Jim Jarmusch’s reputation as a master of minimalist storytelling and an independent cinema trailblazer found its genesis in his 1984 film “Stranger Than Paradise”. This medley of low-key drama and deadpan comedy was startling at the time but would soon uniquely define much of Jarmusch’s work that would follow.
Going back to Jarmusch’s cinematic roots has been a joy. I came to his work late, first seeing and loving “Only Lovers Left Alive” and then last year’s “Paterson” which I loved even more. “Stranger Than Paradise” wasn’t Jarmusch’s first film. That would be his 1980 New York University senior project “Permanent Vacation”. But “Paradise” was his first major project despite its tiny budget. It would win the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival and go on to earn widespread critical acclaim.
One of the funny things about “Stranger Than Paradise” is that it basically tosses out everything Jarmusch learned in graduate film school. From the very start it’s clear there is nothing traditional or conventional about the film. Take the decision to shoot it in beautiful and fitting black and white. Or the thinly plotted story with three rather aimless characters as the focus.
But perhaps the most profound departure from traditional cinema is the movie’s structure. Jarmusch shoots a collection of short scenes, each bookended by a fade-in and then a fade to black. Within every scene you’ll notice very little camera movement and not a single close-up for the entirety of the movie. They are individually staged segments which are then put together to tell the story. It’s an cool and crafty technique that helps give the film a unique personality.
The story is pretty simple and can be broken down in three acts that take place in three locations – New York, Cleveland, and Florida. Willie (John Lurie) immigrated from Hungary several years ago and has worked hard to perfect his vision of a bonafide New Yorker. That vision includes sleeping late in his tiny apartment, eating TV dinners, catching some movies, and earning some dough playing poker.
Willie’s routine is interrupted when he gets a call saying his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) from Hungary is paying him a visit. She needs a place to stay for ten days then she’ll be off to Cleveland. At first she cramps Willie’s big city style and he lets her know about it. Even when his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson) takes a liking to her Willie is quick to shoot him down. But the longer she stays the more Willie likes having her around and when she heads off to Cleveland he misses her.
Eventually Willie and Eddie decide to borrow a car and drive to Cleveland to visit Eva. Later the three of them take a road trip from Cleveland to Florida. Jarmusch plops us in the passenger seat and we ride along observing their laid-back adventure. There isn’t much to it really, yet it seems harmonious with the care-free aspirations of the characters. And the dry dead-pan humor feels perfectly in tune with the film’s style and tone.
Throughout “Stranger Than Paradise” I couldn’t help but feel a hip French New Wave vibe in the vein of early Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol. The movie defines its own unique set of rules and then maneuvers them at its own pace. Jarmusch would go on to make several movies defined by their idiosyncratic flavor. They would often focus more on mood and character than plot. You see the roots for all of it in “Stranger Than Paradise” and even today it remains a fresh kick in the pants the film industry still needs.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS