Stranger Than Paradise is the first movie directed by Jim Jarmusch, whose mediocre previous work, Permanent Vacation, should only be considered as the final film school’s project of a promising student. Released in 1984 and produced with a tight budget of 100 thousand dollars, it had an unprecedented success: Jarmusch won awards and prizes in various festivals, including Cannes, and the movie achieved cult status in no time. And today I’m writing about it in this prestigious (?) blog!
The plot can be summarized as follows. Willie (played by Jarmusch’s friend already seen in Permanent Vacation, John Lurie) is a Hungarian idler who for years has been living in New York in a dirty and tiny apartment. His only friend seems to be Eddie, played by Richard Edson, a former Sonic Youth drummer here at his debut as an actor. At one point, Willie must help his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) who comes directly from Budapest to settle in Cleveland with her aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark): Willie treats his cousin as badly as possible by ignoring her almost completely for the few days in which they share the apartment.
Yet, a year after she left for Cleveland, Willie decides to go visit Eva and, taking advantage of a good horse bet and some poker scams, accompanied by the loyal Eddie goes to Cleveland in what becomes a vacation in Florida together with Eva. That’s it. In fact, talking about the plot in a Jarmusch film is not always very informative because everything happens in a surreal atmosphere, which is also the main comedy ingredient of the movie. Some, but not all, of the absurd situations experienced by these incredible characters are in fact very funny.
Of the places I mentioned so far we see almost nothing: a horrible apartment in New York, the aunt’s house in Cleveland, and a cheap motel in the middle of nowhere in Florida. And this leads to one of the most successful jokes of the film, when Eddie says that in the end all places are basically the same! Well, if you spend your days playing cards at home, whether you’re in New York or Cleveland doesn’t make much of a difference!
The interpersonal relationships between the three main characters are also minimalist, which is another mechanism used by Jarmusch to create comic situations. Willie and Eddie themselves wonder why they are doing what they are doing when they go with the cousin to the cinema with her friend/boyfriend Billy (Danny Rosen): why should they control her, since they never did that and, presumably, they will never do that again?
But where the film excels is in the finale. The Paradise of the title is Florida of which we see, in fact, only a sordid motel. A lot of ridiculous things happen there, including a misunderstanding in which Eva ends up with a lot of money, Eddie’s ridiculous premonitions, and Willie’s rush to the airport, and the ending is actually really funny.
What about the movie? I found it the natural evolution of the previous Permanent Vacation. This time everything is in black and white (it won’t be the last time for Jarmusch) and it’s structured as a series of long takes separated by one or two seconds of black screen. The jokes exchanged by the characters, all rigorously smokers, are surreal and barely manage to advance the plot. The film is all about creating a non-sensical atmosphere that ultimately come out as funny for their absurdity. For example, it’s easy to laugh in the scenes at the Cleveland cinema, the visit of Lake Erie during a snowstorm, or the poker game in New York. It’s also good fun to witness the absurd relationship between Willie, who sees himself as a cool guy but who really isn’t, and his partner Eddie who speaks well of a number of places he’s never seen before in his life.
What we see of the places visited by the protagonists is ugly, cramped and dirty. Differently from the previous movie by the same director, this time there’s little music, basically just the song I Put A Spell On You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who will then star in Mystery Train by Jarmusch) coming out of Eva’s portable tape player, something that Willie doesn’t like. So, what do I think about Stranger Than Paradise? It made Jarmusch a big name within a type of independent cinema that doesn’t care about anything or anyone since he demonstrated that with little money he could make feature films with something to say. For example, among other things Stranger Than Paradise is a reflection on the alienation of foreigners and of those who live on the margins of society, a theme which is constantly on screen for an hour and twenty minutes and whose atmosphere won’t leave the audience for quite a while after having seen the movie. Maybe it takes a little too long to get going, and only the third act really works as a comedy, but still it manages to leave its mark and bears the unmistakable signature of an author whose films are all absolutely recognizable. Ciao!