Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic. Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me. As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow. For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.
The life of a twentysomething — a group to which I belong — is not always a good vibe wonderland. It’s a time filled with crippling indecision (after swearing off college last May in a fit of frustration, I’m heading into my final year and will earn my four-year degree at the ripe age of 24) and uncertainty. Oh, and more sitting around doing nothing than any of us would care to admit. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch understands this. He lived it. Proving the “write what you know” axiom, he made a movie about it with 1984’s Stranger than Paradise.
That’s the funny thing about the movie. For all the nothing that happens, you stay engaged for the majority of its runtime. In the film’s opening chapter, these characters, Willie (John Lurie), Eva (Eszter Balint), and Eddie (Richard Edson) don’t know what they want in life, so they don’t do anything. In that, they reach for some sort of identity, with Willie and Eddie even sharing a uniform dress sense — they look like ska bandleaders trying to be tough guys — and a “profession” in ripping off older men in medium-stakes poker games. Unsure of how to relate to women, the guys leave Eva, Willie’s visiting cousin from Hungary, alone in Willie’s apartment to her own devices; unsurprisingly, she watches a lot of bad TV. Eventually fed up with the routine of being left alone, Eva needs to do something and asks to clean Willie’s filthy apartment. Surprised but not about to pass up a free cleaning service, Willie lets her, and their relationship starts to morph into something less cold; they begin to seem a little more like family. Before she leaves for her next stop on her American trip, their aunt Lotte’s (Cecilla Stark) house in Cleveland, Willie even offers a nice, if misguided, gesture to Eva by buying her a hideous dress she discards immediately after she leaves.
The whole movie is filled with small moments like that. Even the big plan at its center, Willie and Eddie’s “vacation” to visit Eva in Cleveland — and later their trip to Florida — is strung together so episodically you’re left wondering if it will come together. It doesn’t fully, but that’s the point. In a life where nothing of note happens, you’re forced to do something, anything to break up the monotony. If that means going on misguided quests to seedy Florida motels, do it. Willie, Eddie, and Eva see they need to work to achieve happiness, and although they don’t quite attain it, they give it a shot. That’s better than sitting around cheap New York apartments being unable to afford anything.
While they may be unhealthy for the characters, those living spaces hold something intriguing for an audience. It’s in the way Jarmusch presents New York. His idea of the city isn’t that of other filmmakers. Nothing happens, there’s no bustle. Traffic seems nonexistent. People are scarce, too. Jarmusch’s New York is a lonely place; it’s not the bursting-at-the-seams metropolis of Sidney Lumet; the neurotic, intellectual stronghold of Woody Allen; or the insular, semi-malicious neighborhood of Martin Scorsese. Stranger Than Paradise accomplishes this with techniques that would become Jarmusch signatures in films like Down By Law and Mystery Train. It features the French New Wave-inspired black and white cinematography, point-and-shoot compositions, and side-scrolling tracking shots straight from a Super Mario Bros. game.
The film also begins another Jarmusch obsession, that of the chronically melancholy protagonist. Sure, Willie is bored and uncertain of what to do with his life, but a lot of that boredom stems from the fact that he cannot reconcile with himself just how boring he is. He’s an unremarkable person and he can’t deal with it. When he and Eddie drive to Cleveland, they don’t listen to music. In fact, they barely speak. Neither has anything to say, but Eddie makes an effort on occasion. Willie, though, stays within himself, unable or, more likely, unwilling to engage. When pushed to experience something new, Eva’s tape of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”, Willie shuts it out, putting down Eva’s taste in music, without taking any time to give it a real assessment; we just know he “doesn’t like that music.” Even his final effort in the film to make his life more meaningful is done under mistaken pretenses. He isn’t flying to Hungary because he truly thinks it will make things better, he’s doing it because he went to stop Eva from making the same flight; he doesn’t realize she never boarded the plane, and it disembarked before he could get off it.
Willie’s deficiencies as a person reflect those of Lurie’s acting abilities. He’s not a very good actor, but in this case, he makes his shortcomings work for the material. He can’t elevate a scene or carry a picture by himself, but Jarmusch does not ask him to do so. He’s allowed to sit back, smirk, and make snide comments about the things that happen around him; he gets to be a slacker. If he were the film’s sole focus, it would grow tiresome quickly.
Like Lurie, Balint could probably stand to take some acting classes. She’s not without her charms, and gives Eva a nice matter-of-factness. But she zags when she should zig. In moments where she should be more confused, like when Willie tells her vacuuming the floor is called “choking your alligator,” she just accepts it with a vacant stare and perhaps a hint of suspicion. I understand blankness is the point of these characters’ existence, but that doesn’t mean everything that happens to them should be greeted with less than a shrug, and that’s how Eva reacts to everything. She’s rarely curious, and when she is — her late-night TV viewing with Willie is a prime example — she gives up her inquiry when Willie answers with one or two words. She doesn’t attempt to get him to open up, and makes her character blander in the process. This is a failing of the writing, as well, but Balint could add more to her character.
Luckily, Edson — who would do great work in Do the Right Thing and, to a lesser extent, Eight Men Out — is there to add levity. His Eddie is someone who doesn’t mind his station in life the same way Willie does; contentment is easier for him to reach. He has an easy smile and accommodating nature; he’s the one who suggests Willie listen to the Hawkins song and bring Eva along when they leave the apartment. He’s appreciative of Aunt Lotte’s willingness to let them stay at her house. Edson takes a nobody but imbues him with an acceptance that becomes a sort of grace.
Stranger Than Paradise is a meandering film that indicates more potential than achievement for Jarmusch. He builds on the themes and techniques he uses here to realize that potential in his later films, with my favorites being the aforementioned Down By Law and Broken Flowers. It has its moments, and its theme of searching for happiness rather than awaiting it is strong, if under-explored.