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By Charles Ramírez Berg
It came from nowhere, it’s always been here—or so Stranger Than Paradise might seem.
Jim Jarmusch had completed his first feature, Permanent Vacation, in 1980 and spent the next four years working on his second. Screened a few times as a fragment, Stranger Than Paradise was finished and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival just before the dismal summer of ’84: New Morning in America, Ronald Reagan running for reelection. Reagan had his paradise—and Jarmusch?
As modest and self-contained as it is rich and distinctive, Jarmusch’s remarkable synthesis crossed film-school cinephilia with downtown club culture. Jarmusch had studied with Nick Ray at NYU and assisted Wim Wenders on his portrait of Ray, Lightning over Water; he played with a “no wave” band called the Del-Byzanteens and hung out with the crazy Hungarian expats at Squat Theater. Those were the days when the B-52s were regulars at CBGB, when Max’s Kansas City showed Super 8 punk movies, when Nan Goldin’s epic autobiographical slide show was an underground event at the UP Cinema and Ann Magnuson was organizing “Flintstones” evenings at Club 57.
On one hand, Stranger Than Paradise is one of the purest expressions of a sensibility that developed in Lower Manhattan’s clubs and lofts during the late seventies and early eighties; on the other, Jarmusch’s movie belongs to a particular eighties tendency in which all manner of immigrants, extraterrestrials, mermaids, time travelers, and suburban-born SoHo artists—in a word, aliens—dropped in on America and, like our Hollywood President, served to validate it for us. But where the previous year’s independent blockbuster Liquid Sky, made by an inspired gang of Russian émigrés, shed an authentically alien perspective on the same milieu, Stranger Than Paradise was unaccountably sweet.
No less than Steven Spielberg’s adorable extraterrestrial or Robin Williams’s cuddly Russian or Eddie Murphy’s African potentate, Stranger Than Paradise’s Eva receives an American education. Unlike ET, however, Eva hasn’t landed in the San Fernando Valley. Rather than American suburbia, she finds herself somewhere in the vicinity of Robert Frank’s The Americans. Stranger Than Paradise gives us America as the perfect expression of everyone’s alien nation. Seldom has a movie been more fun to describe, as I had the good fortune to in the October 2, 1984, issue of the Village Voice. That piece follows.
AMERICANA, RIGHT AND WRONG
After a decade of scattershot publicity and frantic grant hustling, European accolades and erratic distribution, the so-called independent cinema has become the third force in American narrative film. Outflanking the new Hollywood as well as the old, low-budget indies have provided the R&D for recent releases as disparate as Beat Street, Swing Shift, Under Fire, and Yentl (not to mention Zelig). Documentary has been the independents’ strong suit, but, finally, they’re making features that can hold their own with movies produced anytime, anyplace, by anybody. Take, for example, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, winner of the Caméra d’or at Cannes last May.
A downbeat pastoral just this side of sentimental, Stranger Than Paradise is a celebration of hanging out, bumming around, and striking it rich—American (pre)occupations as deep-dyed as they are disreputable. The film, which plays the [New York] Film Festival this weekend and the Cinema Studio thereafter, is a stringent road movie cum character farce, with a trio of lumpen bohemians—a teenage immigrant from Budapest, her Americanized cousin, and his affable buddy—boldly emblazoned upon a series of gloriously deadbeat landscapes (the Lower East Side, the outskirts of Cleveland, the anonymous Florida coast). It’s very funny, and it’s pure movie. No one will ever mistake this deadpan whatsit for a failed off-off-Broadway play.
Hair tortured into the world’s most emphatic ponytail and bangs, the waiflike Eva (Eszter Balint) appears in America like some strange plant. (Call it a greenhorn.) But with her love for dated American slang (“bug off”) and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Eva is as confirmed a hipster as her older cousin Willie (John Lurie), who, no less stylized, is a hulking arrangement for stingy-brimmed hat and striped suspenders. Willie’s sidekick, the diminutive, less savagely depressed Eddie (Richard Edson), has an even more rigorous dress code—matching his omnipresent fedora with a single ensemble in argyle sweater and gruesome plaid shirt.
Once seen, this threesome becomes absolutely indelible: The nineteen-year-old Balint, a child of Squat Theater, carries messiness to blissful heights of brooding disarray. Lurie, a veteran of the late-seventies Super 8 scene and a musician known for his work with the Lounge Lizards, is an astounding icon—a morose, menacing galoot with a propensity for pulling a fish face at unexpected moments. Edson, also a musician, has a mug out of a Ben Shahn etching, which more than matches the mangled Lurie profile. Half the fun in Jarmusch’s leisurely paced film is just watching those palookas breathe.
Stranger Than Paradise has lots of situations, if no real plot, and the action, such as it is, falls into three movements. The first, released by Jarmusch as an autonomous film in 1982, is simply called “The New World”: having fallen from the sky on the sullen Willie, Eva absorbs his echt American lifestyle (“Why is it called ‘TV dinner’? What does that meat come from?”) as well as the culture in general, smoking Chesterfields, reading comic books, and watching TV till dawn. After ten days, she moves to Cleveland to stay with their ancient Aunt Lotte (played by Cecillia Stark as a superbly muttering Hungarian crone).
In the second movement, “One Year Later,” Willie and Eddie are caught cheating at poker, borrow a car, and drive to Cleveland. There they play cards with Aunt Lotte (“I am the veenor,” she flatly declares after every hand), accompany Eva and her date to watch kung-fu films in a virtually empty theater, and visit the local landmark, Lake Eerie. The final movement, tenderly titled “Paradise,” has Willie, Eddie, and Eva pushing on to Florida, setting up temporary house in a shabby motel room, and then—with comic symmetry and typical haplessness—inadvertently dispersing across international boundaries.
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.” My only caveat is that the film seems less black comedy than vaudeville—it’s really a succession of blackout gags, some so absurd that you can sense the actors straining to keep from breaking up.
Jarmusch, thirty-one, is an Ohio-born graduate of the NYU Film School and a onetime teaching assistant to Nicholas Ray. (He worked on Ray and Wim Wenders’s Lightning over Water, among other local independent productions.) I was no great fan of his first feature, the 1980 Permanent Vacation—a plotless portrait of a teenage drifter, half postpunk vérité, half Lower East Side tone poem—but Stranger Than Paradise is a quantum leap forward in formal control. Without spoon-feeding his audience, Jarmusch manages to popularize the effects of some of the past decade’s most powerful films.
With its dislocated travelogue, Stranger Than Paradise suggests Wenders’s Kings of the Road; the transcendently shabby moonscapes evoke Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, and the absence of reverse angles her Jeanne Dielman; while the shaggy-dog narrative and vignette structure are anticipated by Jim Benning’s 8 1/2 x 11 and 11 x 14. Jarmusch exhibits free-floating affinities to filmmakers as disparate as Ron Rice and Carl Dreyer as well, but Stranger Than Paradise is far more than the sum of its influences. The film is too strongly imagined and assembled to ever seem derivative. It’s never less than wholly and confidently itself.
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.
The movie even manages to justify its clunky title. America is stranger than paradise. As Eddie says when they arrive in Cleveland, “You know, it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.” The Hungary that Willie, Eva, and Aunt Lotte have separately fled is a purely negative conception—it only signifies the un-America. Actually, the idea of Willie as totally Americanized is a prize conceit. His America is the negation’s negation. At one point, Eva takes Willie and Eddie to see Lake Eerie. The wind is blowing, the snow is snowing, they lean over the rail and peer into a huge white void. It’s one of the movie’s most resonant bits. There really is no there there.
J. Hoberman is a film critic for the Village Voice. His latest book is The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism.