Stranger Than Paradise: Review
This film came recommended to me by another professor. I’d never heard of director Jim Jarmusch or any of the cast before, but I’m currently working on an unusual project for my senior thesis film, so he offered up this film as required “watching” material for my film.
The most common labels ascribed to Stranger Than Paradise are “deadpan” and “absurdist.” Those two things immediately caught my attention, though having seen it for myself now, I’d say that the former is more present than the latter.
Needless to say, the film has a very unique tone, created by a variety of elements that all play together, and in some cases, against each other. In particular, I’ll be discussing the casting/acting, locations, cinematography, and editing.
One of the interesting things about this film is that each of the primary cast members is a relatively well-known musician. John Lurie is a famous jazz musician, Eszter Balint is a successful singer and violinist, and Richard Edson was the original drummer for Sonic Youth. I don’t know if Jarmusch sought out musicians specifically, but at the very least, it seems as though the the tone was shaped by the fact that each character was a musician first, and an actor second.
Their combined performance was overwhelming ordinary in the sense that it felt like they were real people. They weren’t larger-than-life characters, they were just regular folks going about their business the way that regular people do. Jarmusch definitely had to have had that tone in mind when he directed everyone, but I think the fact that none of them were actors first contributed to that impression.
Another big part of the “ordinary” feel comes from the locations used in the film. Each location is very simple: a one-room apartment, a greasy hot dog joint, a motel room, an empty theater, etc. and I imagine that the small budget is primarily to blame for the choice of locations. I wouldn’t be surprised if they got many of them for free, or close to free.
However, I think that Jarmusch took full advantage of what he had to work with. Each location feels like a place that the characters would actually go, and they also feel like places that I’ve actually been to myself. In that sense, the film actually sucks you in more because it creates a vague sense of déjà vu. There’s a realism and a relatability in that simplicity. That same strange realism is also present in the cinematography.
First of all, the film was shot entirely on black and white film, specifically Kodak’s Eastman Double-X and 4-X film stocks, which were much cheaper than color film. This was often the case for independent films with a tight budget. Given that it was shot on film, if there was a way to shoot things in fewer takes with fewer setups, that meant less money would need to be spent on buying and processing film.
Potentially as a result of this, the film plays out primarily in wide shots, some more establishing and others just a wider view of the action. This was likely, again, a result of the film’s small budget.
However, just like the limitation of simple locations, spending larger portions of the scenes on wider shots adds a certain sense of normalcy to the narrative. We don’t usually move in closer to people each time something new happens, or someone else starts speaking. We usually stay put unless something motivates a movement.
There are plenty of shots that move in closer to the characters, usually with some kind of motivation, but nothing ever feels quite like a tight shot. These shots are peppered in often enough that the film doesn’t end up feeling like a theater play, but the camera placement and movement never draw attention to themselves, which is dramatically different compared to modern cinematography.
The last element of the film that I’d like to discuss is the editing. To a certain degree, it feels like Jarmusch gives Hollywood and modern filmmaking the finger in this department, which is great. Many of the scenes are quite long with little-to-no cuts, and sometimes little-to-no dialogue. Audiences today, especially those of a younger demographic, wouldn’t tolerate such an approach. They’d get up and walk right out of the theater, which is really a shame in this case.
The slow, simple movement forward feels like an invitation to observe life as it happens, which is usually quite slow. It’s not done in a STRANGER hyper-realistic way–the film long–but it is unusually mellow.
Overall, I enjoyed Stranger Than Paradise quite a bit. It definitely isn't a film of this era, but I’m not sure if it’s a film of any era really, which is part of why I like it. It presents life as it usually is: slow and uneventful. The catch is that the characters are peculiar enough that you want to know how life plays out for them, which unsurprisingly, ends up being a lot like how it goes for most of us.
The film was made on a small budget and it definitely has elements reflective of that. However, it’s one of those scenarios where a bigger budget may have actually been a bad thing. I’m not even completely sure the budget was a limitation.
Whatever the case, I’m of the mind that Jarmusch made the film with the budget he needed to achieve his vision, which wasn’t especially grandiose. It’s a great example for young filmmakers looking to tell their story on a budget.
As a whole, the film is unusual and certainly unlike anything being created today. Its pacing would feel more at home in the Golden Age of Hollywood, its cinematography This film came recommended to me by teeters on the edge of being theatrical, and its another professor. I’d never heard of director characters come just short of functioning like a Jim Jarmusch or any of the cast before, but funhouse mirror for the audience. I enjoyed it, I’m currently working on an unusual project for and I’d definitely say it’s worth your time, especially if you’re a filmmaker. It’s also part of as required “watching” material for my film. the Criterion Collection, if the rest of the review wasn't enough to pique your interest.