Stranger Than Paradise is as weird as Jim Jarmusch looks, an unconventional, sparse, deadpan indie darling which is mostly about ‘nothing’, yet is full of cinematic freshness, it’s easy to see how a film like this poked the fire of the independent film movement of the late 80’s, early 90’s.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984) dir. Jim Jarmusch
Starring: John Lurie, Richard Edson, Eszter Balint
By Alan Bacchus
Shot in stark black and white and set among barren apartment buildings, and even more barren New Jersey exteriors, the film works on a number of intriguing levels. Though very little actually happens, if anything, as a theme, the film pokes sharply some holes in the notion of the capitalist dream.
Remember this was 1984, when the cold war ramped up, especially in cinema. In mainstream movies it was Capitalism Freedom vs. Soviet Bloc Communism. Here the central conflict is the relationship of recent Hungarian immigrant Eva (Eszter Balint), and her American cousin Willie (John Lurie). We’re not explicitly told why Eva’s here, or what kind of a life she led in Hungary, but we assume her journey is the same as most of everyone’s else – the achieve the dream. Willie is the ass-end of this dream - a scheming slacker who looks out for nobody but himself.
At every turn Willie seeks to exploit the system – gambling, petty crime, eating from TV dinners. Willie’s buddy Eddie (Richard Edson) is along for the ride and is too passive to challenge Willie’s alpha-status, but he’s quietly attracted to Eva and so he sticks around no matter what kind of bullshit he slings. In fact, it’s been years since both men probably had a girlfriend which makes the introduction of Eva so invigorating. And so when Eva leaves for Cleveland, the void in their lives is palpable which spurs them to go on a roadtrip to find her.
The journey, which takes them from New York, to Cleveland and eventually to Florida, is a metaphor for each of the characters’ search for the real heart of America. Yet for Willie it’s the work that he’s unable to do which would allow the skies to part and thus shine some sun on his life.
It’s a comedy of errors for the trio. Cleveland is a bore and when the two boys foolishly gamble away all their money, it turns their Florida vacation sour. The bizarre ending is a fun bit of revenge for Eva for valiantly suffering through Willie’s tomfoolery, as a woman easily exploiting Willie and Eddie’s virginal desires.
The joys of this film lies in the lengthy silences, deadpan off-reactions, and general feeling of awkwardness which is Jarmusch’s playpen – a style which would influence many of the later works of the other ‘Sundance Kids’. If anything, this is the reason why Stranger Than Paradise is credited as the beginning of this movement.