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Rediscovering Jarmusch's Minimalist 'Paradise'

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 31, 2007

"This dress bugs me."

With that impassive complaint, Hungarian teenager Eva departed New York for Cleveland, and Jim Jarmusch achieved cult-director status. "Stranger Than Paradise," the deadpan 1984 comedy that's full of things that bugged Eva, is one of the seminal movies of the new American independent cinema, along with David Lynch's "Eraserhead" and Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It." The Jarmusch classic will be available Tuesday as a special-edition DVD ($39.95), with so many extras that they require a second disc.

Jarmusch's films, which often observe cross-cultural or trans-lingual perplexity, are not big on dialogue. Yet the director is hardly one of the laconic slackers he often depicts, but rather a writer and film theorist who can explain exactly what he's doing. No one has improved on his description of "Stranger Than Paradise": "a semi-realist black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern European director obsessed with Ozu and the 1950s American television show 'The Honeymooners.' " That may sound like a lot to cram into an 89-minute low-budget movie that essentially has only three characters, but "Stranger Than Paradise" never feels overloaded. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who redefined Amerindie film as an explosion in a junk shop, Jarmusch is a minimalist. That's quickly established in this black-and-white fable, which is constructed as a series of 67 vignettes, framed by short intervals of black screen. Each scene is a single take, without any edits or reverse-angle shots. There are some cinematic in-jokes, but they're not belabored: One scene is set at a kung fu flick, and another suggests betting on a race horse named for Ozu's "Tokyo Story."

The story is just as simple. Eva (Eszter Balint) arrives from Hungary to stay with her indifferent cousin Willie (Lounge Lizards saxophonist John Lurie), who insists she not speak Hungarian. Eva meets Willie's pal Eddie (onetime Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson), learns a bit about American culture and then departs to live with her aunt in Cleveland. A year later, Willie and Eddie travel to Ohio to see Eva and decide to take her to Florida. From the Lower East Side to Lake Erie to the Florida coast, the movie's America is a place where, as Eddie notes, "everything looks the same." But then variety is not the point; Eva travels with a cassette player that contains only one song, Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You."

Although it was the first one most people saw, "Stranger Than Paradise" was not Jarmusch's first feature. In 1980, he completed "Permanent Vacation," which makes its U.S. DVD debut on the second disc of this package. While "Vacation" lacks the later film's artfulness, it shares its interest in aimless drifting, then-decrepit downtown Manhattan and timeless hipster cool. Like "Paradise's" Willie and Eddie, this film's Allie (Chris Parker) combines the looks and attitudes of '70s punker, '50s jazzman and '40s racetrack sharpie. Narratively, however, Allie's wanderings wander.

Also available Tuesday from the Criterion Collection is a new DVD edition of "Night on Earth" ($39.95), Jarmusch's 1991 omnibus film about five after-hours encounters between cabbies and passengers. By the time he made this movie, the director was well established on the international film festival circuit, which explains why the stories are set in widely dispersed cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome and Helsinki -- and star such art-cinema veterans as Gena Rowlands, Beatrice Dalle and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Some episodes are better than others, of course, but they all demonstrate Jarmusch's affinity for the scruffier parts of town. Through his lens, they look something like paradise.

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