Eva, a young Hungarian woman, shows up at the New York apartment of her cousin Willie who reluctantly allows her to stay for a few days. Gradually, she strikes up a friendship with Willie and his friend Eddie before leaving for Cleveland. One year later, Willie and Eddie win some money in a poker game and decide to visit Eva at Willie's Aunt Lotte's house. Cleveland soon grows tiresome for the two New Yorkers and on a whim they decide to take off for Florida with Eva to seek their fortune. When they arrive, Willie and Eddie go gambling, leaving Eva behind at the hotel. They return later having lost a great deal of money. The following day, the two men go back to the races vying to recoup their losses. Once again they leave Eva behind at the hotel. Soon Eva becomes restless and wanders out of the hotel towards the beach where she is mistakenly given a large sum of drug money. Still frustrated at being excluded from the two others' antics at the racetrack, she decides to leave a note and some money for Willie and Eddie. The two men return having won at the races. They read Eva's note and believe her to be on her way back to Budapest. Immediately, Willie and Eddie make their way to the airport and Willie boards the plane for Hungary. He soon realises that Eva is not on board but it is too late. The plane takes off leaving Eddie alone at the airport. Meanwhile, Eva arrives back at the empty hotel room in Florida.
Reading through the above synopsis, it seems apparent that, in terms of genre, Stranger Than Paradise is a difficult film to categorise. In Magill’s Survey of Film, it is described as –
“A road film in which the road leads nowhere, a buddy film in which the buddies for the most part fail to connect […] and a realistic, nearly documentary film that shows how thin the line is between everyday life and the theatre of the ridiculous.” (Magill’s Survey of Cinema, 15/6/95)Jim Jarmusch’s self-penned press release for the film jokingly refers to Stranger Than Paradise as –
“A semi-neorealist black-comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern-European film director obsessed with Ozu and familiar with the 1950s American television show ‘The Honeymooners’ ” (Jarmusch, March 1984: 1) -before continuing on to admit that –
“It’s easier to talk about the style of the film than ‘what it’s about’.” (Jarmusch, March 1984: 1)
Stranger Than Paradise has been referred to as minimalist in style (Kael, 1987: 260). The film was shot on black and white film stock, Jarmusch’s intention apparently being to give the spectator fewer cues to meaning than if he had used colour. (Jarmusch, March 1984: 2) Certainly, the exterior photography throughout the film is notable for its bright, almost washed-out appearance. As a result, the illusion of perspective and depth in the mise-en-scène is limited for the spectator. In the interior scenes, cinematographer Tom Di’Cillo frames the action from a distance with a wide-angle lens. On the whole, camera movement is kept to a minimum. There is one tracking shot at the beginning of the film and some occasional panning. Elsewhere, the impression is of a motionless observational camera.
Rather than using standard editing techniques, Jarmusch’s film is composed of sixty-seven discrete shots each of which in fact represents a scene. Instead of cutting directly between scenes, Jarmusch fades to black for a few seconds before fading in for the following scene. Elaborating on the reasoning behind his employment of such a stylistic device, Jarmusch has said that –
“Films must find new ways of describing real emotions and real lives without manipulating the audience in the familiar, maudlin ways.” (Jarmusch, March 1984: 2)In my view, Jarmusch’s film is manipulative in the sense that only a limited amount of information is presented to the spectator at any one time. Effectively, the viewer never feels overwhelmed as the stark photography, simple form and frequent fades to black allow time for reflection.
It is perhaps interesting here to refer to Pauline Kael’s comparison between the effect of Jarmusch’s use of the fade to black with the effect of Samuel Beckett’s pauses (Kael, 1987: 262). In essence, she argues that both devices serve to make us listen more intently because we find ourselves in the artist’s control. Although Kael subsequently seems to belittle Stranger Than Paradise as “comic-strip Beckett”, it appears that Jarmusch would claim to share Beckett’s reported belief that –
“The object of true, achieved and necessary utterance is silence.” (Cronin, 1996: 376)Speaking to Peter Keogh, Jarmusch has remarked –
“That’s what I like most about that film [i.e. Stranger Than Paradise]: the moments between dialogue when you understand what’s happening between people without them saying anything.” (Sight & Sound, 1992)
While Jarmusch’s frequent use of silence and minimalist dialogue could be perceived by sceptics as symptomatic of a vacuous film, I would argue that there is considerably more to Stranger Than Paradise than surfaces. The film is admittedly rather minimalist in terms of style, structure and plot. However, the slow meandering form of Stranger Than Paradise could be interpreted as a sharply satirical response to the notion of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the face of the consumerism characteristic of the Reagan era in America. Indeed, the general sense of desolation and disillusion that permeates the film as well as the characters’ inability to sufficiently articulate themselves in the midst of a media-saturated culture could conceivably be seen to question the legitimacy of Reagan’s "quasi-mythical” vision of American society (Long, 1985) at the time Stranger Than Paradise was made. What follow are some brief analyses of some key moments in Stranger Than Paradise to help clarify my argument.
