From Spin 1985 [Unknown date / Talking Heads cover]

By Lynn Geller

It is ironic that Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise", the first movie to leap from the lower-Manhattan art scene to international recognition, is also a movie that epitomizes the very values that, for years, have kept underground movies in their place.

In fact, the idea to make "Stranger than Paradise" came in the form of some leftover black-and-white "nightshoot" film stock, a gift from director Wim Wenders to his former assistant, Jarmusch. A former New York University film-school student and a member of the band the Del-Byzanteens, Jarmusch had directed "Permanent Vacation", which received some minor attention, mostly in Europe.

Jarmusch approached John Lurie, the lanky sax player and leader of a "modern bebop" band, the Lounge Lizards. Lurie, familiar to New York club audiences, had directed his own Super-8 movies, and appeared in and made music for such low-budget movies as "Sleepless Nights", "Subway Riders" and "Vortex". Together, he and Jim concocted a story about two marginal types - an assimilated Hungarian émigré named Willie, and his best friend, Eddie - and how their lives of small-time gambling and hustling are affected by the arrival, from Budapest, of Willie's teenage cousin, Eva, on her way to visit an aunt in Cleveland.

Lurie was to play Willie, and the role of Eva was conceived for Eszter Balint, a 19-year-old actress who had grown up living and working with Squat Theatre, an avant-garde troupe of émigrés transplanted to Manhattan.

To complete the trio, musician Richard Edson signed to play Eddie, Willie's easy-going cohort. A member of Konk, a 10-piece rhythmic dance band, Edson also played trumpet, bass and drums with Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca and Lydia Lunch.

The result of the collaboration was a 30-minute film that was expanded, after successful film-festival screenings, to a 90-minute feature.

"Stranger than Paradise" takes the trio, who've spent about a week hanging out in New York City, to Cleveland a year later, where Willie and Eddie visit Eva, who is now living with her Aunt Lotte, an old-world Hungarian, and working in a fast-food joint. The two "kidnap" Eva for a Miami vacation that winds up as a series of mishaps and missed connections in the tropical non-paradise of Melbourne, Florida.

Divided into three sections, the film consists of one-take scenes separated by blackouts. There are no close-ups, and no action in the conventional sense. But, somehow, with minimal plot, understated acting and stylized backgrounds, the audience alters its expectations and pays attention to an ironic filmscape.

Shot in 17 days for under $110, 000, and with a beautiful score by Lurie, the film was finished just a few weeks before the Cannes Film Festival. There, they collected their unanticipated Camera d'Or award.

"I don't have a lot of respect for the general state of acting in American films. It's so overdone. I like understated things that are realistic. I'd like you to believe that these people are real." - Jim Jarmusch
The hoopla, the critical praise and the awards came as a surprise to the participants. Jarmusch probably spoke for everyone involved when he said: "It's been a rat race. It's good - I don't want to complain - but I'm at the point now where I just want to get back to work." Hollywood has beckoned since the film's release, but aside from "taking" a few lunches, Jarmusch has passed on the many scripts and deals he's been offered. "I would never do a film where I didn't have control over the casting and editing - the real film," he says. "So I have no interest in being a hired director." His plans include working as director of photography on a film by Sara Driver, continuing work with the Del-Byzanteens, directing a film of his own in New York this fall, and another collaboration with John Lurie, to be shot in the spring of '86. As for financing, he says, "I believe in the hope of some international, independent way of forming co-productions that avoid Hollywood and the big companies that make products targeted to a specific audience."

"I took it as a lark," Richard Edson says. "It was something to do. It was a cool idea and I liked the cast. The last time I'd acted was in seventh grade." Richard is not about to give up his first love - music - and "go Hollywood." "Acting's a good job if you can get it," he says. "It pays well and I like performing. Still, there's something about it. You're pretending to be something you're not - and if that's what you become, who are you?"

Aside from his continuing participation in Konk, he is working on music with Jarmusch, and with a soul singer from south Philadelphia. And he recently completed some music for a porn film called "Urban Heat".

Like her character, Eva, Eszter Balint seems to be an independent spirit and she speaks with a slight accent. She almost didn't take the role, fearing it might be too "real." "I'm not playing myself," she said. "I'm a totally different age and background. What's me are the subtle personality traits." And it is those things that she admires in other actors. "Acting is not something I automatically respect as a profession," she says. "To make an audience believe something is a skill, that's all. I look for something special, some charisma, charm, presence - that's what inspires me." She likes Rita Hayworth. "It sounds corny when you say you like old actresses and can't think of any new ones, but American 'new-women' stars…nothing urges me to be like them."

"It doesn't make sense to me anymore. Why is this movie so popular?" John Lurie says. At work on a new Lounge Lizards album, "Mutiny on the Bowery", and frustrated by problems in the studio, financial hassles and having to publicize a film he did many months ago, he expresses ambivalent feelings about the turns - or lack of turns - his life has taken since the release. Less jittery in person than Willie, Lurie, who has been compared with Belmondo, nevertheless projects a certain skittishness similar to his character's when faced with external demands. He doesn't like doing publicity and he's not crazy about the attention. Comparing the plethora of positive reviews to "too much sugar", he admits that he has gotten a kick out of the negative ones. "I heard that Stewart Klein or someone like him was going to give the movie a bad review on TV," he says. "So I invited people over to see it, and when finished his pan, we all cheered.

"I've been through this fame thing before, when the band was big in '80, '81. It made me real paranoid to go out. I'd always maintained an image so that people wouldn't approach me. In this movie, the guy has such an unassuming quality, he seems so malleable, that a lot of people come up and talk to me. It does nothing for me, egowise, if someone comes up and says, 'I like your movie.' If someone who knows what's going on comes up and says they liked the music, I appreciate that.

"Acting scares me," he adds. "In some ways, I don't consider it an art form. I play music, I paint - these things come from your depths. If you don't choose the right roles or become known as an actor first, you are in great danger of becoming plasticated." Still, like Edson, he has signed with an agent at William Morris and also auditioned for a role in "Miami Vice".

"My fantasy about what might have happened after this film? That Scorsese would have asked me to score his latest film, "After Hours", and then to have gone into the studio to make a Lounge Lizards album with no problems. I guess I just want everything to be available immediately," he says.

"Of course, there's a possibility that nothing will happen," he continues philosophically. "But, you know, I'd be happy just making music."

Transcribed by Larry Da Silveira