The Films of Jim Jarmusch, The Mystery of Stranger Than Paradise :: A post in celebration of Jarmusch's birthday on 1/22.
I saw the Jim Jarmusch movie Mystery Train for the first time in the winter of 1991, in late December I think, in cold cold Chicago. After watching it for the first time I was thrilled to have discovered an incredibly interesting & entertaining movie, a work of art that excelled on several filmmaking fronts, so I immediately popped the VHS tape back in and watched the movie again. That night and following morning I must have watched the movie at least four times. A few weeks earlier, in film school, they tried to show me Stranger Than Paradise but I was half asleep, not moved by what I was watching. But after seeing Mystery Train, Stranger Than Paradise and all other movies by Jarmusch (fiction features so far, post-film school: Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Mystery Train, Night On Earth, Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers) took on a special meaning, value, and glow. So that winter Jarmusch became my favorite filmmaker and Mystery Train my favorite film. About 16 years later, those things have not changed (except Amelie shares the favorite film spot w/ MT now). Jarmusch movies have rarely failed to offer something interesting to watch, experience or think about. Above all, Jarmusch movies offer a trasnsformative window that encourages me to take another look at ordinary existence and to look for special moments. A very valuable thing for me as an artist, an ultra-low budget indie filmmaker, and overall as a human being who must navigate existence on a complex and busy America & Earth.
STRANGER THAN PARADISE or Why Does This Movie Work!?!
Stranger Than Paradise was well received by the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 - winning the Camera d'Or award - and subsequently became a US critics favorite, a low budget/no star success, and a reliable source of inspiration for a generation or two of independent filmmakers thus far. Most people reading this blog will no doubt be familiar with the slim plot of Stranger: A man - Willie (John Lurie) - leads a low key existence in New York, his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) visits from Hungary, stays with Willie for a while, and then, a year later, Willie and his more talkative but perhaps less bright friend Eddie (Richard Edson) visit Eva in Cleveland, and then the three take a road trip to Florida where the tale ends with gambling at dog races and missed connections at the airport. There isn't much dialogue in the film. For the most part the audience watches the camera observe settings where nothing much happens. The cinematography is in black and white, low rent and charming. The counterpoint to the many passionless-on-the-surface or slow moving, not-much-happening aspects of the movie's world comes from a passionate song by Screaming Jay Hawkins, who howls that he's put a spell on you.
After falling in love with Stranger I showed it to a friend of mine and we almost ended up having a fist fight because he felt that the movie was an utter waste of time. So why does Stranger work so well for some but completely not for others? What is the magical power of this movie that has held the attention & memory of a small but important number of passionate movie fans world wide for over two decades? Some of the reasons maybe: 1. people were/are tired of the typical storytelling methods of Hollywood & television, and Stranger showed another way of looking at the world & existence through movies - where even if not much happens, and even if whatever little that was happening was not important in any sort of a larger societal way, that those little things - moments of life lived - can still be interesting, even enjoyable, and thus are valuable, 2. seeing familiar characters in an unusual setting, in a foreign film type frame, may have made it easier for some people to open themselves up to foreign films, arty foreign films, thus Stranger could have served as a bridge to discovering a whole new world of cinema for some, 3. the simplicity and the implied honesty of the movie is appealing, even though the characters in the film do not say anything important directly, the way the movie presents minor things as important in a matte-of-fact way, and often with humor - reflects an appealing humanistic; concerned with human existence and valuing it - world view of its creator, and 4. Stranger clearly announced the existence of both a new, important talent in American film - Jarmusch - perhaps the second most important American independent film director since the birth of that branch of the art form (the first being John Cassavetes), and the birth of a new wave in American indie film or at least the maturity, in terms of commercial prospects & critical response, of the independent filmmaking movement/practice up to that point, plus maybe - 5. people were able to see something of themselves reflected in the movie, for better or for worse.
In the year of its release Stranger was able to hold its own as a remarkable creative work against foreign art films and domestic/Hollywood films - which appears to have been a rare accomplishment for an American independent film in the early 1980's. 23 years after it appeared on US movie screens, Stranger remains an important work of film art that still inspires new filmmakers and continues to pleasantly surprise certain audience members who discover the film's familiar and alien beauty for the first time.