jim jarmusch on making collage phone cases and the real-life poetry of 'paterson'

Jarmusch's new masterpiece 'Paterson' is an exploration of everyday life that endures long after you've left the cinema. Here the stalwart of independent cinema discusses cell phone zombies, his favorite poems, and why he can't stop making art.

by Joseph Walsh
24 November 2016, 3:23pm

Jim Jarmusch is sitting in a boutique hotel in Paris explaining the meaning of the universe. "I think the secret is going with the grain of things. I am a worrier, so I am always trying to be present and not worry about things in the future because it is a waste of my energy." He looks as you would expect, his trademark shock of white hair, dark suit, chunky silver rings, and sunglasses, with the only sign of his sixty years being small half-moons on the bottom half of his tinted specs for reading. Otherwise he looks little different from when he made Permanent Vacation 36 years ago.

In his latest film, Adam Driver plays a bus driver who writes poetry during his breaks living in Paterson, New Jersey. He reflects on a packet of Blue Tip Matches to write a love poem to his wife (Golshifteh Farahani), and sits quietly at the town's waterfall musing on what to write about next. He ekes out his days with his strict routine: wake up, put on his uniform, eat a bowl of cereal, drive his route, come home, see his wife, walk the dog, go to the bar, sleep, repeat. He doesn't use a cell phone, and he writes his poems by hand in a much-guarded notebook.

Driver's Paterson is a meditative character who can in part be viewed as a cipher for Jarmsuch's zen-like approach to life and creativity. It has been dubbed his most personal, even autobiographical, work to date, words that have been used for nearly every one of his films in the past few years. It is perhaps the clearest example of his love of the beauty in the small moments of life, absent of big dramatic moments.

Jarmusch wants to be clear on two things; this is not a self-portrait, even if the character bears some striking similarities to the director, and this is not a nostalgic film longing for a bygone, pre-digital, age. "I am not nostalgic for an age before cell phones, although I am fucking sick of these phone zombies who aren't even in this world, in New York I just want to start shoving them out the way".

The fact that the film concerns a poet shouldn't come as a surprise. When he was in college, Jarmusch was taught by members of the New York School, and their aesthetic approach to art has been a long running theme of his work. "The New York School are my godfathers in a way, I studied with Kenneth Koch, and the great masterminds of the New York School." He continues, "I love these poets because they don't take themselves too seriously, the poems can be funny and exuberant, and they don't proclaim something to the world, they are just speaking to one other person." This idea of not writing to the world but one person or friend is at the heart of Jarmusch's work. Frank O'Hara, who was both a poet and curator at MOMA, wrote a brief manifesto that said you should never write to an audience, but instead write as if you are writing a note or a letter to a friend. Does he make his films in the same way? "We make these films for ourselves," he explains. "Us as collaborators aren't thinking of a demographic, and are not trying to reach any particular group of people in the world, or looking for as wide acceptance as possible, or conversely narrow. We just want to make films that we want to see."

Even within the American independent film scene, Jarmusch remains apparently unaffected by cinematic trends, with his films always possessing his signature laidback, contemplative style. He might say he believes in not going against the grain, but each of his films are quiet acts of rebellion, and he doesn't compromise on his art. "We don't ever think where will these films go, or what will they do in the world. When we made Stranger Than Paradise, we made it for ourselves. We thought that it was fun, that no one would see it and that we would never get a chance to make another film, but we did get to make it, and that was our point. By some mysterious magic, people did see it, and I am still making films."

The mysterious magic he talks about has resulted in twelve feature films, a handful of documentaries, and numerous shorts. His approach hasn't become easier or harder with the years, and so far, he has resisted the lure of companies like Netflix or Amazon. "In the old days when I started out the deal was, you put up the money, I make the film, and we split it fifty-fifty. That is now a dream, and people would laugh you out the room. I work hard to protect my work. If I had never made a film before, and my name was Buddy Bullinski, and I went to Amazon with the script of Paterson, they would probably laugh me out the room, saying, 'A film about a bus driver that writes poetry in New Jersey, come on, you must be kidding me, get out of here!'".

Perhaps part of the secret is that while he is best known as a director, he is also a musician, poet, and artist. Born out of the fallout of 60s and 70s New York art scenes, and part of the underground punk movement in the 80s, his little black book of friends would make for interesting reading, being close to the likes of Iggy Pop (who is the subject of his new documentary, Gimme Danger), and Ron Padgett, who provided the majority of the poems for Paterson. "I have different interests of expression, not just film. Film takes most of my time, but I love making music, I like writing, I make small stupid collages too. I can show you one I made as a phone cover." He shows me a tobacco-yellow case featuring a figure with a Pierrot clown-head and long feminine legs. "I take stuff from newsprint like I take a head from somewhere. They are ridiculous, and I have several hundred of them that I have made." He is as much an artist as a director, someone who can't seem to stop creating. A small notebook is in front of him throughout the interview with illegible pencil mark scribbles. "I do like to use more than one form. I love making music, it is more immediate, and I am not as much of a control freak with music as I am with filmmaking. Music is more of an immediate dialogue, it goes off into the air, it is a different thing."

The most refreshing thing about Jarmusch is how natural he is, there is no pretension, just a honest belief in what he does. With his own work, he doesn't want to get put on the psychiatrist's couch. "I don't know what this film means, I don't analyze these things. I am into the anti-significance significance." While he doesn't like to over-explain his work and wants people to bring their own ideas to the table, he does say this: "I think that beauty is found in small details, and everything in life is not dramatic, so why in a film must everything be dramatic. I guess this film just celebrates details." And it does, Paterson seems his most complete work to date, expressing Jarmusch's philosophy that drama doesn't have to be dramatic, more it is about appreciating the beauty, absurdity, and poetry of life.


Text Joseph Walsh

Adam Driver
jim jarmusch