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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise”

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise"

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“Stranger Than Paradise”
Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Criticwire Average: A

Jim Jarmusch’s breakthrough film “Stranger Than Paradise” — famously described by its director as ““a neo-realistic black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern European director obsessed with Ozu and ‘The Honeymooners'” — captures something essential about the American character: the contradictory desire to be anonymous and to be identified, to blend into the crowd and yet still stand out. When Eva (Eszter Balint) arrives in New York City from Hungary, she goes to meet her cousin Willie (John Lurie) at his apartment. When Eva gets there, Willie makes it clear that she’s an unwanted nuisance and instructs her only to speak English while she’s staying with him. Though Willie’s roots are European, he’s embraced the Enlightenment idea of “tabula rasa,” a concept built into the fabric of America, and has become a Chesterfield-smoking, TV dinner-eating, football-watching American through and through, which means that there can’t be any reminders of his immigrant heritage. Though Eva ostensibly comes from Hungry to see America, Willie shows her nothing of New York during her ten day stay beyond his drab apartment and the surrounding area. Instead, they just stay inside and blend into the walls because what’s more American than sitting on your bed watching TV and smoking cigarettes all day and night? 

Shot in stark black and white courtesy of cinematographer Tom DiCillo, “Stranger Than Paradise” presents a grey, empty America, a place where the Lower East Side, the edges of Cleveland, and the Florida coast all look the same. The bland imagery reflects its subjects, people who are strangers in their environments and within themselves, but unwilling or unable to make a change. Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) are always looking for the next scheme to get rich, whether that be horse racing or cheating at poker, but when the two of them decide to leave New York to go “rescue” Eva in Cleveland, they discover that their malaise follows them everywhere. Eva seems most comfortable within that malaise because she expects nothing more or less from America beyond Cleveland hot dogs and martial arts movies, but Willie and Eddie expect something a little more, even if it’s just the luxuries of comfort without the requisite hard work, because America has instructed them to want more. When the three of them eventually head to Florida, a series of misunderstandings and missed connections create an ironic situation that illustrates how fractured communication between strangers in a strange land encapsulates so much of what it means to be an American.

More than anything else, “Stranger Than Paradise” establishes Jim Jarmusch’s singular deadpan sensibility, one that acutely understand the off-beat poetry of American life. The film only contains sixty-seven single shots with a mostly static camera, almost as if we’re getting just brief snapshots of Jarmusch’s world; it operates on a Beckettian rhythm, with silence holding more significance than speech; and the jokes are subtle and sly, and often serve as a reminder for the tragic irony beneath the proceedings. All of these comprise Jarmusch’s distinctly urban American sensibility, but it also points to the “alien” nature of Jarmusch’s perspective. Influenced by Ozu’s camerawork and Antonioni’s existentialist themes, Jarmusch realizes that to understand the beauty and ugliness of America, it can’t be approached from within. When Jarmusch’s three heroes look out into the snowy white abyss of Lake Eerie and see nothing but the never-ending void, it resonates because it illustrates the unique disappointment of finding that a new environment is just as empty as the one you left, but Jarmusch illustrates that that says more about Americans than America. “You know, it’s funny,” Eddie says. “You come to someplace new, and everything just looks the same.” It’s ironic that none of them can realize why that’s the case.

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

“Stranger Than Paradise” is a treasure from one end to the other. I saw it for the first time at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, where it was having its first public showing. Half the people in the theater probably didn’t speak English, but that didn’t stop them from giving the movie a standing ovation, and it eventually won the Camera d’Or prize for the best first film. It is like no other film you’ve seen, and yet you feel right at home in it. It seems to be going nowhere, and knows every step it wants to make. It is a constant, almost kaleidoscopic experience of discovery, and we try to figure out what the film is up to and it just keeps moving steadfastly ahead, fade in, fade out, fade in, fade out, making a mountain out of a molehill. Read more.

Keith Phipps, The A.V. Club

In Jarmusch’s 1984 breakthrough “Stranger Than Paradise,” the color has drained away, the action rarely breaks from a series of gloomy rooms, the camera barely moves, the cuts come only at the end of scenes, and long silences keep interrupting conversations that go in circles, when they go anywhere at all. It’s filmmaking stripped down to the bare essentials, and it’s where Jarmusch found his signature style, a deadpan approach that gives him room to maneuver from comedy to tragedy without blinking. Read more.

J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

A downbeat pastoral just this side of sentimental, “Stranger Than Paradise” is a celebration of hanging out, bumming around, and striking it rich — American (pre)occupations as deep-dyed as they are disreputable. The film, which plays the [New York] Film Festival this weekend and the Cinema Studio thereafter, is a stringent road movie cum character farce, with a trio of lumpen bohemians — a teenage immigrant from Budapest, her Americanized cousin, and his affable buddy — boldly emblazoned upon a series of gloriously deadbeat landscapes (the Lower East Side, the outskirts of Cleveland, the anonymous Florida coast). It’s very funny, and it’s pure movie. No one will ever mistake this deadpan whatsit for a failed off-off-Broadway play. Read more.

Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

The film is divided into a series of very brief scenes, each shot in a single long, static take; by the end Jarmusch seems constrained by his own formal ploy, though much of the time the impassive camera serves to echo and underline the absurd underreactions of the characters, which become the film’s chief comic principle. Jarmusch’s eye for blighted landscape (he films in a grainy black and white) is hilariously sharp, and he sends his performers on their zomboid rounds with a keen sense of rhythm and interplay. Read more.

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