Screening Log #8: Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

Having watched Mala Noche recently, it seems only logical to continue poking around in 80’s American independent cinema. This time I took in a film I’ve been meaning to get around to seeing for quite some time now, Jim Jarmusch‘s Stranger Than Paradise. I usually enjoy Jarmusch’s films a good deal – having a greater than average appreciation for his Dead Man especially – and having seen his Down By Law earlier this year, I felt like I was in a good position to watch this. Also, I had a pal who was itching to see it and that was the last bit of motivation I needed.

The film is structures into three episodes. “Brave New World” begins with a shot of Eva (Eszter Balint) arriving from Budapest on her way to see her aunt Lotte in Cleveland; Eva is shown standing outside in front of the airport, an airplane landing in the background, firmly establishing her arrival by foregrounding her against the incoming aircraft. Eva has to spend 10 days with her cousin Willie (John Lurie) in New York until her aunt get’s better and returns to her home. The film follows the interactions between these two characters alone, alleviated only by a visit from Willie’s friend Eddie (Richard Edson) who takes a bit of a shine to Eva. The exchanges between Willie and Eva are interesting for the dynamic picture of “Americanism” that Willie presents; refusing to speak his native tongue, Hungarian, with his cousin or his aunt, Willie lives to watch television, gamble and eat TV dinners which he claims is how people eat in America: the dinner contains everything he needs.

Stranger than Paradise PosterEva carries a modicum pf American culture with her as well, carrying around a cassette player and only seems to own a single cassette with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put A Spell on You” on it. While Willie seems to be struggling to entirely assimilate into American culture – with his refusal to speak anything but English and his championing of TV dinners – he still intensely dislikes this sort of music; Eva, even in Budapest, was being primed for an American conversion by its cultural exports.

Eva’s visit concludes and the film advances in its second part “One Year Later” with Eddie and Willie swindling some other men out of their money in a poker game and deciding they need a change of scenery from New York, borrowing a car and heading to Cleveland to visit Aunt Lotte and Eva. Eva has settled into a thoroughly American life, working at a hot dog stand, dating and, like Willie, speaks little Hungarian. The two New Yorkers accompany Eva on a movie date with a suitor, who kindly pays their way as well. Eddie remarks to Willie that “You go someplace new and everything looks the same”; this homogeneous quality to American life is replicated when the trio go to view Lake Eerie in the middle of a snow storm, the huge lake lost in whiteness, washed out beyond any remarkability. Jarmusch reinforces this position by shooting the film in black and white, washing out anything but the most extremes into grey and placing much of the action indoors where each interior could exist anywhere.

This washing out of character speaks both to the effects of cultural assimilation in American culture and the malleability of the human character; the melting pot boils away any excessive or eccentric foreign qualities from a body but people are largely the same wherever they may go. The external world reflects this state for the characters in the film as an expression of their own emotional and cultural states of being.

Hatching A PlanThe third section of the film, “Paradise”, finds the trio taking their money leftover from Cleveland on a road trip to Florida. They check into a motel before embarking to the dog track, leaving Eva behind. Things don’t go as planned at the track and they find themselves in financial dire straits. Eva, in her despondency, buys a hat, takes a walk and is the recipient of a ridiculous act of Deus Ex Dope-Fiendia. She sets off and the pair of men return successful from their horse track excursion, to find her gone. The end of the film finds Eva and Willie with their roles completely reversed, Eva settling into a hotel room in Florida, having not left as she planned, Willie on board a flight to Budapest he boarded to try to convince her not to leave. Eddie, as always, remains on the outskirts, the tertiary character orbiting the familial relationship. Willie departure, with Eddie watching the plane take off, recalls the film’s beginning, visually expressing the inversion that has transpired between himself and Eva.

The action of the film is small and personal in scope, its humour bleak, human, and under-stated. Though the gestures contained in the film are small, the statements inferred by them are much larger. The film stands as a commentary on the assimilating effects of American life; indeed positing that assimilation is an intrinsic aspect of American life. The plot is contrived, certainly, but in a humourously fatalistic manner; Willie’s situation becomes an expression of his own march toward a sort of Manifest Destiny, even as he departs for Hungary, which is certainly as American as television and TV dinners.

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