P D Dawson
Stranger Than Paradise (1984) - Another Look at Jarmusch
'You know, it's funny... you come to someplace new, an'... and everything looks just the same.' - Eddie
Jim Jarmusch's first film, Permanent Vacation (1980), was shot for his final thesis at New York University's film school. Stranger Than Paradise was his next project which took four years to complete. It was initially a standalone 30 min short film and released as such, but later Jarmusch developed it into a three-act full-length feature. This film was very different to the kind of movies being made by Hollywood at the time, and it is said to have inspired a new wave of independent filmmakers into making the avant-garde more accessible in film.
In many ways this film is a candid exposure of the failings of the American dream, and highlights the baron harshness and loneliness that can exist in both the urban and suburban areas of the so called land of opportunity. It follows three main characters, Willie, Eddie and Eva. Willie is the self-proclaimed man about town, Eddie is his friend, who gets bossed about a lot by him, and Eva is Willie's Hungarian sixteen year-old cousin, who he reluctantly has to babysit for ten days, while his Aunt Lotte is in hospital. Initially Willie doesn't make any effort to welcome Eva to his flat, and even shows his annoyance at her company, but eventually he warms to her, to the point of being upset when she has to leave and go back home to Cleveland.
The second part of the film catches up with Willie and Eddie one year on. They are playing poker, conning the men they are playing with, when Willie decides they should get away and go on a vacation with the money they've just won. He proposes to Eddie that they go and visit Eva in Cleveland. They leave the washed out, desolate, black and white bleakness of New York and arrive in Cleveland. But they soon find Cleveland is just as bleak as New York, with the added discomfort of it being mostly buried in snow and much colder. They soon get bored and leave Cleveland for home, but they don't get very far before Willie comes up with the idea of going back and picking up Eva, rescuing her from the coldness, and going to Florida for a vacation.
The third part sees them arriving in Florida, but although the weather is hot, Jarmusch manages to keep the baron feel of the previous two locations. Jarmusch doesn't give us the deep blacks and contrasting whites, for the film has a slightly overexposed and washed out emptiness to it, and thus in turn we feel a vibrating emptiness to the world inhabited by the three main characters. Interestingly the three parts of the film can be defined by part one taking place on Willie and Eddie's ground, the second, on Eva's ground, and the third on the neutral ground of Florida.
So we are left to ponder whether it is the characters and the decisions they make, especially in the case of Willie and Eddie losing most of their money on a dog racing bet, that have made their lives so bleak and empty, or is it the inescapable harshness and in-opportunity of their world? Willie treats Eva really badly when they get to Florida, by leaving her alone in the motel, and I felt great empathy for her plight in this part of the film, but this only serves to satisfy the viewer with a change in fortune for her by the end of the film. There is a fourth part to this film left to the imagination, but I shall not spoil that here.
The song, 'I Put a Spell on You,' by Screamin' Jay Hawkins is played at least twice in the movie, first when Eva arrives in New York before meeting Willie, and again when they are in the car on the way to Florida. And that's what Jarmusch manages to do with this film. He manages to put us under his spell for the duration of the film, and he doesn't let us go, not even when the film has finished, for the haunting loneliness of the wold he committed to film back in 1984, still lingers with a sense of wonder, still haunts us with its strange but endearing emptiness, and most of all it still buzzes with a sense of timelessness and truth. All the actors are naturalistic, almost so natural they verge on the point of being unbelievable, perhaps too real and lifelike for film, but Jarmusch pulls it off, and is still doing so today.
His films have a unique feel to them, marrying the strange with the familiar, that in many ways reflects his own character. He is familiar with the human condition, yet his approach is always slightly off kilter, and this is what makes his films so revealing, for he often looks at life from an unconventional angle. And on the face if it he is still the same auteur as he was back in 1984. His budgets may be bigger now, but that hasn't made him turn his back on what matters. He is a true artist, and I'm sure he would even admit himself, that what comes out on film isn't always something that can be explained or planned. Sometimes what comes off the screen is magic, and Jarmusch seems to possess that rare talent of being able to produce magic at will.
Stranger Than Paradise is a great film on its own, but I recommend an exploration of all Jarmusch's early films with the Jim Jarmusch Boxset below.