Sunday, June 16, 2013



Film by Jim Jarmusch
Review by Don L. Stradley
Richard Edson, Eszter Balint, John Lurie: Stranger than Paradise

My friend Sue Kingsbury caught up to me in Kenmore Square, wanting to tell me about a new movie at the Nickelodeon.

The term "indy film" wasn't in widespread use, but the Nickelodeon was where Bostonians could see "small market" films such as Repo Man or older movies like Bob le Flambeur.  Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise was there now. Sue had seen it; she acted as if she'd just met some cool people and couldn't wait for me to meet them. She raved about their porkpie hats, the strange music on the soundtrack, the simplicity of the story, the droll, aimless characters. She'd been privy to a strange new world.
"There's a scene," she said, "where a guy explains why he loves TV dinners: 'I have my meat, my potatoes, my dessert. I don't even have to do the dishes.'  It makes me appreciate TV dinners."

Yes, I thought, TV dinners were cool.  Why did it take  Jarmusch's little black and white movie to make us realize the simple beauty of TV dinners?

It was 1984.  Stranger Than Paradise came freighted with  nearly every important film festival accolade, including the Camera d'Or award at Cannes (1984). It would also win the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1985, and the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Picture.  I distinctly remember one critic writing that the small, unknown cast of Stranger Than Paradise had invented a new kind of acting.  This movie, we were assured, was the wave of the future.

Of course, this wasn't so. Movies would grow bigger and dumber, not smaller and smarter. Hipster slackers would become a staple, and then a cliche, of independent cinema, but they would never seem as real as Willie and Eddie. Not even Jarmusch would stick to the formula he created. He's made several good movies since then, but only Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) came close to the deadpan minimalism of Stranger Than Paradise.  Still, Coffee and Cigarettes could never do what Stranger Than Paradise did, which was surprise us.


There was no plot, per se. Willie (John Lurie) lives alone in a barren New York apartment, somewhere in the Lower East Side. Keep in mind, this was the New York of the early1980s,  a dirtier,  more drugged-up and dangerous proposition than  exists now. Luc Sante described the city in his essay for the Criterion DVD as a place "inhabited principally  by slouchers and loungers...simultaneously the capital of the world and the armpit of civilization."   Willie doesn't do much. He watches TV and plays solitaire. He has a friend named Eddie (Richard Edson). Eddie looks and dresses like Willie, but he's smaller, as if whatever test tube Willie came out of had a little left over to create a friend for him.

Quite unexpectedly, Willie's Hungarian cousin Eva comes to visit.  She paces around Willie's cramped apartment listening to Screamin' Jay Hawkins on a cassette player. Her favorite American expression is "This bugs me." Then she leaves to stay with an aunt in Cleveland. Months go by. Willie and Eddie come into a little money so they decide to go to Cleveland and visit Eva. It's cold there, so the guys talk Eva into going to Florida. They bicker. And that's about it. No plot, per se.

The scenes, 67 of them, are short and pass  by quickly, like blackout sketches.  Jarmusch would say he wanted the  scenes to feel like photographs in an album. He was never too clear on what the film was about, but in the pressbook that accompanied the film's  release, he  described it as "a semi-neorealist black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern European film director obsessed with Ozu and familiar with the American television show, The Honeymooners."
There are very few things in the pop culture that can arouse our interest by simply feeling new. I'm thinking of the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live; Elvis Presley; Pulp Fiction; punk rock; Breathless; and the plays of Sam Shepard. Stranger Than Paradise was nearly as groundbreaking. The characters didn't seem to do anything or belong anywhere; they merely existed like barely perceptible specks seen from the corner of your eye.  Pauline Kael appreciated Jarmusch's style and tried to put it in perspective:

"The images are so emptied out that Jarmusch makes you notice every tiny, grungy detail," Kael wrote. "And those black-outs have something of the effect of Samuel Beckett's pauses: they make us look more intently, as Beckett makes us listen more intently."

Willie and Eddie are a bit like Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, but they aren't waiting for Godot. They aren't waiting for anything.  If Godot showed up, Willie and Eddie would ask him if he had a good tip on a horse. That was the film's charm for me.  Many movies would have had Willie and Eddie get in trouble because of their gambling, or rob a bank. Jarmusch trusted that watching some average people go about their unexceptional life would be entertaining.

