Monday, November 21, 2011

Road to Nowhere

Film: Stranger than Paradise
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Since the first moment someone unconnected to a studio got access to a movie camera, indie cinema existed, or at least had the potential to exist. To the minds of many, though, indie cinema really started, or at least became something significant, when Jim Jarmusch made Stranger than Paradise, a virtually plotless piece of Americana that explores one of the great questions of any age: boredom.

We deal initially with Willie (John Lurie), who is formerly from Hungary and is actually named Bela. But he’s become fully Americanized and identifies as American, and doesn’t even really like to hear Hungarian being spoken. His aunt (Cecillia Stark) calls him to remind him of the arrival of his cousin, and that now, instead of her staying for a day or two at his New York apartment, she’ll be staying with him for 10 days.

The cousin is Eva (Eszter Balint), who is young and pretty, and completely unadjusted to life in the States. We also meet Willie’s friend Eddie (Richard Edson), who immediately finds Eva attractive, but who is essentially pushed away from her by Willie. Eva and Willie don’t like each other too much at first, but eventually grow to a level of acclimation with each other, particularly when Eva steals food and gives it to him. He reciprocates by buying her a dress that he likes (and she doesn’t) and by deliberately misteaching her American idioms. And then, the 10 days are up and Eva heads off to Cleveland.

A year later, after scamming a bunch of money in a poker game, Eddie and Willie borrow a car and go to visit Eva. What they discover is that life in Cleveland is just as boring as their lives in New York, and after a few days, they’re just as bored. Everything looks the same to them, and the television is exactly the same. So they decide to go somewhere really different, heading to Florida. But before they go, they “rescue” Eva from her job at a hot dog restaurant. And in Florida, everything changes, but remains strangely exactly the same for all three characters.

There are three parts to the film—New York, Cleveland, and Florida, and each one is about half an hour long. In each, we see variations of the same story. In its own way, it sort of presages a film like Lola Rennt, although without specifically repeating itself each time.

Jarmusch’s style in this film is interesting. He doesn’t ever cut from one scene to the next—each scene is a take of varying length followed by a second or two of a black screen. What this means is that the film feels choppy at first, but this rhythm soon becomes normal, and moving from one shot to the next feels natural.

It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the fact that nothing really happens in this film until the last 15 minutes or so is entirely the point of the film. Our characters are aimless in the absolute meaning of the word—they have no direction. Even when they appear to have a direction, as when Willie and Eddie decide to go to Cleveland or to Florida, they aren’t going there with any specific reason in mind. Instead, it’s merely an excuse to get away from where they are and an attempt to get rid of the crushing boredom of their everyday lives. The fact that they are continually unsuccessful in this is also the point. Their lives have no direction, and no real meaning, and no real point.

Again, nothing really happens until the very end. At the end, we get all sorts of events at the same time, a complete opposite of what the first hour and change has been. That there is no plot for the bulk of the film is what makes it so compelling in its own way. At least that’s what makes it so important as an indie film. Jarmusch essentially took everything that we expect to see in a film—like a story that makes us want to keep watching—and did away with it completely. We’d get much the same story if the first hour were compressed into 10 minutes, and that would very much seem more palatable to many movie watchers.

Is it good? That’s a difficult call. I can understand the film’s importance, but I have a much harder time judging it on whether or not I’d want to see it again or really have much to do with it beyond what I have already. It’s certainly a noteworthy film and critical for understanding independent filmmaking…but ultimately it leaves me feeling unsatisfied.

EDIT: The more I think about this film, the more I see what Jarmusch was trying to do with it, and the more I appreciate it. There is a sense of disaffection in this film that is impossible to avoid, and that's sort of the point. Our characters want things handed to them, essentially, and no one hands them things (except at the end), and when it does happen, they manage to screw it up. You can see this same desire, lack of movement, and essential screwing up even more in today's world. So maybe I'm not so unsatisfied. Stranger than Paradise is a cinematic time bomb. A day later, I'm left pretty impressed.

Why to watch Stranger than Paradise: The birth of modern indie.
Why not to watch: Despite traveling across the country, it doesn’t really go anywhere.


  1. Good God, it's like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, but with anomie instead of angst.

    All this has happened before... all this will happen again.

  2. I recommend this one, and unlike what I did here, I recommend spending 24 hours before committing thoughts to virtual paper.

  3. This was the first Jarmusch film I'd seen, when I caught it back at The Princess Cinema (a second run movie theatre in Kitchener Ontario during my university days). I pretty much felt the same way when I first saw it - not much seem to happen. I've re-watched it at least three times, (twice most recently), and have come to really like this film for the music, camerawork and the odd performances. It does seem to keep getting better with repeated viewings.

  4. I can see that. It's one that I'd be very willing to revisit in a couple of years. It pretty accurately taps into that sense of wanting something to happen but not wanting it enough to do it oneself, sort of a willful ennui.