I’m mildly ashamed to admit that, yes, prior to this past weekend, I had never seen Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece Stranger Than Paradise, the film that shook the Sundance Film Festival and helped shape the way independent cinema would look for the ensuing decades. I say mildly, because my film geekdom didn’t really kick in until about two years ago, so even if I had seen it prior to that, I kind of doubt I would have enjoyed it much.
And I would be really ashamed if this were my first introduction to the works of Jarmusch, but I’ve already seen Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Broken Flowers. But that still doesn’t change the fact that I hadn’t seen what is, if not his best, certainly one his most important films to date (at least in how it relates to his other works).
So I became set on making this film the next of his that I saw. So much so, in fact, that I even denied myself chances to watch Down By Law and Night on Earth. Eventually I got tired of waiting and bumped it up on my Netflix queue and finally took it in this past Sunday. Straight away you can tell that this is quintessential Jarmusch. Stark minimalism completely fills this film (which seems counter-intuitive, but shut up). Filmed in merciless black and white and edited by laying whole scenes shot in one take end to end and eschewing transitions in favor of a few seconds of black between them, the entire movie works so very hard to further the theme set forth by the title.
The film concerns a man named Willie (John Lurie) who emigrated from Hungary years ago to fashion the perfect life for himself in America. By his bombed out apartment and penchant for TV dinners it’s painfully evident that he hasn’t quite succeeded, but he perseveres. When a call from his aunt informs him that his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), fresh off the plane from Budapest, will be staying with him for a few days before moving to Cleveland, it makes him nigh apoplectic at the thought of an old world influence on the life he’s managed to carve for himself.
But after spending some time together, a mutual affection grows between Willie and Eva, despite her ever-present tape player constantly set to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” that Willie claims to hate, perhaps because it reminds him of the spell America put on him that has since worn off. But Eva is still fresh in this new world, so Willie’s spare apartment, New York’s barren streets, and the thought of living in Ohio are met with the wide-eyed optimism of a child going to Disneyland.
But a year later, when Willie and his best friend Eddie (Richard Edson) decide to get out of town for a few days, they head to Cleveland to find that the once bright-eyed Eva has been replaced by one that’s more appropriately world-weary. It doesn’t help that Jarmusch films Cleveland as if it were some sort of snow-strewn, post-apocalyptic hellscape, but it adds a visual metaphor for the crushing despair that the midwest has brought upon Eva’s dreams.
So Willie, Eddie, and Eva decide to hit the road for Florida, and the promise of a new paradise, and with that marks the return of Mr. Hawkins, still to the chagrin of Willie, suggesting his hopes for a better life have been permanently dashed. Once in Florida, Willie and Eddie head straight to the dog track to better their financial situation, leaving Eva in the hotel. When the dogs fail, they change course and head to the horse races instead, again leaving Eva behind.
But Eva, tired of continuously being denied paradise, heads out on her own. What she finds is less than she hoped for, the black and white cinematography adding a palpable ugliness to every lingering shot of all the strange corners of Florida Jarmusch could find. So after a mix up involving her hat leads a mysterious man to give her a large payoff intended for someone else, Eva uses that as an excuse to once again head out in search of something better.
She heads to the airport with anywhere in Europe as the intended destination. Unfortunately, the only thing available right then is a flight back to Budapest and the promise of continuing dissatisfaction. Willie and Eddie show up at the airport to stop her, and are told that she got on the plane to Hungary. Willie buys a ticket so that he can get on the plane to take her off it, but the plane takes off with Willie still on it. As the film ends, Eddie is headed back to New York, Willie is returning to the place he shunned long ago, and Eva has headed back to the hotel.
Whether it’s to embrace her current paradise, or patiently wait for her next one, it isn’t revealed, but as Screamin’ Jay once again plays over the end credits, we can rest assured that a spell has once again been cast over the three of them, even if what they get is stranger than what they expected.
Posted under Kyle's Adventures in Pop Culture
This post was written by Kyle on April 13, 2011