A look at how a sparsely plotted, low budget comedy changed the face of indie arthouse cinema.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January we’re celebrating the work of godfather of independent film Jim Jarmusch. Read the rest of our coverage here.
It’s impossible to pinpoint any one singular moment as being the sole catalyst of American independent cinema, but a nearly air-tight case could be made for a visionary, freewheeling pioneer from Ohio and his absurdist sophomore feature. When Jim Jarmusch carried Stranger Than Paradise from $100,000 DIY pipe dream onto Cannes glory and rabid cult appeal, he blew the doors open for anyone with a camera and a story to tell. Jarmusch grabbed hold of the economic restraints of filmmaking and commandeered them in order to craft a supremely unique snapshot of drowsy alienation.
Sure, spunky filmmakers had been making low budget, rebellious outbursts since the very inception of the medium, but Stranger Than Paradise, met with overwhelming critical acclaim and unprecedented box office success, proved that they could remain as uncompromising visions while still competing with the big dogs on both artistic and commercial playing fields.
Stranger Than Paradise didn’t look or feel like anything coming out of a major studio in 1984, combatting the excess and escapism of mainstream cinema in the Reagan era with a simple and yet unfathomably ingenious notion: patience. The precise, motionless cinematography constantly lingers on the scene in a fixed frame gaze, showcasing the characters in their natural habitat with intrusive, fly-on-the-wall footage that feels like it was ripped from a hidden nanny cam.
The static, black-and-white shots bookended by utter darkness find us viewing the action from the sidelines, forced to wait submissively to identify what morsels of humanity we can ration out of the lengthy, naturalistic fragments. In doing so, Jarmusch continuously finds elegant beauty in the mundane, whether characters are watching tv or playing cards or smoking cigarettes down to the butt in real time. Viewers can practically feel the director smirk as he essentially gives the middle finger to the high concept movies of the time.
Viewing Stranger Than Paradise through the lens of hindsight, it’s not hard to spot the seedlings of the wonderfully Jarmuschian idiosyncracies that would come to mark the director’s storied career. From the listless lack of urgency pulsating through the film’s central characters to the weighty, symbiotic relationship between film and music to the dry, deadpan humor, you can feel his personality in every frame. As with his NYU thesis (1980’s Permanent Vacation), it becomes immediately clear that Jarmusch is one of those rare artistic forces who emerged with a fully formed and wholly unmistakable style.
Stranger Than Paradise walks like an art film and quacks like an art film, but it’s so effortlessly entertaining that it never feels like Jarmusch is force-feeding us vegetables. It’s existentialist cinema for people who despise the pretentious nature of existentialist cinema, luring you in as it sheds the challenging bleakness that so often permeates through art house theaters. Jarmusch isn’t giving a lecture; he’s sitting in the back of the movie theater cracking jokes alongside us.
Viewers can practically feel the director smirk as he essentially gives the middle finger to the high concept movies of the time.
Although it’s the tale of displacement and boredom, the film itself is far from boring. Punk rock in its minimalism, Stranger Than Paradise understands just how hip it is, and it has the chutzpah to back up its self-assured cheekiness. Much of what we know about Willie (John Lurie), Eva (Eszter Balint), and Eddie (Richard Edson) come from their opinionated taste in pop culture, often coupled with the burning glow of a television set on their expressionless faces. Though they drift aimlessly through every other aspect of their otherwise apathetic existence, they have hard and fast viewpoints about the movies and songs that define their very way of life.
A fierce devotion to music would go on to become one of Jarmusch’s signature touches, and yet here, it’s marked by its sparseness. There’s little in the way of a traditional score; for the most part, the only music in the film is “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“And he’s a wild man, so bug off!”) coming from Eva’s handheld tape recorder. Hell, even our main players are musicians, rather than conventional actors, giving their despondent exchanges a natural rhythmic flow. Much like the man who birthed it, Stranger Than Paradise simply oozes cool, creating a clear separation between the works of art that it reverses and those that it deems unfit for consumption.
Notably described by the director himself as “a neorealistic black comedy in the style of an imaginary East European director obsessed with Ozu and ‘The Honeymooners’,” Stranger Than Paradise is exactly the movie it sets out to be. It’s rough and raw, dripping with a handmade charm that makes it an excellent gateway drug for those new to offbeat cinema. From there, viewers can work their way up to the truly bizarre and desolate pockets of filmmaking, if they so choose.
A far cry from the biggest hits at the box office in 1984 (Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, etc.), it’s foundational in its simplicity, which explains why it’s so often mimicked, to the point where it serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone in decoding the language of American independent cinema over the last three and a half decades. Stranger Than Paradise embraces the uncomplicated and the universal in a Rorschach test for life’s rambling woes that launched countless imitators, though few equals.