Near the beginning of Stranger Than Paradise, in a phone call between Willie and Eva, it becomes apparent that Willie is of Hungarian heritage. Somewhat paradoxically, however, the protagonist is resolutely “American” in his behaviour throughout the film. The reasoning behind this fact is clearly open to debate. However, I would argue that Eva’s visit reminds Willie of a culture far removed from his adopted American lifestyle and, as a result, he finds himself in the midst of an identity crisis. He is torn between his Hungarian and American identities and consequently his behaviour could be classified as rather schizophrenic (e.g. He gives out to Eva at one moment and then buys her a dress at the next). By way of elaboration on this theme of an identity in crisis, it is useful to examine how the protagonist seems to develop as a character throughout the film.
At the start of Stranger Than Paradise, Willie mentions that Eva’s visit would disrupt his while life. It comes as little surprise then when he appears somewhat cold upon her arrival, sternly warning her –
“While you’re here, only English.”Eva duly attempts to relieve her burden on Willie by being helpful and answering his phone whilst he sleeps. Willie, however, remains unimpressed and cautions her –
“Don’t answer my fucking phone.”At the beginning of the film there seems to be little pleasing Willie. He refuses to accept Eva’s poor English as an excuse to converse in Hungarian. Also worth mentioning is the scene where Eva engages in a friendly conversation with Eddie. Although it is plain that Eva is making an effort to gain acceptance among Willie and his friend, Willie ignores this fact and leaves her behind as he goes off with Eddie. In these scenes, it seems clear that Willie, at least initially, simply does not want his Hungarian cousin to be part of his American lifestyle. Interesting in this respect is the manner in which Jarmusch seems to inject many of Willie’s scenes with an almost pathetic quality that appears to highlight the somewhat banal and superficial identity he has invented for himself in America. For example, he gets overly defensive when Eva jokingly asks what animal the meat in his TV dinner came from, answering -
“This is the way we eat in America.”He also goes to considerable lengths explaining the intricacies of American football after which Eva wryly comments –
“I think this game is really stupid” -almost as if recognising the façade of Willie’s “American” identity.
In terms of “reading” Stranger Than Paradise, Flo Leibowitz has commented –
“Attending to conversations seems to be what watching this film is about […] We learn a lot about characters in this film from their conversational habits.” (Leibowitz, 1988: 20 –21)Willie in particular is interesting to examine, not only in terms of what he says but also in terms of what he fails to say. His general inability to adequately express himself is punctuated in a scene in the middle of the film where, midway through telling a joke, he is forced to admit that he has forgotten the punch line. Jarmusch’s camera lingers for a moment on Willie’s blank expression after he professes –
“I can’t remember this joke but it’s good” –before fading to black. In my view, this scene seems to highlight Willie’s lack of direction. Locked into his own static existence, his attempts at self-realisation generally find themselves to be somewhat misguided. In this scene, Willie seems to outwardly reveal his internal identity crisis as he literally loses himself (or his self) mid-conversation.
Perhaps the most telling moment in terms of the theme of an identity in crisis occurs when, on Willie and Eddie’s journey towards Cleveland, Eddie finds out about Willie’s past -
Eddie: I thought you were American?The evasive proclamation of his “American” identity from Willie here can be seen to be undermined somewhat by the fact that, throughout Stranger Than Paradise, his Hungarian identity seems to manifest itself both in his sudden decision to follow Eva to his Aunt Lotte’s house in Cleveland, and in his (mistaken) decision to follow her to Budapest. In my view, Jarmusch portrays Willie as a confused character that tries to cling to a concrete version of self by professing to be “American”. However, this notion of an American identity is shown by Jarmusch to be limited to a daily diet of television, TV dinners and card games. He is reminded of his “real” Hungarian identity and as a result undergoes a change in outlook from disrespect/scorn for Eva to curiosity over his heritage.
Willie: Hey, I’m as American as you are.
