I don’t know where you were when Donald Trump officially became America’s 45th commander-in-chief, but I was reading poetry and riding a bus with Adam Driver.
That is to say, I was in a movie theater in Cambridge, Mass., watching Jim Jarmusch’s sublime new film Paterson, about a poetry-writing bus driver played by Adam Driver.
I did this quite deliberately, thanks to two converging factors. First, Jarmusch’s movie had received sensational word-of-mouth for months on the film festival circuit, and Friday happened to be its grand opening in New England. Second, I had decided days earlier that I would not indulge President Narcissus’s obsession with ratings by tuning in to his inauguration in real time. All things considered, locking myself in a theater seemed the most surefire prophylactic against any last-minute change of heart, and I gotta say, it worked like a charm.
The movie began at 11 a.m. and ran for two hours. Of course, the presidential transfer of power occurred promptly at noon, which meant that, at a certain point, I wasn’t entirely sure who the president was. If you haven’t experienced that sensation at some point in your life—say, following a particularly nasty blow to the head—I would highly recommend it four years hence.
In this case, the knowing uncertainty of precisely when one administration wrapped up and the next one started was the very quintessence of bittersweet, which I suppose was kind of the point. When push came to shove, the crushing reality of this generation’s classiest president being succeeded by its most profane proved too depressing for me to face head-on, so instead I retreated into the realm of make-believe until after the deed was done. Isn’t that what movies are for?
In fact, Paterson provided an ideal escape from the dawn of Trumpism, as it embodies the antidote to all that makes our new national figurehead so repulsive. In brief: It tells the story of a modest, soft-spoken, big-hearted municipal worker from Paterson, N.J., who gets up every morning, does his job without complaint, returns home to his adoring wife (and his slightly less adoring English bulldog, Marvin), then wakes up the next morning and does the whole thing over again. On the side—in the space between all of the above—he opens his “secret notebook” and scribbles a few lines of verse inspired by the minutiae he encountered along the way.
(In case you missed it: Yes, he’s a bus driver played by a man named Driver. And yes, the character’s name is Paterson and he lives in the city of Paterson. Just roll with it, OK?)
What’s the movie about, you ask? You’re welcome to draw your own conclusions, but I think it’s about the profound, intrinsic beauty of not wanting to become a person like Donald Trump.
Just as Citizen Kane can be seen as a cautionary tale about how boundless greed will ultimately deprive a man of his friends, his livelihood and his soul (it is also, hilariously, Trump’s all-time favorite), a film like Paterson shows us—in a much subtler way—that personal happiness is never contingent on wealth, fame, a fancy job or a bustling social network. If you enjoy what you do and have at least one person nearby who cares about you unconditionally, you’re probably happier (and luckier) than 90 percent of humanity.
More to the point: If you derive satisfaction from snatches of other people’s conversations and from the way your wife welcomes you home after work, you are infinitely better off as a human being than a billionaire consumed with jealousy because only 160,000 people showed up to his big day.
To be clear, the two heroes of Jarmusch’s movie—Paterson and his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani)—do not spend their days grinning and whistling like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. In their early 30s and cash poor, they and their marriage seem to inhabit a temporal purgatory between youthful idealism and wised-up resignation. They haven’t yet unlocked the secret to long-term financial solidity—she is a freelance artist and designer, while his government salary is barely enough to keep the lights on—but then why should they? They’re too young to have figured everything out, and they know it.
Much more important is their determination to live each day with deliberation, dignity and purpose, wringing as much creativity and joy as they can from their present circumstances, while also quietly hoping—as we all do—that tomorrow will bring something just a little bit different and a little bit better.
In the meantime, they have each other as their greatest source of comfort and strength, and their mutual loyalty and affection is more than sufficient to carry them from one minor life setback to the next. As cinematic couples go, Paterson and Laura remind me a great deal of Marge and Norm Gunderson in Fargo: Quirky, unassuming, unostentatious, yet fundamentally happy. Confident in their pursuits—and deeply supportive of each other’s—they do not require the validation of others to give their lives meaning. Their routines—him driving a bus and philosophizing, her designing window shades and decorating cupcakes—provide all the motivation they need to make it from Monday to Friday and back again.
Watching their lives unfold, I was also put in mind of “For Now,” the closing song from Avenue Q, in which the entire cast pensively sings, “For now we’re healthy / for now we’re employed / for now we’re happy / if not overjoyed / and we’ll accept the things we cannot avoid / for now.”
The folks in Paterson seem to have internalized this same sensibility, and it has served them well so far. If the secret to happiness is lowered expectations and a greater appreciation for the little things all around you, Paterson and Laura qualify as the Platonic ideal of living contentedly within one’s means.
Just look, for instance, at the perfectly-executed scene at the dinner table where Laura presents a homemade Brussels sprouts and cheddar quiche, her face glowing with anticipation and pride. Paterson’s reaction as he takes his first bite—at once subtle and hilarious—is about as pure an expression of true love as you’re ever likely to see at the movies. It is in that moment that you realize what these two misfits saw in each other in the first place, and how so many unlikely unions manage to endure for decades on end. No gold toilets necessary.
I’ll mention, on my way out, that I still haven’t watched Trump’s inaugural address, apart from a few unavoidable sound bites here and there. It’s not that I’m in denial about what America did to itself last November 8th (although I often wonder whether total ignorance would, in fact, be preferable).
Rather, it’s that I simply do not enjoy watching a mentally unbalanced narcissist embarrass himself on national television. As far as I’m concerned, a Trump speech is no more intellectually edifying than your average reality show or NFL press conference, and I avoid those for roughly the same reason.
Hatred and paranoia do not impress me—particularly from the leader of the free world—and while I will of course maintain vigilance over this new administration’s actions on all the issues that I care about, I feel no compulsion whatsoever to drop everything and tune in whenever the man himself grabs a microphone (and hopefully nothing else) in a haphazard attempt to string a sentence together.
Life is precious. Time is of the essence. Love is the only subject that interests me. In a society where literally anyone can be elected president, it’ll take a lot more than “winning” to earn my attention and my respect.