Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

“It’s funny — you come to someplace new and everything looks just the same.”

A hustler named Willie (John Lurie) and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) entertain Willie’s 16-year-old cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), who has recently arrived from Hungary.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Misfits
  • Road Trip

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “very funny, original, independent film by writer-director Jim Jarmusch” consists of a “formal style” — “influenced by innovative European and Japanese filmmakers” — in which “Jarmusch has the actors perform in front of a strategically placed static camera” and “the picture fades to black at the end of each scene.” He notes that “its intention is to allow viewers to watch whatever they want within the frame, instead of having cuts to close-ups that force viewers to accept what the filmmaker thinks is the most important thing happening at a particular time.” Moreover, he asserts that “the static camera perfectly reflects the static lifestyles of the characters we watch,” who are “equally dull.”

Peary acknowledges that “at first the picture is jarring because nothing happens,” and “you won’t understand why it has received such critical praise.” But he notes that “soon you realize the humor comes from the fact that these people are incapable of breaking free from their boredom.” He posits that “the dialogue manages to be funny, although the characters are completely deadpan in their delivery and say very little that is perceptive,” and he asserts that “the characters are hilarious — and real! — and the actors are terrific.”

Sadly, I disagree with Peary’s review — as well as those of numerous other prominent critics, who seem to be uniform in their praise of this “groundbreaking” indie flick. J. Hoberman, for instance, writes:

Stranger Than Paradise is far more than the sum of its influences. The film is too strongly imagined and assembled to ever seem derivative. It’s never less than wholly and confidently itself. [It] has the timeless quality of a long-running comic strip: it’s as instantly familiar and ineffably weird as Gasoline Alley or Moon Mullins. Eva, Willie, and Eddie may be cartoon characters with unintelligible inner lives, but it’s just that enigmatic two-dimensionality that makes Stranger Than Paradise so funny and gives the film, at once ethereal and hard-boiled, the look and feel of a classic.

I believe Stranger Than Paradise is a case of a movie being very much of-its-time. When I first watched it as a teenage film fanatic, I vaguely remember being blown away by its daring and innovative deadpan style. Now, to be honest, I have no tolerance for it on any level (other than still appreciating Tom DiCillo’s cinematography). Why in the world would we want to spend time with any of these characters? Clearly I’m in polar opposition to Hoberman’s assertion that “Half the fun in Jarmusch’s leisurely paced film is just watching those palookas breathe”; nope. And why do we need a film to relentlessly show us how alienated Americans are from themselves, their environment, and any sense of greater purpose? The last thing I personally want to do is watch people drift from one meaningless “activity” to another, discovering that wherever you go in the interchangeable landscape of industrialized America — there you are. A few of the entries from the Four Word Film Review site seem most apt to me:

Chumps visit Cleveland, Florida.
Bored hipster hosts cousin.
Jarmusch leaves celluloid blank.

I’m not a Jarmusch fan, so clearly I’m biased — but I wouldn’t consider this must-see except for its historical role in indie American filmmaking.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Stark b&w cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re curious or a Jarmusch fan.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

  1. Agreed; not must-see.

    I’m in particular agreement with this statement: [The last thing I personally want to do is watch people drift from one meaningless “activity” to another, discovering that wherever you go in the interchangeable landscape of industrialized America — there you are.]

    When Jarmusch first hit the scene, people seemed to be falling all over themselves with praise. I didn’t get it. Of the number of films of his that I’ve seen in his subsequent career, there hasn’t been a single one that I’ve liked. (Admittedly, I’ve not yet seen the Peary-listed Jarmusch debut, ‘Permanent Vacation’.) Granted, that’s just my opinion – but it has always surprised me that someone who makes such lackluster films would be so intent on continuing on.

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