Stranger Than Paradise: Criterion Collection Review

Many date the high-water mark of the American independent film to 1989, when Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing were both in competition at Cannes. Fair enough, but look earlier: in an essay included with this DVD, Geoff Andrew singles out David Lynch’s Eraserhead and John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven, released in 1977 and 1979 respectively, as significant forebears. And in the middle of the decade in between, if you were watching film seriously, you could sense something stirring: amongst others, Spike Lee’s debut feature She’s Gotta Have It and Jim Jarmusch’s second feature, Stranger than Paradise.

In his Personal Journey Through American Movies, Martin Scorsese identifies three different types of career for directors with a personal style and vision accommodating themselves to the realities of the film industry. Soderbergh’s path can be summed up as “one for them, one for me”: as Richard Linklater also does, he alternates studio projects with smaller, more experimental work. After a late-1990s purple patch (the four films from Out of Sight to Traffic) he seems to have lost his way somewhat. Lee has become a “smuggler”, bringing personal angles and insights into what is often on the service conventional Hollywood genre work. Sayles and Lynch have worked for the majors, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not, but they have remained on the whole “mavericks”: working on low budgets raised outside the major studios, making films with little resemblance to theirs.

Jim Jarmusch is a maverick. There is nothing in any of his films which resembles the output of a major studio director. Even when he takes on traditional genres, such as the western in Dead Man, the result is nothing like any other western you’d be likely to see. At heart Jarmusch is a miniaturist, interested in character, dialogue, and the capturing of small moments. There’s very little in the way of plot, and his pacing is best described as laid-back. His talents are a natural fit for the portmanteau form, but even his films that do not fit that description tend to subdivide into discrete units or acts.

Stranger than Paradise has three acts of just under half an hour each: in “The New World” (which was originally shown as a short, shot on 35mm film stock gifted to Jarmusch by Wim Wenders), Willie, a Hungarian immigrant in New York City, real name Bela Molnar (John Lurie), is disconcerted to be asked to babysit his sixteen-year-old cousin from Budapest, Eva (Eszter Balint). In “One Year Later”, Willie, his pal Eddie (Richard Edson) visit Eva and their Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark) in Cleveland. Finally, in “Paradise”, Willie, Eddie and Eva go to Florida.

Back in 1984, Stranger than Paradise looked like no other film around. Filmed in black and white, each scene comprises a single shot (sometimes static, sometimes with Tom Dicillo’s camera following the action), separated from each other with a second or so of black. Yes, you can spot some influences: Ozu is an obvious one (not for nothing is a horse Eddie is tempted to bet on called Tokyo Story). Having seen more Antonioni films now than I had then, you can sense the Italian master in the way Jarmusch films his landscapes, and how his characters are strangers in this strange land. There’s no doubt a lot of Cassavetes in the interest in characters being rather than necessarily doing. What was also very evident was Jarmusch’s ear for dialogue: the film is often very funny. In his use of Aunt Lotte’s many outbursts of (unsubtitled) Hungarian are the roots of Roberto Benigni’s Italian-English mash-ups in Jarmusch’s next film, Down by Law (another black and white film which divides into three acts). With Stranger than Paradise, Jarmusch showed that watching and listening to people talk can be as cinematic as anything else: without his example, would we have had Linklater’s Slacker and, with much filthier jokes, Kevin Smith’s Clerks?

Stranger than Paradise will certainly not be for everyone. It will split an unprepared audience right down the middle: if this is not your sort of thing you will likely be fidgeting for an hour and a half waiting in vain for something to happen. Or you may love it, and find that hour and a half in the company of Willie, Eva and Eddie no hardship at all. Whatever your opinion, this film’s place in the history of American independent film is not in doubt.

Stranger than Paradise is #400 in the Criterion Collection. It consists of two dual-layered discs in NTSC format, encoded for Region 1 only.

Disc One is the film, an anamorphic presentation “in the original ratio of 1.78:1”. However that isn’t a cinema ratio. 1.75:1 is, which may be correct, though I have seen this film projected at 1.85:1 with no ill effects. The transfer is director-approved, so I can’t really argue: maybe Jarmusch simply doesn’t like black bars. The transfer captures the look of Dicillo’s camerawork perfectly: well contrasted, a little grainy, with plenty of shades of grey.

The soundtrack is the original mono. Due to the low-budget, much of the soundtrack was recorded on location, resulting in a somewhat flat sound, but this is the way Stranger than Paradise has always sounded. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available, but have to be selected from the remote rather than the on-screen menu. There is no commentary: Jarmusch doesn’t do them.

Disc Two begins with a very significant extra: Jarmusch’s first feature Permanent Vacation (74:53). Shot in colour 16mm, this is presented in its original 4:3 ratio, with anti-overscan black bars on all four sides as is Criterion’s practice with their Academy Ratio titles. This film had its roots in the zero-budget New York indie scene which also spawned filmmakers like Beth B and Amos Poe and others. Many of their films were shot in Super 8mm and shown at clubs. Permanent Vacation is clearly Jarmuschian in its minimalist, almost-static style, and many of the cast and crew would work for him again. The camerawork is also the work of Tom Dicillo, who would later become a director himself. John Lurie cowrote the music score and appears on screen as a saxophonist playing “that vibrating, bugged-out sound”. The film centres on Allie (Chris Parker) whose idol is Charlie Parker, and whose goal in life is to live in the same improvised way Parker played his music. Much of the running time is taken up with his encounters in a seemingly depopulated New York City. Unfortunately, Allie isn’t as interesting as Willie, Eddie or Eva, and the film – while certainly of interest and likely essential for Jarmusch fans – does drag. Jarmusch was clearly on a learning curve, and Stranger than Paradise is an indicator of how far he progressed in just four years.

Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch (41:51) is a German television programme from 1984, which profiles the director and interviews many of the cast and crew of Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise. Interviews are in English, but the 4:3 transfer is on the murky side.

“Some Days in January 1984” (14:40) is silent Super 8mm footage shot by Tom Jarmusch, the director’s brother, during a freezing-cold winter shoot for Stranger. The film is scratchy and grainy, but it’s well worth seeing the filmmakers at work. “Location Scouting” is a stills gallery of location photographs. Finally, there are two trailers: the US one (2:43) and the Japanese one (2:09), both in 4:3 letterbox. The Japanese trailer is in noticeably worse condition.

This wouldn’t be a recent Criterion release without a booklet, and true enough we get one. As well as chapter lists, cast and crew listings for both features and DVD notes and credits, the essays begin with Jarmusch’s notes for the press book of Stranger. Geoff Andrew contributes a short essay, “Enter Jarmusch” while J. Hoberman provides us with “Paradise Regained”, which contains his influential 1984 film review from The Village Voice. Permanent Vacation is not neglected: Luc Sante’s piece “Love Among the Ruins: Permanent Vacation and Jarmusch’s New York” does an admirable job of setting the film in its context.

Stranger than Paradise seemed to come out of nowhere in 1984. It marked Jim Jarmusch out as a distinctly individual director, who has managed over the next two decades to follow his own path. Criterion’s DVD is exemplary, and the inclusion of Jarmusch’s earlier feature is the icing on the cake.

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