Friday Editor’s Pick: Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

by on January 21, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Jan 27 at 7:00 at Museum of Arts and Design [Program & Tix]

No Wave Cinema” continues Thursday and Friday nights at MAD thru Feb 10. Jarmusch’s watershed low-budget indie was once praised by Andrew Sarris as “one of the best film debuts ever.”

Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Stranger Than Paradise is a treasure from one end to the other. I saw it for the first time at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, where it was having its first public showing. Half the people in the theater probably didn’t speak English, but that didn’t stop them from giving the movie a standing ovation, and it eventually won the Camera d’Or prize for the best first film. It is like no other film you’ve seen, and yet you feel right at home in it. It seems to be going nowhere, and knows every step it wants to make. It is a constant, almost kaleidoscopic experience of discovery, and we try to figure out what the film is up to and it just keeps moving steadfastly ahead, fade in, fade out, fade in, fade out, making a mountain out of a molehill.



Geoff Andrew for The Criterion Collection:

Very few movies count as truly significant milestones in the development of American “indie” cinema during the last quarter of the twentieth century. And among these landmark independent films, Stranger Than Paradise unquestionably looms large. Not only did Jim Jarmusch’s second feature as writer-director introduce him as a genuinely idiosyncratic talent and, for many, mark the start of an artistically distinguished and rewarding career, it also exerted, in its own quiet way, an enormous influence over what was to follow.
At the time of its release, in 1984, what seemed remarkable about the film was that it managed to do so many new and unusual things yet still seem utterly coher-ent and accessible. For starters, there was its eccentric approach to narrative structure: the sixty-seven single-shot “scenes” separated by black film, and the explicit division of the story into three clear, ironically titled chapters. But there were other formal qualities of note: Tom DiCillo’s black-and-white camera work, which serves Jarmusch’s sensitive feel for the American landscape so well that one recalls Antonioni’s work in Italy or Angelopoulos’s in Greece; and the striking use of music, which successfully juxtaposes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” with the Bartók-like strains of John Lurie’s score for string quartet. This was a road movie for sure, but one with a difference: unlike most examples of that then still extremely popular genre, Stranger Than Paradise seemed at once wholly American and oddly European.


Tony Pellum for Culture Cartel:

But what makes Stranger Than Paradise so funny? So much of what we laugh at on screen has to do with a blurring, or complete destruction of commonly understood social boundaries. From early Chaplin physical comedy in which a tramp finds himself in luxurious places, to the now popular gross-out comedies in which private and public space are confused, to the ever popular cinematic gesture of cross-dressing from Some Like It Hot to Tootsie to Juwanna Mann’s blurring of the sexes, what we laugh at is very closely tied to how we understand our physical space, and some catalyst disrupting these boundaries.
Stranger Than Paradise is self-reflexive in the sense that the blurred boundaries that make the film funny are due to our expectations in cinema. The closest resemblance to a conventional “joke” we get is when Willie tries to trick Eva into believing that “choking the alligator” is slang for “vacuuming the floor.” It works because of the delivery, but it also comes across as the most forced moment in the film. The rest of the film is non-joke jokes that are hilarious in the way they present commonplace life in a way cinema hasn’t set us up to accept. The plot is remarkably bare, instead being a much more character study, but even then it turns conventional narrative on its ear. There are no flashbacks, no strained monologues that attempt to speak to the audience on a higher level, no character development that is any deeper than the insights from observing a stranger.



Billy Stevenson for A Film Canon:

With his first major film, Jim Jarmusch offers a striking answer to the perennial question of how to translate a chamber drama from theatrical to cinematic language. In an innovative approach, Jarmusch presents his film as a series of single shots, each separated by several seconds of blackness, thereby transforming the shot itself into a kind of chamber, and imbuing his characters – hipster Willie (John Lurie), his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) and Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) – with the anomie that comes from being trapped in a world of cinematic cliche and convention; or, alternatively, from realizing how much you need to denude the world to rid it of cinematic cliche and convention, as evinced in a series of sublime moments in which the leached, black-and-white cinematography coalesces into confrontations with pure, uncomprehending whiteness, so many continuations of the blank screen that concludes The 400 Blows. For the most part, these shots last between one and three minutes – and, while Jarmusch makes sufficient use of mirrors, windows and doors to prevent them ever feeling too static or photographic, there’s nothing like the mobile, exploratory, choreographed camera that might be expected, nor any tendency to linger before or after characters have left the scene. It’s this absence of spatial or temporal depth that gives the film its loose, circular quality – a kind of slowed-down version of the horse and dog races that generate the most tangible moment of dramatic conflict – and breaks down the distinction between indoors and outdoors enough to ensure that the road trip that structures the three acts takes place in celluloid rather than physical space, as the characters continually and unsuccessfully grope their way towards the next frame: “You come to someplace new, and everything looks the same.” It’s a testament to his direction, then, that Jarmusch never lets the momentum of the road further mobilize his recurrent, rudimentary pan back and forth, as laconic and limited as if the camera were tied to a post, nor lets its romance play up the immigrant narrative too much, his elliptical conclusion converging circularity and immigration into permanent vacation, the key characteristic of the American wanderer: “I had to buy a ticket to get on the plane to get her off the plane.”



Michael Joshua Rowin for Reverse Shot:

Stranger than Paradise, Jarmusch’s first feature film, still remains his best not because the man behind it was still, at the time of the film’s production, untainted and wide-eyed, but because the times themselves called for an American filmmaker like Jarmusch. It’s hard to say whether Jarmusch outgrew this era or the era outgrew him. When Stranger opens in pre-Bloomberg, pre-Guiliani, heck, pre-Dinkins New York that had yet to experience the economic resurgence-via-gentrification inhabitants have since grown to bemoan and celebrate, you know Jarmusch is at home. Just as Jarmusch’s next film, Down by Law, opens with traveling shots taking in a dilapidated New Orleans, it is clear that the young director of Stranger than Paradise loves the empire and ruin of this private, insider’s New York. There’s something mysterious, worn-in, and sad about this place, something that corresponds to Jarmusch’s saturnine, knowing outlook.
The long take is an essential tool for Jarmusch’s offhand, langorous cinema. The long take’s appeal to such American directors as Jarmusch, Linklater, and, of late, Gus van Sant (recovering from his Hollywood stint) is its ability to place an audience in the same wry, detached mood as the film’s characters, and possibly the director himself. Writing on Ozu for Artforum, Jarmusch illuminates the modus operandi of his own early films: “All that is left on screen are the smallest details of human nature and interaction, delivered through a lens that is delicate, observational, reductive, and pure.” One can see this same lens (flourished with the slightest of camera movements that Ozu would have most likely have thought excessive) construct a space for contemplative rapture. When Eva, along with Willie and Eddie (who’ve taken the journey all the way out to Cleveland just to see her) need something, anything to alleviate their boredom, they go to Lake Erie. Looking out at the Lake’s fathomless depths of nothing, their stares are of acceptance, not resignation, and Jarmusch invites us to share the same view. It’s the quintessential moment of Jarmusch’s work, and it says a lot that he hasn’t, in the past two decades, found anything else equivalent to its simple embrace of the imposing forces of nature and circumstance. With each subsequent film Jarmusch had to find metaphors more forced and less immediate, and what was once an effortless stance toward the vagaries of life became an image to uphold



Vincent Canby for the New York Times:

Jim Jarmusch’s ”Stranger Than Paradise” looks as if it had been left on the windowsill too long. Shot in 16- millimeter black-and-white, and now blown up to 35 millimeter, its images appear to have been aged by the sun and by general neglect until they’ve faded into a uniform shade of gray. When, occasionally, there’s a splotch of comparatively pure black or white, the effect is disorienting until you recognize what Mr. Jarmusch is up to – that is, discovering the ludicrously sublime in the supremely tacky. The film is something quite special.

”Stranger Than Paradise” is about the curious, unspoken alliance of Willie, Eva and Eddie and their adventures in New York, Cleveland and, finally, Florida. They are as lost but also as quietly gallant in the American paradise as the three German misfits who seek their fortunes in Wisconsin in Werner Herzog’s ”Stroszek.” The film has no big scenes, and it takes a while to get the hang of it, but once you do, it’s as funny as it is wise. Mr. Jarmusch isolates the film’s series of tiny vignettes by extended blackouts that, at the beginning, seem to be an affectation, but then come to be the visual equivalent of the dead space that surrounds each character.