One of my favorite moments in Stranger Than Paradise comes when Eddie is reading a racing form. One of the horses is named Tokyo Story, which is not only a great name for a horse, but the title of a classic film by Ozu. The moment tickles me, because it flies by almost unnoticed. Tokyo Story was about a family visit that goes badly, and it also involves family members traveling. There is a tiny echo of Tokyo Story in Stranger Than Paradise. In the first segment, Willie seems exasperated by Eva, but he's sad when she leaves for Cleveland. Later, Eva's elderly aunt is left alone when the trio leaves for Florida.   Those two scenes are the closest the film comes to sentiment. 

The first section of the movie was originally a stand alone short. When people refer to the film's quietness and blankness, they're actually thinking of the first third, when Eva comes to visit. The trips to Cleveland and Florida are considerably more verbal and active, as if Jarmusch felt an audience needed more stimulation for a 90 minute feature. The second and third acts are also more conventionally dramatic, with the guys losing their money, and Willie losing his temper and trashing a hotel room.
Lurie is an incredible presence as Willie. J. Hoberman described him in his Village Voice review as "a morose, menacing galoot."  But watch the way he surprises Eddy with a pair of sunglasses at a roadside souvenir shop. Eddie is delighted, as Willie knew he would be. They have  one of the great friendships in cinema. And watch how Willie warms up to Eva after she shoplifts some cigarettes from him. Watching his guard occasionally come down is one of the joys of this movie.

But Willie also exemplifies an American conundrum.  He recoils when Eva calls him "Bela," and early in the film  tells his aunt, "I don't even consider myself part of this family." If you look past the gruff comedy of the film, there's something sad going on. Willie embraces the "Americana" of football, and road trips, but  he's distanced himself from his Hungarian roots, and has no one but Eddie to lean on. Jarmusch once described Stranger Than Paradise as being "about exile, from one's country and oneself." Willie is the exile.
Lurie has enjoyed a multi-faceted career as an actor and musician. He also produced, directed and starred in Fishing With John, a documentary series where he took celebrity guests fishing. He's been troubled by health problems since 2000, and a 2010 New Yorker article described Lurie leaving New York to avoid a stalker. The story  was refuted by most involved, including Lurie, but it sounded weird enough to be the basis of a new Jarmusch movie.

Jarmusch has created a body of work that is among the most distinct of any modern director. I am particularly fond of  Down By Law (1986), which feels like a minimalist reworking of Grand Illusion, and Mystery Train (1989), a neat trilogy of stories taking place in Memphis. I also liked Broken Flowers (2005), where Bill Murray played a man trying to reconnect with several of his old girlfriends. Each film has moments that remind me of  Stranger Than Paradise, but as Jarmusch became more acclaimed, he cast his films with his famous friends, which included rock stars and rappers. Few can match Jarmusch for recreating the mundane nuances of real life, but casting the White Stripes or Iggy Pop in a scene undermines everything. The scene becomes about famous people smirking at us in a Jarmusch movie. The only way Jarmusch can ever recreate the magic of Stranger Than Paradise is to cast unknowns again.

Richard Edson, who has stayed busy as a character actor, made a sublime film debut as Eddie.  At one point Eddie says, "Does Cleveland look a little like Budapest?" It doesn't seem funny when you read it, but it's funny coming from Eddie. Watch the way he plays cards with Eva's  aunt Lotte - he never patronizes the old woman, and seems genuinely interested in her.   Edson also looks enough like Lurie that they could've been playing brothers, which makes Willie, Eddie, and Eva look like a tiny family unit.
Eszter Balint, the young actress playing Eva, has appeared in only a few movies. Like Lurie, she's a musician and songwriter. I love her in Stranger Than Paradise. She's our eye into the world of Willie and Eddie, and she helps us see America through the eyes of a newcomer: this is a country of hot dog stands and TV dinners, frozen lakes, and palm trees, comic books and kung fu movies; there is incredible boredom as well as excitement; there are the idiosyncrasies of our language, and the ugliness of our clothing.  Willie buys Eva a dress as a going away present, advising her to dress like an American; she throws it in the garbage, which was something my friend Sue Kingsbury might have done. To survive in America, travel light.

 I also think the film's title might be associated with Eva. What's America like? Is it paradise? No, Eva might say, it's stranger.

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