Thursday, April 3, 2014

The FIlms of Jim Jarmusch: Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Directed by:  Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: John Lurie (Willie), Eszter Balint (Eva), Richard Edson (Eddie), Cecillia Stark (Aunt Lotte).

There are only 67 shots in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (supposedly – I didn’t actually count myself) – which at 89 minutes means that each shot lasts, on average, 80 seconds. Each shot is a scene in itself, and they are bracketed with a few seconds of black film. The camera moves, as far as I can tell, only once – and even then not really – it’s a shot from inside a moving car looking out. All the sound we hear in the movie was recorded live – meaning the entire post production process was splicing these 67 individual shots together to make a movie. Shot cheaply, on the short ends of film given to him that Wim Wenders had left over from shooting The State of Things, Stranger Than Paradise is undeniably one of the most important and influential American indie films in history. The film was seen as revolutionary back in 1984 – where it won the National Society of Film Critics prize for Best Film of the year. It won Jarmusch his first (but not last) prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It has been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Not bad for a cheaply made black and white film with no stars written and directed by a man no one had heard of at the time.

The film is centered on Willie (John Lurie) – a Hungarian immigrant living in his small New York City apartment. He moved to New York 10 years before, and sees himself as purely an American now – so much so that his best friend Eddie (Richard Edson) didn’t even know he was an immigrant (“I’m as American as you” he tells Eddie). He gets a phone call from his Aunt Lottie in Cleveland. His cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) will be arriving in New York from Hungary the next day – she was supposed to go straight to Cleveland, but Aunt Lottie has to go into the hospital for 10 days and cannot receive her until then – so Eva is stuck with Willie for a while. He doesn’t like the situation – and neither really does she. They inhabit the same space, but don’t much speak to each other. He makes TV dinners, watches sci-fi movies and cartoon on TV and smokes. She just smokes. This is her introduction to America and American culture.

The second part of the movie, taking place a year later, finds Willie and Eddie wanting to get out of town for a few days – so they head to Cleveland to visit Aunt Lottie and Eva. Eva has also become Americanized – at least somewhat. She works in a fast food restaurant, and has a boyfriend – or at least someone who likes her. The trio hang out, go to a kung fu movie and play cards with Aunt Lottie. In one scene they go see Lake Erie – which in the dead of winter is a cold, desolate wasteland – all whiteness.

The third part of the movie, ironically entitled Paradise, has the trio heading down to Florida. The plan is eventually to head to Miami, but they never get any further than a motel in the middle of nowhere. Willie and Eddie lose all their money at the dog track – infuriating Willie, because he wanted to bet on horses. They won’t take Eva with them, so she has to hang around in the rundown motel. Just when things look their bleakest with the trio out of money they get lucky not once but twice – and now have all the money they’ll need – but through a series of confusing events (for them, not the audience), the three become separated.

I may not have done the movie justice in describing its plot. This is actually an extremely funny movie, but the humor is more low-key – so much so that some may miss it altogether. I learn from J. Hoberman’s review that Jarmusch himself described the film as “a neorealistic black comedy in the style of an imaginary East European director obsessed with Ozu and The Honeymooners.” How the hell can I top that? Although Jarmusch is American, the film definitely has a European feel to it – I was reminded of another film from 1984 – Wim Wenders Paris, Texas in which Harry Dean Stanton wanders the country as a man seemingly with no name and no past – until we, eventually, find out what it is. Both films see America as almost an alien landscape. As Eddie points out at one point, “It’s funny how you go someplace different, and everything is the same”. That pretty much describes the film – whether they’re in New York, Cleveland or Florida, nothing really changes for these characters.

The film feels perfect and complete unto itself – there is not a shot out of place. The style of the film may sound simple – 67 stationary shots over 89 minutes – but the cinematography by Tom DiCillo is actually perfectly thought through. This is not a visually crude film – this isn’t like Kevin Smith’s Clerks to point to another cheaply made, black and white debut by an indie filmmaker. It’s actually remarkably structured. There is nothing haphazard about anything in Stranger Than Paradise.

I know the movie will probably not have the same impact on viewers today – 30 years after it debuted – as it had on viewers in 1984. It didn’t even have the same impact on me when I saw it 15 years ago for the first time as viewers had in 1984. Go back and read the reviews of the film written back then – and you’ll find more than one critic describe the film as like nothing they’ve ever seen before. The film actually has a wealth of cinematic influences – both high and low – but Jarmusch structures them in a wholly different way. His film was so influential that sadly, most viewers will never realize just how different this film was than anything else that was being made in 1984. The film stands alongside the most influential films ever made – and more than that, it’s still darkly humorous. Jarmusch has (perhaps) made better films since Stranger Than Paradise. He will never make a more important one.

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