Every once in a while you might find yourself in front of a movie for no particular reason. Where if someone tied you down to a chair, stuck a gun to your temple and demanded you explain your choice in cinematic entertainment, you would have no other explanation other than to say “it was there”.
Paterson has no splashy title. No CGI raccoon or explosions. Even the couple in the image there look rather sedate, lying on a bed asleep in each other’s arms. The fate of the world, Paterson declares, is not at stake in this one. Not even, really, is one person’s world. There is nothing, and you may consider this a minor spoiler, but there is nothing life threatening that happens in this movie. Not once are our protagonists nearly killed, nor are they faced with life-altering disaster or discord.
As a writer, it’s strange to consider a film that is so sparing in its narrative conflict, but is overflowing with character-driven issues. Paterson is a film that shows what it means to create a world and let your characters inhabit it, with their needs and dreams driving the story rather than a created artifice. It’s a beautifully relatable exercise – a small picture that relishes in its focus on the ticks and tacks that take us through one day after another. By the end, I was as invested in Paterson’s wife’s cupcake contest and his poetic scribbles as I am in Bruce Willis killing the terrorists in Die Hard. However, the reason I cared about Paterson and his wife is, to some degree, because I could so easily see myself in their shoes. The day to day business of being alive, of hoping and wanting and fighting but not so hard as to tear apart what they’d already put together.
Paterson, a bus drive and closet poet, isn’t going to leave on some cross-country trip in search of his soul. His wife’s unquenchable optimism and daily flights of fancy are both funny and distinctly real (if, perhaps, a little exaggerated for film). Who among us doesn’t go a day without wanting something new, something special and amazing?
Paterson shares a fair amount in common with what’s commonly called “literary fiction”, where tropes and big plot devices take a back seat to characters and introspection. Where the relatively sedate backdrop gives us time to focus on the characters, and in that examination, to perhaps find out something new about ourselves. Every once in a while, that’s worth doing.
And as a writer, Paterson serves as a helpful reminder to let our characters be themselves. Give them room to breathe in a story, and they might surprise you. Take you to places you didn’t know existed. Sometimes, you might even discover the book is really about them, after all.