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Stranger Than Paradise
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: John Lurie (Willie), Eszter Balint (Eva), Richard Edson (Eddie), Cecillia Stark (Aunt Lotte), Danny Rosen (Billy), Rammellzee (Man With Money), Tom DiCillo (Airline Agent), Richard Boes (Factory Worker)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1984
Country: U.S.
Stranger Than Paradise: Criterion Collection DVD
Stranger Than Paradise Shot in a vividly elegant black-and-white style that is composed entirely of long takes punctuated by fades to blackness, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise looked like nothing else on the American film scene in the mid-1980s. An ostensible speck on the map of Reaganite entertainment, Jarmusch's droll black comedy was literally the little movie that could--and did. No one could have expected it, but Stranger Than Paradise forged a path, marking the beginning of a new independent movement in American cinema that would soon include the voices of filmmakers as diverse as Spike Lee, Joel and Ethan Coen, David Lynch, Abel Ferrara, and Steven Soderbergh.

The simplicity of Stranger Than Paradise can be misleading, its casual artfulness taken for humdrum geniality. It is the work of a true original, as Jarmusch's subsequent output over the past decades has illustrated. Despite working with increasingly large budgets and Hollywood stars, Jarmusch has not lost the idiosyncratic style and unique sense of humor that he first demonstrated in Stranger Than Paradise, which Peter Biskind has rightly noted might be mistaken for a home movie. The film is defined by an evocative sparseness, from the documentary-like mise-en-scene (J. Hoberman said it could have been catered by the Salvation Army), to the pointed dialogue that never says anything more than it needs to.

The story concerns an unlikely trio of characters: Willie (John Lurie), an Americanized immigrant who has done everything in his power to disassociate himself from his Hungarian heritage; his best friend Eddie (Richard Edson); and Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie's 16-year-old cousin who is just off the plane from Budapest. Jarmusch allows these characters to go about their daily lives with casual sloth. Willie enjoys a TV dinner, Eva stays up all night watching television, Willie and Eddie scam some guys in poker. They drop in on Willie's relentlessly Hungarian Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark) in the faded industrial outskirts of Cleveland, and they go to see Lake Erie, which in its frozen state is just a white expanse of nothingness, completely inseparable from the sky. It is both a major disappointment and an awe-inspiring void.

When they eventually arrive in Florida, the ostensible paradise of the title, it is no more alluring than the trashy streets of the big city or the vacant environs of Ohio. In every location they seem to have missed something, or something has missed them. To call them slackers, an easily appropriated word made popular by Richard Linklater's eponymous 1991 film, would miss the point that Willie, Eva, and Eddie are more than just adrift; their existential crisis is not a loss of connection, but rather their being subsumed into a culture that prizes the freedom to do nothing.

The story is divided neatly into three parts, each corresponding with a different geographical region: New York, Cleveland, and Florida. The underlying theme is alienation, a popular topic for independent filmmakers because many of them are themselves alienated, and not always just from the industry at large. Yet, Jarmusch takes that oft-used theme and makes it his own by allowing it to inflect the entire film, thematically and stylistically. The grainy images, beautiful though many of them are, constantly speak of dislocation amid the uniformity. Even though the film takes place in three distinctly different places in America, Jarmusch's camera finds the similarities; as one character bluntly puts it, “You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.”

Stranger than Paradise Director-Approved Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
Audio English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Permanent Vacation (1980, 75 minutes), Jarmusch's first feature
  • Kino '84: Jim Jarmusch a 1984 German television program
  • “Some Days in January 1984,” a behind-the-scenes Super-8 film by Tom Jarmusch
  • Location scouting photos
  • U.S. and Japanese trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring Jarmusch's 1984 “Some Notes on Stranger Than Paradise,” essays by Geoff Andrew and J. Hoberman on Stranger Than Paradise and Luc Sante on Permanent Vacation
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 4, 2007

    Criterion's new anamorphic widescreen transfer of Stranger Than Paradise was taken from the original 35mm camera negative and supervised and approved by Jim Jarmusch (who must have agreed on the 1.78:1 aspect ratio). The stark image is absolutely beautiful, with all its inherent graininess maintained despite digital restoration (which did clean up an instance of damage caused by static electricity in the camera that was purposefully left on Criterion's laser disc at Jarmusch's request). The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the magnetic tracks and also digitally restored, sounds great as well. As there is little music in the film (except for some repeated string music by John Lurie and Screaming Jay Hawkin's “I Put a Spell on You), there are many moments of silence and near-silence, which are blessedly hiss-free.
    Region 1 Jim Jarmusch fans rejoice: This two-disc special edition of Stranger Than Paradise is really a double feature, as it also includes Jarmusch's first feature film, 1980's Permanent Vacation (75 min.), which has never been available on DVD in the U.S. Although not as strong a film as Stranger, it is an intriguing work that establishes many of Jarmusch's signature themes and visual styles and is essential viewing for anyone interested in American independent cinema.

    Included on the second disc is Kino '84: Jim Jarmusch, a 42-minute German television program from 1984 that features interviews with cast and crew from Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation, including Jarmusch, cinematographer Tom DiCillo, producer Sara Driver, and actors Chris Parker, John Lurie, Richard Edson, and Eszter Balint. “Some Days in January 1984” is a rare, intriguing behind-the-scenes film (14 min.) about the making of Stranger Than Paradise shot by Jim's brother Tom Jarmusch on silent Super-8. All of the footage is from the location shoot in Cleveland, and let's just say that it looks very, very cold. There is also a photo gallery of snapshots used to scout locations for the film and original U.S. and Japanese theatrical trailers. The hefty insert booklet features Jarmusch's 1984 piece “Some Notes on Stranger Than Paradise,” as well as essays by Geoff Andrew and J. Hoberman on Stranger Than Paradise (his original review reprinted from The Village Voice) and Luc Sante on Permanent Vacation.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

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