I have yet to see Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Paterson. It’s about a poet bus driver that shares a name with the town in New Jersey in which he lives, and the film itself. The character’s monastic, repetitive behaviors are being seen as ruminations of meditation, the cycle of life, and poetry as a lived concept. These comments on the film inspired me to look back on Jarmusch’s highly respected earlier work, known for its bare bones plots, tumbleweed atmosphere, and humdrum, bumbling personalities.
Stranger Than Paradise, Jarmusch’s second feature-length film, gathered a Camera d’Or from Cannes Film Festival—its known widely as the film that put him on the map. John Lurie is Willie, a Hungarian native living in New York — he’s unemployed but seems to get by, his friend Eddie, played by Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson, gives the film morsels of comic relief; Eva, Willie’s niece who visits from Hungary, is played by Eszter Balint and gets the film’s minimal(ist) plot rolling.
Rather than repetitive monk-like movements and deep reflections on the poetry of reality, it’s a slightly absurd and comedic film split into three distinct parts. Beyond that, each scene is broken up by fade-ins-and-outs; a stark separation tool that devolves time into insignificance, save for the “One Year Later” time card that shows up once Eva leaves to visit her Aunt in Cleveland. Beginning Jarmusch’s cinematic interest in petty crime, Willie and Eddie cheat at a game of poker, making enough money to go visit Eva in Ohio. Here, one of the film’s essential, symbolic scenes occurs: Eddie and Willie standing on some snowy train tracks, looking around at the surrounding monuments to former industry. Willie launches a snowball in the distance, and Eddie cracks the line, “Y’know, it’s funny, ya come some place new, and, and everything looks just the same.”
The film’s plot is decisively splintered based on its three locations: the strangely empty bustle of NYC; the cold, stuffy American Midwest; and then the groggy rundown coastal towns of Florida. This prevents repetition but, like Eddie says, “everything looks the same.” Jarmusch is a marksman, both when it comes to finding the exact settings he wants to shoot and capturing dust gray scenes his early work is known for. All of these places do look quite similar. The simple, geometric narrative thinly wires through what could’ve easily been b-roll from an early filmmaker experimenting with movements and scenes. A teenage girl inspiring two nobodies to travel around the States somewhat aimlessly, later losing their gambling prize money to more gambling in seedy coastal Florida. You win some, you lose some. This is the essence of Jarmusch.
Nitehawk Cinemas is screening several Jarmusch movies throughout January. Movie times and details here.