Jim Jarmusch’s ”Stranger Than Paradise” tells the story of a self-styled New York hipster, Willie (John Lurie), who is paid a most surprising and quite unwelcome visit by his Hungarian cousin, Eva, played by Eszter Balint. When she arrives, Willie treats her with cold indifference and they spend all their time doing practically nothing. She then leaves for Cleveland, where Willie and another friend of his, Eddie (Richard Edson), both of whom have gotten into trouble for cheating at poker, follow her. They then embark on a trip to Florida, where they decided to spend the money on gambling, but end up losing it. The film ends at the same place from where the trio’s journey began.
Quite interestingly, the film started out as a 30 minute short film project, shot on 16 mm, using leftover film stock from the production of Wim Wender’s Der Stand Der Dinge (1982) and developed into a 3-part long feature length film. It is told in the form of several single-take vignettes. The first part of the film, that which deals with the visit of Eva, is titled “The New World”; the second, “One Year Later” takes place in Cleveland; and the third “Paradise”, in Florida.
Jay Antani writes: “The film stands as a link between the past and the future, a synthesis of the Cassavetes-Scorsese brand of streetwise naturalism, and the aloofness and wry humor that characterizes much of modern independent cinema (Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater’s output, in particular).”
And yet, there is no clear message that the director seems eager to convey to his audience. The painting-like frames, offer no solace in interpretation. One event seems to give rise to another, yet there remains an uncanny randomness closely associated with the film. The only things that hold the various scenes together are the various musical pieces that the director has chosen, the most recurring of which is the song “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
The depiction of New York is nothing like it is in later Hollywood films; it is almost masterfully constructed to look bland; and Florida is not shown to be anything like the Paradise that it is famed to be. There is an absolute lack of vigour and goals, and there is a perpetual cloud of boredom and lack of direction present in the characters’ lives. The Paradise is disturbingly bleak.
Antani further discovers: “Theirs is an America of featureless cities and plains, rundown apartments and hotel rooms, doughnut joints, and highways that lead to nowhere in particular.”
The characters too do not develop morally or even by way of narrative devices. In fact, Jarmusch’s humour takes a while to get accustomed to, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes at once funny and full of wisdom. When they are leaving Cleveland, Eddie muses: ”You know, it’s kind of funny. You’re some place new, and everything looks just the same.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its use of black and white contrasts. Lengthy scenes abound in the film, enshrining some sort of ‘unknown’ or dark space surrounding each character. Maybe because the story itself lacks any sort of direction, the spectator never really gets to delve beneath the surface of any one character in particular. There seems to be a deliberate detachment, in a sense, aimed at creating a narrative opposite of the American Dream, and living carefree and on the edge, in a paradise that seems to have lost its glamour.
In 1984, the film won Jim Jarmusch the “Golden Camera” Award at the Cannes Film Festival. And in 1985, the Special Jury Award at Sundance Film Festival. In 2002, “Stranger Than Paradise” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Vipul Ralph Shah
[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mariacecita/487465105/]