Michael Joshua Rowin on Stranger Than Paradise
In art, no matter the medium, there are few concepts that arouse as much debate, envy, and chagrin as the concept of “hip.” Despite its seeming insignificance as a critical barometer, it’s a concept by which we form many judgments and evaluations—and yet so few would readily admit it. Paradoxes abound in the search for hip—tastemakers love being hip to the cutting edge of music, film, art, and writing and yet deride anything that strays into the boundaries of hype. The term “hipster” even gets thrown around freely in labeling those seemingly too cool to be bothered with the popular or the middle-brow. Most of all, if one doesn’t subscribe to the current trends of hipness then one must position oneself in opposition—discourse is dominated by trends and fashions often dismissed as beyond the realm of objective criticism. But of course, we all have our individual ideas of what and who happens to be hip, as well as the thin line that separates those who embody a style with ease and those whose attempts to do so feel contrived and labored. Apologies can be made for the vague outline I’ve provided here, and despite its less than academic guidelines for critique, such decisions and arguments say a lot about what we look for in art (gracefulness, an ideal of genuineness) and what we wish to be rid of (smugness, superiority).
All that being said, the filmmaker at the center of this symposium, Jim Jarmusch, is an unabashed, brazen hipster. That’s not necessarily a denouncement. If anything, Jarmusch straddles a strange line of hipdom, with one foot in the old-school club of hepcats that saw its decline during his formative early years as a filmmaker, and the other in the irony-saturated, history-burdened, hip-exhausted present (where the uncool is so beyond the reach of cool that it thus becomes cool, making it, yes, uncool again). His work, subsequently, can be seen as a bridge connecting the second major wave of independent filmmaking that occurred in the Eighties to the current, very different post–sex,lies, and videotape/post-Sundance indie community, oversaturated with hype and oftentimes as enslaved to fashion as Hollywood. At moments Jarmusch is indeed the real deal, a smart, innovative director with a unique vision of the world and an equally unique visual style to express it, which might be the most generous definition of hip one could use. But then, at other moments, hipster Jarmusch shines through, tempering any potential praise with wariness. More than a touch of smugness can be sensed in the ubiquitous cameos of impossibly cool musical icons (Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, Tom Waits) that populate nearly all of his films; in the sort of juvenile, pointless gross-out humor and obvious irony that seem like relics of the Pulp Fiction era; in the ill-advised gimmickery of mediocrities like Night on Earth and Coffee and Cigarettes and the half-brilliant/half-pretentious social commentary of Dead Man and Ghost Dog, which force Jarmusch to stray away from the comedic, economical character studies at which he excels. In other words, after more than two decades of filmmaking, Jarmusch has come to stand as an avatar of that nebulous, tricky terrain known as American independent cinema: maverick, offbeat, and, personal; but also insulated, painfully self-conscious, and better in theory than in practice.
In the beginning, though, everything was simple, at least relatively: hip was just part of the surroundings. Stranger Than Paradise, Jarmusch’s first feature film, still remains his best not because the man behind it was still, at the time of the film’s production, untainted and wide-eyed, but because the times themselves called for an American filmmaker like Jarmusch. It’s hard to say whether Jarmusch outgrew this era or the era outgrew him. When Stranger opens in pre-Bloomberg, pre-Guiliani, heck, pre-Dinkins New York that had yet to experience the economic resurgence-via-gentrification inhabitants have since grown to bemoan and celebrate, you know Jarmusch is at home. Just as Jarmusch’s next film, Down by Law, opens with traveling shots taking in a dilapidated New Orleans, it is clear that the young director of Stranger Than Paradise loves the empire and ruin of this private, insider’s New York. There’s something mysterious, worn-in, and sad about this place, something that corresponds to Jarmusch’s saturnine, knowing outlook.
New York was also the perfect place for Jarmusch’s eclectic vision of hip. As John Leland explains in his loose, irreverent study, Hip: the History, “[H]ip comes of the haphazard, American collision of peoples and ideas, thrown together in unplanned social experiment: blacks, whites, immigrants, intellectuals, hoodlums, scoundrels, sexpots and rakes. It feeds off antennae as well as roots. Born in the dance between black and white, hip thrives on juxtaposition and pastiche. It connects the disparate and contradictory.” Jarmsuch’s cinema at its most astute and loving is overflowing with such disparate, impulsive juxtapositions. Not surprisingly or coincidentally, Leland uses Stranger Than Paradise in Hip’s introduction to provide an example of the essence of hip. Leland takes as exemplary the three main characters’ graceful, detached reaction to the blinding white void that is all that can be seen of Lake Erie (a symbol of freedom and possibility turned disillusioningly indomitable) during their winter stay in Cleveland. But before this sublime moment, the hipness of the film comes from New York, the rendez-vous for street-smart, wise-ass cut-ups who, though black, white, foregin, or homegrown, remain bounded together by a knowing interpretation of the world.
