Paterson, Adam DriverOppressed (or freaked out) by the news? Here’s a calming and rewarding way to spend two hours in a movie theater cocoon. Writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s movie Paterson (trailer) doesn’t travel far, but it’s a pleasant journey. Adam Driver plays a New Jersey Transit bus driver (possibly he was cast based on his name alone) named Paterson, who drives a bus in—you knew it!—Paterson, New Jersey.

He lives there with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their English bulldog, Marvin (Nellie). Though he follows the same routine and drives the same bus route every day, Paterson is not bored, because his creative imagination is fully engaged. A basement poet, he polishes his creations on the job, and they scroll gently across the screen as he makes his rounds or studies the Passaic River’s Great Falls.

He carries his books of poetry—especially that of William Carlos Williams—and listens to the small talk of his passengers, the rhythm of their language as much as the words. It’s “a movie that’s filled with poetry and that is a poem in itself. The movie’s very being is based in echoes and patterns,” said Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

Laura bursts forth with her own creative endeavors, the only common thread of which is their black-and-white color scheme. Black-and-white frosted cupcakes—a big hit at the farmer’s market—which she hopes will make them rich; a black and white harlequin guitar, which she hopes will launch her career as a country singer. She’s a charming dabbler and Paterson’s muse.

Every night when he returns home, it seems some other part of their house or Laura’s wardrobe has been reconceived in her favorite non-color combination. I couldn’t help believing that at some point she’ll recognize that her immense talent with fabric would be an awesome career direction. Meanwhile, her patterns fill Paterson with visual interest, “creating a vibrant visual punctuation to the otherwise relaxed storytelling,” said Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Paterson the driver, or perhaps I should say, Driver as Paterson, has one extracurricular activity, a visit to a neighborhood tavern every evening. Lots happens during that one nightly beer. Most of it hilarious. The décor of the tavern, replete with articles about Paterson greats—especially Lou Costello—further ties the man and the story to a circumscribed geography, the launchpad for his words.

Driver, Farahani, and Nellie play their roles winningly, with a memorable, if small, supporting cast.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 95%; audiences, 73%. (Not enough happens for some audience members would be my guess.)

*** New Jersey Noir

New Jersey NoirEdited by Joyce Carol Oates. It isn’t a coincidence that I’m reviewing this 2011 book of noir short stories in the middle of two weeks of Sunday blog posts about a celebration of JCO’s teaching. When I knew I was going to the event, I grabbed this book from the “to read” pile.

Noir is distinguished from other types of mystery and suspense fiction by having a protagonist who’s a suspect, a perpetrator, or even a victim—an insider to the situation. Pretty much anyone but a detective/investigator. Often the main characters have a boatload of problems, usually of their own making. My favorite definition of these protagonists is crime writer Dennis Lehane’s: “In Greek tragedy, they fall from great heights. In noir, they fall from the curb.”

I’ve been an “in principle” admirer of Akashic Books’ now lengthy series of place-based noir anthologies, and picked up New Jersey Noir at a local bookstore event, where Oates spoke about it and introduced (I think) one or two of the contributors. Now I’ve finally read it and am disappointed to say many of the 19 stories and poems felt as if they could have happened anywhere.

Sheila Kohler’s creepy “Wunderlich,” for example, is about the bleak territory of aging, not the peculiar dynamic of New Jersey. Various other tales have no more than a whiff of Garden State verisimilitude, which violates the underlying rationale of the series, I’d think. Collectively, these stories hardly scratch the surface of the state’s noir potential, as a glance at any of our daily newspapers would reveal. People in New Jersey fall from curbs like lemmings.

Too many of the stories (for my taste) lean heavily on substance abuse problems, which it won’t surprise the reader to learn cause all kinds of heartache. I rather liked the Bradford Morrow story set in Grover’s Mill, perhaps because I’d just spent considerable creative time there, myself. “Glass Eels” by Jeffrey Ford captures the loneliness of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, but is too similar in action to Robert Arellano’s “Kettle Run.” A story by Oates, “Run Kiss Daddy,” delivers a sufficiently oppressive atmosphere and dark underbelly to be the setup for a longer piece of writing. To me, the most interesting story is Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Too Near Real,” in which the protagonist follows the Google street view vehicle around Princeton, then watches himself “on the map.” Fresh and entertaining.