Stranger than Paradise – Jim Jarmusch and the deadpan comedy of the absurd. (film review)

The film world on the internet is buzzing with Oscar chat at the moment, and seeing as so many of American offerings in the best film category this year are a poor affair at best, I thought it was a good idea to remember there have been some truly great American films made – even if they weren’t made in 2012. Stranger than Paradise is just such a film. As regular readers of the blog are aware, I am a regular viewer of European cinema and for me, Stranger than Paradise falls comfortably into a kind of Americanized version of Godard/Fassbinder trail with a fair thwack of Cassavetes for good measure. However, two things that took me by surprise that seem to be all Jarmusch, is how extremely funny this film is and how much I fell in love with each of the three main characters.


Stranger than Paradise is Jarmusch’s second film, his follow up to Permenant Vacation and the film that sets the pattern for his future contributions as a director. It is a deceptively simple film, and in that lies Jarmusch’s power. The plot is nothing and he confines his characters in the same ennui-ridden funk that he started in Permanent Vacation. Yet, despite these dreary environs, his characters are warm, humane and very funny. The humour here is deadpan.  The trio of main actors, John Lurie
Eszter Balint and Richard Edson perfectly deliver their lines in a film where many of them rest on the need for flawless timing. I found myself laughing out loud over and over and more as the film progressed and I’d gotten accustomed to the humor. Many of the funniest lines are produced by Edson, the king of cool himself.  He stares into the wall of white of an iced over lake in the middle of a snowstorm and exclaims “Beautiful” with timing that would make a Swiss watch envious. He repeatedly extolls the virtues of visiting many different places, only to eventually declare he’s never been himself. He is a wonderful character actor and Jarmusch lets him shine in Stranger than Paradise.


The structure of the film itself is designed to reflect the ennui of the three main characters – actually the ennui of everyone in the film. It is filmed in a series of uninterrupted shots.  The picture fades in and when the scene is over (and single takes are usually very long) the picture fades to black and we move to the next scene. We are therefore left with a disjointed plodding feel as the film develops that could present a pacing problem for some viewers. However, if you can relax into it, the pacing is more of that comic timing. The large lettering of “ONE YEAR LATER” that stands between the first visit between Willie and Eva and the second is hilarious because so little has happened at this point in the film it seems ridiculous to emphasize the point. The film is black and white and rooms are too small and snow too oppressive. Everything feels closed in. People are always on top of each other and falling over each other. In a world where nothing is going right and no one is happy, everything is funny.


Also in Stranger than Paradise is a lovely little subtext of the effect of environment on emotion, which draws on the small rooms, but also on the city environs and their impact.  Every city the trio visit is meant to help them in their escape from themselves. They have fled Budapest to new York, only to find they haven’t changed. They flee new York for Cleveland only to find they haven’t changed. Then they leave Cleveland for the promise of heat, beaches and bikinis in Florida, only to find everything is the same their also.  The images of New York, Cleveland and Florida, except for the weather, are frighteningly similar.  It’s a lovely way to depict the impact of landscape on emotion, but also of emotions impact on how we see the world.


Important to note is the film’s impact on history. It became very influential in the 1980’s and became a sort of benchmark for independent film makers for ever after. It is cited for giving “an early example of the low-budget independent wave that would dominate the cinematic marketplace a decade later.” (Williams, Karl. “Stranger Than Paradise > Review”. All Media Group. Retrieved December 30, 2009.) The film established Jarmusch as an uncompromising auteur, and placed the art-film well within the reach of all kinds of audiences.  Never again would art films be considered too outside the mainstream to consider wide-spread release.  It took Jarmusch four years to make the film, and it was leached from a short he made just after film school. The best thing about Stranger than Paradise however, is how funny and how warm it is. A wonderful viewing experience.


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