How ‘Paterson’ Does Money

Don’t quit your day job.

Paterson is a film about a man named Paterson (played by Adam Driver) who lives in Paterson, N.J., drives a bus for New Jersey Transit, and writes poetry in his spare time. He shares a house with his partner, Laura, who spends most of her time painting things black and white and concocting questionable desserts (cheddar-brussels sprout pie, anyone?), and an English bulldog, Marvin, who spends most of his time plotting ways to make Paterson’s life unpleasant. Not much happens in Paterson, because the director is Jim Jarmusch, who’s famous for making movies where nothing happens, but the nonevents transpire in a quirky and meditative way.

Paterson also raises some interesting questions about what it means to create art in a world driven by money. I recommend it as companion viewing for Scratch, which Megan and Nicole rightly raved about earlier this year.

This movie lands far over on the “don’t quit your day job, kid” end of the spectrum of approaches to art and commerce. Not only does Driver’s character not expect to make a living from his poetry, he doesn’t want it to be available for other people’s consumption, period. Laura begs him repeatedly to submit his poems to a publisher, or at least make some copies of his notebook at Kinko’s, which he promises to do but then never gets around to. When he meets strangers, he wavers between introducing himself as a poet and introducing himself as a bus driver.

Paterson the human also carries around the collected works of a real-life poet from Paterson the city, William Carlos Williams, who’s probably best known for penning the world’s least convincing apology, but who also had a long career as a doctor. Williams sometimes wrote about things he saw in the hospital, and while it’s not clear from the handful of poems we see Paterson working on whether his job seeps into his writing to the same extent, at the very least he has a lot of time to mentally tinker with his verses while he’s sitting behind the wheel.

This is a more realistic depiction of how an author pays the bills than, say, Sex and the City. (I am not the first person to point out that writing a single newspaper column a week would not pay for even one pair of Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes.) But after looking at the details of Paterson’s financial existence, I’m not convinced his approach to money would work IRL.

This recent listing for a job driving NJ Transit buses advertises a salary of $16.90 an hour. The average monthly rent in Paterson is $1,121 for a one-bedroom home. And Laura — her dreams of learning guitar from YouTube and becoming a famous country singer notwithstanding — doesn’t appear to have a regular stream of income. At one point she earns about $200 selling cupcakes at a farmers market, which she uses to take Paterson out to dinner, but that isn’t a steady gig. That means the couple is spending about 40 percent of their income on rent. Most financial planners would recommend keeping that number around 30 percent.

In fact, one of the most complicated questions about this movie is whether Laura and Paterson have a healthy relationship. They’re unconditionally supportive of each other’s creative endeavors. Laura constantly tells Paterson how great his poems are, and Paterson allows Laura to spend hundreds of dollars that the couple doesn’t really have on a black-and-white guitar, which she says is a good investment because it comes with instructional videos. I think this is where “unconditionally supportive” blurs into “conflict-averse in a way that is extremely stressful to watch.” Does it matter that Laura’s dicey decisions about money are dragging Paterson down if she’s also the inspiration for his poetry? (It’s also frustrating to me that it’s the woman in this relationship who gets cast as the financially irresponsible muse to her male partner’s creative genius, but that’s a separate issue.)

I see parallels between Paterson and the crop of artists who’ve uprooted from New York to Detroit. Some of them have found that even though they might be able to buy a house there for $100, it’s not the cheap creative mecca they envisioned once they factor in expenses like property taxes and transportation costs. This movie reinforces the idea that it’s possible to live on the wages from a single blue-collar job and make your art as long as you do it in a postindustrial town, a notion that just seems a little too rosy for today’s economy.

It’s worth noting that the career of Ron Padgett, the man who actually wrote the poems we see Paterson drafting, doesn’t look anything like the career of this movie’s main character. He went to Columbia, did a Fulbright in Paris, and seems to make his living teaching and writing books. One suspects the script might have turned out very differently if Jarmusch had hired Padgett as a consultant on poetic finances.

Still, I give Paterson credit for portraying a world in which writers have budgets and day jobs. That makes it a cinematic rarity.

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