Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)
Widely known as the precursor of Independent American Cinema, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise is so hip that it the term hipster could have been invented just for it. The late Pauline Kael compared Jarmusch‘s film to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where nothing is actually done and where Beckett wants us to notice every little thing.
Stranger Than Paradise stars Willie (John Lurie) as a New York city, Lower East Side, hipster who has to give shelter for ten days to his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) and that at first is pissed that she is there. But with time he appreciates her presence and is sad when she leaves for Cleveland to live with Aunt Lotte. A year later, Willie earns a big chunk of money and goes to Cleveland with his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) to see Eva.
This three act road movie of nothingness and ambiance is a charming dry film that creates many moods and has lots of style in its epurated images of grainy black and whites. Even the snow of Cleveland seems dirty in its lavish white. It is at first difficult to get the characters because they don’t speak and the many blanks and blackouts make it hard to get hooked on. After the first act, the segment called The New World, it is clearer and the rhythm makes more sense. It is a film where the term cool is applied to those who are doing nothing with their lives and they try to make it. Reminiscences of David Lynch’s Eraserhead are palpable in the mise en scène and the aesthetics. However, Jarmusch’s film is more epurated and filtered of eerie style that Lynch gave to his own film.
As an Independent American film where John Cassavetes was the pioneer many years prior to Stranger Than Paradise we feel that Jarmusch was the beacon of the whole movement of the American independent industry that will bloom in the 1990’s. Just as Peter Biskind mentioned in his recalling of those years with Down and Dirty Pictures, it reinvigorated the whole way that Hollywood films are made while at the same time that VHS was expanding into every home.
One of the most interesting aspect of Stranger Than Paradise, is the fact that it is now recognized as a cult film that pleases art houses and films buffs. Repeated viewings of this memorable little gem gives hope that American films have many young directors that will eventually emerge and make films with no means and raw talent just like Jim Jarmusch who was able to create a place for his films into pop culture.