening. If a director cannot introduce the context of a film in the sets, props and (realistic) dialogue, then their grasp of storytelling is lazy.
Rarely does an ‘art’ film dealing in the mundane (compared to multiplex spectacle) and everyday relationships have the guts to strip it back and show the viewers the story through what is onscreen. A voiceover or banal, unnecessarily descriptive lines give the audience the excuse to sit in the cinema with their brains on standby, not having to think or process the images flashing before them on screen, as they chew noisily through their popcorn. Or, let’s face it; sitting in front of their widescreen TV, the lights on and tinny music coming from a distant radio as they scroll through Twitter, half-listening to the film unfurl around them.
Paterson is a long way from being a ‘popcorn’ movie, in fact, it’s a pretty long way from being exciting at all, but what Jim Jarmusch – one of the few remaining ‘auteur’ directors – manages to do is tell an honest, relatable and immersive story largely through body language, set decoration and dialogue. It is a tale about a bus driver called Paterson, who happens also to be from Paterson, New Jersey, and his eccentrically creative partner Laura, the yin to his yang. Brought to life through a skilfully restrained performance from Adam Driver, Paterson is a gentle man of few words who chooses to record his emotions, reflections and observations in private poetry. While Paterson keeps to himself, content to be deeply rooted solely in his own life of routine and peaceful privacy, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), with her bohemian energy and keen attachment to the modern culture of digital interaction, seems to seek recognition for her own artful creation through cupcake making and her sudden obsession with country music.
Privacy and solitude are luxuries rarely relished or even sought after in modern western society and the impulse to share even the contents of our lunch boxes is inescapable. Paterson reminds us of the simple pleasures of reflection and art for art’s sake. Laura in all her innocence and restlessness illustrates a more flighty and distracted pursuit of art that she hopes will be appreciated. In an ironic twist, Paterson, with no digital attachment to the networked world, is more profoundly connected to the real world as he walks through the city, to and from work and listens to the conversations of his passengers. By contrast, Laura, almost never leaves the house, but remains ever-connected to her plastic reality in the screens of her smart phone, tablet and laptop.
I saw Paterson in a sold out Embankment Garden Cinema (temporary venue for BFI London Film Festival), and the nature of the place, with its concert hall, straight-backed seating and ban on food, made the whole experience very different to the typical cinema outing. The space was filled with an almost eerie quiet, broken only by the occasional respectful chuckle at a humorous aside or moment of innocent, real-life humour that littered the peaceful timeline. Such moments would barely crack a smile were we watching on our sofas at home, and, mediated by the distractions of the domestic space, I can’t imagine its impact would have been so compelling. It was neither slow nor boring, despite the alarming insignificance of the climax and the simplicity of the events throughout. However, this film’s strength is in its demands of the viewer and its respect for artistic storytelling. I like a film that treats me like an adult and allows me to develop my own perception constructed of all the building blocks I personally collect along the way. Paterson breaks no ground, nor does it electrify the imagination, but it provides a refreshing injection of art into a cinema culture of barefaced formula and brain-bashing spectacle.