Paterson: Art in the Mundane
If nothing else, 2019 is a year of endings. Some of the biggest storylines in recent memory are finished, or soon will be. Game of Thrones, the Skywalker Saga, certain parts of the MCU, but to call it an end with at least seven more movies already heading our way and a handful of shows is kind of a joke. The point is, every major production house is looking for the next big thing for people bitch about on Twitter.
Suddenly we have talks of Game of Thrones spin-offs, the next trilogy (and streaming shows) of Star Wars, Phase 4 in the MCU, hell, a new Terminator trailer just dropped, and even a Picard teaser trailer (oh hell yes). As much as I am a Lord of the Rings fan, even I forget Amazon is developing a series under all the noise of everything else. What will be the next epic thing? What world/sun/universe destroying thing will be the next threat to everyone?
It's so much. Remember the characters we loved once? It's all just noise now. I need a flow chart for Avengers: Endgame alone.
What if the next big thing was something scaled way back? What if a story revolved around the everyday things?
Enter Paterson from 2016, the most wholesome movie of all time. Spoilers, I guess, for Paterson, if spoilers they can be called.
If you asked me what the story was for this movie, I would chuckle because I couldn't make it sound interesting enough for you to watch. Let me try. A man drives a city bus, stays on schedule, writes, and lives with his wife and dog. They have everyday worries, and Paterson (Adam Driver) especially is content watching the tiny beauties of the world unfold around him.
The plot almost plays off of the fact that it knows an audience will be expecting something. What's the conflict? That is always the centerpiece to any story. What are the protagonists up against? What are their goals and what stands in their way? It's kind of easy when something is threatening the whole world, and the hero knows they are the only ones with a chance to stop it.
What about real characterization? How do I write something more grounded? The best characters are the ones that have the most honest parts of an author inside them. Paterson is an excellent example of making a character as real as possible.
The main character, Paterson (shocker, I know), lives in the city of Paterson. That's the craziest thing that happens in the whole movie. It's those little coincidences and small details that the story focuses on. This isn't about something terrible happening or winning over the love of his life or something as equally grand. It's about the small intricacies in life that we all share in. There is beauty in the mundane and art in our daily life. A quiet reminder that every story has something worth feeling.
Paterson is a poet and writes about everything he experiences or takes note of. Even small things like the matches in his house are a worthy subject. He doesn't seem to have extreme hopes or dreams. He doesn't even worry about publishing his poems, they are for him. It's art in the purest form it can be. Something to gain from the creator to enjoy and get wholeness from. This isn't something he cares for an audience to see.
His wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), has new aspirations almost daily. She dreams big and pursues those dreams with passion. She needs to express herself in multiple ways, always looking to create. Again, it's not the pursuit of fame, but rather a simple enjoyment of something that will hopefully contribute to their home.
Even what little conflict there is, revels in its ordinariness. Paterson encounters a man claiming it would be a shame if someone stole his dog, but then nothing ever threatens his dog. We the audience assume something terrible is going to happen to Marvin (played by Nellie, the dog) and wait for that conflict to pay off. How many random encounters do we have in our day to day? I work retail, if there were pay offs for every strange interaction I had, I wouldn't have time for anything else. Life comes and goes and mostly doesn't play out like a traditional story. Just because some random person says to watch your dog doesn't mean anything will happen at all.
The major conflict comes when Marvin tears up the notebook with all of Paterson's poems. The build-up to this is so subtle. (Even him seeing twins over and over is a small nod to how he should have made copies of his notebook). It's just one of those accidents that happen in life. Again we the audience wait for the hammer to drop. Will this be a strain on the marriage? Paterson had been promising to make copies but never actually does it. Laura brought the dog into their lives, will it be something Paterson holds against her?
He is shocked, as much as calm and collected Paterson can be. There's a quiet humor in it too as he and this dog have had a strange bond, forced to be in each other's lives, both putting up with each other. Ultimately, he reflects on his favorite poet, William Carlos Williams, and keeps writing new poems in a new journal.
“They were just a few words, written on water.”
A wholesome honesty. Time will forever flow, and our words will eventually be lost. Our personal work will ultimately wash away. To become bitter over the loss of simple things, even important simple things, means we miss out on the little beauties that are still all around us.
This story can't be told with superheroes flying all over the place, legendary swords needing to be found, and epic sieges against the dead to be dreadful of. There is real art in the ordinary. We live that life ourselves and to forget it's remarkable simplicity would be a true loss. We ourselves aren't some legendary heroes, as much fun as it is to have those stories in our lives. We are just people, working everyday lives, living in simple homes, with common issues, and we can't forget there is art in it.
Only honest characterization can reveal something so nuanced.
I think I'll focus on characterization in the next few posts. We may look at a character in a big epic, sprawling story next to see just how you can have conflict in small ways, even in the big stories.
So stick around, we are going to get real geeky soon.