Stranger Than Paradise

[10 October 2007]

By Emma Simmonds

We’re not doing anything
—Eddie (Richard Edson), Stranger Than Paradise

Stranger Than Paradise is a story about America, as seen through the eyes of “strangers.” It’s a story about exile (both from one’s country and oneself), and about connections that are just barely missed.”
—Jim Jarmusch, Some Notes on Stranger Than Paradise

Jim Jarmusch’s seminal Stranger Than Paradise is a film that derives simple pleasures from the minutiae of human interaction, from the boredom of those mired in the humdrum. It comprises of sixty-seven single-shot black and white vignettes held together by short interludes of black screen. These ‘fit’ like a series of conversational non-sequiturs, with action omitted and only casually alluded to.

It is divided into three segments, each opening with an amusingly inappropriate title. The first is loaded with the promise of a voyage of discovery thus Jarmusch presents to us “The New World”. Set in New York, with droll Hungarian émigré Eva (Eszter Balint) inadequately inducted into American society by her reluctant cousin Willie (John Lurie), she later finds a more effusive companion in his genial buddy Eddie (Richard Edson). The second, “One Year Later”, could have directly followed the first in that, for Willie and Eddie at least, so little of consequence appears to have taken place. It finds them deciding to rekindle their fleeting friendship with the intriguing Eva by traveling to wintry Cleveland where she resides. The third, titled “Paradise”, involves the triumvirate’s hapless vacation-of-sorts to a remote, wind-swept trailer park in a Florida suburb. Eva finds herself quickly left to her own devices and an almost surreal instance of mistaken identity leads to what, in this context, passes for high drama.

In Stranger Than Paradise narrative propulsion is achieved entirely by a subtle progression in relationships (growing affection is ever so slightly presented). Coherence is attained through a visual consistency that disregards the diversity of its locations and gives the film its idiosyncratic appeal. Each place is as drab as its predecessor; the characters appear perpetually trapped in the same ill-fitting, uninspiring environment, despite their travels. This gives the impression that, in the absence of environmental stimuli, mentally they are merely going through the motions. Exterior shots have the same binding sense of containment as interiors with the suggestion of true escape conspicuously absent.

For example, the dense snowstorm of Cleveland hems them in, creating a wall of nothingness. Eva’s introductory walk through New York (she is figuratively going nowhere) is offset by the cynical, macabre glee of “I Put A Spell On You” as sung by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (a “wild man”, as eccentrically described by Eva) but the monotony of her plod and, at best, mild curiosity relating to this alien landscape never suggest she is to be the seditious influence that transcends such prosaic surroundings. The recurring musical accompaniment serves merely as an ironic, heightened soundtrack; a counterpoint to the lackluster trio’s ‘antics’, and adds to the film’s “hipster” appeal.

Stranger Than Paradise is a sedate and captivating antidote to bombastic contemporary Hollywood cinema. Who knew the boredom of others could be so fascinating? It’s thoroughly recommended.

This excellent package comprises of, amongst other things: a restored high-definition digital transfer of the film; a bonus feature, in Jarmusch’s first full-length movie Permanent Vacation; a booklet of notes and articles relating to both films; and, two documentaries, one of which is shot by Jim’s brother Tom Jarmusch.

The earlier film Permanent Vacation lacks the charm and accessibility of Stranger Than Paradise yet clearly demonstrates an auteur developing his style. Appealing on the level of a curiosity, it depicts the bizarre encounters of a laconic yet physically restless drifter. Luc Sante in “Love Among The Ruins: Permanent Vacation and Jarmusch’s New York” comments:

“Today it forecasts a future great career, but then it looked like a quixotic gamble. It was an act of faith and courage, worn with the nonchalance of a cigarette tucked behind the ear.”

Also included is Martha Müller ‘s enjoyably bonkers documentary Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch, where members of the cast and crew perilously straddle the thin line between arrogant delusion and self-effacing parody. Jarmusch describes the differences between Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation when he describes how, in the former, characters are “resigned to that existence”; an “acceptance of their lot” whereas Permanent Vacation’s Allie is open to possibilities, with Chris Parker’s nervous energy of a man unable to stay still contributing to this impression.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/stranger-than-paradise/