Stranger Than Paradise
seen online via YouTube
The first time I saw Stranger Than Paradise was during my video store days, in the mid-to-late-90s, which is when I was getting deep into independent cinema. Obviously, it was the perfect time for this. The 90s explosion in indie film, from sex, lies and videotape in 1989 to the rise of the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax and oh-so-many important films and filmmakers; the foundation for all of that was laid in the 80s with films like Stranger and directors like Jim Jarmusch.
Jarmusch is one of the filmmakers Kevin Smith thanks at the very end of the credits in Clerks, his debut feature, "for leading the way." Indeed, in looking at Clerks, it's easy to see the Jarmusch influence: like Stranger, Clerks is a minimalist black-and-white film with a small cast of primary characters, one without a great deal of fancy camerawork, shot on location in everyday settings.
I bring up Clerks because it, like Roger & Me a few years before it, was a popular indie movie with plenty of buzz that attracted my attention at a time when I was beginning to discover movies other than the ones at my local multiplex. Long-time readers of this blog know how much Smith's films have meant to me over the years. Well, it began with Clerks, and the roots of that movie's success can be traced back to Jarmusch and what he accomplished back in the 80s.
In the seminal book Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes by influential indie film impresario John Pierson, which traces the rise of the 80s and early 90s indie boom in America, Smith provides running commentary with Pierson throughout the book as an example of a young (at the time) filmmaker who embodied the new film paradigm. Here, Smith talks about Jarmusch's influence on him:
You watch Stranger, you think "I could really make a movie".... First thing, the camera doesn't move. Jarmusch sets it up and things happen. His really sparse dialogue is not my forte, but visually he's it - at least for the first film. If I'm gonna do a movie, I'm gonna do it like this and just add dialogue.... The one shot that really got me every time I watched Mystery Train is when the Japanese couple walks with the suitcase on the stick and the camera is moving for one of the first times in a Jarmusch film other than the car shot at the beginning of Down By Law. Wow, a moving camera, but still it seems utterly unattainable. I'm sitting there watching before I'm "film knowledgeably whizzy," as Flavor Flav would say. I'm watching saying, "All right, it's gotta be maybe some tracks and a dolly - something I could do. If you have to move the camera, you could do it like that."As a storyteller, I think Jarmusch is an acquired taste. Stranger is not a movie for the easily distracted or for those who prefer a more visual flourish - and I don't even mean your average Hollywood blockbuster, but someone more like, say, Wes Anderson, whose visual aesthetic is such a large part of his cinematic identity.
I watched Stranger on my laptop which, I admit, may not be the most ideal way to watch it. The long takes Jarmusch employs provide more opportunities to notice small things: a certain look an actor gives, a key gesture here or there, that kind of thing, which most modern films aren't interested in. I'm not sure how much of that you'll find here, though. There are scenes where they'll just watch TV, or a movie, and you're sitting there waiting for something to happen, wondering if anything will happen, and it can get pretty damn tedious!
Smith, as he says in Spike Mike, is more interested in filling those empty spaces with his unique brand of dialogue, which is what I responded to the first time (and every time) I watched Clerks. With Stranger, one has to make more of an investment in the story to appreciate its subtlety, and that's not easy, especially when I really doubt there's much beneath the surface. The two guys are lowlifes, and while the girl may have a little depth to her, it's not really explored.
Stranger's success notwithstanding, I think it's more of a movie to be appreciated than loved. To take into consideration when it came out is vitally important in appreciating it, because, as Smith says, it made filmmaking look easy. Pierson underscores this point in Spike Mike:
[Martin] Scorsese claims that the greatest impact of John Cassavetes' 16mm Shadows was simply this: There were no more excuses for aspiring directors who were afraid of high costs or unmanageable equipment. That was then, and this was now. His statement, when applied to Jarmusch, rings totally true for the first three New York filmmakers I worked with, Bill Sherwood, Spike Lee, and Lizzie Borden, and continues all the way through to Kevin Smith.... Stranger Than Paradise was both brilliant and attainable. The camera doesn't move for artistic reasons. Conveniently that made it much cheaper to make. When the budget drops, the profit potential rises. Stranger Than Paradise grossed $2.5 million in North America and was a hit all over the world - especially in France and Japan.Jarmusch recently talked about, among other things, the changes in independent cinema today, and he said that smaller budgets (he gave $200,000 as a ballpark figure) are critical, especially when filmmakers get down to what he called "the essential thing" of a movie. It seems to me that this sounds little different from the process he applied in Stranger. Over the course of his long career, it seems to have stood him in good stead.