This is a transcription of the Cine-Files introduction to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise by Daryn Shepherd.
Welcome to this screening of Stranger Than Paradise, one of the last screenings in this Autumn’s Scalarama season, and indeed also one of the last screenings in this short run of the early films of Jim Jarmusch. My name is Daryn Shepherd and I run a night here at Derby Quad called O.S.T. on the second Saturday of the month, where I DJ a variety of music with explicit and tangential associations with cinema. And it is that association that I am going to be saying a few words about here. I’m going to give an overview of the relationship between film and music in Jarmusch’s films and also speak specifically about the film we’re going to be watching tonight. The following is a track by The Del Byzantines, a short lived band based in NY that featured Jim Jarmusch. Listen to it now.
It speaks volumes of the importance of music (be that soundtrack or diegetic music choices) in Jarmusch’s work that the man himself has an equally impressive parallel career in that separate industry. Having released two albums with the Austrian experimentalist Josef Van Wissem and recorded songs for the soundtrack of his most recent film Only Lovers Left Alive with his new-ish band Squirll; these days Jarmusch is as active in the music scene as he is in the film industry, the gaps between his post 1980s films unfortunately, for some, are becoming larger and larger.
Looking back at the beginning of Jarmusch’s career, two words we will undoubtedly be compelled to associate with him are punk and no- wave. The former’s heyday in the late 70s giving birth to the latter which would continue through the 1980s. No wave can perhaps be described as a movement by those who initially identified with punk ideology but were concerned with the increasing commercialisation of the scene so much as to try to create work and a lifestyle that would not fit into the cyclical narrative of popularity and decline that befalls most music scenes. To use a tired metaphor; the wave would not come crashing down because there was no wave. That freedom allowed both filmmakers and musicians to pursue, in their minds, purely artistic and expressive avenues where no concessions or compromise would be made. A cursory google of No Wave will no doubt lead you to either a documentary called Blank City (screened at Quad a few years ago and named for both New York and the Richard Hell and the Voidoids song Blank Generation and No New York (A series of compilations of various No Wave bands such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks featuring Lydia Lunch and James Chance and the Contortions.) Artistic ideals notwithstanding, No Wave was not the enclosed entity that description makes it out to be and it would soon sprout off into subsidiary scenes (No Wave cinema has ties with the Cinema of Transgression of director’s Lung Leg, Richard Kern and Nick Zedd and the No Wave music scene’s lasting influence would be seen in the indie titans Sonic Youth, a band who managed to find a degree of commercial success and provided a former drummer turned actor called Richard Edson to Jarmusch who takes a starring role in tonight’s film, as does John Lurie of avant-garde jazz act The Lounge Lizards) No Wave would interact with the mainstream also, with the roving musical entourage of disco/post-disco artist Arthur Russell (responsible for Loose Joints’ hit Is It All Over My Face) featuring many names from the No Wave scene, in particular Lounge Lizards alum Peter Zummo and Ernie Brooks of the There’s Something About Mary Soundtracking Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. As a side note, as a Glaswegian my favourite tangential offshoot of No Wave is the Nae-Wave tag of the almost all female, sadly no more, Glasgow punk band Divorce. Lydia Lunch herself was a big fan.
Jim Jarmusch’s early career certainly has a punk and no wave sensibility about it, though even a cursory glance at some truly “No Wave” films make in New York around the time of the early 80s will inform you that he had no desire to cut himself off from any discernible influence as a lot of those filmmakers were trying to do, be an influence unto themselves. Jarmusch openly said that punk’s “disregard for professionalism and technical polish” gave him the “courage” to become a filmmaker and what we can discern from that is he is trying to acknowledge punk’s importance but also rise above it. Perhaps he has seen falseness in that anarchy, look no further than the Sex Pistols for that. (Some Pistols antithesis below in the form of Launderette by Vivian Goldman; best thing Malcolm McLaren ever put his name to.)
Looking at the way his career would develop in the 80s we can see a shift between his first film Permanent Vacation (a film that had its spirit in an ‘act of piracy’) to Mystery Train a few years later in 1989 where Jarmusch took a lucarative funding deal with electrical giant JVC. Always the pragmatist, and not yet a veteran of the American Indie scene, Jarmusch makes that act of taking money from a corporate giant look like less a selling out and betrayal of his punk roots and rather an objectively adult thing to do. (Big commercial funding or not, it lead him to a beautiful film in three different languages, filmed in Memphis where Joe Strummer shoots a liquor store clerk in the stomach, still punk as fuck then. Despite the product placement.) According to Nick Cave, such a pragmatic view has its roots in Jarmusch going grey in the hair at a young age. He was figuratively an old man of the scene before he literally became an old man of the scene. Below is a brief clip from a film called The Foreigner by Amos Poe, a film that Jarmusch himself has said provoked him to make his first film, Permanent Vacation. Both films are claustrophobic, a hallmark of 80s New York filmmaking, starkly black and white and use their limited funding well as in they are ambitious within their means. Jarmusch is a more expressive filmmaker than Poe, notice how music features here but is kept consigned to the television. Both filmmakers interact with the local music scene in different ways, for Poe it is scene dressing (it’s on a magazine style tv show, the main character goes to see a band) but for Jarmusch music is definitely something more pervasive, transformative and of narrative importance. Jarmusch’s characters dance, Poe’s characters, well… see for yourself.
