Shot in black and white in 1984 on a very small budget, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise introduces us to Willie (John Lurie). He lives in New York City and, when he finds out that his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) is travelling all the way from their native Hungary to stay with him for a week he's less than pleased. Like a lot of Manhattanites, his place is pretty small and he sees putting his cousin up less as a privilege than a sizeable pain in the ass.
Soon enough, she arrives at his place and starts making herself at home. It soon becomes clear that they're not the most compatible roommates. He's quiet and she talks a lot. She's nosy even, asking him a lot of questions he doesn't necessarily want to answer. On top of that, she has a serious thing for Screamin' Jay Hawkins, which is completely understandably as Screamin' Jay Hawkins is great, but she sure does listen to him a lot. Eventually, however, Willie starts to let his guard down a bit and she stops asking him so many questions. A warmth starts to develop between them, enough so that when it's time for Eva to leave and go stay in Cleveland with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), he's genuinely upset.
When Willie and his pal Eddy (Richard Edson) ‘win' a few hands of poker, they come up with enough money to head to Cleveland and see how Eva is doing. They arrive and see that she's doing ok, working at a restaurant, though the harsh winter isn't sitting well with anyone of them. At this point, Willie suggests they all get in the car and take a road trip to sunnier climes…. Florida, in particular.
Like most of the director's work, Stranger Than Paradise isn't a film for all tastes. Shot cheap on black and white film stock using a gritty aesthetic and making use of some meandering pacing, it hardly comes across as typical multiplex fare. Still, for those able to operate on the same wave length as its creator, it still proves to be a rewarding experience more than three decades after it was first made. The film does a great job of exploring how alienated immigrants can and do feel when first coming to America. We see this explored literally and figuratively. Eva has no one when she first arrives, save for a cousin who doesn't want her. When we see her wander the streets of a typically crowded Manhattan, we see her do so alone. The film stops short of taking direct shots at American culture but it does make the point that the ‘American Dream' is, if not a myth, something very difficult to find in a country that, ironically, was built by immigrants.
There's some striking imagery on display throughout the film. The high contrast black and white cinematography suits the low-fi nature of the story, which turns out to be as much a series of character studies as it is a road film (though in many ways it is that too). The score, a minimalist selection of work composed by John Lurie (who would go on to work with Jarmush on Down By Law and Mystery Train in the years to come), is tonally spot on, with only Hawkins' I Put A Spell On You breaking through that more ambient sound now and again. The film is dialogue heavy at times, but it's delivered by a solid group of performers. It's a pensive film that delivers an effective mix of solid drama, wry humor and interesting observations on the American experience.
The Criterion Collection brings Stranger Than Paradise to Blu-ray on a 50GB disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. The image quality here is strong. The black and white picture shows very good contrast. Black levels are solid and whites are clean, with a nice gray scale handling everything in between. There's a bit of minor damage noticeable in a few spots if you look for it and the gritty look of the original elements remains intact, but detail, depth and texture are quite good throughout. The image
The English language LPCM Mono track is also very good. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. Dialogue is clean and clear and there are no problems here with any hiss or distortion. The background effects and just natural ‘sounds' that occur in the film also sound solid. Range is, understandably, limited here by the source material but all in all it sounds very good.
Extras, and there are a lot of them here, start off with an audio commentary featuring Jim Jarmusch and actor Richard Edson. They speak here about this early collaboration, what it was like working together in the New York indie film scene of the time, shooting on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and various influences that worked their way into the work that Jarmusch was producing at this time, both cinematic and otherwise. They also cover how and why the director wound up in Paris at one point, as well as the different people that they worked with on this picture, how the story came to be, and quite a bit more.
Criterion has also included Jarmusch's 1980 directorial feature length debut, Permanent Vacation. Presented in a proper 1080p high definition presentation with English language Dolby Digital Mono audio, this seventy-five-minute feature follows a young twenty-something named Allie (Chris Paker) who lives in New York City. He's rather despondent, unsure of himself and of his life, and so he takes to wandering around the city in search of something, anything that will give some sort of meaning to his existence. His parents aren't around, he's basically alone, until he starts wandering and as he does, he meets up with a cast of strange and quirky characters. This one is a bit on the slow side but it's interesting enough in its own way and it's a great opportunity to see the early genesis of the style that Jarmusch would employ in some of his later, better known films.
Up next is Kino '84: Jim Jarmusch, a documentary made in 1984 for German television by Martina Muller that clocks in at forty-two-minutes. In this piece, Muller examines Jarmusch's style and output up to this point in his career by way of interviews with collaborators like director Tom DiCillo, producer Sara Driver and actors Chris Parker, John Lurie, Richard Edson and Eszter Balint as well as with Jarmusch himself. It's an interesting look at the director's early years and a nice addition to this release.
Tom Jarmusch's fourteen-minute silent short film Some Days In January 1984 is also included here. This Super 8 production was made by the director's brother while Stranger Than Paradise was being made.
Menus and chapter selection round out the extras on the disc along with American and Japanese theatrical trailers, but inside the case is an insert that contains credits for the feature and the Blu-ray disc, notes on the presentation and a few essays: Jim Jarmusch's Some Notes On Stranger Than Paradise is here, film critics Geoff Andrew and J. Hoberman contribute an essay on Stranger Than Paradise and author/film critic Luc Sante contributes an essay on Permanent Vacation.
Stranger Than Paradise works really well as a sort of road film/character study ripe with effective deadpan comedy. It's well-directed and well-acted, speaking to the easily bored who hope to find something more in life. Criterion's Blu-ray release is a really strong one, offering the black and white film in a very nice presentation and with a host of interesting supplements. Highly recommended.