"Stranger Than Paradise," Jim Jarmusch's second feature (and the first to gain wide release), could make the most die-hard Hollywood enthusiast wish for a world where theaters showed nothing but little hour-and-a-half black-and-white movies. Daring in its conception but made with a watchmaker's care, "Stranger Than Paradise" is a playfully eclectic, formally perfect gem. It is also a persistently funny film that owes as much to "The Honeymooners" as it does to the avant-garde.
In "Stranger Than Paradise," which is structured in three parts, what doesn't happen is as important as what does. In the first segment ("The New World"), Willie (John Lurie) is visited by his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), who has come over from Hungary; in the second ("One Year Later"), Willie and his pal Eddie (Richard Edson) drive to Cleveland, where Eva lives with her Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark); in the third ("Paradise"), the threesome leaves Aunt Lotte and travels to Florida. These characters specialize in "hanging out" -- playing solitaire, perusing the racing form, watching horror movies and cartoons, driving the highways or just sitting and staring. They're Beckett's tramps, mired in aimless lassitude, always saying goodbye.
Much of the fun of "Stranger Than Paradise" stems from Eva's curiously anachronistic attempts to ape American culture -- chain-smoking Chesterfields and dressed like a '50s beatnik in a man's sweater and slacks, she endlessly plays Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" on her cassette deck. (When Willie tells her he hates that kind of music, she responds, "He's a wild man so bug off" -- hip patter made square by Hungarian cadences.) She resists Willie's attempts to introduce her to actual American institutions like the TV dinner; only when Willie talks on her wavelength -- when she drags out the old Hoover vacuum and he says she's "choking the alligator" -- does she respond.
Balint plays Eva with sure comic timing and a weird grace; her matter-of-fact deadpan makes every line a laugh line. And the eerie, Camille-like beauty of her expressionless face can fissure with a genuine warmth that's vital to a movie so relentlessly cold. Unlike the visitors in, say, "Splash" or "E.T.," Eva, the "alien" of "Stranger Than Paradise," brings her way of looking at the world with her. America is seen through her eyes as a suburb of the Iron Curtain -- the architecture takes on the distorted angularity of German Expressionism, the cityscape the devastated grayness of eastern European films. Even in Florida, Tom DiCillo's haunting black-and-white photography makes the palm trees seem glum, the beach as bombed out as East Berlin.
"Stranger Than Paradise" proceeds as vignettes, each shot in long, unedited takes and separated by "blackouts" of opaque film stock. Often the camera lingers on the characters' silences as they stare at the television, the open road or the wall. These pieces have the feel of real life -- they're specifically not "life with the dull bits cut out." But it only seems like cine'ma ve'rite'; underneath is a triumph of technique, as Jarmusch precisely measures and times the dead spots. The blackouts work as a visual counterpart to the characters' silences (first you see but hear nothing, then you hear but see nothing). As the movie progresses, they accumulate to suggest a largeness of life beyond the action of the movie -- in your imagination, you fill these spaces with the lives these characters have outside the movie.
More generally, the blackouts serve as a metaphor for the emptiness surrounding their lives; in the movie's most ingenious cinematic trick, a blank whiteness serves the same purpose, as the trio visits Lake Erie in the dead of winter and they stare out into the dazzling nothingness. Willie, Eddie and Eva need one another to fill the hole, but it's not friendship, exactly -- it's more like the companionship of strangers trapped on a stalled elevator. If they're pals, that doesn't keep them from bullying each other, the chief bully being John Lurie's Willie. His large-featured, sunken face is set in a perpetually dour mask that, with his extravagant lips, makes him seem as if he's recoiling in disgust after being slapped in the mug with his own liver. Tall and gaunt, with the heavy, ill-coordinated gait of an old barnyard horse, Lurie is always pushing his buddies around -- he's a sort of stretched-out Ralph Kramden.
What makes Lurie likable is that his chums seem to like him, to rely on his moodiness as a foil for their sunny naivete. In one of the movie's typically ingenious symmetries, Edson appears as a pitiable reduction of Lurie, with the same squashed nose beneath the same "spiv" hat. Everything that's dark in Lurie is light in Edson. The emptiness that has driven Lurie into a deep funk just rolls off his back: "You know it's funny," he says in his high-pitched, happy whine, as he walks off into a railroad yard buried in the bleak Cleveland winter. "You come someplace new and everything looks just the same."
And it's true -- no matter where they go, Willie and Eddie carry their boredom with them (in Cleveland, all they do is play more cards, as Stark's Aunt Lotte, dropping her meld and proclaiming, "I am de vinnah," steals the scene). "Stranger Than Paradise" is a movie about boredom; and because we go to movies partly out of boredom, it's a movie about moviegoers. Getting out of the house at long last, the three of them pile into the car and go to see a kung fu film. While the mayhem thunks and thuds on the soundtrack, the camera remains on them; you watch the movie, and you watch yourself. Stranger Than Paradise, opening today at the Outer and West End Circles, is rated R and contains some profanity.