Michel Foucault has remarked that –
“Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.” (Foucault, 1970: 387)Willie tries to “invent” himself by assuming an “American” identity but ultimately has to accept that his identity is but an invention. However, the fact that Jarmusch shows Willie to return to his native country at the end of the film in my view could be interpreted as a hopeful indication of Willie’s passage into a restructured self – an identity more “true” to his heritage – in essence, a less fabricated existence. It seems then that ultimately this sense of Willie’s identity is both removed from the postmodern suggestion that the subject ought to be considered in terms of the plural (encapsulated in the above statement from Foucault), and the post Cartesian assumption of the existence of a fixed universal subject or identity. Essentially, I would argue that this could be seen to indicate that, as a filmmaker, Jarmusch’s outlook lies somewhere between the modern and postmodern. In a sense he addresses the concerns of both sides of the modern/postmodern debate. He seems to acknowledge the “crisis of the subject” or what Baudrillard might refer to as “the mania for identity” (Baudrillard, 1994: 101), but also seems to project at least some hope that his protagonist will, in a sense, come to terms with his identity. From a broader perspective, it might be said that Jarmusch recognises that perhaps something unique is happening around us – something that perhaps cannot be easily categorised as modern or postmodern. In this respect Willie’s disillusionment could be seen to be indicative of a character living in the midst of a changing society. While the tone of the imagery and characterisation could be termed “bleak”, ultimately Stranger Than Paradise ends with the possibility that at least one character (Willie) might come to terms with his identity. Jarmusch in my view offers us a sense of hope that an element of clarity may be found among the debris of postmodern scepticism and uncertainty.
In terms of Jarmusch’s own position in relation to his characters, there is a certain ambiguity. Geoff Andrew’s critique refers to –
“The ironic distance he [i.e. Jarmusch] maintains between the attitudes of the characters and the droll perspective of the film itself.” (Andrew, 1998: 140)Paradoxically, Pauline Kael’s critique seems to highlight how Jarmusch’s static camera and minimal editing could be seen to share in the characters’ status as “deadbeats”. (Kael, 1987: 261) In support of Andrews’ belief in the “ironic distance” Jarmusch maintains from his characters, I would argue that the director’s use of the inter-title has precisely this effect. For example, the title preceding the middle section of the film - “One Year Later” - suggests that time has passed, but it is immediately clear that little has changed. Willie and Eddie are still wearing similar clothes and gambling for a living. The notion of progress or any concept of ambition does not seem to feature highly in the characters’ lives. As a result, the tone of Jarmusch’s inter-title comes across as somewhat deadpan. Obviously, it serves a practical function – to illustrate the passage of time – but it also seems to gently mock the lack of direction in the characters’ lives. Jarmusch could clearly have represented the notion of passing time through use of montage but his use of an inter-title functions as a kind of “knowing wink” at the spectator. His heralding of something new – “One Year Later” – essentially reveals more of the same. In my view, this places him at an obvious distance from the characters represented.
Having said this, however, it seems interesting that unemployment is not portrayed as a social injustice in Stranger Than Paradise. Indeed, in one comical scene, it is seen almost as a perfectly acceptable way of life. When Willie and Eddie ask a factory worker for directions on their way to Cleveland, Eddie appears to fail to comprehend the reasoning behind holding a day job –
“Poor guy. Can you imagine working in a factory?”This characterisation is interesting, in my view, in light of Jarmusch’s statement that –
“I’m not really interested in characters obsessed with some kind of ambition. That kind of American Dream thing is just not particularly interesting.” (Film Comment, 1985)In Stranger Than Paradise, progress or achievement in the Enlightenment sense (through the employment of reason), or in the sense of the American Dream (ambition), is replaced with not only a sense of disillusion and lethargy but also a sense of the absurd. The characters seem to live in a world where acquiring money in a poker game or at a racetrack is as likely as acquiring money whilst strolling on the beach (as Eva does in the latter part of the film). Also the reasons behind the sudden pilgrimage to Florida are left unclear. The characters seem to have no motivation for the journey other than the fact that they can afford it. This sense of the nonsensical, the apparent absence of reason, in my view casts a satirical shadow over the utopianism of the American Dream. The characters’ success (in terms of winning money at gambling) is obviously less the product of hard work and a clear vision and more the result of pure chance. This notion of an American Dream gone wrong forms the focus of the next section of my dissertation.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Jarmusch has remarked –
“America’s kind of a throwaway culture that’s made of this mixture of different cultures. To make a film about America, it seems to me logical to have at least one perspective that’s transplanted here from some other culture, because ours is a collection of transplanted influences.” (Rolling Stone, 1986)Eva is evidently the perspective transplanted from another culture in Stranger Than Paradise. Therefore, as an immigrant, clearly her experiences of America throughout the film lend themselves to closer scrutiny.
