Stranger Than Paradise
September 7, 2007
Stranger Than Paradise (1984) not only announced the arrival of an original filmmaker with Jim Jarmusch, but also signaled the arrival of a new wave of American independent cinema along with the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Jarmusch’s film came as a response to the impersonal commercial filmmaking of the Hollywood studios. His film was originally nothing more than a 30-minute short film shot from 40 minutes of extraneous film stock donated by German filmmaker Wim Wenders. Eventually, Jarmusch came into a small sum of money — $120,000 worth — and was able to complete the film.
Stranger is a road film that features two down-on-their-luck losers living in New York City: Willie (Lurie) and Eddie (Edson). Their mundane, go-nowhere existence is disrupted by the arrival of Willie’s cousin, Eva (Balint) from Hungary who stays at his place for a few days. He’s a lousy host, refusing to show her around the city and leaving her alone while he and Eddie go to the track to bet on the races. When he is around they spend their time together watching lots of television or long stretches where she watches him sleep. She finally gets sick of his lack of hospitality and goes to Cleveland to stay with their Aunt Lotte (Stark).
John Lurie plays a poor, disenfranchised hipster that lives in a run-down apartment in a desolate part of the city. Jarmusch makes it look even drabber with the grimy black and white cinematography by future director Tom DiCillo. Richard Edson is Willie’s nice if not slightly dim-witted best friend who develops a crush on Eva. The actor has a wonderfully expressive face and an infectious charm that is responsible for a large part of the film’s appeal. Jarmusch casts decidedly unglamourous actors that look like real people and not bland, perfect-looking movie stars. Lurie, Edson and Eszter Balint have interesting looking faces that tell their own story.
Described by Jarmusch as The Honeymooners by way of Ozu, Stranger introduced his trademark style: minimal sets and long, uninterrupted takes with very little camera movement that are punctuated by the occasional fade to black. It is a funky mix of deadpanned American humour and a European visual sensibility. Stranger was made during the dawn of MTV and its success seems rather odd considering that it was the antithesis of most films being made in America at the time. The rather slow, meandering pace of Stranger did not conform to the quick cut, music video style that was fashionable at the time. His characters also lacked any sort of real ambition which was a world apart from most mainstream films. His approach seems downright revolutionary now as people’s collective attention spans have gotten considerably shorter.
Stranger Than Paradise won the Camera d’or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and was soon heralded by many critics as a watershed film in American independent cinema. Much has been written about the film’s outsider view of America and to be fair, the sparse visuals and down-on-their-luck hipsters that populate this film certainly flies in the face of the materialism of the 1980s, making it just as unique and significant today as it was back then.
Fans of this film can finally toss the crappy, bare bones MGM DVD as Criterion has given Jarmusch’s film their deluxe treatment.
Perhaps the most substantial extra is the inclusion of Jarmusch’s feature film debut, Permanent Vacation (1980). It’s about the story of Ally Parker (Chris Parker), the prototypical Jarmusch protagonist – an alienated outsider. Like Willie in Stranger Than Paradise, Ally lives in a run-down, sparsely furnished apartment in New York City. Jarmusch’s stylistic approach is intact but with an even more non-sensical narrative that seems avant garde in nature.
“Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch” was produced for German television in 1984 and features interviews with some of the cast and crew from Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise. They all look so young and were just starting out. It’s a nice snapshot of the times with the normally media-shy Sara Driver (Jarmusch’s significant other) recounting filming anecdotes.
“Some Days in January 1984” is a 14-minute, Super 8 behind-the-scenes silent film shot by Tom Jarmusch. It looks like home movies as we see cast and crew freezing in Cleveland.
“Location Scouting” is a collection of black and white photographs taken while Jarmusch was checking out locations to use in the film. Sadly, they don’t say where in Florida they were but these stills do look excellent.
Finally, there are U.S. and Japanese trailers for the film.