By Afra Nariman
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson
Willie (played by John Lurie) is at first unwelcoming to his Hungarian teenage cousin Eva (played by Eszter Balint) when she comes to stay with him in New York, but after she leaves to go stay with their Aunt in Cleveland, Willie returns to his normal, boring life, and eventually realizes that he misses having her around. He sets off with his friend Eddie (played by Richard Edson) to visit her in Cleveland. The three of them ultimately take a road trip together to Florida for a change of scenery.
Jarmusch’s breakthrough feature film, and his 2nd overall, Stranger Than Paradise catapulted him to the top of the independent American cinema scene, and proved to be the first of many major works of his that set the standard for the genre throughout the 80s and beyond. Like many of his other early films (Permanent Vacation, Down By Law, Mystery Train, Dead Man), there is a theme of alienation and travel that defines this one. It tells the simple story of young people who are in a constant search to alleviate the inherent boredom of existence, and their persistent hope of excitement on the horizon — in the new. Nevertheless, they always seem to find boredom no matter where they go or what they do. Stranger Than Paradise comedically highlights American life; simplifying it to the most trivial activities and qualities that it has to offer. In the same light, the characters that this simplified version of American life is communicated through, share that quality. Like most of Jarmusch’s films, the characters are simplified and limited in scope; as far as what we are given to know about them, where they’ve been, and where they’re heading. This ambiguity allows the film to accomplish one of Jarmusch’s most prevalent cinematic styles — it allows the film to absorb us through character and personality, rather than in story and spectacle. We feel as if we are hanging out with them, accompanying them on their journey and their search for excitement in that “something new” that seems to elude them at every turn.
Willie and Eddie’s characters are simplified down to a few basic qualities, or pieces of information that we are given about them. They are a pair of friends who avoid working hard, instead relying on luck, as they pursue a life of excitement and riches. They play poker and rely on cashing in at horse races in order to get by.
In Jarmusch’s “Some Notes on Stranger Than Paradise,” that can currently be found in the Criterion Edition Booklet, he himself describes the story as:
“… a story about America, as seen through the eyes of ‘strangers.’ It’s a story about exile (both from one’s country and oneself), and about connections that are just barely missed.”Jim Jarmusch (notes on the film)
The film begins when Willie reluctantly hosts his teenage Hungarian cousin Eva in his small New York apartment for about 10 days, as she awaits their Aunt’s availability in Cleveland. The first part of the film is titled The New World, as it is for Eva, a foreign stranger in a new land, but also as it is for Willie, who is welcoming (although reluctantly at first), a new chapter into his life in many respects — even if nothing truly changes for him in the end. From the very beginning, we notice that Willie disdains his culture and his ancestry, and does everything in his power to leave it behind. For example, he absolutely refuses to speak or be spoken to, in Hungarian, a language that he seems to understand just fine. He is focused on fitting in with the crowd (as an American), but standing out in his Hungarian family. He even asserts that he does not consider himself part of the family at all. To be American, he partakes in many of the standard, stereotypical activities of an American at the time: he watches football, eats TV dinner, drinks beer, plays poker, and pursues riches. The “story” truly begins at the end of his ten days hosting Eva. He spent so much of the time he had with her trying to avoid her, shun her, and ultimately forget about her, that he never got to enjoy her company. He slowly grows to like having her around, and realizes it just before she leaves for Cleveland. When she does, he returns to his normal, uneventful existence alongside his best friend Eddie.
The second part of the film begins after the words “one year later” appear on a blank screen, between scenes. Willie and Eddie find themselves cheating at a game of poker, and soon after leaving the game, they decide that it’s time for a change of scenery, and for the elusive excitement that they constantly yearn for. Life has become nothing but existing for them. And so, they hit the road, on route to Cleveland to visit Eva and Willie’s Aunt. Their journey is extremely relatable, especially because its progression is so simple, leaving room for some level of imaginative comparison for each audience member. They are on the road, leaving everything behind them; with no worries, but a certain hope for the what lies ahead. The unknown can many times seem grander than the old, played out familiar. That is the case for the two of them.
