WITH "Stranger Than Paradise," the new Bohemians rediscover realism, in black and white, and on a low budget.
Director Jim Jarmusch, current darling of film's avant garde, embraces America counterculturally, reiterating the themes of "Moscow on the Hudson" and "El Norte." His is, however, the view from the bottom of the melting pot.
Jarmusch gives us a satiric, sobering character study of immigrants -- three Hungarians who experience Americana in grainy blackouts that are remorselessly deadpan and shrewdly on target. It has the feel of an Andy Warholian "Honeymooners."
Performance artist John Lurie, who composed the score, plays Willie, an old hand at New York after 16 years. Eszter Balint, a Hungarian artist, plays Eva, a petulant Budapestian who visits Willie's cold-water walk-up before moving to her Aunt Lotte's in Cleveland.
Willie, contemptuous of the new arrival, explains TV dinners: "This is the way we eat in America. I got my meat, my potatoes, my vegetables, my dessert. And I don't even have to wash the dish." Eva, actually the worldlier, is not impressed. "Where does that meat come from?" she asks darkly in an accent thick as the thawed gravy.
Richard Edson costars as Willie's best friend Eddie, a guy with a nose all over his face, the kind of face you're glad to see on screen because it doesn't look like it was made of ejection-molded plastic. It's a face like the film -- honest, ethnic and unpretentious, a film that plays dumb but isn't.
Eddie persuades Willie to visit Eva in Cleveland at the home of frowzy Aunt Lotte (played by Cecillia Stark, the underground's Clara Peller). It's a winter vacation that takes them to Lake Erie for the view in a snowstorm, the pivotal point in vacation planning that sends the three to Florida in a borrowed car.
Along the way, Jarmusch records the America of Interstates and telephone poles. They have driven from the New World to Paradise, but, like Eddie says, "You know, it's funny. You come someplace new and it looks just the same."
Jarmusch's novel comedy joins "Chan Is Missing," an underappreciated film by a San Francisco Chinese American, and "Angelo My Love," Robert Duvall's film about New York gypsies, in exploring those ethnic groups that don't quite blend into the stew we're in.
STRANGER THAN PARADISE (R) -- At West End Circle and Outer Circle.