Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stranger Than Paradise - 1984

I was galumphing around the Internet last week, searching for images of Eszter Balint (for Facebook celebrity doppelganger week--don't ask), but disappointingly, there were only a few shots from "Stranger Than Paradise," none in close-up (there were no close-ups in that film); certainly no portraits. And some more recent shots, promoting her music career, but hardly any from Jim Jarmusch's deadpan masterpiece.

So I'm going to remedy the situation by posting some stills from "Paradise." It's one of those films that shouldn't have worked at all but against all odds it works wonderfully. I hope no one over at Criterion minds. There's a serious lack of Eszter Balint imagery on the Internets. I'm offering a solution right here, right now.

"Stranger Than Paradise" is noted by film historians for mainly one concept: it changed the rules of cinema. Through singular vision, warped humor, bravery, or sheer nuttiness, Jarmusch played around with the basic "rules" of drama: story arc, conflict, resolution, and basically said to hell with that and created a flat, meaningless universe of blight and emptiness. Eva arrives from Eastern Europe to stay with her Aunt Lotte in Cleveland, gets waylaid to cousin Willie's New York City studio apartment for ten days, then is on her way. Ultimate no-good-nick hipster Willie and his clone Eddie make feeble attempts to connect with Eva again and the whole gang ends up in Nowheresville, Florida, repeating the patterns of their lives. It's bleak comedy in grainy black and white. And now...

Welcome to America!

This is the shot continually thrown around the Internet to sum up the film. It's really more opinionated than anything else the film offers though, and although it looks cool and certainly represents the NYC of 1984, it's not what the film is truly about.

The film is about the emigrant experience of the American Dream, a concept that is flattened here, squashed into a ball and tossed into a wastebasket, or more likely onto a pile of trash on the street during a garbage strike. Much of New York resembled this in the 80s. It was fascinating in a warped way.

Doing nothing with nothing on TV.

Eva dances to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' I Put a Spell on You. Her obsession with this song, brought back to life by Jarmusch after decades of neglect, along with her flat proclamation, "It's Screamin' Jay Hawkins and he's a wild man so bug off," plus her fabulous androgynous fashion sense make her the coolest teenager in cinematic history. In my opinion. I've been dressing similarly to Eva for 35 years and have had people tell me I should try to be "more feminine" for about the same amount of time. So I'm biased.

Ah, New York.

It's a road trip film so it's all about the journey. Except not in this film because they're on the road to seemingly nowhere.

Jarmusch in the background, eating a hotdog.

I've always loved the simplicity of this scene. Four people watching a bad film with a ridiculous kung fu soundtrack. We Americans in general spend a lot of time sitting on our asses, watching stuff, but this had never been portrayed so adequately until this moment.


Aunt "I am the vinner" Lotte. She is so my grandmother, except my grandmother's family came here by way of Mexico.


The Lake.


Every motel I've ever stayed in.

And there you have it, the American Dream, Jarmusched.


el space vato said...

Love this film... and Down By Law is actually one of my ALL TIME FAVORITES! I own them both on DVD.

Funny story... my live in girlfriend in the early/mid 1980's and I went to see this when it first opened in SF. She absolutely hated it and naturally I absolutely loved it.
A year or so later we break up but remained friends. Around that period Down By Law came out and I win two tickets from KUSF to see it. I ask her if she'd like to go. She reluctantly agrees as she comments on how much she hated the first one.

After the film I am ready to start a cult to worship Jarmusch. The ex hates this movie even more than Stranger Than Paradise!

In front of the theater she and I are actually debating the merits of the film...

Her: "It was pointless and slow."

Me: "It's paced slow but it's brilliant that way. The humor was great! I love that little Italian guy!"

Her: "What humor? That wasn't funny at all!"

Me: "Well, it figures... you like the fucking Eagles and KFOG and I like the Minutemen and KUSF! Jesus Christ! You think that Police Academy is the funniest movie ever!"

then she slaps me and storms off...

True story. STILL love these movies.

cww said...

Ha ha! Thanks for sharing, Space Vato. That may be the all-time best comment in CWW history. I loved Down By Law when I first saw it. That opening scene with Tom Waits and Ellen Barkin KILLED me. Brilliant scene featuring complete raw anger. But funny too. And weird of course. Roberto Benigni--pure delight. It's a great film and another road trip. Jarmusch likes the road. I bet that conversation you had after the movie was carried out throughout the United States. Hopefully not too many slaps. Violence is never OK, especially when it comes to film criticism.