(Editor's Note: This is one of those instances where a prior knowledge of the movie is almost essential. If you haven't seen Stranger than Paradise, I will paraphrase LeVar Burton. "This is a great movie...but you don't have to take my word for it." Go track down a copy and come back.)
The Section of the Review You’ll (Hopefully) Forget You Read
Everyone has ulterior motives: I’m more than happy to be honest about mine. I’m trying to class this joint up a bit with this little entry. I’ve been dwelling in the gutter (literally and metaphorically) in the last few pieces of blogging. What would happen if I chose to write about one of the most important cornerstones of the American Independent Cinema? A movie that pretentious film students and aging hipsters alike rattle off as one of their “absolute favs.”
Would that do anything to help my reputation? Would I be redeemed as the Bastian of good taste and sound moral judgement that I truly am?
The real question: Would it garner a few more hits on my dank and lonely little corner of the internet? (I keep vowing not to check the “stats” section on Blogger, but it’s just a futile effort. To my one reader in Turkey: Dude, who the fuck are you? Is there nothing else to do in Turkey besides read this? I hear there’s some sweet riots, so why not join in?)
Okay, so I’m angling a bit. What’s at stake in this review, really? Please forget the self serving and needy tone in which I have chosen to begin.
“A Cornerstone of American Independent Cinema”
I used that rather bold statement and attached it directly to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984). There’s a bet that I’m willing to wager: the audience for the film has become increasingly “niche” over the years. People appropriate the movie (the hipsters and students I mentioned as well as film critics who write “guide” books), and it’s known more by reputation than actual viewership.
There’s a number of reasons this film is met with in such circumstances:
- This is the very definition of “directorial” vision: Let’s face it, without the unique stylings of Jarmusch this would be a cinematic nothing. The choice to shoot in black and white, to end scenes abruptly with black outs, and even the clothing all the main characters wear is part of a distinct sensibility. If you don’t believe me, then try “pitching” this movie to a friend. “Well, it’s about an immigrant in New York who is visited by his cousin from Budapest. Then she leaves for Cleveland and he decides to go see her.” Yes, that’s the story of the film...but that’s not what gives it staying power. I just defined what I see as the “film critic” angle.
- This is a triumph of low budget, “personal” filmmaking at its best. That is why so many students have seen it as an impetus for their own movies. “Hey, Jim Jarmusch made a film with one camera, shabby locations, and no name actors. How hard could it possibly be?” You know what the problem ends up being? (I might be writing this from personal experience.) You go out and make your film, only to realize you are not Jim Jarmusch.
- The attitude: The characters deal in the trade of disenfranchisement. Their manner of severe detachment and dedication to a “just slumming” esthetic is what makes them so memorable. Importantly, like many cinematic idols, they make it look enjoyable and easy. That is the “hipster” piece of this little jigsaw puzzle. A person with a Stranger than Paradise poster in their apartment is making a statement (and you just need to be tuned in enough to see it).
Now am I coming across as being critical of Stranger than Paradise? That couldn’t be farther from the truth, and let me tell you why.
I Genuinely Love Stranger than Paradise
That means that I fall into not just one, not just two, but all three of the aforementioned groups. Aging hipster? I’m waring a Hawaiian shirt and a Jiffy cap as we speak. Film student? The first time I watched this movie was during my brief and disastrous “film student” career. (That’s a much longer story than we have time for.) What about “film critic?” Would you accept “blogger” as a substitute for that?
Yes, that is all true. However, when I sat down to watch the movie last night...by gum...the thing still just works for me. This was the revelation that I had: Stranger than Paradise has one of the best cases of “filmmaking alchemy” that I’ve seen. The entire production is a bold risk that pays off beautifully. The charm is so delicate and intangible that I struggle to define it.
So what’s the best solution to this problem? I’m going to resort to drastic measures: a top five list.
Yes, dear reader, here are the top five reasons (in no real order) that this aging hipster/makeshift critic/low budget filmmaker loves Stranger than Paradise.
The Reasons Dusty Loves Stranger than Paradise
Here we go:
Reason #1: The Characters Are Totally Inert
There’s a “golden rule” that every aspiring screenwriter has etched onto the inside of their eyelids. Your characters need to be motivating the action! They need to make decisions that drive the plot! You can’t just have events happen to them, because everything in the script needs to have a purpose!
Our “heros” in Stranger than Paradise don’t live in the driver’s seat. There is no strong logic behind any of their decisions. The action of getting into the car and driving (in the film’s second half) is a gigantic leap of faith. They don’t have much of a reaction to their surroundings. I don’t think it’s because they lack substance or an ability to think deeply. There’s a bit of emotional shell shock at work; observe them deadly watching television or a movie for examples of this.
Reason #2: The Lake Eerie Scene
One of the film’s truly memorable scenes: The three main characters stand in front of a totally frozen Lake Eerie. Earlier in the film, the Eddie character (Richard Edson) raves about how “beautiful” Lake Eerie is without ever having seen it. The one opportunity they have to see the lake is during the dead of winter. What’s the multilayered joke here? The heavy snow makes it impossible to see, and the entire event is an anticlimax.
Am I willing to spot a visual metaphor here as well? This is a tad watery (pardon the pun), but here is what I am willing to read into the scene. The frozen lake is a direct link to the character’s emotional state. They wouldn’t be nearly as home standing in front of the great Lake Eerie on a clear summer’s day.
Reason #3: The “Chapter Headings”
The closest thing that Jarmusch gives us to a three act structure is a series of “Chapter Headings.” The director breaks his story up into sections entitled: “The New World,” “One Year Later,” and the titular “Paradise.” This divides the narrative into “movements,” much like a symphony. Each “movement” has its own distinct tone...perhaps making up for the inertia of the characters?
Reason #4: “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins...He’s My Main Man”
There might not be a better use of a popular piece of music in a film. (That’s an intentionally controversial statement...feel free to fire away with “What about...?’) Eva (Ezster Balint) carts around a stylishly “vintage” tape player that blasts Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” constantly. The neat trick is that her choice of music belies much about her particular psychology. She is a Hungarian immigrant, and Screamin’ Jay epitomizes everything she feels her American experience should be.
Watch the first long walk to her cousin Willie’s (John Lurie) apartment. The dark mystery of the song is tied beautifully to the crisp black and white photography. We are right there with Eva as she sees the good ole US of A for the first time. We see it in exactly the same way she does.
Reason #5: The Actors Don’t Feel Like...Well, Actors
Jarmusch made a crucial choice in his casting. The three lead actors (Lurie, Ballint, and Edson) were musicians by trade. They were not trained actors; which is not to say that they are in any way “bad actors.” Their lack of traditional training gives their performances a “natural” edge that is authentic to the Jarmusch world. They are not straining to portray a sort of aimlessness.
There’s a difference between Laurence Oliver “playing” shiftless and a non-actor “living” it. I can’t claim to know much about what these people were like before shooting. I would hope that their characters were just simple extensions of themselves.
The Real Reason I Love This Movie
Stranger Than Paradise is a screamingly funny and oddly poignant film...if you can get the joke. The key is in understanding the rhythm in which Jarmusch moves. This is the “slice of life” idea taken to the next step. You spend a sizable chunk of time with Willie, Eva, and Eddie on their own terms. When the last black out comes, you realize how much you’ll miss them.