In a comedic moment, on their way to Cleveland, their desire for riches becomes apparent, as they are ecstatic of their newly found “fortune” that they won cheating at poker. Willie asks Eddie how much money they currently have, to which Eddie, smiling, responds:
“We got a lot… we got almost 600 dollars… We’re a couple of rich men now.”
Their unwavering emphasis on relying on luck on their persistent path towards riches, only heightens as the film progresses.
In Cleveland, they are at first happy to see new faces in new places, but soon come to realize that the boredom of their gloomy, grey, plain existence followed them there. Eddie makes this clear when he admits to Willie:
“You know, it’s funny…You come to someplace new… and everything looks just the same.”
This sentiment, which is perhaps one of the overarching themes of the film, can be relatable to anyone who has ever, out of pure, inescapable boredom, got in their car with a friend and headed to some place with the hope that their boredom would stay behind, and that “something new” will be their salvation. As Willie and Eddie realized, that is not always the case. They began to question what they were even doing in Cleveland. In one last attempt at excitement, Willie, Eddie and Eva decide to take a road trip together to Florida, where their last hopes for “something new” ultimately lies.
Thus prompts the third and final part to the film: Paradise. In Florida, although you may think of glamorous beaches, lively crowds and towering palm trees — nothing really changes. Willie and Eddie selfishly leave Eva to entertain herself, while they spend all their time at the tracks — you guessed it — gambling in their pursuit of riches. After a frantic, quietly unpredictable ending, the three of them all accidentally end up separated, despite each doing their best to come back to each other.
The production of Stranger Than Paradise matches it’s simplistic story, but similar to the “story,” the production works effortlessly to absorb us into the stagnant, purposefully mundane events depicted on screen. Shot in distinct black and white, the film allows no room for distractions, as you find yourself inexplicably drawn into Willie, Eddie and Eva’s boredom as it unfolds into a funny, relatable hang-out movie. The subtle comedy that is sprinkled in, keeps a light and fun energy pulsing throughout the film. At times, the stagnant comedy provided by just watching the natural, uneventful moments of life — that are often not included in films — is at the forefront of this film’s best qualities. Most notable, from a production standpoint, is the unique, simplistic cinematography. It is made up of a collection of fragmented, single, uninterrupted sequence shots that fade in and out, each separated by a blank screen. Jarmusch’s minimalist filmmaking is as apparent as ever in his breakthrough film. From story, to music, to camera shots, and so on — Stranger Than Paradise is a wonderful portrayal of what “doing more with less” can mean in cinema.
Life is complacent and boring; at least most of the time it is. Sometimes Paradise exists more so in imagination, than in reality. Anything new, or seemingly exciting, can be a cause for hope, or a change of attitude and energy. Nevertheless, that “something new” is not always as grand as it may disguise itself to be in our minds. As human nature entails, we often dream of somewhere or something that is better than where we are, or what we have. We’re always chasing more. Stranger Than Paradise shows us that most of the time, it’s the hope that precedes the desired destination, that proves to be more exciting than the actual end of the line, which can often times not stack up to our lofty expectations. For Willie, Eddie and Eva, everywhere they go seems to look similar and offer the same feeling of boredom. The film shows us how many people live life in hope of living it differently, but are incapable of escaping what it is they are trying to leave behind. Life is life — everywhere.
Featuring the song, “I Put a Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Stranger Than Paradise manages to do just that: put a spell on us, as it moves at a hypnotic pace; making a rather slow, uneventful film, pass by quickly and leave us satisfied. As I’ve mentioned, it truly is a “hang out” film. The style, cinematography, simplified story, and limited personalities allow us to feel right there with the three characters on their seemingly endless pursuit of excitement, alleviation from boredom and ultimately, the paradise that exists in their hopes and imagination.