I’ll admit that the first movie in this little project didn’t exactly bolster my confidence for my Jarmusch project. In fact, I can’t imagine a first film from a director I’ve done a project on that I disliked more. But like most first projects, it’s never the bar you should judge a career on. Hell, the movie isn’t even available as its own release, coming as a special feature on the Criterion Collection release of this week’s film Stranger Than Paradise.
In the intervening four years between this and our last film, Jarmusch had dropped out of film school (Permanent Vacation his unsuccessful final project) and used the film given to him from a leftover project he was working on to shoot the first third of this week’s much more notably entry. Let’s get to it.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
From the start Stranger Than Paradise goes out of its way to subvert itself. A stark title card of The New World introduces Willie (John Lurie), a man with an off-kilter hat and the eternal slouchiness and surliness of a man who wants very hard to be taken seriously. He receives a phone call that his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) is coming from Hungary to stay with him in his New York City apartment for ten days on her way to visit an aunt. Willie’s protests are all for naught as Eva is already in the city.
Eva steps out onto the New York Street as a character who is already uninterested in the city around her. She rummages in her bag and pulls out a tape player, putting on “I Put A Spell on You.” She trudges down the street to Willie’s place with the song playing like a march and a theme song, a stark contrast to her utilitarian outfit and hair ridiculously pulled into one of the greatest set of bangs in cinema.
Willie greets her with something approaching indifference, offering her a space to stay but nothing else in the way of hospitality. He doesn’t ask her about herself, he doesn’t feed her, he doesn’t show her the sights. The film is presented as a series of vignettes in stark black and white, an unmoving camera dropped into the scene as it simply plays out before us. It feels like the world’s most underplayed sitcom, The Honeymooners by way of Goddard, these two people locked in this small space. They exist and interact, and sometimes Willie’s friend Eddie–even more aimless and schlubby than Willie, but with an obvious interest in Eva–drops by the provide another person to take up space.
Stranger Than Paradise is a movie that seems completely removed from the concept of plot as a critical element in film. We watch Eva and Willie stay up all night watching TV or Eva trying in vain to tidy up the tiny apartment. In one particular scene, Willie cooks a TV dinner. Eva asks what it is, and why it’s called what it is, and why the meat doesn’t look like meat. It becomes clear that he sits at the table and eats it in silence because there aren’t enough things in his life to combine meal time and TV time. There are long hours to fill and so little to fill them with.
Eva eventually endears herself to Willie before she goes, spurring him to get her a dress she accepts only begrudgingly, wearing until the moment she’s out the door where she tosses it in the trash and wanders out of their life. The loss is palpable, a light dropping out of both of Willie and Eddie’s lives. The two men are as aimless as ever, but it feels a little more desperate.
A year passes, and Willie and Eddie make a decent amount of money at poker. Bored with New York, Willie decides to get a car and travel to Cleveland to go see Eva. So begins the two men on the road, a bleak trek through the wasteland of the American countryside. We see it mostly as a low shot from inside the car, the two men filling up the screen, the landscape just the tops of buildings and trees and the endless monotony of the grey sky overhead. They arrive in Cleveland only to find the desolation of winter and an only modestly excited Eva. Soon enough they end up in the same pattern of watching TV, going to the movies (accompanied by Eva’s nondescript date, the four of them the only people in the theater) and sitting around playing cards with Eva and Willie’s aunt (an unyielding woman who wins every time with the deadpan declaration of “I’m de veenor”).
It’s Eddie that finally, as the two men stand on the snow-swept railroad tracks waiting for Eva to get off of work, says the obvious: “You know, it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.” Willie replies with a blunt “No kiddin’, Eddie” but neither man realizes the problem doesn’t lie with where they are but who they are. Every place is a dead end and nobody’s a winner when Willie and Eddie roll into down. They decide the only thing they can do is head back home, leaving with Eva joking that if they ever come back they should come and rescue her from all this.
Thus begins the last third of the film, labelled Paradise in a similarly subversive way, as Willie and Eddie decide once they hit the road that instead of going to New York they’ll head to Florida to make their fortune betting on dog and horse races. They swing back around and liberate the only somewhat willing Eva before heading down to Florida. They talk about Miami and the people and the beaches, but end up in a run down hotel in the middle of seemingly nowhere, leaving Eva alone each day to lose more and more of their money.
What follows is the most plot-heavy bit of the film, as Eva is mistaken during her solitary beachside walks as someone known to a local strung out drug dealer and receives a large stack of cash. She decides to use it to get out of the dead end hell the three of them are in, leaving some money for Willie and Eddie and a note informing them she’s going to the airport to hop on the first plane out of there. Of course, when she gets there, the only plane left is one to Budapest, taking her right back where she started. Refusing to accept it, she heads back to the empty hotel as Willie and Eddie head for the airport, hearing about the one plane out of there and Willie using all the money to get onto the plane right before it takes off, recognizing his mistake only too late. And just like that, the three of them are scattered to the winds.
What’s interesting about Stranger Than Paradise is that it honestly isn’t much more reliant upon storytelling than Permanent Vacation was, but simply by having more people and better actors it creates a world that is more convincing and more humanistic. The characters are never people you’d want to know but they’re people you understand and have a pitying affection for. Their hopelessness is funny, in its own straight faced way. Their pretensions play out like a not-twee, anarchic Wes Anderson film, aimlessness coming together to form something like a direction before it all blows apart by fate or chance or the inevitable sabotage of the defeatist personalities involved.
The reality is that Stranger Than Paradise is the epitome of a small film. There’s no money, nothing more than a series of rooms for the characters to be in, a story that’s little more than a linear string of small scenes of people just being people. But it’s that humanism that works, turning a story that could have been insufferably droll or mopey (like Permanent Vacation) into something more immediate and more relatable.