Judge Ben Saylor is a wild man, so bug off.
"You know, it's funny. You go someplace new, and everything looks just the same."—Eddie (Richard Edson)
Independent film favorite Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai) made his name with his second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, which won the Camera d'Or prize at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. Jarmusch's tale of three outsiders is funny, good-natured, and poignant, and one of the director's best works. Long out of print, Stranger Than Paradise has been given a sterling DVD package from Criterion that is a must for Jarmusch fans.
Facts of the Case
Hungarian-American Willie (John Lurie, Down By Law) is content to hang out in his tiny New York apartment watching TV and playing solitaire, go to horse races, and play poker. His peaceful, modest existence is disrupted by the arrival of his 16-year-old cousin, Eva (Eszter Balint), from Hungary. At first annoyed at having to house his quiet, Screamin' Jay Hawkins-loving relative, Willie warms to her when she shoplifts from a nearby store.
A year later, Eva is living with her and Willie's Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark) in Cleveland. After cheating at a game of cards, Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) decide to get out of New York for a while and drop in on Eva and Aunt Lotte. However, Willie and Eddie soon become bored with frozen, barren Cleveland, and set off for Florida with Eva in tow; the three soon find themselves on separate paths.
It's hard for me to explain a Jim Jarmusch film to someone, let alone write about it. I can tell you this: I absolutely love this movie. I don't throw the word "perfect" around a lot, but for what Jarmusch set out to do, I think he comes pretty close to delivering a perfect movie with Stranger Than Paradise. Everything—the writing, the acting, the camera work—comes together in a way that seems just right. Watching the film, you know you're seeing something wholly unique and truly special.
Humor is a large part of Stranger Than Paradise's appeal to me. The film's first segment, "The New World," in which Eva arrives at Willie's apartment and stays there for several days, is probably the funniest part of the film. By "funny," I don't mean ache-in-your-side, tears-in-your-eyes funny, but the clever kind that puts a smile on your face and keeps it there for a long time. It's a lot of fun to watch Eva and Willie interact; a scene where Eva questions Willie about his TV dinner is a highlight, as is a scene where Eva tells Willie to "bug off" because he's putting down her favorite musician, Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The second portion, entitled "One Year Later," while set in a bleak, wintry (and all-too-familiar for me, as I don't live too far away) Cleveland, still has healthy doses of humor, thanks to the amusing Aunt Lotte and Eva's goofy would-be suitor Billy (Danny Rosen). One moment in this segment that is worth mentioning is when Willie and Eddie go to pick up Eva from work. Upon arriving at the hot dog stand where Eva works, they pull their hats down on their faces and look away so she won't recognize them at first, all the while grinning like a couple of little kids sharing a secret joke. Even in the third segment, "Paradise," where the tenuous bond formed by the three breaks (or seems to), there are light, true moments. Overall, the comedy in Stranger Than Paradise feels natural and unforced, delivered mostly in deadpan by Jarmusch's cast.
Jarmusch effectively sets the comic but mundane travails of his characters against equally mundane and often squalid backdrops. As in many of his films, particularly Down By Law and Mystery Train, Jarmusch conveys a powerful sense of place in Stranger Than Paradise. By shooting the film in long-take master shots, he gives us so much time to study the environments the characters interact in that we can't help but become familiar with the surroundings. The locations also help us understand the characters better. Whether it's Willie's cramped apartment, Aunt Lotte's small, modest home, or the tacky Florida motel room the three end up in, the geographical location might change, but the characters don't (although the end, depending on one's point of view, seems to suggest the hope of change). Sure, Willie likes having Eva around, but even after he and Eddie take her to Florida, he still makes her stay in the motel room when the pair go off to the races. Same story, different room. In one of the extras on this DVD, Jarmusch said the characters in Stranger Than Paradise are "resigned" to their existences. It's an apt description, and goes a long toward explaining why the characters behave as they do.
Jarmusch's actors are all well suited to the task at hand. Frequent Jarmusch collaborator Lurie is terrific as the fedora-donning Willie. Lurie makes the character funny but also a bit of a jerk; even still, it's hard to ever stay mad at Willie. Edson is amusing as the goofy Eddie; his facial expressions, especially when he first meets Eva in Willie's apartment, are clownish but natural, and he's always fun to watch. I think everybody's probably met somebody like Eddie: good-natured but passive, always a follower. Balint, too, is great as Eva, whether she's dancing to Hawkins or sitting around Willie's apartment bored. She is amusingly blunt in expressing her feelings, like when she calls a dress Willie buys her "ugly."
The film's visual approach is also interesting, and is probably a make-or-break factor for the uninitiated as to whether they would enjoy this movie. Out of a decision that was both practical (a low budget) and artistic, Stranger Than Paradise was filmed entirely in master shots, with blackouts separating scenes. The camera is often static, but does pan or tilt to follow movement within a shot. Much of the time, however, characters move in and out of the frame like actors on a stage. This might bore some, but to the patient viewer, it actually works well.
The Criterion Collection has presented Stranger Than Paradise in an excellent transfer. I never owned MGM's 2000 release of this film (now out of print) and only watched it once, so I don't remember what it looked like, but Tom DiCillo's black-and-white cinematography sure looks great here. The sound quality is also good, or at least as good as can be expected from a low-budget production.
Criterion's two-disc set confines all of the extras to the second disc. First and foremost is Jarmusch's heretofore-unreleased-on-DVD first feature, Permanent Vacation, presented in a grainy (likely due to a super-low budget) full-frame transfer, with a runtime of 75 minutes. The film stars Chris Parker as the pompadoured youth Aloysius "Allie" Parker, who wanders through a rundown, eerie late-1970s New York encountering a variety of strange characters (including a saxophonist played by Lurie). I'm glad this was included on the DVD, because as a huge Jarmusch fan who's seen all his other features (with the exception of Neil Young doc Year of the Horse), I really wanted to see his debut. Having seen it, however, I don't know if I'll ever watch it again. Jarmusch's films are all kind of strange and operate in a universe of their own, but Permanent Vacation is another animal entirely. For the most part, I just couldn't get interested in what was going on. Experimental film fans might enjoy this film, but I can't say I did.
Next up is Kino '84: Jim Jarmusch, a 1984 German television program featuring interviews with cast and crew members from both Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation. Unfortunately, going into the program (which runs a little under 45 minutes), I didn't realize that it would be dealing with Permanent Vacation, which the program spends at least half its time on, even playing several scenes again. Eventually, the program shifts gears to Stranger Than Paradise, with interviews with Jarmusch, Edson, Balint, and Lurie. I've seen Jarmusch speak on other DVD features before, and he's always interesting to listen to; it was nice to hear from the cast as well.
Also on Disc Two is a 14-minute short film called "Some Days in January 1984," a silent work shot on Super 8 by Jarmusch's brother Tom. This was the only feature on MGM's 2000 release. It is fairly interesting, although I'm glad it didn't run any longer. Rounding out the disc are a collection of location scouting photos and U.S. and Japanese trailers for the film. Criterion packages the DVD with its usual fine booklet packed with essays by Jarmusch, Geoff Andrew, J. Hoberman, and Luc Sante.
If you've already seen some of Jim Jarmusch's other films and not enjoyed them, Stranger Than Paradise probably won't change your mind about the filmmaker. However, if you're already a fan, you more than likely already know what a great movie this is, and shouldn't hesitate to pick this DVD up, even if you already own the MGM disc. With their DVD of Stranger Than Paradise, Criterion has done a fine service to a fine film.
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Scales of Justice
• Permanent Vacation, Director Jim Jarmusch's Feature Debut
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