Stranger Than Paradise [1983]

Back in the excess-is-best 1980s, the pared-down minimalism of 1984's Stranger than Paradise played like the product of another time--or even another planet. It was so "off," i.e. offbeat and off-kilter, it was (right) on. Now seen as a classic of American independent cinema, it compares favorably to other monochromatic first features, like Border Radio and Mala Noche (also lovingly restored by the movie mavens at the Criterion Collection). The acclaim was justified--except it wasn't Jarmusch's first film. That honor belongs to 1980's Permanent Vacation, making its long-awaited digital debut on this two-disc set. Shot by Tom DiCillo, Jarmusch's initial offering revolves around the name Parker: Chris Parker is Aloysious Parker, a ducktailed New Yorker with a jones for Charlie Parker. Allie's a drifter and a dime-store philosopher. "That's how thing work for me," he drawls in voice-over, "I go from this place, this person, to that place or person." And so he does. Fresh from NYU, where he assisted Nicholas Ray, Jarmusch displays an innate talent for framing and dialogue (Allie lives for "vibrating, bugged-out sound"). His touch with actors--Frankie Faison's raconteur aside--is less assured, but he learned quickly. Lounge Lizard John Lurie cameos as a sax player. DiCillo returns for Stranger than Paradise, in which he and Jarmusch trade color for black and white stock (donated by Wim Wenders). In this "semi-neorealist black comedy," as the filmmaker puts it in the production notes (included with this set), Hungarian teenager Eva (Eszter Balint) arrives in New York ("The New World") to stay with her cousin, Willie (Lurie). A drifter, like Allie, she continues on to Cleveland ("One Year Later") and Florida ("Paradise"). With nothing better to do, Willie and Eddie (Richard Edson) tag along. As opposed to the rapid-fire cutting of the day, Jarmusch uses static shots divided by black screen. He may have taken cues from Ozu and The Honeymooners--dig those porkpie hats--but the end product couldn't be more idiosyncratic. This director-approved double-feature comes complete with a German TV documentary (Kino '84: Jim Jarmusch), behind-the-scenes footage, US and Japanese trailers, and a 44-page booklet with essays by J. Hoberman and Luc Sante. Just as Stranger than Paradise stands as one of the defining films of the 1980s, this special edition represents one of the most essential DVD releases of the 2000s. --Kathleen C. Fennessy

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