Most films, Jim Jarmusch says, "don't trust the audience, cutting to a new shot every six or seven seconds." (Leonard Klady, “Jim Jarmusch”, American Film 12:1 (October, 1986): 47) Stranger than Paradise, an early film by Jarmusch, employs timing in a way that contrasts sharply with rapid cuts. Shot entirely in black-and-white, it begins with a stationary shot of a young woman standing next to her suitcases on a scrubby knoll overlooking the airport. I notice that it is an unusual vantage point, and probably one that, in reality, would be inaccessible to the ordinary traveler. At any rate, travelers don't generally wander off with their luggage to such a place. The distinctive sounds of airplane engines are heard as she watches a plane move into position to taxi off. Such thoughts pass through my mind rather quickly, but the scene is still on the screen. That's puzzling: why am I still looking at this when nothing much is happening? Is something else going to happen? Why does the camera linger? Just as I restlessly start to wonder how much longer this will go on, I see the young woman gathering up her bags and suitcases. I reflect that maybe now something is going to . . . Cut to black.
The cut to black elicits responses. It is surprising, a little jarring, and it even provokes a bit of a smile. I am surprised by the cut to black because it is unusual to find this type of device in a contemporary film. The abruptness of the cut also has a decisiveness about it that contrasts with the unhurried length of the scene. It is a little wake-up call that gives rise to more thought. The director knows what he's doing after all, amusing me since I had questioned the basic competence of the director. It is almost as if he knew I would do that, and had his reply ready.
Films that require only the usual sensitivities will, of course, be more popular because people will readily respond to the, and they will not have to stretch their minds in ways a film such as Stranger requires. The sensibility that is expressed in Stranger, focusing for relatively long periods of time on something or someone who is not doing anything - not doing anything that matters - also has been taken up by others. Brooks Adams begins his report for Art in America on the 1997 Whitney Biennial with a description of a video he takes as emblematic of the most prominent artistic sensibilities of the show. The video in question focuses on a stationary tortoise for approximately ten minutes and then it “heaves itself up suddenly, after what seems like an eternity, and slowly trundles off screen.” Adams characterizes the video as having a “cooled-out, laid-back tempo, . . . the new rhythm of creation in the decentered, off-on-your-own ‘90s.” He also points out what should not be surprising for film or video, that you have to sit through the videos to get any “real sense of the show.” (Brooks Adams, “Report from New York: Turtle Derby”, Art in America 85:6 (June 1997): 35) Sitting through them is the only way to experience how timing functions within them.
A doleful atmosphere pervades Stranger than Paradise: gloomy and bleak,[page 175 / page 176] but with occasional unconscious comic effects. (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Langauge, ed. William Morris (Boston: American Heritage Publishing and Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 1141.) The characters, of course, are not conscious of the comedy. As the movie progresses, Eva (Eszter Balint), whom we saw at the airport, stays with her cousin Willie (John Lurie) for several days in his small and dingy apartment. After Eva leaves to visit her aunt in Cleveland, Willie's friend Eddie (Richard Edson) drops by. They exchange a few words about Eva's leaving, and Willie offers Eddie a beer. Eddie accepts. Willie gets a beer for each of them from the refrigerator. They sit. Each opens his beer. One takes a sip. They sit in silence. Then the other takes a sip. Then the first again. They drink at the same time. They sit in silence. Another sip. Cut to black.
Referring to Stranger than Paradise, Jarmusch has said, "That's what I like most about that film: the moments between dialogue when you understand what's happening between people without them saying anything." (”Home and Away”, interview by Peter Keogh, Sight and Sound 2 (August 1992): 9.) His focus is on character, and one thing that tells us a lot about these characters is how they spend their time. But the ways characters spend their time are generally cut out of a film when they basically don't do anything for long periods of time.
Stranger proceeds with a number of scenes that have a pace similar to the first one, each separated by a cut to black. Printed on one of the black screens [page 176 / page 177] is "One year later." This announcement evokes a little chuckle as you realize the incongruity of taking a lot of time within each scene to show that nothing is happening, and virtually no time at all to indicate that a whole year has passed.
The film in general produces an uneasy feeling that things are slightly, almost imperceptibly "out of sync," a temporal metaphor that is particularly apt since time and timing, as one comes to realize, are part of what this film is about. This observation, as part of the account I develop of the work, starts to color what I notice. Temporal peculiarities show up in nontemporal ways. The time of the action is somewhat obscure. The black-and-white photography alludes to an earlier era, and the cuts to black are reminiscent of the era of silent films. The hats that Willie and Eddie wear look like something out of the 1950s, as does the dingy, spare apartment (reminiscent of though much smaller than the one occupied by the Kramdens on The Honeymooners show). There is a calendar tacked up on the wall, almost too high for Willie to see. No mater: nothing is written on it. When Willie finds out his cousin Eva is supposed to stay with him for ten days and not just one, he protests that it's not possible because it will interrupt his life. But, of course, there's nothing going on in Willie's life to interrupt. Through a fluke of timing Eva comes upon a great sum of money. Attempts by each character to reunite with the others are foiled by a simple case of bad timing. What few events fill the time of the movie could hardly be more contingent and accidental from the "story" point of view. Their separate lives are by chance braided together for a time and then the braid becomes frayed at the end.