Monday, November 20, 2006

Stranger Than Paradise * Jim Jarmusch * 1984

In an effort to expound upon the origin of this blog’s name—and to discuss one of my favorite movies—I figured this was an opportune time to revisit Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film, Stranger Than Paradise.

As the film opens, egotistical self-styled Lower East Side hipster Willie complains to Aunt Lottie that his Hungarian cousin Eva’s impending ten-day stopover at his apartment on her way to Cleveland will force him to put his life on hold—however, we soon observe that his life consists of sleeping, watching TV, and playing cards, not to mention long periods of staring at walls. Moments later, Eva is seen lugging her swollen shopping bags down the graffitied run-down streets, while Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” plays from a tiny handheld tape player hooked between her fingers: the catalyst looms closer and closer to the reactant.

Throughout her stay, Willie constantly gives Eva a hard time, telling her she can’t come with him to hang out with his friend, Eddie, whose welcoming but naively clueless quality well-complements Willie’s, criticizing her for not embracing American customs—more on that momentarily—and berating her when she scoffs at his warning not to wander south of Clinton Street: “You don’t know what’s going on with this city, you’ve never been here before…you think you’re so motherfucking together!”

Willie derides Eva for her inability to grasp the concepts of American staples like TV dinners (“It doesn’t even look like meat”) and football (“I think this game is really stupid.”) In one of my favorite scenes, Eva asks for a vacuum cleaner so she can clean the dirty apartment. Willie tells her that the phrase “vacuuming” is too formal, and that if she really wants to speak like an American, she should call it “choking the alligator.” Eva smiles, though it is uncertain as to whether she has been duped by this feigned act of kindness or she is simply amused by his creative attempts at fucking with her, repeating, “I am choking the alligator.”

Willie is embarrassed of his Hungarian descent to an irrational degree—perhaps it was the subject of derision for him when he was a child, or he is terrified that it will somehow make him un-cool. He repeatedly implores Aunt Lottie and Eva to speak English, and, it turns out, has changed his name from Bela to the more American-sounding Willie. He has shed every ounce of his Hungarian heritage, completely assimilating into American culture, so that upon meeting Eva, Eddie says to Willie, “I didn’t know you were from Hungary, or Budapest or any of those places. I thought you were an American!” Willie shoots back, “I’m as American as you are!” Despite all of Willie’s attempts at hipsterdom, it is quite clear that Eva is infinitely cooler, especially since she doesn’t have to try so hard. (She wins extra points after the line, “It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and he’s a wild man so bug off,” in response to Willie’s objections to the music she’s listening to.)

Willie eventually warms up to Eva after she brings home some food that she apparently shoplifted. (Willie: “I thought you didn’t have any money.” Eva: “I got this stuff with no money.” Willie: “You’re all right, kid.”) In a gesture partly in apology, partly out of self-importance, Willie presents Eva with a dress he bought for her, imploring her to put it on, as she “should dress like people dress here.” She reluctantly wears it out the door on her way to the train station, but pulls on some pants once she’s outside, removing the dress to reveal another shirt underneath. “This dress bugs me,” she tells Eddie as she passes him on the street. (Once upstairs, Willie brags to Eddie about the dress.)

Now that Eva is gone, they return to sharing a beer in silence, staring at each other, not knowing what to do with themselves. They don’t even seem to have anything to say to one another. She has been the single most interesting event to come into their lives in some time.

“One year later,” as we’re told by the stark white lettering on the black screen, Willie and Eddie are leaving town to visit Eva in Cleveland after being caught cheating at cards (by none other than Rockets Redglare, former bodyguard of Sid Vicious and Jean-Michel Basquiat, in a cameo appearance), though Willie claims the two events are unrelated. Eva is ecstatic to see them, especially when they agree to take her with them on the next leg of their trip to Florida. It seems as though they’re rescuing her from her dreary mundane existence working at a hot dog stand, staying with crotchety Aunt Lottie, who treats her “like a baby”—probably not the exciting vision of America she expected—but once in Florida, Willie reverts back to his old self, forbidding Eva from leaving the motel room while he and Eddie go to the race tracks.

Disappointed and isolated, Eva wanders alone by the barren beach, waiting hours for her travel companions to return. In a subtly humorous scene, she, wearing sunglasses and a floppy hat she bought at a gift shop, is stopped by a man wearing goggles and a woolen hat with earflaps (played by rapper and graffiti artist Rammellzee) who, clearly mistaking her for someone else, dumps a wad of cash in her hand and stalks off, exasperatedly announcing, “You tell Romero I ain’t down with this no more!”

By now completely disenchanted with America and fed up with her cousin’s erratic behavior, Eva takes her newfound fortune to the airport, where, inexplicably, the only flight to Europe leaving that day is to Budapest. However, it seems she’s not quite ready to go home just yet.

This is not a plot-driven film; rather, it is more about capturing a mood, an impression of understated beauty and bleakness. Shot in grainy black and white, the film’s high contrast quality generates a number of poignant scenes, namely when Eva, Willie and Eddie, go to Lake Erie during a heavy snowstorm. The three figures, clad in black so as to nearly resemble silhouettes, gaze out at a vast white expanse of nothingness (Eddie proclaims, “It’s so beautiful”), the jutting lines of the fence post they are leaning against their only separation from the void. Upon arriving in Florida, there is a similar scene on the beach, the sand and white-capped waves under a haze of fog replacing the snow.

Jarmusch’s films are marked with a distinctive visual and narrative style. In Stranger Than Paradise, there is very little camera movement, no cuts, only a series of long sequence shots, with several moments of blackness to separate scenes—the editing process consisted of putting the shots end to end. On one hand, this technique might be a result of necessity, or lack of experience—the film is Jarmusch’s second feature film, after Permanent Vacation in 1981, and the aspiring filmmaker may simply have not had the means or know-how to go about filming another way. Or, perhaps it is quite deliberate: the long shots create a feeling of slowness, accentuating Willie’s and Eddie’s stagnation, their laziness and lack of direction.

While in Cleveland, Eddie casually says to Willie that, “You know, it’s funny. You come to someplace new and everything looks just the same.” This, it seems, is a rather revealing insight into the film’s thesis, embedded in a seemingly insignificant, offhand remark. All three characters have traveled the country—in Eva’s case, the world—in search of change, excitement, “something new,” as Willie says, but neither has found what they were looking for.

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