Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise
Indie Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has always made films that are, to me, akin to punk rock: simple yet extremely effective and powerful. Especially his early works such as the 1984 absurdist comedy Stranger Than Paradise which I revisited recently. He is continuously able to take a minimalist approach to cinema and make something that all the SFX and action sequences in movies usually can’t give a viewer. What I am impressed most by is how throughout his career he has created such enjoyable low budget stories about people simply being. He does it better than anyone.
A teenager named Eva (Ezster Balint) has come from Hungary to visit her cousin Willie (John Lurie) for a couple days before moving on to Cleveland to live with their Aunt. When she arrives on his doorstep at his small New York apartment he’s not especially happy to see her. She’s going to invade his personal space and disrupt his hipster lifestyle which consists of…doing nothing much really. Yet, what begins as a contemptuous family visit, slowly grows to be a warm relationship between the two as they get to know each other better. When Willie’s best pal Eddie (Richard Edson) comes around he immediately takes a liking to Eva, the cute fish out of water. After Eva leaves, Willie seems a bit down but soon he and Eddie go back to their freewheeling ways.
ONE YEAR LATER we rejoin Willie and Eddie at a poker game which they are accused of cheating in and are swiftly thrown out of. Feeling uneasy about sticking around town, they decide to take a break for a few days, so they hop in the car and go on a road trip to see Eva. When they arrive in snow covered Cleveland they meet Willie’s Aunt and find out Eva is working at a fast food joint in town. They stop in and say hello and drive around to check out some different sights but realize there’s not too much to do or see. After a few days in the cold, desolate city, Willie and Eddie get bored and start their long drive back to New York. Suddenly they get an idea and decide to turn around, pick Eva up and go on a vacation to Florida together to escape the Winter weather.
Lurie’s Willie is the 80s Jarmusch New York punk kid character who doesn’t talk much and is more concerned with keeping an air of self styled coolness going. Edson’s Eddie is the dim, but faithful friend who adds comical moments to the story with his various unassuming comments. Balint’s Eva seems to be drifting like a feather in the wind throughout the movie. Her favorite song is “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin Jay Hawkins and she plays it over and over on her little tape recorder. All these little quirky details help give the movie a certain heartfelt charm that just makes you feel good.
The movie is almost exclusively shot in enclosed spaces (cars, apartments, hotels, diners), yet Jarmusch is able to make them feel big and spacious through his intimate style of shooting. While the characters aren’t especially flashy, their ‘salt of the earth’ personalities and simple, ‘take things as they come’ outlook on life just makes them endearing. They’re not just people on the screen, they become your friends as you spend time with them.
Jim Jarmusch is happy not concluding his stories in a forced, contrived way. Often his movies end with unresolved situations that have his characters floating off into different directions without any real reason. That itself is very refreshing when most Hollywood studio pictures are often required to tie things up in a nice neat bow to please audiences.