Film (1984)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am


Stranger Than Paradise
John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson
Director: Jim Jarmusch

For any true cinematic auteur, the idea of creative paradise is one where free rein and the final cut prevail, and nowhere is that better realised than in the world of independent cinema.

Although the movement now yields a slew of cheap, cellphone-shot shoegazing knock-offs that dominate YouTube, there was a time when you couldn't take your eyes off three people sitting in a cheap room. That time was heralded by Jim Jarmusch's aptly titled Stranger Than Paradise, a simple, often silent affair where not much really happens.

Broken down into three city-based acts, the film follows Hungarian immigrant Willie (musician John Lurie) as he wastes his days in his tiny New York apartment, playing cards and hanging with best friend Eddie (Richard Edson). When his fresh-off-the-boat cousin, Eva (Eszter Balint), comes to visit, Willie decides to teach her all about America: TV dinners, R&B and brash humour.

Her departure leads the Big Apple pair to dull Cleveland, and then the titular bliss of Florida, where a mundane motel room offers stranger charms than any postcard paradise outside.

The structure and story lends itself better to an off-off-Broadway production - but therein lies much of its charm: through gloomy rooms, endless long takes and circling conversations, Jarmusch created a stripped-down style where a series of unremarkable moments said more about us than any time-travelling blockbuster of 1984.

Universal stranger-in-a-strange-land themes of adaptation, education and sheer boredom made each brief vignette of a scene that much more poignant, while the director's deadpan method that easily segues between comedy and tragedy allows us to better relate to this bitter pill of a film.

Its mainstream-damning approach signalled a new wave of independent cinema, where a fistful of dollars and a few ideas could turn anyone into a filmmaker. The impressive homages that stood out - Slacker, Clerks - unfortunately saw those directors eventually selling out for more money, and the movement petered out a few years after it started.

But Jarmusch stuck to his filmmaking guns. It wasn't until his body of work was more rounded that his ideas truly took shape, but when they did, they showed the true universality of human nature - whether that's through three wise men in a jail cell (Down By Law), cab drivers around the world (Night on Earth) or just simple conversations over a cup of joe and a smoke (Coffee and Cigarettes).

Jarmusch is still riding his career outside of Hollywood even though the idea of independent cinema is all but dead. His recent output might not be what it once was, but Paradise stands out as that key moment when utopia was found not in intergalactic adventures or even humorous romances, but in the existential loitering of everyday folk.