Punch the keys now! Why cinema keeps churning out films about writers

Jim Jarmusch’s new film may have benefited from a little less contentment. But portraying writers in film presents a unique set of challenges

In 1831, staring down the barrel of a publisher’s deadline, Victor Hugo did what any sane and responsible writer would do. He stripped off all his clothes and ordered his valet to lock them away in a trunk. If the clothes were unreachable, he could not go outside. If he could not go outside, then he would just have to work. So Hugo sat at his desk, nude but for a shawl; at once a pitiful joke and an inspiration to us all. He wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in a naked, humiliated, self-loathing funk.

It should be stressed, of course, that what worked for Hugo might not work for everyone. Specifically, I suspect it would not work for Paterson, the serene, bus-driving hero of Jim Jarmusch’s new film. This is because Paterson does not agonise or procrastinate. He merely looks at the world with a contemplative half-smile and then writes perfectly clean copy inside his secret notebook; a few simple strokes and then the job is complete. I’m guessing most authors would regard Paterson with envy. More than a few will wind up actively hating his guts.

Before setting out as a film-maker, Jarmusch dreamed of becoming a poet. Paterson, then, is his romantic portrait of the road not travelled, in that it adopts a loving, almost holistic approach to the artist and his environment. Paterson the man (ably played by Adam Driver) conveniently lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey, a drowsy post-industrial town, best known in literary circles as the home of William Carlos Williams. He rises each morning at 6am, drinks in the same bar every evening and appears to pluck his poems, fully formed, from his daily rounds.