Director/Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
I got admit, I've been a little tepid about writing this Canon of Film entry. I have various reasons for that, mostly though I don't think of Jim Jarmusch's debut feature "Stranger Than Paradise" as much as I do with other Jarmusch films.
Jim Jarmusch is-, hmm, well, how do I explain him...? Well, the way he's sorta been explained to me is that, the first thing you have to remember is that, he wanted to be a poet, and that's true. Now he loves most art forms, his mother was a local Ohio movie critic, but he ended up mostly fascinated with the Beat Poets among others and ended up at Columbia studying literature and art history, but after spending, way longer then an intended semester in Paris, before inevitably finding his way to NYU where he devoted his time to film. (There was musician gigs in between too, which also comes up a lot in his movies; he casts musicians in his film, a lot!) His NYU class era the one that's kinda now associated with inventing the modern American Independent film scene, with contempories like Spike Lee, Tom DiCillo, Howard Brookner, etc., and he worked with several of these names.
I think this is why I have a harder time grasping "Stranger than Paradise", 'cause I'm so used now to the more refined and-eh, professional, filmmaker that he's become. It's the film that made his name, and probably has the longest list of accolades but honestly it takes a while for me to think of his films and get to "Stranger...". My favorite early film of his, was the movie he made after this, "Down By Law" which actually isn't that different a movie from "Stranger...", but it's the movie that most feels like transitions to where the rest of his career will end up. He's the ecclectic, strange, underground indy darling who pops up hear and there on the mainstream, for instance, I knew more then a few people who love his vampire romance "Only Lovers Left Alive", which I liked a lot. But I also think of "Night on Earth", "Coffee and Cigarettes", "Broken Flowers"; hell, I might argue that one of his most recent films "Paterson" with Adam Driver is possibly his best films.
And there isn't too much difference between them, strangely enough. They're all basically episodic slice of life films that examine the human condition through his patient, surreal, almost Ozu-esque zen-like lens, but those films are all more refined, if nothing else. "Stranger Than Paradise" outside of his first feature film, "Permanent Midnight" which partially got him kicked out of NYU for making, (Long story), this film is about as bare bones and unrefined Jarmusch, and for me, oddly, I don't think it works as well as the best of his later stuff. However, if you read the reviews at the time, you get a sense of wonder and astonishment from critics. They talk about how fresh and unique and comedic the film is, how they were caught offguard constantly by the story and how they felt like they had entered a new strange world of these characters, and I can see that.
30 years of a watching a great filmmaker evolve over time can often makes their earliest indy works seem less impressive in hindsight, especially if you were introduced to their later films first. I mean, hell, I struggle these days to watch "Clerks." sometimes after seeing so much of Kevin Smith's other works since, and for the most part, like Jarmusch, he hasn't exactly lost his aesthetic from that film, he's just expanded upon it.
So, what's the Jarmusch base? Well, he usually has intriguing and eclectic lower class characters. We have some slice of life vignettes, and then there's usually some kind of travelling involved, sometimes to different locations, sometimes different places, sometimes he goes to the opposite side of the world and we meet entirely different and new characters, on these travels, and usually they continue travelling until...-, well, until..., I guess. This one begins with Willie (John Lurie) a Hungarian immigrant who's making a living in New York. That's actually stretching it, he's living in New York, but its hard to say he does that much. He's a bit of a hustler and gambler, although not a great one, and he bets at the race tracks. Mostly he just stays in his shabby little unkempt apartment.
Then, he gets a visitor from the old country, his younger cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), who's coming to live with their Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark) in Cleveland, and is stopping over temporarily to live with her cousin to get used to the country, I guess. After a few weeks, she's off to Cleveland, but then the movie jumps a year later, and after a need to stay out of the City for awhile, Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) decide to take a road trip to Cleveland to see his relatives. They then decide to go to Florida and they bring Eva along, only to leave her in a shabby weekly hotel while they lose all their money at the dog track.
After that, the ending gets surreal, as a deus ex machina helps Eva head to the airport while, after the guys make their money back at the horse track and trying to chase her off of getting a ticket back to Budapest. Honestly, I don't know what to make of the ending other then it being just a strange twisted joke. I guess you could argue there's points to be made about the frailty of humanity and identity; something that Jarmusch deals with a lot. He also deals with locations and time as well. As to the poetic connection, I guess it makes sense when you think of the people he most idolized. The counterculture beats poets like Kerouac and Burroughs whole thing was essentially documenting the joke of humanity and existence, and most of his movies are just long absurb jokes. Hell, "Paterson" a movie that's explicitly about the life of a poet, ends with the main character writing a poem where he reflects on Sinatra's "Swinging on a Star", which is just a joke song about how you'll become lazy animals if you don't get an education. Throughout this movie, Eva talks about loving Screamin' Jay Hawkins and his song "I Put a Spell on You" is used sorta as a leitmotif. I guess you could read that as symbolic; if that's the case then Eva's one of the strangest femma fatales since the Ann Savage character in "Detour", although it does make sense. She puts a spell on the guys and their lives are, pretty well inconvenience for awhile because of it... (Shrugs)
I guess in that sense, "Stranger than Paradise" is almost a parody of those classic pieces of literature. it's like the fractured fairy tale version of "On the Road". Which is fine, and it definitely is unique. I tend to prefer Jarmusch's more soulful approaches to his aesthetic, but I can't think of characters like these and films that shows their world like this. It definitely must've blew people away when they first saw it. I can't think of too many big American films from the mid-'80s that feel and seem like this. In many ways, his films still feel out of sync with the rest of the American film industry. but he likes it that way. He sends his character on their own strange adventures that barely make any sense, except in the logic in their own little worlds, and isn't that how we all essentially live our lives? One random journey after another?