Wherever they go, the world of Willie, Eva and Eddie does look just the same. The Florida they find is not unlike a large vacant lot in Cleveland, though without the snow. Their adventures, however, are very particular, and the film ends on a note that slides without effort, like a piece of music, from the hilarious to the funny to the haunting.



J. Hoberman, also for the Criterion Collection:

Stranger Than Paradise is resplendent with the love of industrial ugliness. Our introduction to Cleveland is a rundown Greyhound terminal by a whitewashed box optimistically called the Nite Life Café; Eva works at a hot dog–selling eyesore that looks like a miniature airplane hangar half-limned in neon. Even in “paradise,” the film’s unlikely deus ex machina is purchased in the most desolate gift shop imaginable. Lurie’s spare score—a slow, waltzing Bartók pastiche—adds a pinch of sweetness to this rummage-sale wasteland. The first time I saw the film, I wondered whether its sensibility might not wear thin; on the contrary, it takes a second viewing to fully savor Jarmusch’s visual humor, internal rhymes, and masterful use of cliché (“You can’t win ’em all, it’s the name of the game,” the ever conciliatory Eddie tells a raging Willie after they’ve stupidly blown their bankroll at the dog races).
Structurally, the movie is a tour de force—a succession of brief vignettes punctuated by opaque film stock. There are no reverse angles, no point-of-view shots; each scene is a single take. Characters enter the frame as though it were a stage, and the effect is Kabuki sitcom, yet powerfully naturalistic—an amalgam of Damon Runyan and Piet Mondrian that’s a triumph of low-budget stylization. Jarmusch himself has come up with the film’s best description, gleefully calling it “a neorealistic black comedy in the style of an imaginary East European director obsessed with Ozu and The Honeymooners.”
Jarmusch’s movie has the timeless quality of a long-running comic strip: It’s as instantly familiar and ineffably weird as Gasoline Alley or Moon Mullins. Eva, Willie, and Eddie may be cartoon characters with unintelligible inner lives, but it’s just that enigmatic two-dimensionality that makes Stranger Than Paradise so funny and gives the film, at once ethereal and hard-boiled, the look and feel of a classic. Tom Dicillo’s august black-and-white cinematography compares with that of the most angst-ridden Bergman, but the world he depicts is as deliberately, comically, richly emptied out as the most threadbare B movie or cruddy TV drama. (The whole affair—props, sets, and costumes—could have been catered by the Salvation Army.) This is a film that goes beyond nostalgia toward some Platonic sense of Americanness.



Nathaniel Rich for Slate:

In a taped interview included on Criterion’s supplementary disc, Jarmusch quotes a line from his mentor at NYU film school, director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, In A Lonely Place): “Acting is like piano playing. The dialogue is just the left hand; the melody is in the eyes.” There’s an even more arresting example of Jarmusch’s attention to the melody of the eyes in the Cleveland section of the film, when Willie and Eddie tag along on a date Eva has planned with a local teenager. Nothing happens in this scene, either—we simply see the four characters sitting in a movie theater, watching a kung fu movie. The scene is shot from the perspective of the movie screen, so we just hear the sounds of punching and kicking. But as Jarmusch’s camera lingers—again, for nearly two minutes—we learn everything we need to know about the characters: the teenager’s frustration at not being alone with his date; Eva’s boredom; Eddie’s childlike wonder at the movie; and most of all, Willie’s mounting disgust—at the teenager, and at Eva’s indifference to him.
Numerous European directors proudly claim Jarmusch as a major influence—among them Aki Kaurismaki, Michael Haneke, and Claire Denis—but there are few American directors willing to risk the ponderous silences and extended still images that mark Jarmusch’s best work.



Harlan Jacobson interviews Jarmusch for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 1985):

Can you identify what influenced the making of Stranger Than Paradise?

