Paterson | Make Good Art

An analysis of the 2016 film “Paterson”, directed by Jim Jarmusch. Contains spoilers.

Paterson is a 2016 film written and directed by American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. It was praised by critics at its release, and was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

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The film depicts one week in the life of Paterson, a bus driver and aspiring poet, who lives in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. We follow Paterson through his daily routines: he wakes up, goes to work, drives his bus, goes home, has dinner with his wife, walks the dog, and spends the evening in a bar. Every day is basically the same, with only a few variations. And—whilst performing these tedious routines—Paterson makes poetry, often inspired by his surroundings, which he writes down in a notebook whenever time allows.

Paterson is a serene and undramatic film; there are no action-sequences or plot-twists—there’s barely even conflict. There is only one major incident in the film, taking place towards the end, when Paterson’s poetry notebook is devoured by the dog. This disaster breaks Paterson down completely, and he enters a low mood. In the end scene, Paterson is sitting on a bench by a waterfall, staring blankly with an expression of total apathy, when suddenly an unknown Japanese man approaches. The Japanese man and Paterson start talking about poetry. This conversation is the film’s most important sequence, as it conveys the film’s most profound message. It ends with the Japanese man giving Paterson an empty notebook, saying, ”Sometimes the empty page presents most possibilities.” Paterson looks at the empty notebook for a moment, and then he starts making a new poem, at which the film ends.

Paterson is not a stereotypical poet. He is not and eccentric, emotional, and impulsive artist—though his girlfriend would fit that stereotype perfectly. Paterson is a bus driver, a profession that is not associated with creativity and artistry. From the outside nobody could see that Paterson was a poet. But he (as the Japanese man puts it) ”breaths poetry”; it is natural and vital for him.

There are more ”unlikely artists” in the film. For example, the young girl Paterson meets on his way home from work, who tells him her poem ”Water Falls”. And the rapper who Paterson walks by in the laundry, a scene which also highlights the connection between rap and poetry. Moreover, Everett from the bar turns out to be an actor, and the Japanese man turns out to be a poet. Even Paterson’s greatest inspiration, the poet William Carlos Williams, was actually working as a doctor beside his writing.

This recurrence of seemingly ”ordinary” people who turn out to be creatively engaged, remind us of one important truth: anyone and everyone can be an artist. There is no certain appearance or lifestyle that is necessary to do art. Anyone can do art, regardless of profession, age, gender, ethnicity, etc. All that is needed is a creative mindset. Being an artist is an identity, and the only outward manifestation required is the art itself. Like the Japanese man says, he ”breaths poetry”; it is not just a part of his life—it is his life.

Furthermore, Paterson’s poems are inspired by ordinary things, such as the matchstick box and the shoebox. This reminds us that everything can be art. Ordinary things can be made extraordinary through our creativity. Thus all parts of daily life are worth noticing.

After the disaster of Paterson’s destroyed notebook, the conversation with the Japanese man makes him realize the importance of not giving up despite setbacks. The message of that sequence is reminiscent to a speech given by English writer Neil Gaiman, called ”Make Good Art”. Here is an excerpt:

“Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do:”

“Make good art.”

“I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you can do best. Make good art. Make it on the bad days. Make it on the good days too.”

This speech is in line with the story and message of Paterson. Paterson experienced a great tragedy: all his poetry—years of writing—was destroyed. But despite this huge disaster, he realized that adversity does not equal defeat. Mistakes and misfortunes need not be hindrances for creativity—they can be possibilities. We can use both the joys and woes of everyday life as sources of artistic inspiration.

Through all the ups and downs of life,
MAKE GOOD ART.