”It’s funny, you come someplace new and everything looks just the same,” muses Eddie (Richard Edson) to his buddy Willie (John Lurie) after arriving in Ohio. It’s a perfect line, delivered with the nonchalance that defines Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist meditation on a trio of misfits who wander across the U.S. The movie put Jarmusch smack in the center of the American indie-film map 23 years ago. And thanks to a beautiful restoration from Criterion, we can now savor every reason why.
Shot in crisp black and white, the film is a series of 67 single takes punctuated by moments of black screen. Jarmusch structured the script that way to suit his rock-bottom budget (around $100,000); now, of course, it’s impossible to imagine the story unfolding any other way. At one point, Willie’s Hungarian cousin (Eszter Balint) rocks out to 1950s bluesman Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in a dingy Manhattan kitchen. Later, Willie and Eddie linger in front of smokestacks in Cleveland. They simply drift along, occasionally expounding on TV dinners, football, and other slices of Americana.
Jarmusch supervised this two-disc set, but unfortunately, he offers no commentary, either for Paradise or his amateurish feature debut, Permanent Vacation, also included here. And a 1984 documentary is frustratingly low on face time with the enigmatic filmmaker. ”Jim likes to keep things at a distance,” says his then cinematographer Tom DiCillo. One suspects DiCillo was talking about more than camera angles. Movie: A; Extras: B