A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)

Like a botanist discovering rare plants pushing through cracked pavement and a littered vacant lot, writer-director Jim Jarmusch finds curiously indomitable life forms in the back streets of ungentrified New York, the frozen outskirts of Cleveland, and the parts of coastal Florida that tourists speed through on their way to Orlando or Miami. And he presents them to us in a film with a beautifully eccentric rhythm to it. Stranger Than Paradise is composed of 67 single takes grouped into three sections: "The New World," in which Eva (Eszter Balint) arrives from Budapest to stay with her cousin Willie (John Lurie) in his ratty one-room New York apartment; "One Year Later," in which Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) drive to wintry Cleveland, where Eva has gone to live with her Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark); and "Paradise," in which Willie, Eddie, and Eva go to Florida. To say that nothing happens in the film isn't entirely incorrect, especially in the New York and Cleveland sections, in which Willie and Eddie spend most of their time playing cards, smoking, and generally getting on each other's nerves, as well as Eva's. In Florida, they lose money gambling, win it back, and Eva accidentally strikes it rich when she's mistaken for a drug runner's bagman. Yet it's the blackout structure of the film that gives it the illusion of a plot, or at least forward motion. Once you catch its rhythm, you may find yourself, as I did, eagerly anticipating the way in which Jarmusch will end each scene. He rarely does it with a gag or a punchline, but somehow in ways that make each scene feel like a kind of epiphany. In one of the longest sequences, we do nothing but watch the three major characters, plus Eva's boyfriend Billy (Danny Rosen), as they sit in a Cleveland theater watching a movie that, because it has no dialogue but is punctuated with various grunts, seems to be a kung fu film. Billy, who we learn has bought the tickets for everyone, is walled off from Eva by Eddie and Willie, who sit on either side of her, and when he passes the popcorn to Eva, Eddie takes a big handful. We learn more about these characters from this wordless sequence than we do from some of the film's expository dialogue. Tom DiCillo's black-and-white cinematography makes the most of the locations that were chosen for their blandness, bleakness, drabness, or, in the case of the frozen, snow-covered Lake Erie, emptiness. The soundtrack, composed for string quartet by Lurie, is supplemented by Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You," a foreshadowing of Hawkins's appearance in Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989).

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