It’s a place where it makes perfect sense for a Hungarian visitor to walk through bombed-out city streets blasting Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” on a small tape machine. (To make New York seem like a foreign place to Americans, Jarmusch strategically films the “U.S. OUT OF EVERYWHERE YANKEE GO HOME” grafitti in the background.) This Hungarian, Eva (Ezster Balint), embodies a quiet, aloof style, and yet that style is her substance: removing herself from a scene while remaining, somehow, an inextricable part of it, she is grace itself. She is also the first outsider in Jarmusch’s parade of outsider-heroes who enter a strange new world and by their sheer presence inevitably call attention to clashes of culture, style, and philosophy. Jarmusch is hip to Eva’s hipness, and his detached, patient long takes film her as such, capturing hip beatitude’s cool demeanor. The tension of this laidback, unimposing film lies in the fully-Americanized cousin she stays with before heading to Cleveland, where her Aunt Lotte lives. Will John Lurie’s Willie gradually realize Eva’s true character, which hides behind an initial awkwardness, and, subsequently, rediscovery his own Hungarian roots? It’s to the film’s credit that Willie’s burgeoning interest in his own cousin (after she removes all doubts about her hipness by shoplifting food and cigarettes) is played off as completely nonchalant.
The long take is an essential tool for Jarmusch’s offhand, langorous cinema. The long take’s appeal to such American directors as Jarmusch, Linklater, and, of late, Gus van Sant (recovering from his Hollywood stint) is its ability to place an audience in the same wry, detached mood as the film’s characters, and possibly the director himself. Writing on Ozu for Artforum, Jarmusch illuminates the modus operandi of his own early films: “All that is left on screen are the smallest details of human nature and interaction, delivered through a lens that is delicate, observational, reductive, and pure.” One can see this same lens (flourished with the slightest of camera movements that Ozu would have most likely have thought excessive) construct a space for contemplative rapture. When Eva, along with Willie and Eddie (who’ve taken the journey all the way out to Cleveland just to see her) need something, anything to alleviate their boredom, they go to Lake Erie. Looking out at the Lake’s fathomless depths of nothing, their stares are of acceptance, not resignation, and Jarmusch invites us to share the same view. It’s the quintessential moment of Jarmusch’s work, and it says a lot that he hasn’t, in the past two decades, found anything else equivalent to its simple embrace of the imposing forces of nature and circumstance. With each subsequent film Jarmusch had to find metaphors more forced and less immediate, and what was once an effortless stance toward the vagaries of life became an image to uphold. Since then, Jarmusch has traveled the road from Down by Law, still offbeat and sardonic like Stranger Than Paradise, but more precious and less emotional, to Coffee and Cigarettes, his most minor work, but still one disconcerting for its affectations and poses of cool in place of substantial revelations.
But as mentioned before, it’s hard to say whether Jarmusch outgrew the era in which he began his filmmaking or if the era outgrew him. In the first instance, maybe Jarmusch needed to expand his palette so that he could experiment with hallucinatory Westerns and films comprised of several, disparate short narratives. He might have worked within the formula of Stranger Than Paradise forever, seemingly, but that would have been a clear sign of stagnation. Unlike the best filmmakers, Jarmusch’s risks have time and again displayed his limitations, but that isn’t to say that the risks haven’t also, on many occasions, yielded some strange and exciting harvests. That’s the reason why we’re still talking about Jarmusch today, after all.
Yet one can’t help but wonder, in considering Stranger Than Paradise, if Jarmusch’s digression isn’t also a symptom of the changing times. Its characters were relatable because their hipster personas barely masked their wandering, restless souls, ones who were constantly looking for new surroundings, no matter what those surroundings might be. The projected images of hip were tenuous, and the longer Stranger flickers on screen, the greater the revelation of Eva, Willie, and Eddie as full human beings. The minor miracle of the film is that their foibles and frustrations get aired even with so little of relative importance said amongst them through dialogue. But just as this honesty about the human condition in American independent cinema became partly overshadowed by divergent, not necessarily progressive trends—the rediscovery of genre-play (the legacy of Tarantino, which affected even Jarmusch’s often ridiculous Ghost Dog) and the ascendance of quirky, shallow character ensembles (Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz, Miranda July)—so did Jarmusch’s cinema begin using emotional shorthand, diluted as it was by uncommitted stabs at parody and cartoonish characters attempting to function as symbols (Dead Man and Ghost Dog being the main perpetrators in this regard). And apparently, in the two decades since Stranger Than Paradise, humor became broader, less endearing and warm: old gangsters rapping and the White Stripes talking about Tesla somehow had to be used to get laughs, where it once was sufficient to have a wannabe tough explain American football to his uninterested Hungarian cousin.
Bill Murray’s presence in the latest Jarmusch film, Broken Flowers, made inevitable after his famous deadpan, sardonic deliverance made an appearance in Coffee and Cigarettes, is preternaturally obvious. No matter how good Broken Flowers is, Jarmusch in a sense furthers his credentials by latching onto a current trend—in this case Murray’s resurgence as an ambassador of wry, world-weary cool in the films of Anderson and Sofia Coppola. Stranger Than Paradise was hip in the best sense of the word—an originator of the desisting, gawky humor that forever influenced American independent filmmaking. Ironically, Jarmusch is now standing in Stranger’s shadow as much as, if not more than, anyone else.