Since I started studying film twenty years ago, I’ve probably watched around 10,000 movies, and have few major blind spots. Even if I absolutely detest a director, I can usually appreciate their work in some way.
I’ve always had a problem with Jim Jarmusch though, and I’m ashamed to say the issue stems from very early on in my days as a film buff. One day I was flicking through a movie mag and landed on a photo of the director, and disliked him on sight. Surely, I thought, anyone with such an ostentatiously cool haircut can only make self-regarding, pretentious films?
That irrational prejudice against Jarmusch has stayed with me for two decades, and the films I have seen of his have only compounded my initial impression. Since I just don’t “get” his movies, his esoteric coterie of laconic crooks, mystic cowboys, samurai hitmen and cultured vampires create an aura of hip exclusivity. It seemed to me like an inversion of the old Groucho Marx quote “I don’t care to be part of any club that will have me as a member.” – to me, Jarmusch had created a club uninterested in accepting people uncool enough to apply for membership.
With this in mind, I was intrigued to see that Kino Scala are showing a short festival of Jarmusch films on Dec 27-30. Sometimes it’s fun to dive into a film maker’s body of work and binge watch, and I thought doing so might enable me to get over my unsubstantiated beef with the much-loved indie director.
I started with Stranger than Paradise, Jarmusch’s breakout work, and I’m happy to say it completely changed my perspective. It’s a really stripped back film, shot in long, static takes in stark black and white. As in most Jarmusch films, nothing much happens, but that is kind of the point here.
Stranger than Paradise (1984)Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson
Willie (John Lurie) is a twenty-something layabout living in a crummy apartment in New York. He apparently has no gainful means of employment, and makes enough money for cigarettes and TV dinners by gambling at the race track and cheating at cards. Other than that, he seems content sitting around smoking. One day he receives a call from his Hungarian auntie to say his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) is visiting from the old country, and will be in town for a few days. She’s going to stay with him. He’s not too happy about the idea, and when she arrives he acts like she’s a real hindrance to his doing nothing.
Instead of showing her around one of the greatest cities in the world, they sit around watching TV and smoking cigarettes. Willie’s dimwitted buddy Eddie (Richard Edson) shows up, and takes a shine to the newcomer. After her stay is over, she leaves for Cleveland. That’s it.
A year later, Willie and Eddie feel the urge to see somewhere new, and go to visit Eva in Cleveland. Once there, they don’t do much apart from sit around watching TV and smoking. They eventually get off their butts to visit Lake Erie in the middle of a snowstorm, but the lake is lost in a complete white out. Eventually they “rescue” Eva from her humdrum existence as a waitress in a burger joint and head for Florida, the “Paradise” of the title. Guess what happens down there? You’re right, not much.
That sounds pretty boring, I know. This is a film about what people do when they’ve got nothing to do, and no money to do it with. It’s about what people talk about when they’ve got nothing to say. Yet it’s a very gentle film – so many movies about poor people are politicized or angry, but Jarmusch isn’t really interested in creating some tub-thumping polemic. He’s interested in people at the arse-end of the American Dream, and evidently feels a kinship with his characters. Kindness isn’t a word normally used when describing film, but this is a very kind piece of work – kind to its characters and kind to its audience. Jarmusch displays an observational empathy for their routine, neither sentimentalising or patronising them.
Stranger than Paradise understands that if you’ve got no money and no place to go, then everywhere is basically the same. Tom DiCillo’s evocative cinematography captures the strange emptiness of urban decay, of places created by humans where people look alien in their surroundings. I left England because the towns within my scope of understanding all seemed the same, every place looking like a roundabout with a Tesco, Burger King and PC World in the middle. Unless you’re doing well for yourself, the hinterland of New York must look very much like the boondocks of Cleveland or the backwaters of Florida.
It’s deadpan fatalism feels like a visual representation of a song rather than a film, and from a British perspective at least, like a mellow precursor to the celebrations and commiserations of working class life offered by the Britpop bands of the Nineties –
Is it worth the aggravation
to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?
It’s a crazy situation
but all I need are cigarettes and alcohol.
Rent a flat above a shop,
Cut your hair and get a job,
Smoke some fags and play some pool…
I’ve read pieces calling Jarmusch’s films “hangout” movies, and I really got that with Stranger than Paradise. While Willie and Eddie aren’t the kind of guys you’d aspire to be or necessarily want in your life if you’re anyway ambitious, it is comfortable spending time in their company. As someone who spent a lot of time back in the day smoking, drinking, and playing video games with my flatmate because we were unemployed and broke, it felt a lot like home.
Now when I go back to visit, I always spend some time with my old flatmate. I’ve moved on, but I always get the sense that if he had his way, we’d still be living together and playing games until four in the morning. Strange how I always slip right back in, as if instead of living in another country for the past eight years I’d just popped around the corner for more beer and fags. The Xbox controller never seemed to cool from the warmth of my hand.
Sorry that the review turned a bit personal there. That’s where Stranger than Paradise took me, and I cherished every moment of its deadbeat charm. It made me realise that maybe Jarmusch’s movies aren’t so exclusive after all; that they’re there deliberately hanging out on the periphery, steadfastly refusing to conform to the norm, waiting for the misfits and the oddballs to come join the party.
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