Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 89 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Release Date: September 4, 2007
Review Date: September 2, 2007
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch first sprang to national and international fame with his second feature film Stranger Than Paradise. It won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes and Best Picture of the Year from the National Society of Film Critics, pretty heady praise for any director’s second professional work. It’s another in the director’s long line of offbeat, off-kilter slice-of-life comedies, but this one still has the unpolished, oddly formless style that Jarmusch honed to near brilliance with his later work. How wonderful to get the chance to see this movie along with his first feature Permanent Vacation offered as a bonus feature in this same package as twin stepping stones to what has been a very interesting cinematic career.
Willie (John Lurie) and Eddie (Richard Edson) are penny ante gamblers living frugally in New York City. Into their lives comes Hungarian immigrant Eva (Eszter Balint), stopping over in New York for a few days before heading on to Cleveland to live with her Aunt Lottie (Cecillia Stark). While the boys mostly neglect her during her short visit, they realize after she goes that they’re lonely without her unusually bracing presence. So, they borrow a car and head to Cleveland and the beginnings of a very unusual road trip film as only Jim Jarmusch could conceive it.
Deliberately paced slowly and with a sometimes too conscientious blocking of actors for the camera in awkward profiles and angles, director Jarmusch nevertheless works his magic with his usual spare storytelling and interesting, one-of-a-kind characters. There are moments of joy, embarrassment, frustration, anger, and even boredom. Like life. And also like life, curve balls get thrown at the protagonists which they can sometimes dodge and sometimes not. The delights in watching a Jarmusch film come with the small surprises he has waiting for us, and he never fails to deliver.
The two main female characters are superb in the movie, Balint with her halting command of English but with a quietly fierce determination and Stark’s wonderfully innocent Hungarian-flavored line readings and grandmotherly bossiness. Lurie and Edson do their buddy thing just fine, but the best lines and set-ups go to the ladies.
Cinematographer Tom Dicillo lines up an outstanding selection of shots including an awe-inspiring one at an airport as a plane takes off in a breathtaking arch while a character leans languidly waiting by the side of a car. The seedy motel room and the even more atrociously nasty New York apartment are almost tactile in their believable look and feel.
The film’s 1.78:1 original aspect ratio in black and white has been presented in an accurate depiction of the film’s theatrical look. There is moderate to heavy grain throughout and a less than sharp focus on most of the picture. There are a few random specks that have slipped by in the cleaning process but no scratches or flashes (as there are in the clips used in the bonus featurette). Blacks are solid with acceptable shadow detail, but whites are merely adequate. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound is adequate to the task though fidelity is naturally lacking and the sometimes screeching voice on the soundtrack of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wailing “I Put a Spell on You” occasionally overpowers the sound equipment.
The first disc in this two disc set contains only the film with the bitrates maxed out to handle what must have been a difficult transfer.
All of the bonus features appear on disc two. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the set is that Jarmusch’s first feature film, the seldom screened 1980 comedy-drama Permanent Vacation (75 minutes, 11 chapters, 4:3 aspect ratio), has been added to the set as a bonus feature. It’s a meandering yet sometimes interesting look at a young man (Chris Parker) aimlessly wandering around New York and running into a (probably usual for him but unusual for most of us) assortment of people: his disenchanted girl friend, psychotics, frazzled war vets, street entertainers, his institutionalized mother, a woman with a car ripe for stealing, and his own purposeless French counterpart. The film is burdened by long, static takes and an uninteresting central character, but the feature serves as a good starting point for Jarmusch’s oddball gallery of characters and their sometimes unorthodox ways of living life. It’s a welcome addition though definitely not for all tastes.
“Kino ‘84: Jim Jarmusch” is a 42-minute German TV program that features clips from Jarmusch’s first two features and interviews with the stars of those movies. It’s presented in 4:3 with clips from the films showing exactly how much clean-up Criterion had to do to make them DVD-ready.
“Some Days in January 1984” has 14½ minutes of silent Super 8 film (in pretty bad condition) shot by Jarmusch’s brother Tom during the very cold location shooting for Stranger Than Paradise. Much of it involves the actors and crew mugging for the camera though there are some interesting shots showing the camera rigging for the in-car scenes in the movie.
The second disc concludes with both the American and Japanese trailers for Stranger Than Paradise. The American one is in far better shape (and lasts about half a minute longer) though both repeat many of the same clips from the film. They’re presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
The enclosed 44-page booklet contains stills from the two feature films in the package and separate sections for Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation. The former features notes by director Jarmusch and essays on the film by critics Geoff Andrew and J. Hoberman while the latter film gets two essays by film scholar Luc Sante.
The best film of 1984? No, I wouldn’t call Stranger Than Paradise that. But I would call it wildly unconventional, satisfyingly different, and hard to forget once one has seen it.