The first section of Stranger Than Paradise is subtitled “The New World”. However, the initial impression is not one of hope. Eva is not shown standing on Ellis island like the thousands of immigrants spellbound by the notion of a new life in the land of dreams in the mid nineteenth century. (O’Cleary, 1993) Instead she is shown alone on a desolate runway, the sky above grey and foreboding rather than bright and inviting. In a sense, Eva is given a taste of the bleakness characteristic of Willie and Eddie’s lives before she even meets them. Nevertheless the young immigrant does not give up hope. A lengthy tracking shot following Eva through the backstreets of New York creates a sense of optimism seemingly absent from the rest of the film’s almost static quality. Jarmusch’s use of music here also conveys a sense of optimism and adventure. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” – according to Jarmusch “the essence of American music” (American Cinematographer, March 1985) - lyrically captures the sense of allure America holds for Eva. (“I put a spell on you ‘cause you’re mine” are clearly words notable more for their daring intensity than their reticence!) Adding visual credence to this point in my view is the scene where Eva is shown dancing to the song in Willie’s kitchen. Although Willie does not share her enthusiasm and asks her to turn the music off, Eddie on the other hand likes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In my view, however, Eddie does not just share Eva’s taste in music, he also seems to share Eva’s naivety. By way of illustration, early in the film he tells her how beautiful Cleveland is before admitting that he has never actually been there. When the trio finally make it to Lake Erie in Cleveland, it turns out to be frozen snowy white – obviously more bleak than beautiful. As in the dichotomy between Reagan’s romanticism – “the president of an idealised past” (Denton, 1988: 10) – and the realities of an era of low income and unemployment (O’Cleary, 1993), Jarmusch illustrates how the reality of Cleveland fails to live up to Eva and Eddie’s dream. Interesting in this respect is Jarmusch’s statement that –
“We accentuated the sameness [of the locations] through lighting, filtration, and composition of shots.” (Jarmusch, March 1984: 2)In Stranger Than Paradise New York looks essentially the same as Cleveland. Even Florida, the “paradise” of the title, is made look desolate. The brightness of the sun is stark rather than uplifting and the overall visual impression is one of dullness and uniformity.
This is not to say that the final note of the film is one of despair. As I previously mentioned, the end of the film sees the protagonist in a sense returning to his roots. While the details of how Willie gets along in Budapest are left unclear and the spectator never finds out what happens to Eddie, Eva and Aunt Lotte, this apparent lack of closure in my view gives a sense of something left to be overcome. In my view, Jarmusch’s portrayal of hope, failures, missed connections and stark realities captures the sense of the “observably fragmented world” (Long, 1985: 1) characteristic of America in the 1980s. Effectively, he offers the viewer a reminder of how, in a culture undergoing an apparent metamorphosis (a world somewhere between the modern and postmodern), life always lies somewhat beyond our control. We slowly begin to wake up from our dreams to discover the realities of a world of contingency – a world where reason simply fails to function.
American Cinematographer, “Stranger Than Paradise” (Jim Jarmusch interview), March 1985.
ANDREW, Geoff (1998), Stranger Than Paradise, London: Prion.
BAUDRILLARD, Jean (1994), “How can you jump over your shadow when you no longer have one?”, From The Illusion of the End, Oxford: Polity Press.
CRONIN, Anthony (1996), Samuel Beckett – The Last Modernist, London: HarperCollins.
DENTON, Robert E. (1988), The Primetime Presidency of Ronald Reagan, New York: Praeger.
Film Comment, “The 1984 Movie Revue, I: Three Guys in Three Directions.” (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by Harlan Jacobson), Jan/Feb 1985.
FOUCAULT, Michel (1970), The Order of Things, London: Tavistock.
JARMUSCH, Jim (1984), “Some Notes On Stranger Than Paradise”, NYC, March 1984. (Reprinted by Ludvig Hertzberg at http://members.tripod.com/~jimjarmusch/notes.html).
KAEL, Pauline (1987), “Faked Out, Cooled Out, Bummed Out”, From State of the Art, London: Marion Boyars.
LEIBOWITZ, Flo (1988) "Neither Hollywood nor Godard: The Strange Case of Stranger Than Paradise", Persistence of Vision, no. 6, Maspeth: New York.
LONG, Elizabeth (1985), The American Dream and the Popular Novel, London: Routledge.
Magill’s Survey of Cinema, “Stranger Than Paradise”, 15/6/1995.
O’CLEARY, Conor (1993), America – A Place Called Hope?, Dublin: The O’Brien Press.
Rolling Stone, “Too Cool For Words” (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by Tim Holmes), November 6, 1986.
Sight & Sound, “Home and Away” (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by Peter Keogh), August 1992.
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