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Born in Akron, Ohio, Jarmusch graduated with an English degree from Columbia University and attended the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, where he studied under legendary director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) and became active in the downtown club culture of New York. He played in a "no wave" band called the Del-Byzanteens, apprenticed under Wim Wenders as an assistant on his film Lightning Over Water, and made a little-scene feature, Permanent Vacation, in 1980. He reunited with that film's cinematographer Tom DiCillo, production manager Sara Driver, and composer and co-star John Lurie for his second feature. Made over the course of four years on a budget less than $100,000 (funded by a German investor), Stranger Than Paradise was a quantum leap forward in both style and sensibility.
Lurie stars as Willie, a Hungarian immigrant gone native (native New Yorker, that is) with no visible means of support. He apparently makes on his dump of an apartment by betting on the horses and hustling card games with his affable buddy Eddie (Richard Edson). These guys don't have faces, they have mugs under their cheap fedoras the caveman brows and perpetually pursed lips of Lurie, the jug ears and cockeyed grin of Edson with personalities to match.
Into Willie's life strolls his "little cousin" fresh from Hungary, Eva (Eszter Balint), a punk waif with a face almost blank with world weary amusement. She strides through oddly deserted New York streets with Screaming Jay Hawkins' grindhouse shouter "I Put a Spell on You" blasting from a cheap cassette player and ends up at Willie's door. "I don't even consider myself one of the family," he complains to an Old Country aunt who stills calls him by his long discarded given name, Bela, and Eva is a reminder of the past he's all but erased in his identity makeover. Her one night stay in his one-room apartment stretches to ten. He's annoyed, she's bored, but they develop a grudging affection for one another over all-night TV marathons and TV dinners and shoplifted cartons of cigarettes before she heads off on her way to Cleveland.
The meandering film, structured in three movements, takes the trio from downtown New York to Cleveland (where Eva's Aunt Lotte beats Eddie at cards time and again with the deadpan declaration "I am de veenor") to a dive of a strip motel in Florida. "You know, it's funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same," remarks Eddie on their road trip through an America of urban blight, industrial blah and rural nothingness.
Jarmusch was being only slightly tongue-in-cheek when, in 1984, he described the film as a "semi-realist black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern European film director obsessed with Ozu and familiar with the 1950s American television show The Honeymooners." Shot in a series of unbroken takes, each separated by stretches of black, the spare black-and-white imagery, the single-shot scenes and the emphasis on what is considered the mundane moments of life gives the film a unique quality, like a French New wave film by way of Bela Tarr, directed with a hipster American comic sensibility and an outsider's fascination with the details of the everyday. "I am interested in the non-dramatic moments in life," he explained in an interview, and he ostensibly leaves the drama offscreen in those blank black moments.
With Stranger Than Paradise, Jarmusch had found his own, distinctive voice, drawn equally from his life in the seventies underground culture of New York and his love of directors like Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson and Wim Wenders (whose own meandering B&W road movie Kings of the Road was surely an influence). He references movies as diverse as Tokyo Story (it's the name of a horse Willie wants to place a bet on) and Forbidden Planet and uses "I Put a Spell on You" like a wailing anthem, while Tom DiCillo's soft black-and-white 16-millimeter cinematography finds beauty in the mundane apartments and dreary landscapes of his world. Jarmusch's budgets and stars have gotten bigger in years since (see Dead Man and Broken Flowers) but his style and sensibilities haven't strayed much from the easy rhythms and understated character comedy first captured in Stranger Than Paradise.
Criterion's "Director Approved Special Edition" features a digital transfer supervised by Jarmusch that is so clear you can see the 16-millimeter film grain dance across the hazy cream-colored skies and a second disc of supplements, including his debut feature Permanent Vacation. The first person story of a teenage drifter (Chris Parker) on New York's Lower East Side, with its dominating narration and music, feels more like the low-budget New York indies by film school graduates and ambitious artists of the time than the films Jarmusch would subsequently make, but it's an interesting time capsule and the grungy color film makes a fascinating contrast to the tone and sensibility of Stranger Than Paradise. The 40-minute documentary "Kino '84," produced in English for German TV in 1984, features clips from both films along with relaxed interviews with Jarmusch, cinematographer Tom DiCillo, production manager Sara Driver, and the stars of both films. "Some Days in January 1984," a 14-minute collection of silent super-8 footage shot by Tom Jarmusch during the production in Cleveland, a less a behind-the-scenes featurette than a travelogue curiosity. Also features a gallery of location scouting photos and American and Japanese trailers. The 45-page booklet features "Some Notes on Stranger Than Paradise," written by Jim Jarmusch in 1984 for the film's pressbook, an essay by Geoff Andrew on Stranger Than Paradise, J. Hoberman's original review of Stranger Than Paradise, and Luc Sante on Permanent Vacation and New York in 1980.
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by Sean Axmaker