Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson, Cecillia Stark, Rockets Redglare
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 89
Date: 05/01/1984

Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Choking the Alligator

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Whenever writers try to pinpoint the beginning of the American independent cinema movement, this film usually comes up. Though it's not actually the beginning of anything, it's a unique, indelible and hilarious film, and certainly one of the best of its era. (It's sometimes mistaken as the debut film by writer/director Jim Jarmusch, but he made Permanent Vacation several years earlier.) Jarmusch shot in black-and-white, using mostly long, single takes, with chunks of black leader in-between each scene. Practically nothing happens. Willie (John Lurie, who also provided the film's music) lives a stripped-down existence in New York City, occasionally going to the dog races with his pal Eddie (Richard Edson). Though his life is pretty idle, he nevertheless complains when his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) comes to visit from Hungary. He teaches her about television, TV dinners and cleaning his apartment. (There's a brilliant scene in which she tries to learn about football.) Willie's disdain turns to affection just when it becomes time for Eva to move on. Later, Willie and Eddie decide to take a road trip to Cleveland to see Eva again, now staying with their Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark). Once they get to Cleveland, they start all over doing nothing. Finally, the three young people hit the road once more for Florida and a bizarre ending. If nothing else, Stranger Than Paradise re-defined the term "deadpan" in American movies. There are no "jokes," but almost every barren, unsure line of hipster dialogue rings true and inspires laughs. (It has several quotable lines.) The stark, half-empty frames have a kind of inevitability to them; even the freezing Cleveland weather and the Florida sunshine have little effect on the film's tone. Its biggest achievement, however, is that it's not depressing. This is a film I've seen again and again, and it always brings me great pleasure. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' song "I Put a Spell on You" is used to great effect. The ex-bodyguard Rockets Redglare appears as a player in a poker game. Cinematographer Tom DiCillo went on to become a director in his own right.

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