October 19, 2016

Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: John Lurie, Richard Edson, Eszter Balint

What it's about. Willie (John Lurie) is a single young taciturn small-time gambler in New York City. He is best friends with Eddie (Richard Edson), also a nobody but comparatively friendly. Willie is originally from Budapest, and one day receives a phone call from his Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Willie's young cousin Eva (Eszter Balint, actually from Budapest) is coming to America from Hungary, and needs to stay with Willie for a few days before she can continue her journey west to her aunt.

The moody Willie initially doesn't want to share his meager pad with Eva, but she is attractive, and he gradually comes around. Eddie needs less convincing, but is never more than friendly with her. Both Willie and Eddie are sad to see Eva leave them for Cleveland.

A year later, Willie and Eddie score in a poker game, and decide to go on a surprise road trip to visit Eva. She is glad to see them, since she is tired of both her aunt and her would-be boyfriend, Billy (Danny Rosen). She agrees to go on a road trip with them to Florida. Briefly abandoned by her gambler associates, she is mistaken for a drug money courier, with surreal but harmless results.

Stranger Than Paradise is the only film credit for Cecilla Stark, who played the elderly relation of Eva and Willie. She died in 1985, the year after the film was made.

A few years later, newly successful writer/director Jim Jarmusch made Mystery Train, and cast Screamin' Jay Hawkins in a supporting role. Jarmusch must have really liked the guy, and must have never heard Constipation Blues.

How others will see it. Stranger Than Paradise promptly commanded attention from the studios, since the movie obviously cost practically nothing to make, yet people paid to see it. The flick won multiple film festival awards, including one at the chic cinema event, Cannes. The odd career of Jim Jarmusch was launched.

Today at imdb.com, Stranger Than Paradise has 25K user votes, far less than The Terminator (also from 1984) but pretty good for a film made for less than the typical mortgage. User ratings are high (7.6 out of 10), and survive a modest decline with advancing age of the viewer. Women over 45, though, grade it 8.0, probably relieved that nobody gets injured.

Of course, many viewers will be bored out of their minds by this slow moving, nothing happening black and white movie. You probably know who you are.

How I felt about it. Good movies are very scarce. Among new releases that play in American theaters, perhaps only about one in 20 are good, that is, grade 60 or higher. The medium film grade is in the low 40s, although a fair percentage grade in the 50s.

There should be more good movies, of course. The problem is that it costs money to make films, and it is easier to get the money back if your project stars Anna Kendrick than if it is a documentary about, for example, the 1960s garage rock band The Music Machine.

But Stranger Than Paradise demonstrates how to make a good movie for practically no money:

  1. Use leftover film stock
  2. Use existing sets
  3. Use the first take
  4. Use amateur actors
  5. Film in black and white
  6. Film lengthy scenes without cuts
  7. Cast an attractive young woman (this step is important)
  8. Write a decent screenplay (even more important)
  9. Throw in a plot twist (so viewers will have something to discuss)
  10. Leave the ending open
Of course, there are no guarantees, and following these steps will not ensure that you will make a film as good as The Bicycle Thief (1949). After all, there are more ambitious filmmakers than there are talented ones.