The opening shot of Stranger Than Paradise (1984) revises the notion of the American Dream. The immigrant’s arrival on Ellis Island with crowds of immigrants is replaced with a new image, one of Eva (Eszter Balint), standing alone on an airstrip under grey skies. In a single image, Jim Jarmusch dissolves all hopes of a new life in a land of dreams.
Stranger Than Paradise opens and closes with airports. In films from exilic and diasporic filmmakers, airports are often indicative of important transitional and transnational places and spaces; while Jim Jarmusch doesn’t quite classify as that sort of filmmaker, his film is very much interested in cultures.
Stranger Than Paradise is broken into three chapters and set in three locations in three states; The New World (New York), One Year Later (Ohio) and Paradise (Florida). The notion of “distance,” both physical and emotional, pervades the entire film. The film starts with Eva’s arrival in New York City from Budapest, where she stays with her cousin Willie (John Lurie), then shifts its focus onto Cleveland where we follow Eva and her stay in her aunt’s home and concludes with the characters in an unnamed town in Florida, as Eva remains in the United States and Willie departs to the homeland. In the course of the film, as these cities are frequently discussed and shown, we also examine the relationship between the characters. The film is made up of sixty-seven long take shots. The black and white emphasizes character, while the observational camera captures the mannerisms and nuances of each performer.
Stranger Than Paradise also presents us with the subtle evolution of Eva and Willie’s relationship, and this evolution is complimented with the spaces that surround them. The film’s settings include Willie’s apartment (a very small, personal space), their aunt’s home (a larger space, but one that is less personal to the characters) and later a motel room (one that is foreign and temporary for both characters). In this sense, as the spaces become less “personal” over the course of the film, the characters become closer as their relationship matures.
In the opening scenes of the film, we notice that Eva and Willie have very little in common. Willie doesn’t offer any sort of assistance when Eva arrives and considers her a nuisance, but that changes once Eva picks up a TV dinner for Willie, connecting with him on a personal level. In the following scene, Willie buys Eva a dress and is later disappointed when she leaves. There is a sense of excitement the both share, however, in Cleveland a year after their first meeting. In their aunt’s home, the two share a moment together as Willie attempts to tell her a joke. They briefly make eye contact, as their relationship takes on a much more personable one. Willie and Eddie (Richard Edson) extend their vacation into Florida, as Willie suggests bringing Eva along. This promise of “paradise” is later exposed as a falsity. The American Dream is further exposed as a sham, as Eva notes, “This is nowhere.” In this sense, as Frank Northen Magill observes in Magill’s Survey of Cinema, Stranger Than Paradise is a “road film in which the road leads nowhere.”
In all three spaces and locations, Eva is an outsider whilst being an outsider. If she doesn’t feel unwelcome or isolated, she feels treated like a child and lacks privacy. Eva never has a space of her own and can never situate herself in America. In this sense, the film is inherently about the differences in cultures. Willie, like Eva, is Hungarian, but has, at least in his mind, assimilated into an American way of living. In his first interaction with Eva, he repeatedly notes that she speak English rather than Hungarian. Willie and Eva also have cultural conflicts; she comments on the processed food he eats, while also commenting on the American sports he watches. It’s interesting to note, however, that by the end of the film, Willie is the one who returns to the homeland.
In our diagram, we focused on the scene where Eva sways to the sounds of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The short scene begins with “I Put a Spell on You” and opens on her dancing in the apartment room. The song, which serves as a motif throughout the film, repeats the lyrics, “I put a spell on you and now you’re mine.” This scene, more than any other, perfectly captures Eva’s feelings of being confined; even in this small space, she moves and sways, but is cornered. Stranger Than Paradise presents us with the reality of our world; rather than manipulating the audience, Jim Jarmusch’s camera captures life as is. Eva is under the impression, at least we can assume so, that America has more opportunities awaiting her. Willie and Eddie similarly both believe that Cleveland and Miami are both beautiful and paradisiacal. It’s Eddie who perhaps best sums up the film, as he notes, “You know, it’s funny. You come someplace new and everything looks just the same.” These characters have been placed under a spell by false dreams, chasing a road that keeps them spinning in circles.