#299) Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

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#299) Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

OR “Jim Jarmusch Jim Jarmusch Will You Do the Fandango?”

Directed & Written by Jim Jarmusch

Class of 2002

The Plot: It’s Jarmusch, there ain’t no plot. “Stranger Than Paradise” is three acts of Jarmusch’s trademark black and white minimalist realism. The first act (“The New World”) sees Willie (John Lurie) playing host to his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) in his New York City apartment. Willie does not want Eva around, but with the help of his friend Eddie (Richard Edson), finally warms up to her. In the second act (“One Year Later”), Willie and Eddie travel to a very cold Cleveland to visit Eva and Aunt Lottie (Cecillia Stark). The final act (“Paradise”) is Willie, Eddie and Eva traveling to Florida, where they experience the closest thing this film has to a plot.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls Jarmusch “a leading figure in independent cinema” and states that this film “reflects his non-traditional style.”

But Does It Really?: Oh sure. Jarmusch isn’t for everyone, and while it took me a bit to get into this movie, ultimately I dug it. His movies are very thin slices of life that, while seemingly uneventful, capture a lot about human condition and the small “in-between” moments in life. Heck, “Stranger Than Paradise” is so minimalist you can read practically anything you want into it. I’m not familiar with the oeuvre of Jim Jarmusch, and I’m not in any immediate rush to watch his other films, but “Stranger Than Paradise” is a perfect representation of his work, and quite deserving of a place on the Registry.

Shout Outs: You can hear snippets of “Forbidden Planet” when Willie and Eva are watching TV.

Everybody Gets One: While studying to be a poet at Columbia University, Jim Jarmusch went to Paris as an exchange student and wound up seeing a bevy of landmark European films at the Cinémathèque Française. After Columbia, Jarmusch studied film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, under the tutelage of film noir legend Nicholas Ray. Although he ultimately didn’t graduate from Tisch, Jarmusch’s final school project evolved into his first feature film: 1980’s “Permanent Vacation”. 

Wow, That’s Dated: Landlines, and the world of early computers.

Seriously, Oscars?: Despite a heap of critical praise (and a Best Picture win from the National Society of Film Critics), “Stranger Than Paradise” received zero Oscar nominations. O Independent Spirit Awards, where art thou?

Other notes

  • All three of the film’s leads are primarily musicians: Lurie with the jazz group The Lounge Lizards, Edson as Sonic Youth’s original drummer, and Balint as a violinist in her native Hungary. Luckily, all three hold their own as actors, though it helps that there’s no heavy emotional lifting required for any of them.
  • How can I hate any movie in which Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” is prominently featured?
  • A foreigner coming to America and crashing at their cousin’s apartment. Oh my god, did this movie inspire “Perfect Strangers”?
  • Shoutout to cinematographer Tom DiCillo. The cinematography takes some getting used to, but once you do it sets up the world quite well. Each scene is one continues take, with minimal, clean camera movements. They are well-crafted compositions that never take you out of the film. Fun Fact: DiCillo is also the airport ticket agent at the end of the film.
  • What’s with Willie and Eddie’s fedoras? This film is so minimalist I can’t tell if it’s a period piece or not. WHAT YEAR IS IT!?
  • In addition to “Forbidden Planet”, Willie and Eva watch the cartoon “Bimbo’s Initiation”. Another bizarre trip from those crazy Fleischer Brothers.
  • Eszter Balint is so close to being Juliette Lewis.
  • The further along we go, the less I think this film will end with a car chase or a Bollywood-style musical number.
  • The “One Year Later” segment isn’t exactly a video from Destination Cleveland, is it? Jarmusch grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (about 35 miles south of the Cleve) and once told the New York Times, “Growing up in Ohio was just planning to get out.” Woof.
  • I will admit that it’s always deceivingly difficult to capture realism on film, especially minimalist realism. If I’m a little bored, does that mean Jarmusch is doing his job?
  • Every time there’s a blackout in this film I instinctively think, “Is that it? Is the movie over?”
  • Old people cursing will never not be funny.
  • I rarely read other people’s reviews while I’m writing these posts, but I stumbled upon a line in Roger Ebert’s original review of “Stranger Than Paradise” that tickled me: “Aunt Lottie turns out to make Clara Peller look like Dame Peggy Ashcroft.” That sentence could only have been written in 1984.
  • Why is the Florida section called “Paradise”? Is Florida Paradise? And if so, what could possibly be stranger than Florida?
  • Black and white always seems like a gimmick, but in this case, I get it. With three diverse locations, “Stranger Than Paradise” would look like a travelogue in color.
  • Hey hey hey, we’re 75 minutes in; it’s too late to add any drama.
  • This is one of the rare movies with a Junkie Ex Machina.
  • What do you suppose this movie’s blooper reel looks like?
  • If this film is going to be about three people sitting around talking about nothing, their wacky neighbor Kramer better show up soon.

Legacy

  • Jarmusch still cranks out a movie every few years. Highlights include “Mystery Train”, “Coffee and Cigarettes”, and that one where Kylo Ren’s a bus driver.
  • Unlike other indie filmmakers, Jim Jarmusch seems game to poke fun at himself, as evidenced in these clips from “The Simpsons” and “Bored to Death”.
  • Every indie film that’s shot in black and white where seemingly nothing happens owes its existence to “Stranger Than Paradise”.
  • Of the three leads, Richard Edson has continued acting, and even has two other NFR entries: “Do the Right Thing”, and his memorable turn as the parking garage attendant in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.
  • And of course, this movie’s drastic departure of a sequel: 2006’s “Stranger Than Fiction”.

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