IT IS WINTER in New York and everything, even the usually yellow snow, is in grainy black and white. This is Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch's independent film that won the 1984 "Newcomer's" award at Cannes in May. The story of its evolution is near-legendary by virtue of a graceful coincidence: over three years ago, Wim Wenders director of Paris, Texas, the 1984 Cannes Palm D'Or grand prize winner, had given Jarmusch the leftover film stock which was to become the 90-minute Stranger than Paradise. Since then, Jarmusch has been punch-drunk on interviews, coaxed into heralding his knew style of American filmmaking" every hour on the hour.
Stranger than Paradise is certainly a remarkable film, technically and dramatically. The camera follows Willie (John Luric). Eddie (Richard Edson) and Willie's Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) as they drive from New York to Cleveland to Miami Beach in search of fun and excitement. They don't find any, but they do find a grainy black and white America and some money. Not quit paradise.
Jarmusch transposes borredoin and disappointment into a deadpan dramatic bass-line that lops along with its loom-pah-loom-pah Sereanun' Jay Hawkins soundtrack. The camera just watches these characters, from above or below like a surreal intruder, or straight-on as though it were positioned behind a one-way mirror. They don't perform; they just are and sometimes they just are not. The camera watches them watching television, not talking, avoiding each other, waiting, arguing impatiently when forced to think about what is, to them, the painfully obvious. Punctuated with blackouts at the end of every scene, Paradiseis a series of vignettes with, only occasionally, words and music.
Willie, played by John Furie who looks like a slurp personified, is utterly self-absorbed. Saturated in American comforts (like TV dinners: "this is the way we cat in America. I got my meat, I got my potatoes, I got my vegetable and my desert. And I don't even gotta do the dishes.") Barely fighting the law of inertia, he always seems earnestly preoccupied with doing absolutely nothing. Eddie, Willie's sidekick, is defined by his lack of a personality. He capitulates to whomever speaks the loudest (usually gravel-voiced Willie) and even looks like a watercolor version of Willie's original.
Ir'S AS THOUGH Willie's slurp were squashed into a shuffle and a whine. But Eddie's not an unlikeable guy; he's like an animated buffer zone. Eva, played with unself-conscious allure by Eszter Balint (formerly of the Hungarian Squat Theatre), is the film's discoverer of America. Her rare moments of enthusiasm are moments of anticipation: when she finally gets "there" (New York, Florida, Ohio) she basically discovers the meaning of disappointment. As four guide for the day, she points to a scene with an iron fence and a snowstorm and says, "Well, this is it. Eake Erie. It's kind of a drag here really." When Eva realizes that this is as good as it gets and that the rest of the world isn't any better, and then plane tickets get switched and people get disonnected, it's all kind of funny in a sad sort of way. The American dream is just the American reality, and that's all.
Stranger than Paradise feels gritty and honest. Jarmusch's black and white landscapes are bleak, almost neutral: the Florida beach looks like Ohio without snow. As Eddie mumbles. "It's funny. You come to someplace new and everything looks the same." All of Jarmusch's spaces are defined: landscapes are linear and static, interiors bordered by walls and corners (compared to Wenders' romantic and rambling Americana deserts). This "new style of American filmmaking" is so ironic it makes your teeth hurt, but it's also witty and incisive. Paradise is a strange portrait of young Americans and new immigrants, looking for "the promise" and instead finding a model room in a town someplace north of Miami Beach. Where's the ocean?