First published by EyeforFilm
Although Jim Jarmusch already had his barely seen student thesis film Permanent Vacation (1980) to his name, it was his next feature, Stranger Than Paradise, that would launch him into the rarefied pantheon of great independent directors. It would garner, among other plaudits, the Camera d’Or at Cannes, the Golden Leopard at Locarno, the Best Foreign Language Film Award at Kinema Junpo, and a Special Jury Prize at 1985’s inaugural Sundance Film Festival – and in 2002 it was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry by National Film Preservation Board. Not bad for a modest, monochrome and monophonic low-budgeter whose characters are few in number, do and say very little – and are filmed in long immobile sequence shots with live sound.
Such minimalism is, of course, Jarmusch’s stock in trade, and he understands better than most the principle that less can be more. For while Stranger Than Paradise may be almost aggressively low-key, with its trio of protagonists (and the odd relative or boyfriend) deadpanning their way through one non-event after another, Jarmusch constructs from such basic ingredients a complex of narrative symmetry and existential ennui pointing to something far more resonant than the sum of its parts.
Here, characters not talking reflect a broader failure of communication, characters sitting around doing nothing reflect a more general lack of direction, and characters replaying the same scenes in different milieux reflect an inability to escape the rigidity of their own personalities. This is a film about narrow-mindedness, folly and a lack of initiative (in the Land of Opportunity) – as well as the impossibility of ever entirely leaving one’s roots behind. It is also, after its own bone-dry fashion, devilishly funny.
Eva (Eszter Balint) arrives fresh off a plane from Hungary, playing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put A Spell On You on her portable cassette player. Cousin Willie (John Lurie) is none too pleased to have to babysit her for 10 days while his Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), in Cleveland, is recovering from illness in hospital. “It’s disrupting my whole life,” Willie protests – a life which, apart from the occasional trip to the races or a poker game with his friend Eddie (Richard Edson), seems to consist entirely in sitting around in his small, dingy New York apartment. Straight-talking Eva is quick to settle into her reluctant host’s routine of tedium, and even to pick up some of his linguistic mannerisms, but by the time she has put a spell on Willie and won his awkward affection, it is already time for her to leave.
A year later, flush with petty cash from a semi-successful grift, Willie and Eddie drive to a snow-bound Cleveland to pay Eva a surprise visit. There, whether she is holed up at home with stubborn Aunt Lotte or stuck at her drab job selling hotdogs, Eva longs for escape. So she leaps gratefully upon Willie’s suggestion that she join him and Eddie for a spontaneous trip to the sunny beaches of Florida – only to be trapped once again between four walls in the middle of nowhere as the boys leave her in their motel room while they go out gambling. Destiny, however, will find an unexpected way to reverse the roles of these rather different cousins.
“Looks familiar”, comments Eva when she first sees the low-rent motel room where Willie and Eddie have chosen to stay. Stranger Than Paradise may be a film in three distinct parts, with three contrasting settings, but Tom DiCillo’s crisply beautiful black-and-white cinematography reduces all these places to a claustrophobic sameness. Not that the film is in any way formless. Its beginning and end form a neat ring composition, while everything in between is charted not on the geographical points of a map, but in subtle contrasts of character.
Willie may lecture Eva on the ‘American’ way to eat, speak and behave, but while he is a single, work-shy loser with no ambition and few prospects, she is a resourceful, driven winner, quick to acquire a job and a boyfriend (Danny Rosen). In other words, she embraces the American Dream far more than her cousin ever will, and while the film’s twist ending may at first seem merely an ironic gag that has come out of nowhere, in fact it crystallises the difference between this odd couple: Eva is open enough to seize the opportunities serendipity offers and to make a new life in the new world, while aimless Willie is in fact always going backwards. Paradise, it turns out, is not a real place to which you can travel, but more a state of mind which seems to be ever slipping away from the arrested Willie.
From the cast’s pitch-black comic timing to John Lurie’s melancholic score to Jarmusch’s cleverer-than-it-seems script (where even a list of racehorses’ names read out from a newspaper by Eddie conceals a whole programme of stylistic allegiances, thematic concerns and intertextual allegiances), Stranger Than Paradise is a gem of understated cinema.