Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve been lucky enough to see many of my favourite films projected on to the big screen, largely due to various retrospectives. As would be expected, the big screen significantly enriches our experience of a film, although it is surprising by just how much. I remember seeing Godard’s Le Mepris at the Barbican. I had already had my mind blown by watching it on DVD about half a dozen times but seeing it on the big screen was like seeing it for the first time, such was the additional nuance brought by projection. The beauty and sensitivity of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and Kieslowski’s The Double Life Of Veronique are amplified on the big screen. The roughness of Aki Kaurismaki’s Take Care Of Your Scarf Tatiana is both shocking and exciting when compared to the smoothness of the DVD version. The BFI’s Jim Jarmusch retrospective then, provided me with an opportunity to see more of my favourite pictures in their cinematic setting, as I have been a long-time fan of the filmmaker’s work. I had seen all of his pictures since the turn of the century in cinemas, as well as 1995’s Dead Man at the Curzon Soho in 2005 and I screened Down By Law (1986) myself last year. So it was with hungry anticipation that I awaited the screening of his early 80s masterpiece, Stranger Than Paradise.
The film marked Jarmusch’s second feature film, and struck a nerve upon it’s release (playing for 12 months consecutively in one Parisien cinema), and is widely considered to be a landmark in the development of American cinema, (influencing the likes of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino). Jarmusch started production with almost no budget, using film stock given to him by Wim Wenders, leftovers from The State Of Things. Constructed using sixty-seven single-shot “scenes” separated by black film, Stranger Than Paradise centres on a New York hipster called Willie (played by John Lurie) who is visited by his Hungarian cousin, Eva (Estzer Balint) from Budapest. He reluctantly allows her to stay for a few days before she travels to her aunt’s place in Cleveland. A year later, Willie and his pal Eddie (Richard Edson) win a bunch of money playing poker and decide to pay Eva a visit. Once there, they soon tire of Cleveland and decide to take Eva to Florida. Holed up in some cheap motel room, they lose all their money bar 50 bucks at the track. They decide to go back the next day and try their luck again. Eva is left alone in the motel, so, out of boredom, she decides to visit the beach. In a case of mistaken identity, a man gives her an envelope, which turns out to be full of cash. She decides to use the money to fly back to Europe but Willie and Eddie head to the airport to try and stop her.
Stranger Than Paradise is just the sort of low-budget, auteur filmmaking I love. The low budget means that the film isn’t sanitised by layer upon layer of “production”, and auteur means that the vision on the screen is personal, as oppose to being rendered meaningless as when made by too many hands. All of this creates a richer, deeper connection between the viewer and the work. In addition, Jarmusch’s pared back aesthetics allow the truth of the scenes to flourish – small moments for example, are amplified and made fascinating. Naturally, all this is magnified by the big screen projection (one shudders at the thought of watching it on a mobile phone). In this sense then, Stranger Than Paradise is a true work of cinema, in that it is made stronger when played on the silver screen.
One the most striking aspects of seeing it in a cinema, is that you realise just how active the film is. Jarmusch’s work has this reputation for being inert and hip, which is true to certain extent – Stranger Than Paradise is certainly elliptical and measured if you compare it to typical Hollywood fayre, however there is plenty of deliberate, structured action too. This is especially so in the final Florida segment, which ends with a sort of metaphysical musical chairs. Further, I was quite shocked by how richer the performances are on the big screen. We see just how cinematic a no wave acting style can be. On a small screen, much of the texture of the performances is lost, the blank deadpan quality tends to dominate. On the big screen however, much more of the warmth of the characters comes through as well as more of the subtle, quietly comic moments. The generosity of Richard Edson’s performance in particular, is more prominent, and his work here must rate as one of the great no wave screen performances.
Stranger Than Paradise then, is a work of true cinema in that the film is made stronger when projected on to the big screen. The implication too, is that cinema is best served by a minimal, austere approach.
PS – Check-out this excellent interview with Eszter Balint where she talks about Stranger Than Paradise, independent film and her career to date.