A handful of movies have changed the way I understand film. "Taxi Driver" made me realize a movie could do something more than just entertain. "Last Year at Marienbad" changed my entire conception of what a movie could be, and just how plastic the medium of cinema really is. "2001: A Space Odyssey" simply blew my mind, and hooked me forever on the thrill of transcendence in film.
Each of these films delivered haymakers that knocked me flat on my ass so hard and fast I have never forgotten my first encounter with them. "Stranger than Paradise" delivered a gentler blow, but one every bit as memorable. When I first saw Jim Jarmusch's breakthrough hit many years after its original release, my first thought was "So that's all?" I was not expressing disappointment. Rather, I was amazed that such a Great Film (caps intentional) could be made from so little raw material. Three characters, a handful of no-budget locations, and only the most tenuous of narrative threads, so slack it could hardly be considered the force that tied the film together. No flashy camera tricks either. The entire film is built on a deceptively simple visual rhythm: a series of long unedited takes interrupted by black leader, no post-production editing (save for the black leader inserts) and only minimal camera movement (save for a few long tracking shots). The characters themselves didn't do a damned thing except sit around the apartment, watch TV, bitch, and play cards. Pauline Kael dismissively dubbed them "dead end kids."
But "Stranger than Paradise" was hardly a dead-end film. It propelled Jarmusch to instant fame (though never, even to this day, financial success) and furthermore helped popularize what came to be known in the '80s and early '90s as American independent cinema. It was hardly the first indie film (John Cassavetes had already been around for 25 years), but arriving on the heels of the first great wave of Hollywood mega-blockbusters, it proved a rallying point for audiences and critics desperate for something without aliens, Nazis, and big explosions. When Geoff Andrew wrote his book on American independent film in 1998, he titled it quite simply, "Stranger than Paradise."
The film is separated into three sections or chapters (you can't really call them acts). "The New World" begins with the arrival of Eva (Eszter Balint) in New York, fresh from Hungary. She is to spend some time with her Hungarian cousin Willie (the laconic John Lurie) before moving to stay with family in Cleveland. Willie has no interest in his Hungarian heritage and therefore little interest in his Hungarian cousin. That's OK; she doesn't have much interest in him either. Willie's friend Eddie (Richard Edson) plays the third wheel, dropping from time to time like the '80s incarnation of Art Carney's Ed Norton just to poke around and see what's happening, even though nothing is ever happening. He's the most gregarious of the three slackers, eager to buoy everyone's spirits. When Eva mentions she is going to Cleveland, he says, "Cleveland, it's a beautiful city. It's got a big, beautiful lake. You'll love it there." Eva: "Have you been there?" Eddie: "No."
"One Year Later" sees the two boys steeped in hot water over a poker game, prompting them to flee NYC to visit Eva in Cleveland. She is working at a hot dog joint. Life in Cleveland isn't much different. They hang around at home, watch TV, bitch, and play cards. Except this time Eva and Willie's very Hungarian Aunt Lottie takes down every hand, declaring each time: "I am de vinner." Even the less-than-philosophical Eddie is amazed by the generic similarity of their new home: "You know it's funny. You come some place new and everything looks just the same."
In "Paradise" the intrepid trio trundles down to Florida (Eddie: "Florida? It's beautiful down there." Willie: "You ever been there?" Eddie: "No.") to see the white beaches and to bet on horses. Here the ennui that glues these strangers together begins to collapse, though Jarmusch saves a hell of a punch line for he end when, by sheer luck, Eva discovers the American dream on a deserted beach road. If the film has any message, it's this: The Puritan work ethic is for yuppies and other suckers.
The performances by the three leads are all wonderful, a testament not only to their abilities but to Jarmusch's fondness for his performers. The long takes, so beautifully orchestrated by Tom DiCillo, give the actors the time and space they need to let their personalities shine through. Lurie and Balint get plenty of much deserved credit, but Richard Edson lights up the screen whenever he is on; his range of bemused expressions is seemingly endless, and one of the film's most reliable sources of laughs. Even bit characters like Aunt Lottie are pitch perfect in their own small ways.
And the film has plenty of laughs. I think it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, though I don't recall laughing out loud on a first viewing. "Stranger than Paradise" creates a world that invites you to return again and again, to discover a previously unseen pleasure or even just to revisit some of your favorite people and places. Now that I "know" Eva so well, I can't stop from breaking up every time she cranks up Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You" and takes a long, slow walk down the oddly deserted streets of the Big Apple. And Willie and Eva's conversation about American TV dinners gets funnier every time I see it.
So that's all? You bet, and it's more than enough.
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The anamorphic, progressive transfer is crisp, sharp, and at the highest standard that Criterion has established. Fantastic.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Unfortunately, there is no commentary track offered on this 2-disc set, but this omission is more than compensated for by the real gem on Disc 2: "Permanent Vacation" (1980), Jim Jarmusch's first film. He shot "Permanent Vacation" while he was a student at NYU, but didn't graduate because he had made a feature film when his thesis assignment was only to make a short film. "Permanent Vacation" is essentially a character study, or rather a character observation, of Allie Parker, an aimless dreamer and drifter who bears a striking resemblance to its lead actor Chris Parker, then a friend of Jarmusch's. Allie has tuned in and dropped out, with an emphasis on the dropped out part, and spends most of his time wandering around ever so vaguely searching for some meaning in life, and also digging on Charlie Parker (no relation). "Permanent Vacation" is not a masterpiece by any means, and has all the soft edges of a debut film, but it's still mesmerizing in its own thudding, monotonous way. Tom DiCillo also filmed this one.
"Kino '84: Jim Jarmusch" is a 1984 documentary (41 min.) shot by Martina Müller for German TV. The documentary consists mostly of clips from Jarmusch's first two films, and interviews with him and the cast and crew members. I enjoyed this one quite a bit. Jarmusch has always looked and sounded the same; it's kind of creepy.
"Some Days in January" (1984) is a short (14 min.)silent Super-8 film shot by Tom Jarmusch, showing some on-the-set footage of the filmmakers at work.
The insert booklet features Jarmusch's "Notes on Stranger than Paradise," released with the press kit for the film in 1984. It influenced quite a few of the film's reviews. The booklet also includes essays on "Stranger Than Paradise" by Geoff Andrew and J. Hoberman, and on "Permanent Vacation" by Luc Sante.
Not everyone loved "Stranger than Paradise" when it came out. One rather hostile French critic observed that Jarmusch was 33 years old at the time, the same age when Jesus was crucified, and wished fondly for the same fate to befall the filmmaker. To think George Lucas used to whine about how mean Pauline Kael was!
However, the film was a smash hit in its New York engagement (though hardly anywhere else) and became a critical darling in short order. Jarmusch's career was launched, and he found himself at Cannes with his next film "Down By Law" (1986). Though never a financial success ("Broken Flowers" $13.7 million domestic take nearly equaled the total gross of all of Jarmusch's previous films) Jarmusch became one of the defining figures of American independent film, at least until Quentin Tarantino came along and helped blur the lines between indie and studio filmmaking in the 90s.
"Stranger Than Paradise" is achingly funny, incisively bittersweet, and truly one of the great American films of the past quarter century.