Until now, I had studiously avoided Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, not out of any ill will towards the director per se, but rather the creeping fear that I would be forced — yet again — to endure fringe cinema’s unhealthy obsession with the improbably articulate anti-hero. And here, at birth of the independent movement, I expected no less than the unholy grandfather of all that followed: painful self-awareness, annoyingly knowing dialogue, pop culture flirtations bordering on immersion, and slick plot twists that betrayed the filmmaker’s lack of confidence in the material itself. What these reservations had to do with this particular film are beyond me, and yet again, I would have my uninformed nose rubbed firmly in a welcome comeuppance. Instead of annoyance and boredom, I found pure delight; a perfectly crafted portrait of emotional and intellectual paralysis, and how each relates to a very American variety of masculinity. Simply shot and stripped of all but the essentials (black and white photography, as well as claustrophobic interiors), Stranger than Paradise achieves the impossible: deeply shaded, painfully real characters whose very natures are revealed not with words, but rather the very lack thereof. For when such men gather, the silence speaks not to a reluctance or insecurity, but a genuine inability to express meaningful thought. With Eddie (Richard Edson) and Willie (John Lurie), there’s no misunderstanding; the reservoirs are utterly empty.
Willie lives a simple, unadorned life. His New York City apartment is a pit of despair, outfitted with little more than a greasy bed, battered television, and a kitchen area that likely hasn’t had any real attention in months. And then there’s the vacuum under the bed that hasn’t been used at all. He drinks, smokes, plays solitaire, and sleeps, and it’s just as likely he’s never considered anything else. When he receives a call from his aunt that a cousin from Hungary is about to pay him a visit (and can she please stay for ten days or so while she’s in the hospital), he’s appalled by the intrusion. I’m sure he has nothing against her as a person, but it’s a deviation from routine nonetheless. It’s this first overreaction (and thinly veiled hostility once she arrives) that sets the tone for Willie’s very existence. Anything unexpected or unknown is more than a threat, it brings to light his unspoken limitations. What could he possible have to say to this person, even if she is family? Interested in nothing and wholly uninteresting himself, Willie knows that cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) is no houseplant, and most certainly requires attention. As with many who resist the introduction of new faces, it is not the fear that others will bore, but rather the sense that they will see behind your façade and reveal the boring human being underneath. Avoidance is survival.
Eva has less than two weeks with Willie, and at no time does he see fit to entertain her. Despite living in the world’s greatest city, he acts as if they are stuck in the middle of Iowa for all the interest he pays to his surroundings. There are no tours given, no recommendations made, and certainly no attempts to bring a bit of American culture to a girl previously stuck in the hell of Eastern Europe. Instead, she spends her time watching television, smoking, stealing, and watching Willie waste away his days doing even less. And that’s the point. A less insightful film would have had the standard street scenes where Eva stood agape at the sounds of the big city, but here, she must remain as isolated as the cousin she has had the unfortunate pleasure of staying with. It’s not that Willie has seen his city so often that he’s beyond amusement; he never even bothered to see it in the first place. As Willie is lacking all perspective, insight, or capacity for growth, the city’s landscape has all the appeal of his dank rat trap. He’s into existence, not reflection. With Willie, it’s easy to believe that he hasn’t had a unique observation his entire life. One day indistinguishable from the next, thank god.
Towns function in much the same way. A year later, after Eva has long since left for Cleveland, Willie asks the dimwitted Eddie to drive with him to visit the girl. It seems a bold venture for the two men, as it requires leaving the predictability of their ennui, but what else are they going to do? That the trip comes so long after Eva’s departure is an interesting turn, as the expected course would have been for Willie to experience a change of heart and want his cousin back in his life. At this point, however, it is simply something for him to do, and I doubt even he knows why he’s making the journey. Thankfully, the film doesn’t take too much time with the car ride, as here it is simply a way to get from here to there, rather than being a springboard for “enlightenment.” They just want to get to Cleveland. And when they do, their shrugs are telling, even if that godforsaken city would leave most sane people dumbstruck. As Eddie says, “You know, it’s funny…you come to someplace new, an’…and everything looks just the same.” A blistering attack on American homogeneity, or a simple statement of fact for a man numbed by ignorance? I prefer the latter, but in many ways, it works to reinforce the former. What else do we see on this trip (and the eventual trip to Florida), except non-descript motel rooms, mindless interstates, and unending chain restaurants? Why else would Eddie have no idea when Pennsylvania became Ohio? Either the subtleties elude him, or there are no subtleties to be found.
