FILMS

Aliens in a strange paradise

STRANGER THAN PARADISE Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

MARNI JACKSON November 26 1984
FILMS

Aliens in a strange paradise

STRANGER THAN PARADISE Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

MARNI JACKSON November 26 1984

Aliens in a strange paradise

STRANGER THAN PARADISE Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

Film-makers on small budgets are discovering that America makes an almost perfect set for movies about aliens. There is no need to add props or special effects; viewed through the right eyes, the whole country looks like a strange foreign world. In The Brother From Another Planet, writerdirector John Sayles told the story of a black extraterrestrial who lands in New York City. Now, in another shoestring comedy by writer-director Jim Jarmusch, the “alien” is Eva (Eszter Balint), a teenage visitor from Hungary. Wherever Eva travels—from New York to Cleveland to Florida—the same tackily furnished room and gibbering TV set await her. By the end of the hilarious, deadpan comedy, America has become a landscape of never-ending absurdity.

After Eva arrives in New York, she stays with her down-and-out cousin for several days. Willie (John Lurie) wears a fedora at all times and his profile looks like a drawing done by an amateur who put the eyes too close to the ears. Willie lives a bachelor existence of beer, TV and poker and would rather forget that he comes from Hungary and has relatives anywhere on the planet. But before long the tough, taciturn Eva attracts his affection. He even tries to be helpful, explaining televised football to her: “The quarterback is, like, in charge of the office.” Eva listens, takes a puff on her cigarette and says in heavily accented English, “I really think that this game is stupid.” America does not charm her, but by the time she leaves for Cleveland to visit her Aunt Lottie (Cecillia Stark)

she has put a subtle spell on Willie and his lookalike pal, Eddie (Richard Edson).

Time passes. Nothing happens. But the film is never boring—although viewers used to Star Wars stimulation in a feature film may not agree. A year later the two men drive to Cleveland to visit Eva, and all three of them try hard to have a good time. They teach Aunt Lottie to play cards (“I am de vinner again!”). They look at Lake Erie in the middle of a blizzard. Finally Eddie and Willie rescue Eva from Aunt Lottie and her job at a hot-dog stand and drive down to Florida, but they cannot shake their losers’ luck. Jarmusch produces a surprise ending that delivers a great punchline to his shaggy-dog story, and his script tactfully evokes the whole muddle of jealousy, friendship and desire that keeps the odd trio together.

Stranger Than Paradise was shot in black and white for just $120,000. Jarmusch cut film stock and editing costs by shooting each scene in one long take, fading to black and then going on to the next scene. The movie is more akin to theatre than film, but the actors are cool, cinematic and completely entertaining. In fact, the low-budget production was largely a team effort, with the cast contributing multiple talents. Lurie (who is a member of the New Yorkbased band The Lounge Lizards) even composed the sound track, which manages to encompass the sounds of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins singing I Put a Spell on You and the elegant bowings of a string quartet. Stranger Than Paradise won the prize for best first film at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival; it deserves to win a mainstream audience, too.

MARNI JACKSON