After his second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, the young filmmaker Jim Jarmusch found himself fielding offers from Hollywood. It was 1985 so these things came by post, including a proposal for Jarmusch to direct a teenage sex comedy pitched somewhere between Risky Business and The Graduate.
For anyone who has seen Stranger Than Paradise — a decidedly off beat American road trip movie — the Ohio born, NY film school educated Jarmusch might have appeared an odd proposition to direct the next Porkys. Jarmusch felt the same way, turning down the quarter of a million paycheck and feeling, as he told the excellently named The Underground Film Bulletin in 1985, “It’s just like, fuck it, you know. They always have to refer to something else. Nothing stands on its own.”
Jarmusch was already a Cannes winner with Stranger Than Paradise and a commercial success at this stage, but what ambitions he had or ambition at all seems now a moot point. To Jarmusch, ambition itself was problematic. He said at the time, money was not that interesting to him, telling Film Comment magazine in 1984: “I’m not really interested in characters obsessed with some kind of ambition. That American dream is just not really interesting.”
Jarmusch was more interested in outsiders and marginalised, a vision of the American dream from the perspective of those not party to it. He felt this himself from an early age. His hair turned white at the age of 14 and made the Akron, Ohio born teenager an alien in his hometown. As his collaborator Tom Waits told the New York Times, it left Jarmusch “an immigrant in the teenage world.” His early career trajectory allowed outside influences in. On a semester abroad from study at Columbia University, he got his film education at Paris’s La Cinematheque Francaise, the largest archive of cinema in the world. He famously didn’t graduate school when he went back to New York, using his grant to make his first film, 1979’s Permanent Vacation. When asked, later, to consider where geographically he sat as a filmmaker, he replied: ‘in a small boat somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic.’
In Jarmusch’s world, all kind of cultural influences are stirred into the mix – from Japanese magic to European sensibilities and good ol’ Americana – to create something startling, new. There are elements that bubble up in each but it is never how you might expect it. On the one hand, he rarely steps away away from his homeland, but he always looks at America as a foreigner, from the inside out.
In his latest work, Paterson, which takes place in the New Jersey city of the same name, the protagonist is also called Paterson, a fact that leads to some mirth. Paterson, played by Adam Driver, should, on paper, be a guy invested in the American Dream. He’s a blue collar worker, a bus driver, a military veteran and a poet. He drives the same bus route Monday to Friday, writing poems on his lunch break, stopping by his local bar for a beer on the evenings, and hearing out his girlfriend on her plan to get his work noticed.
When I watched Paterson, I kept waiting for a dramatic incident – an accident, an argument on board the bus, a walk out from Paterson’s routine life – that never comes. In his art life too, Paterson doesn’t find some kind of resolution, good or bad. He’s not driven to take his art to a wider audience. Even his only cheerleader, his girlfriend Laura [Golshifteh Farahani], is equally content to do well with her baking at the local farmer’s market than succeed in her own, latest ambition of being a country music star.
But to look for ambition in Paterson is as wrong headed as looking for a regular plot in a Jarmusch film. His films are concerned with the spaces in between the action. In Paterson, he looks at lives lived outside of clipboard goals. Laura is the kind of woman, with her creative urge to paint her curtains, dresses, and cupcakes black and white, who might find herself mocked in another film, but Jarmusch is much warmer and unironic than that, and Paterson is a release from the cynicism that drives all those expectations.
“I don’t like the idea of fashioning your life around money, or lifestyle,” Jarmusch said in that 1984 interview. “It seems just too predictable. There are so many other ways of living.” At a time when the American Dream has been dramatically recast, with a new kind of ambition at its heart, Paterson feels like a timely change of mood in which Jarmusch stands firmly on his own.
Paterson is in cinemas now.