Poe and Jarmusch both interact with punk belief and ethos but betray a desire to move beyond it. The film may have the posturing of a Jean Pierre Melville-esque crime film or the look of a realist Rosselini film but at its heart what it is really about is the difficulty in “making it” in an arts and music scene as insular as the one in New York; the sense of cosmic hopelessness overpowers the actual espionage subject of the plot. In a city where apparently anyone can do something artistically worthwhile, it’s actually very difficult for anyone to get anything done at all, even something as simple as getting a phonecall and the base indulgences of getting trashed at a local punk gig and getting so angry you get shot down the pier are infinitely easier. I personally think Jarmusch would go on to more openly homage The Foreigner film in his later The Limits of Control, both feature untrustworthy men in foreign lands doing underhanded deeds. And both are inexcusably boring. At least Limits has a pretty incredible soundtrack going for it (a lot of black metal, feedback and sonic experimentation) but otherwise is a soulless exercise in style that betrays the worst of Jarmusch’s indulgences for all to see. However, themes apparent in both directors’ work are a desire to look beyond one’s immediate surroundings for a sense of meaning. But more explicitly in the work of Jarmusch there is a developing theme from his early work right through to films like Ghost Dog Way of The Samurai, Night on Earth and Broken Flowers; that contentment and happiness are not found in a particular locus or sense of being, they are in the brief and circumstantial interactions that human beings have with one another; it is these things that echo on and provide contentment when a character is looking back on life. Again. Jarmusch is arguably old before his time. Somewhat ironic that he would go on to direct the video for Tom Waits’ I Don’t Wanna Grow Up but there you go, we are dealing with the work of a true iconoclast.
Stranger Than Paradise is Jarmusch’s second feature and the story around its creation is perhaps more explicitly “punk” than its content. It was originally shot as a short on unexposed film stock leftover from the production of Wim Wenders’ film The State Of Things made for Grey City Films. Production was stopped as soon as Jarmusch ran out of money and the 45min version of StP was toured around festivals etc trying to raise funds, which were finally secured from a combination of money from German Television Channel ZDF and businessman Otto Grokenberger with a security deposit being sourced from a loan from Paul Bartel who was enjoying a successful tour with his film Eating Raoul. The film is about a Hungarian immigrant to the US called Eva who seeks out her cousin Willy, a small time gambler, in New York and forms a bond with him and his associate Eddie, overcoming Willy’s hostility to the world in general, but more specifically to his Hungarian roots. Eva comes to the US with an idea of what America is, and that idea is somewhat changed and skewed but not completely shattered by the end of the film. Now, already in that brief synopsis we can see something that is indicative of the bottom-up filmmaking of Jarmusch. There is a mirroring in the narrative of the film of Jarmusch’s own development as a filmmaker, Willy’s hostility to his roots is arguably related to Jarmusch’s hostility to the tags of punk, no wave and other such labels thrown at him. True meaning in life is not found in “scenes” of tangentially associated artistic practitioners, nor is it found between two people who happen to be from the same ethnic and cultural background; culture and happiness are not things that are created when two or more specific elements are thrown together but are constantly evolving. You find yourself as a human being by living, you find yourself as an artist by creating. You do not find yourself by planking yourself down next to someone you have a false ideal of, you do not become an artist by moving to a certain city. Jarmusch is pretty brutal when it comes to his notion that you can’t force relationship lightning to strike twice.
I said I would be talking about music and there is no better film to talk about that than with Stranger Than Paradise. Other Jarmusch films have perhaps more notable soundtracks (Ghost Dog’s RZA from the Wu Tang Clan’s gloriously curated hip hop, the Ethiopian jouyous jazz of Mulatu Astatke in Broken Flowers, Neil Young’s broken frenzied guitar improv in Dead Man, Tom Waits’ work on Down By Law and Night on Earth) but no film uses music narratively better than Stranger Than Paradise. And we are not talking about John Lurie’s original compositions per se, although they are not incidental , so much as we are talking about one song that immediately makes me think of those names that always come up on THE BEST USES OF POP MUSIC IN FILM EVER VOL. 5 2K14 such as Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express and its use of California Dreaming by Mamas and Papas to name but one….
