Stranger Than Paradise

Stranger Than Paradise

Eszter Balint and John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise

I’ve been intrigued lately to discover early Jim Jarmusch movies, so last night I watched Stranger Than Paradise (1984, B&W).

To give you an idea what this movie is about, I’ll cite Pauline Kael (from the Wikipedia entry):

The first section is set in the bare Lower East Side apartment of Willie, who is forced to take in Eva, his 16-year-old cousin from Budapest, for ten days. The joke here is the basic joke of the whole movie. It’s in what Willie doesn’t do: he doesn’t offer her food or drink, or ask her any questions about life in Hungary or her trip; he doesn’t offer to show her the city, or even supply her with sheets for her bed. Then Eddie comes in, even further down on the lumpen scale. Willie bets on the horses; Eddie bets on dog races. Eva, who never gets to see more of New York than the drab, anonymous looking area where Willie lives, goes off to Cleveland to stay with Aunt Lotte and work at a hot-dog stand. And when Willie and Eddie go to see her, all they see is an icy wasteland – slums and desolation – and Eddie says ‘You know it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.’ The film has something of the same bombed-out listlessness as Paul Morrissey‘s 1970 Trash – it’s Trash without sex or transvestism. The images are so emptied out that Jarmusch makes you notice every tiny, grungy detail. And those black-outs have something of the effect ofSamuel Beckett‘s pauses: they make us look more intently, as Beckett makes us listen more intently.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything Kael is saying, and I haven’t seen this Trash movie.  For me, these three characters command an infectious charm which make them eminently watchable, and Jarmusch is content to let the camera linger on them.  The characters are the heart of the movie, not so much their settings.  You can’t help but to like these three.  One problem I had early on was that though Eva has supposedly stepped ‘right off the plane’ from Hungary, she has not a whiff of a European accent whatsoever, and speaks English too well.  Willie too has no accent.  But who knows, maybe Hungary had exceptional English programs in the 1980s that wiped away native accents.  I doubt it and see this as flaw in the movie.  But I was able to get over it quickly enough.

I am giving this a qualified recommendation.  IF you already have seen and loved each movie in the Jarmusch trifecta, Mystery Train, Dead Man, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, then check out Stranger Than Paradise. It has the same understated comic elements found in those movies, but even more understated.  Consider Stranger Than Paradise a deep cut in the Jarmusch oeuvre.  You might really hate this movie, or you might love it.  At the time of its release it received a lot of critical praise.  Other than the accent issue, I had a little problem with the lack of a momentous plot line.  You know how I’m big on plot.  Jarmusch’s stories in his later movies are potent while maintaining the charm and good will of their characters.  I’ll give this movie a 7/10, but again on the contingencies I’ve stated.

When I have time, I will write more in depth about Jim Jarmusch, a key figure in the burgeoning 80’s avant garde, new wave indie or whatever you want to call it movement, in which you could loosely group David Lynch and John Sayles.  From the very first frame of this movie, you recognize that this director has an idea.  He has a vision that’s all his, he knows what he is doing and he is going for it.  He is not content to be a cog in the wheel of big-money Hollywood machinery and he’s not going to spit out formulaic drivel.  It’s refreshing and at the core of what good movie-making is all about.


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