Jim Jarmusch – Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

If memory serves, Roger Ebert wrote about Stranger Than Paradise that it makes a mountain out of a molehill. He is certainly right about that. Jarmusch's debut feature that won a Camera D'Or for Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival is as low-key and nonchalant as it gets. In a few long shots the director captures glimpses from the lives of people who are waiting for something to happen or who have given up all hope. However, short of dishing up world-class drama, Jarmusch gives us a poignant parable on immigration and assimilation in the United States.

Every shot, every timid plot movement and non-event is carefully planned. From the very first image on, Jarmusch builds the theme of the U.S. as a symbol, as a magnet for fortune-seekers and lost souls, as an idea more than a place. Eva, a 16-year old Hungarian, just arrived in New York and walks to her cousin's house on the Lower East Side. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' I Put A Spell On You plays on the soundtrack. The idea of the U.S. as promised land for a crowd of hopefuls following the spell of the American Dream of fame and fortune in the "New World", as the first segment of the film is entited, is immediately counterbalanced by a graffito on a garage door that reads "US out of everywhere, go home yankee!"

At her cousin's house who arrived in New York about a decade earlier and who changed his name to Willie, she is prompted to not speak Hungarian anymore, only English. Willie spent too much time perfecting his American persona to let it be undone by a 16-year old brat he doesn't want to see in the first place because she reminds him of the past he is trying suppress. Willie dresses like a 1950's wiseguy but couldn't be farther removed from it. He is a deadbeat who spends his days in front of the TV, plays card games from time to time and is suspicious of the world outside his apartment ("south of Clinton Street in dangerous!", he advises Eva). He represents a certain type of American lifestyle that is empty of any intellectual stimuli, that is content with cheap and mindless entertainment and that is fearful of the "other" in best cold-war manner. It is a life out of touch with our natural environment (when Willie eats a TV dinner, Eva asks him where the meat comes from. "What do you mean?", he asks in puzzlement. "It doesn't look like meat" she remarks) and is not even interested in penetrating the most popular spectacles (when they watch a football game, Willie is unable to explain the rules to Eva. "Just watch the game!" he blurts out).

Eva is curious but disaffected with what she sees of the "new world". Assimilation, too, is a rocky road. When Willie's friend Eddie picks him up to go to a poker game, he wants to take Eva with them. But Willie is categorically opposed to it. "Just stay here and stay out of trouble" he advises his cousin. Jarmusch's way to dramatize an American society open enough to welcome newcomers in its midst but too peculiar to include them fully? Later, Willie finds that Eva should "dress like people dress here." He gives her a dress that looks truly horrible and she tells him that much. But in the end, she still wears it for his pleasure, even though she looks totally foreign in it. Willie's attempt to assume a new "American" identity leads him to read the signs all wrong. Ultimately, he remains empty and in search for identity even if he fancies himself a true "American". Eva is less ready to forget where she comes from. She might make the effort of talking a new language and trying to fit in but that doesn't mean that she is out to efface her past.

Jarmusch lets one year elapse and we pick up the story when Willie and Eddie have to lay low for a while after they got in trouble over a poker game. They hop into a car and drive to Cleveland where Eva has found employment at a hot-dog shop. From the emptiness of their pretend-bohemian/gangster chic life, the two are propelled to the cold, hard industrial environment of working-class America. "Could you imagine working in a factory?", Willie asks Eddie. "No I can't!" Right before, Eddie finds out that Willie is not of American nationality, to which Willie offers "I'm just as American as you are!"

Not only is it a powerful statement that America as a symbol (and that's certainly all Jarmusch is interested in with this film) is exactly the kind of place where people can come, shed their past and reinvent themselves, becoming just as "American" as they can, need or want to be. But both of these statements show a clear lack of understanding on Willie's part of what the American symbol really represents. He puts on airs of being a nonchalant rapscallion but that's all just posturing he probably picked up in movies. It has nothing to do with how reality works. His empty days attest to that. A willingness to work, a strong industry was exactly one of the core elements of the U.S.'s unparalleled rise to undeniable world power after World War II (although it is also purely treated as a symbol in the film). Willie can't see that because he is interested in appearances. Eva, on the other hand, follows a different path.

She says that Cleveland is "kind of a drag", she only speaks English with her Hungarian aunt she shares a roof with, she says things like "you come to some place new and everything looks the same". It's as if her pursuit of her own American Dream is at the same time corrupting her bit by bit. Blue collar middle-class America isn't exactly what American dreamers dream of either. And the erosion of the blue-collar middle-class doesn't help to make it more glamorous. It's beginning to wear down Eva.  So the trio hops in the car and drives to Florida. If New York City represents the mystery and the verve of a new beginning and Cleveland represents the downfall of the middle-class worker, then Florida really does represent the dream, the glossy image of careless materialism and unencumbered prosperity. In a way, this is exactly where all of these characters need to be. Eva for the postcard dream, Willie for the postcard facade and Eddie because he seems co-dependent.

Once there, Willie and Eddie exhibit a certain type of caricatural American make-it-or-break-it entrepreneurship. They want to go to the dog races and make it big. "I got a feeling we're gonna make a lot of money!", says Eddie. "One of those feelings." It's a spirit of enterprise, a faith in one's own luck that is typical for a society of libertarians like the United States. But contrasted with Eva's more pensive approach (to the point where she's almost aloof) it's as if Jarmusch opposes an American American Dream with an Immigrant American dream. Willie and Eddie loose all their money at the dog races but score big the next day at the horses. You go big, you might go broke, but you also never give up - and in the end it might pay off. That's also part of the American American Dream. Eva, too, makes it big, but it's an instant of pure luck. She writes both men a note in Hungarian and gets on a plane back to Europe, in my mind to reclaim her identity. What does this say about the Immigrant American Dream? Is the assimilation to America just a means to an end? Is the American promise just a passage, and not a destination as it is often made out to be? In Eva's case, that seems to be the case. The U.S. might have put a spell on her at the beginning of her journey, but with a bit of luck she undid that spell.

And what about Willie and Eddie? They too acquired a fortune simply by chance. The difference is they didn't really seek anything. Back in New York, they were adrift. In Cleveland, they were just killing time. In Florida they went to the betting range simply on a whim. Now they have wealth but what will they do with it? Can the money be of any meaning at all? In Eva's case, the money seems like a catalyst to something else. For Willie and Eddie the buck seems to stop there. It's emptiness that Jarmusch seems to criticize most in Stranger Than Paradise. America has plenty of that to offer. And the fact that Willie boards the plane back to Europe with Eva doesn't give his actions any more meaning.


Scott Faingold said...

Eva is not on the plane to Hungary, she goes back to the hotel to find the boys gone and ends the movie alone in Florida ; Willie does end up on the plane when it takes off even though he (would claim that he) only bought a ticket to try to stop Eva from leaving - he ends the movie alone heading toward the Europe he so vehemently denies; Eddie also ends the film alone, free to drive into the sunset in his cousin's car.

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