Friday, July 13, 2012

Short Take: Stranger Than Paradise

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The work of Samuel Beckett was the obvious model for Stranger Than Paradise, writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s d├ębut feature. Several hallmarks of Beckett’s style are present: the anomic, buffoonish characters; the deadpan comic tone; the nothing-happens atmosphere. The three protagonists are two Hungarian immigrant cousins (John Lurie and Eszter Balint) and the male cousin’s American-born best friend (Richard Edson). The film’s settings are a rathole studio apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a rundown section of Cleveland during the thick of winter, and a cheap seaside motel in the middle of nowhere in Florida. Jarmusch follows the characters as they listlessly idle their way through each locale. What holds the film together is Jarmusch’s style, which is a cinematic equivalent of Beckett’s elegantly minimalist formalism. The material is presented in a series of single-take scenes--shot in black-and-white--that end in blackout, and this gives the picture a pleasant, laconic rhythm. The film is impressive in many respects, but one may find it offensively smug and pejorative. Nearly every scene is about mocking the lower-class protagonists for their lack of social intelligence and their overall dimwittedness. With the inexplicable emphasis on the cousins’ ethnic background, Jarmusch is flirting with outright bigotry. Beckett had the good judgment to strip his characters and settings of any social or cultural context. He turned them into abstractions, which led to his material functioning in strictly allegorical terms. Jarmusch puts that contextualization back in, and it’s a terrible mistake. John Lurie provided the film's score. The cinematography is by Tom DiCillo.

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