Monday, September 19, 2011

#409. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

Directed By: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson

Trivia:  In the scene where Willie and Eddie pick up Eva from the Hot Dog stand, director Jim Jarmusch can be seen eating a hot dog while wearing a beanie in the background

Not much happens in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. Not much at all. We follow three people who spend a lot of time indoors, either watching television or playing cards. They live in New York City, visit Cleveland and eventually take a trip to Florida, yet in none of these places do they ever venture outside for any extended length of time. Technically, I suppose it’s not even accurate for me to say that they ‘live’ in New York. They exist in New York. They don’t ‘live’ anywhere. 

Eva (Eszter Balint) has just flown in from Budapest, and will stay a few days with her cousin, Willie (John Lurie), before moving on to Cleveland to live with their Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark). Willie, who desperately wants to distance himself from his Hungarian roots, is, at first, resentfu of Eva’s presence, and leaves her to fend for herself while he and his friend, Eddie (Richard Edson), go to the movies. But after ten days together, the two cousins form a bond, with Willie even buying Eva her first American dress. When Eva leaves for Cleveland, life returns to normal for Willie and Eddie, which can be a tad depressing when you don't really have a life, so. on a whim, they drive to Cleveland to visit Eva, then decide a trip to Florida is exactly what the three of them need. 

Stranger Than Paradise is a study in alienation. Eva is an outsider, a foreigner to America who doesn’t understand our customs. Willie tries to explain things to her, but to no avail, and even has a bit of fun at her expense (he tells Eva that vacuuming the floor is referred to as ‘choking the crocodile’ in America). But then Willie is also an outsider, despite the fact he’s lived in this country for ten years. He never ventures far from his small apartment, and doesn’t seem to hold a job of any kind. His days are spent playing solitaire at his kitchen table, going to the movies with Eddie, and watching a lot of television. Not even a visit to Cleveland can shake this routine. In Florida, they do visit a racetrack, but lose all of their money on a single race. Not that money means much to them, anyway; Willie and Eddie took $600 dollars with them to Cleveland, and after almost a week there, spent exactly $50 of it. 

The first time I watched Stranger Than Paradise, I was sure the trip Willie, Eddie and Eva took to Florida was their way of breaking free, of finding their own slice of heaven on earth, perhaps even a place where they'd finally fit in. But I now see I was wrong. These three are destined to exist on the outside looking in, which doesn’t seem to bother a single one of them. For Willie, Eddie and Eva, life will always be little more than playing cards, watching television, and going to the movies. 

So why the trip to Florida? I don’t know…maybe they wanted to watch television in a warmer climate?

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