I have a lot of influences. Anything that moves me influences me somehow. I take from European and Japanese films and also from America: The characters are really American. There’s something very American about the film and yet formally, it’s not traditional at all, it’s very untraditional. That comes from the way I write, which is backwards: Rather than finding a story that I want to tell and then adding the details, I collect the details and then try to construct a puzzle or story. I have a theme and a kind of mood and the characters but not a plotline that runs straight through. I think that’s partly why the narrative takes the form that it does. My first film was similar – and the two things that I am writing now I’m writing in the same way.

The idea of first having the plot scares me. This is more exciting for me, there’s something in the process. The story starts to tell itself to me, rather than me formulating it.

When I looked at the film, 1 thought, That’s what this country really looks like – not like Bucks County, Pennsylvania but like Akron (where Jarmusch grew up).

Yeah, I have a real fondness for those post-industrial landscapes. There’s something really sad but really beautiful about them. I don’t know if it’s just nostalgia for growing up in Akron, but it is America to me much more than big cities, or clean forests, or anything like that. It’s extremely ugly, but I also find it very beautiful somehow.

The joke in the film is that in coming here, Eva (Eszter Balint) experienced this incredible decline in standards and values; life in Budapest was a lot nicer.

You used Eva, as an alien, to parade your vision of this country. Did either your leaving Akron or returning to it find its way into this picture?

Yeah, but the film is about all of the characters, not just her. All three of them are really outsiders. The view we get of America from all of them is very much outside of the expected one. It’s about people who are outside. And I guess that concern must come from my own experiences of feeling that way. But it’s also an approach to doing stories that are not about ambition.


There is no paradise, is there?

No. Not really. I don’t believe in putting a carrot in front of a mule. I think you have to face what is around you.
Florida, which is supposed to be this retirement paradise, is just a different vegetation and a slightly different landscape from Cleveland. That’s something that I feel when I travel around, there’s a certain continuous tone in America, especially if you don’t have a lot of money. All the motels look alike within a certain price range. Although landscapes change, you’re still going to the same 7-11 store. It’s really that idea of the American dream that I’m not really interested in. And for that reason and for these characters, there is no paradise. It’s just something that you imagine or that you construct around yourself to feel more comfortable or secure. But it’s just not the reality of things.
I like these characters; their acceptance of things the way they are is important to me. They’re not-they are alienated but they’re not itching to improve their living conditions. They’re just looking for a change, a different card game or something.



Geoff Andrew again:

It’s for his rare but entirely rational attitude that Jarmusch is to be especially treasured. It’s possible to discern his influence on a range of later American indie directors, in terms of his bone-dry humor, his warmly amused fascination with slackers of various sorts, his interest in narrative structure, his fondness for dramatically low-key stories, and his witty, memory-jogging allusions to popular culture. All these, once rare in American cinema, are now comparatively commonplace; but the poetry, the unashamed concern with cinema as an art that can deal with serious, substantial subjects—albeit, in Jarmusch’s case, with the lightest of touches—is far harder to find.
So it’s nigh on impossible to imagine another American indie director having made a film like the lyrical, hallucinatory, irreverently epic postwestern Dead Man (1995). Even the relatively mainstream Broken Flowers (2005), with its supremely subtle use of Hollywood stars, includes a great many scenes only Jarmusch could have come up with; one thinks especially of the protagonist visiting the grave of a dead girlfriend, which features a depiction of grief so delicate, even Fordian, that it takes one by surprise in a film so rich in comedy. Because, in the end, however funny, cool, small, or inconsequential his films may initially seem, they are always about something. For all his cinephilia, they’re inspired not—like so much recent American cinema—by other movies, but by life: by real people, experiencing real emotions. And while Stranger Than Paradise may be a comedy, an experiment in cinematic storytelling, and a deeply ironic fable, it’s also a film about America and the people who live there. It’s about those people’s relationships to one another, and their relationships to the rooms they inhabit, the city streets, the suburbs, diners and highways. And it’s made by someone who knows there may be truth in poetry, who finds a visual rhyme between a snow-covered Lake Erie and a windswept Florida beach, and who creates an improbably real character like Aunt Lotte, for-ever babbling to her young guests in Hungarian, whether they’re listening or not.


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