Life is strikingly uneventful for Willie, played by renaissance man John Lurie, who refers to himself as a hipster and lives in New York City, and his interactions with his Hungarian cousin Eva, played by avant-garde actress-musician Eszter Balint, and his best friend Eddie, played by yet another actor-musician Richard Edson, who dresses exactly like Willie. Indeed, both males are swarthy with hook noses and fedoras. They have such little interest in or knowledge of anything that their eventual vacation is no different from home.
The quirky way to three-act story format is a succession of single-shot scenes punctuated by black leader, and the clear-cut partition of the story into three straightforward, facetiously named episodes. Yet there are other ceremonial characteristics of substance: Tom DiCillo's black-and-white camera work, which provides Jarmusch's acute impression for the American panorama; and the arresting appliance of music, which favorably apposes Screamin' Jay Hawkins's I Put a Spell on You with the folksy tinges of John Lurie's score for string quartet. This is definitely a road movie, but one with a distinction: Different from most instances of the then still immensely fashionable genre, Stranger Than Paradise appeared simultaneously comprehensively American and strangely European.
The oddly enlightening aggregate of involvement and reserve may be found in the film's lovingly absurd view of Willie's chic affectations, its quaint posture toward some of the inanities of American culture and in the way it harmonizes a decidedly American genre and decidedly American plot---if a narrative as gravely sparse and as concentrated on dead moments may be dubbed a plot---with all form of un-Hollywood expression. The look, rhythm, cast and mainly dismal feel bring to mind not The Blues Brothers, or even the rather subdued Last Detail, but the beginnings of the degree of minimalism to which Jarmusch would take his later work.
However he also loves various attributes of popular culture. See how Willie and Eva watch Forbidden Planet on TV or go with Eddie and Eva's discouraged fancier to see a bone-crunching Hong Kong martial-arts flick at a Cleveland grindhouse, and lets them neighbor more virtuous aspects of his films, in such a way that there is no discrepancy between high and low. And it's for that scarce but wholly judicious mindset that Jarmusch is to be particularly noted. It's doable to distinguish his connection with a gamut of later American indie directors, specifically in his desert drollery, his passionately entertained captivation with slackers of sundry kinds, his concern with sequential framework, his affinity for severely subdued stories, and his clever, antiquated references to popular culture. All these, at a time scarce in American cinema, are now pretty ubiquitous. But the rhyme, the unabashed regard for cinema as a quality, production, expression, a realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance, even the mundanities of life and the most everyday scenery possible, that can confront crucial, important matters is far more difficult to come across.
Considering, in the end, no matter how amusing, stylized, minute or insignificant his films may strike one at first, they are always about something. For all his cinephilia, they're inspired not, like Tarantino and Rodriguez, by other movies, but by life: by real people, encountering real feelings. And while this black-and-white deadpan pop culture satire may be a comedy, an dissection of cinematic storytelling, and a thoroughly cynical yarn, it's also a film about America and the people who live there. It's about those people's connections to each other, and their connections to the rooms they populate, the city streets, the suburbs, diners and highways. And it's made by someone who knows there may be reality in abstraction, who finds a visceral alliteration separating a snow-coated Lake Erie and a barren Florida beach, and who fashions an implausibly true character like Aunt Lotte, always jabbering to her tender company in Hungarian, whether they're listening or not.
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