I Put a Spell on You by Screaming Jay Hawkins features prominently in Stranger Than Paradise. Indeed it pervades through the narrative of the film, it is not only omnipresent for Eva, who is somewhat obsessed with it, but it helps highlight various important connections and obstacles throughout the film. Hawkins’ himself starred in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train as a hotel clerk with Cinique Lee, playing a somewhat similar role as his song does in Stranger than Paradise. (He is a character who has scenes in every one of that film’s vignettes and even has certain scenes repeated twice) What initially seems like a darkly triumphant tale of taking what is yours when it is within your grasp, the song actually highlights many of Eva’s hopes and dreams about America. However, as the song goes on and SJH’s pronouncements get more and more frenzied it would seem to predict that these notions are going to be somewhat shattered and there will be no going back after you change your mind, to quote the malevolent mad-man. “I don’t care if you don’t want me, I’m yours right now.” There is undoubtedly a wryness bout using a song with that title so heavily in a film about a small number of characters and their search for in so many words The American Dream.
But this isn’t really Death of a Salesman, Jarmusch isn’t attempting to skewer capitalism and all its wrongdoing. What I think he achieves is to use the song to highlight the barriers that the characters put up between one another. The spell is the barriers that the characters put up between one another that limit their real connection with one another; they are not all open to let themselves find happiness with and through one another. With Eva it is the blank, bemused contentment she shows which rings false to the viewer, with Willie it is the almost parodic anger, stubbornness and withdrawal he shows. In early scenes, the interaction between the characters are all silence and pauses, and the actors’ performances highlight disengagement rather than well-rounded individuality, this has the effect of giving the characters over in a way that suggests they are being the people they think they should be rather than the people that they actually are, whatever that is. The vignettes of the film are entitled “The New World” “Paradise” and “A Year Later..” and this grandness is at odds with the mundane nature of what actually goes on in them for the first two, and then the final one contains unexpected excitement; not to spoil anything.
Further highlighting the themes already discussed; Truth is not found in places or archetypes but in the intangible and the unexpected. Returning to that song, to get a bit spiritual, it is as if SJH is yelling, somewhat regretfully like a repentant God. He, through the way he has allowed the world to develop with concrete notions of happiness is terms of place (Heaven) he has unintentionally bewitched his children into thinking that they need to follow a pious and richly structured path in life when really, if they opened up and were less bound by their notions of propriety and such, they would be able to find the happiness and contentment they strive for. Jarmusch’s films preach a more emotive and social doctrine than they would first appear to, that we all need to take more time to notice how momentary person to person interactions shape us even if we never return to that well, so to speak. How many times have we had our heartbroken by an incident that we had hitherto, it seemed, had no stock in whatsoever and that also did not feature subsequently in our lives afterward? The memory and effect stays on long after the other artifices (space, place, attitude) have faded away. And that is exactly how Jarmusch uses music to such great effect in his films.
A tiny bit more history surrounding Stranger Than Paradise before we get going with the film. The film took Jarmusch out of obscurity and into the forefront of the American indie scene. Indeed. The whole downtown NY scene is on the way up at this point in time. Basquiat has become an artworld star, bands like Blondie and Talking Heads who had their roots in the early 80s NYC music scene are becoming mainstream acts and the general public would soon begin to associate these acts with the New York scene and terms like no-wave, new-wave and art-punk would become amalgamated in the public consciousness. Amos Poe had just made a film called Alphabet City on a relatively large budget of £1.2 Million. Singular works were drawing crowds on single screens in NYC and other major New York Cities (Think ROCKY HORROR style crowds for films like Wild Style by Charles Ahern and Liquid Sky by Slava Tsukerman) and Susan Siedelman who made the vastly underrated Smithereens not to be confused with the band of the same name, was about to break through with the Madonna starring Desperately Seeking Susan. The scene was marketable, there was an audience for Jarmusch’s style of filmmaking if it got lumped in with what was becoming an increasingly ill-defined New York style of filmmaking. Something his own films clearly lash out against, this didn’t stop him from keeping the stylistic choices very similar for his next film Down By Law (1986) despite changing the location and he would not make major changes to his film’s look until the aforementioned Mystery Train in (1989) his first colour film and by the time of Night on Earth (1991) we see what is, in my opinion, the most distilled and polished dissertation of his thematic interests.
I hope I have succeeded in painting what sort of position Jarmusch was in at the time of making this, one of his very best films and a developmental film in terms of his constantly evolving interest in the delight of instantaneous rapport between fellow human beings. So I think you are all probably at the stage where, like Joe Strummer in the Jarmusch-cameoing Straight To Hell by Alex Cox, you are about to strangle me (the hot dog vendor) and say “Don’t you ever talk to me again!” so without further ado, Stranger Than Paradise. Thank you!