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.
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