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Stranger then paradise.

Forgettable for so many reasons, Akron, Ohio, is nevertheless memorable as the seedbed of devolution theory and practice in America. It was there that the sadosynthetic rock group Devo began its long (and profitable) march backward from cavility. And there, too, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch was born into the world of postindustrial decay and social entropy, of rotting rubber plants and minimal expectations. Ever since Darwin, we have been assured that genetic destiny moves man and nature always upward to higher planes of being. The lesson of Akron is that the destiny is problematic and the direction, distinctly reversible.

It would be hard to imagine life more devolved, entropic and minimal than on the plane Jarmusch projects in Stranger Than Paradise, an entirely original and deftly funny document about attitudes and ironies far off the beaten track of evolution. The three principals--Willie and Eddie, punk hustlers and layabouts on New York's Lower East Side, and Willie's teen-age cousin Eva, a visitor from Hungary--are utterly out of touch: with each other, with the environment they occupy and, of course, with themselves. They engage in a few social rituals. They watch TV, go to the movies, play poker and the horses, drive cars, visit relatives. But there is no content to their activity, no connection to their contacts. Their lives are not only bleak; they are blank.

The three travel from Manhattan to Cleveland to Florida, but the change of scenery provides no relief from the blankness of their stare. "Isn't it amazing," Eddie (Richard Edson) says to Willie (John Lurie), "how you can go somewhere else and it looks just the same?" In fact, everything looks like Hungary, or at least like some version of the Western stereotype of Iron Curtain drabness. That, of course, is one of Jarmusch's jokes, the "reversal of expectations" that he told one interviewer was at the heart of his film. We expect violence, sex or, perhaps, romance; but nothing ever happens. We expect Florida to be paradise, or even purgatory; but it turns out to be "really pretty much like Cleveland with a different kind of vegetation," as Jarmusch put it. We expect to see what the characters see--the movie, the television program, the horse race, Lake Erie--but our hopes are always dashed.

The isolation of the characters, the claustrophobia of their ecology and the blankness of their vision are ingeniously captured by Jarmusch's style of moviemaking. Working with black and white stock, he made each short scene (some last only a few seconds, and none are longer than a few minutes) a self-contained unit, shot in one take from a usually stationary camera, with no cutting and no fade-outs. The scenes are separated in space and time by blackness--blankness--with only bits of sound to smooth what are supposed to be abrasive and disturbing transitions. The effect is rather like a mixture of Diane Arbus's photographs and Ozu's movies (that classic of the fixed camera Tokyo Story gets an explicit mention in Jarmusch's dialogue): bonsai gothic, Hungarian style.

Except for two (unexpected) plot turns near the end of the movie, nothing very interesting happens to the three-some. Eva (Eszter Balint) works in a build-your-own-hotdog stand for a while, and Willie and Eddie make some money cheating at cards. But Jarmusch is more interested in attitude than action. The sensibility he shows is what passes, I suppose, for the mood of a generation, at least that part of it that derives from the burnt-out bohemias of Lower Manhattan. Vacant like the city blocks and empty like the tenement hallways, it is a culture without expectations, connections or visible motivations. Living there is being there. Solipsism is the only ism in vogue, and it's hard to organize a movement around that blank ideology. Somebody or something has removed many of the beautiful and enlivening elements from the frame of life. No color, no charm, no warmth, no work or faith fills in the blanks between a few material items. Coffee mugs and silent air conditioners take on enormous meaning. What's stranger than anything is that fate or luck is always available, against all odds and expectations, to intervene and make a whole new scene after the blackout.
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Author:Kopkind, Andrew
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Dec 15, 1984
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