Eddie and Willie stay with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark) for a few days for no apparent reason, though I imagine it’s to provide the illusion of travel. They drive to Lake Erie with Eva, care little for the experience, and return to auntie’s abode to play cards, stare at the TV screen, and eat Hungarian cuisine. When Eddie suggests attending a Cavaliers game to break the tedium, Willie dismisses the idea with the expected ferocity. Even an uneventful drive to Eva’s workplace — some harmless hotdog stand similar to a Dairy Queen — gives Willie hives, as his reaction is similar to someone being locked in a dungeon. Cleveland quickly wears on the pair, and they drive away despite Eva expressing the desire to be kidnapped. Minutes after their departure, they turn around and pick her up, despite Aunt Lotte’s disapproval, and head out to the Sunshine State. Surely this wonderland of fun and sun will be different, right? Maybe a change of scenery will provide that much-needed spark, sending them to powerful, yet distinct epiphanies? Once again, the drive is just a drive, words are few and far between, and all Eva can do is play her little tape recorder and the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song contained therein. The song is the only real foundation Eva has, and the one piece of Americana she seems to understand. And unlike Eddie and Willie, she has found a source of joy that seems to spring from instinct; the one piece left to her not stolen by a rotten system. It’s the sort of thing Willie and Eddie might take for granted, as they’ve rid their lives of such pleasures all by themselves, without the aid of an authoritarian regime.
For all we see of Florida, it may as well be Cleveland, and could very well be exactly that, if not for the proverbial palm trees. Otherwise, we (and they) take it on faith. There, too, is a depressingly bland motel room, which prompts the sullen Eva to remark, “This looks familiar.” Again, all too much the point. We ask: boys, why Florida? They want to visit the track, and Eva’s wish to see the beach is dismissed as a cranky interruption. They even leave her alone in the room the next morning so they can gamble without her presence. Why, then, did they want her to come along? Their treatment of Eva is exactly the same as before, and if this is a “rescue,” why does it feel like the prison of Cleveland? At least with Willie, I imagine it’s his way of trying to feel alive (and spontaneous), when in reality such things left his radar long ago. As such, Eva must have her selfhood hammered away until she resembles the lump of monotony he has likely always been. Why else would Willie insist she speak English rather than Hungarian, even though he can understand both? He’s barely off life-support as a man, but what sustains the remnants cannot force him to endure a moment of effort. His mind may actually move while he translates the foreign tongue; an intolerable act when he’s grown accustomed to all but ignoring the language of his fellow Americans.
As is more than evident, not much by way of plot clutters this movie’s running time, though some is attempted at the last minute, which makes the conclusion a tad problematic. Eddie and Willie lose all their money save $50 at the dog track, but then return to the horse track to regain their stash. Which they do. As unnecessary as that is (we aren’t rooting for these two by any stretch of the imagination), it’s even more bizarre to have Eva mistaken for a drug runner and given a stack of bills that likely reaches into the thousands. The case of identity confusion comes across as a contrivance (and is the only time the movie felt unreal), but it’s not fatal to the overall effort. In the end, the cash leads her to the airport, where she may or may not purchase a ticket back to Hungary. After reading Eva’s note, Willie follows her there, where he too buys a ticket in order to take her off the plane. Only it appears that he actually takes the flight — while Eva has returned to the motel room — leaving Eddie near the runway as the plane disappears into the sky. Why on earth would he go? Has Eva planted a seed of desire for the mother country? Or has he acted on pure impulse without heeding the consequences? It’s easy to see this as character “development,” but I’m more skeptical. Willie has left the country, but he’ll still inhabit the same flesh, and quickly dismiss Budapest as “another Cleveland.” The poor boy hasn’t a chance, and this last, desperate act is less a fresh start than a temporary escape from the doom that will soon consume him once and for all. For the pursuit of paradise first assumes that its seeker has some idea of the destination. But if the problem lies within, moving the furniture around will only create a new pathway to the same ignoble end.