Very few movies count as truly significant milestones in the development of American “indie” cinema during the last quarter of the twentieth century. They include Eraserhead (1977) and Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), as early trailblazers; She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and sex, lies and videotape (1989), as consolidators of a distinctive trend; and Reservoir Dogs (1992), which kick-started a rapidly growing interest in genre and, at the same time, some would say, signaled the beginning of the end. And among these landmark independent films, Stranger Than Paradise unquestionably looms large. Not only did Jim Jarmusch’s second feature as writer-director introduce him as a genuinely idiosyncratic talent and, for many (1980’s Permanent Vacation had not been widely seen), mark the start of an artistically distinguished and rewarding career, it also exerted, in its own quiet way, an enormous influence over what was to follow.
At the time of its release, in 1984, what seemed remarkable about the film was that it managed to do so many new and unusual things yet still seem utterly coher-ent and accessible. For starters, there was its eccentric approach to narrative structure: the sixty-seven single-shot “scenes” separated by black film, and the explicit division of the story into three clear, ironically titled chapters. But there were other formal qualities of note: Tom DiCillo’s black-and-white camera work, which serves Jarmusch’s sensitive feel for the American landscape so well that one recalls Antonioni’s work in Italy or Angelopoulos’s in Greece; and the striking use of music, which successfully juxtaposes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” with the Bartók-like strains of John Lurie’s score for string quartet. This was a road movie for sure, but one with a difference: unlike most examples of that then still extremely popular genre, Stranger Than Paradise seemed at once wholly American and oddly European.
It was not just that its characters were to some extent “strangers in a strange land”; you could also imagine their creator echoing a famous line—“I’m a stranger here myself”—spoken by the titular hero of Johnny Guitar (1954), a film made by Nick Ray, a mentor of Jarmusch’s. This peculiarly illuminating combination of engagement and dis-tance may be found in the film’s affectionately ironic take on Willie’s cool posturing; in its droll attitude toward some of the absurdities of Ameri-can culture (the TV dinners alluded to in J. Hoberman’s spot-on review are just one deli-cious example of Jarmusch’s deadpan wit); and in the way it inflects a very American genre and very American story (if a narrative as dramatically slight and as devoted to “dead moments” may be called a story) with all manner of un-Hollywood stylings. The visuals, pacing, performances, and generally melancholy mood bring to mind not Easy Rider (1969), or even the relatively arty Five Easy Pieces (1970), but Warholesque minimalism, Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson, Antonioni, Wenders. Jarmusch is a cinephile—Eddie is even tempted to bet on a horse called Tokyo Story—and a poet, unafraid of admitting to an interest in “high” art.
But he also loves many aspects of popular culture—note how Willie and Eva watch Forbidden Planet on TV or go with Eddie and Eva’s frustrated admirer to see a bone-crunching Hong Kong martial-arts saga at a Cleveland grindhouse—and lets them sit alongside more “respectable” elements of his films, as if there were no difference between high and low. And it’s for that rare but entirely rational attitude that Jarmusch is to be especially treasured. It’s possible to discern his influence on a range of later American indie directors, in terms of his bone-dry humor, his warmly amused fascination with slackers of various sorts, his interest in narrative structure, his fondness for dramatically low-key stories, and his witty, memory-jogging allusions to popular culture. All these, once rare in American cinema, are now comparatively commonplace; but the poetry, the unashamed concern with cinema as an art that can deal with serious, substantial subjects—albeit, in Jarmusch’s case, with the lightest of touches—is far harder to find.
So it’s nigh on impossible to imagine another American indie director having made a film like the lyrical, hallucinatory, irreverently epic postwestern Dead Man (1995). Even the relatively mainstream Broken Flowers (2005), with its supremely subtle use of Hollywood stars, includes a great many scenes only Jarmusch could have come up with; one thinks especially of the protagonist visiting the grave of a dead girlfriend, which features a depiction of grief so delicate, even Fordian, that it takes one by surprise in a film so rich in comedy. Because, in the end, however funny, cool, small, or inconsequential his films may initially seem, they are always about something. For all his cinephilia, they’re inspired not—like so much recent American cinema—by other movies, but by life: by real people, experiencing real emotions. And while Stranger Than Paradise may be a comedy, an experiment in cinematic storytelling, and a deeply ironic fable, it’s also a film about America and the people who live there. It’s about those people’s relationships to one another, and their relationships to the rooms they inhabit, the city streets, the suburbs, diners and highways. And it’s made by someone who knows there may be truth in poetry, who finds a visual rhyme between a snow-covered Lake Erie and a windswept Florida beach, and who creates an improbably real character like Aunt Lotte, for-ever babbling to her young guests in Hungarian, whether they’re listening or not.