Before Mala Noche, before Sex, Lies, & Videotape, and far before Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, there was Stranger Than Paradise. And with Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch emerged as one of the earliest and one of the greatest voices of American independent cinema. Stranger Than Paradise has somewhere around 70 scenes, all of them in single shots, all of them separated by cuts to black that last for a couple of seconds. Those shots are grouped into three ironically titled chapters (a device Jarmusch would use again in Mystery Train) chronicling the ennui of New York slacker Willie (John Lurie), his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), and his best friend Eddie (Richard Edson, of Sonic Youth pre-fame). Neither has much more ambition than Willie, although Eva disapproves of some of the guys’ habits. They improvise a road trip to success, and along the way, quietly deconstruct the mythos of the American Dream in a stylistically unique fashion.
Watching Stranger Than Paradise in 2012, its aesthetic does not feel quite so jarring, having been mimicked by countless auteur-minded independent directors since its release, but the film still looks impressive. The film is filled with expressionist lighting, a trait that lingers in the background thanks to the long takes and unflashy camera movement, suggesting a corruption in the world these characters inhabit.
What is this world? Specifically, New York (and Cleveland, and Florida), but it could be any American city. Stranger Than Paradise is all about the American Dream, or rather, the failure of the American Dream. When the two guys finally get out of New York to meet up with Eva in Cleveland, everything Eddie has “heard” (and repeats) about the great city ends up not true. Instead, Willie observes that the new places look exactly like the old ones. When the trio go search for the beaches of Florida, they instead find themselves trapped in a desolate hotel. No matter how hard these three look, they cannot seem to find everything that has been promised to them their whole lives. It’s clear that Willie left Budapest for New York in search of that promise, but that Eva decides to leave as soon as she has a reasonable chance to do so—leave for anywhere except back to Budapest—is a commentary on our tendencies to constantly search for the promises of freedom and opportunity in new places, even if they never are as different as we hope.
The characters aren’t given the depth that is needed to make these themes resonate (Jarmusch was still a film or two away from that); Eddie and Willie don’t have much to distinguish them from one another aside from the assigned follower/leader distinction and Eva serves more as a symbol than a full character. All have their moments of growth, but there is not the dynamism that would be achieved in Down By Law or the uniqueness that makes Mystery Train so memorable. What is clear, however, is that from the very beginning, Jarmusch was uncompromising, quietly visionary and, above all, expected involvement and thoughtfulness from his audience. The comedy is deadpan absurdism, the subtext barely even hinted at from line to line, and the story absolutely minimal. But Jarmusch’s idiosyncrasies make everything more compelling and meaningful than most directors could dream of doing. They are not quite as meaningful as they appear to be, but they clearly indicate future steps, and they suggest the same ideas that later films would more fully explore.
Stranger Than Paradise remains more unique and has proved more influential than its contemporary pioneers, and it is utterly representative of a great director in the making. Jarmusch would go on to make pictures better than this, a few serving as expansions to the same ideas, but with his debut proper, he had already found his distinct voice, and what is most remarkable is how inimitable it has always been.