Tuesday, September 18, 2007

DVD Review - Stranger than Paradise (****1/2)

Jim Jarmusch, perhaps better than anyone has before or since, totally and completely defines American independent cinema. His reputation was built swiftly, and considering his meandering yet instantly recognizable visual aesthetic, it has surprisingly not only survived, but sustained itself for over 25 years. Over this timespan, he has directed 9 feature length films, each working within it's own contained world of influence, but all undeniably the work of the same unique man. Jarmusch's 1984 breakout sophomore film Stranger than Paradise has now been upgraded from it's shoddy, bare bones MGM DVD into a lavish 2-disc offering from the Criterion Collection. Not even taking into account that it was one of the pioneering films of the 80s independent film scene, Stranger than Paradise is on it's own terms a completely singular, minimalist classic. Composed of only 67 individual B&W shots, the film is divided into 2 segments, the first of which (entitled "The New World") was commissioned to be a 30 minute short film, but when the finished product turned out so strong, Jarmusch amended a 2nd half to the film, which takes his 3 main characters from the confines of New York all the way to Cleveland and finally down to Florida, where their lives become irrevocably intertwined.

Stranger than Paradise, along with the early records of Sonic Youth and the music of the nascent No-Wave scene (to which Jarmusch happen to contribute to as well), defined 1980s New York hipster cool. The nonchalant attitude and methodical style that Jarmusch adopted here has been co-opted by independent filmmakers ever since; it's influence ranging from Quentin Tarantino to Alexander Payne to of course Kevin Smith, who has always been very open about the influence of Stranger than Paradise on his debut film Clerks. With only the scantest of dialogue, the film still manages to speaks volumes, both to the way humans interact with each other and to the small moments in life that are taken for granted but can mean so much in hindsight. It should go without saying, but a surface viewing of Stranger than Paradise will obviously reveal very little, but as its cult status will attest to, any sort of in depth look at the film will open up a world of unforeseen possibilities.

As expected, Criterion has flawlessly cleaned up and remastered the film so that the B&W cinematography (which is nearly as famous as the film itself) sparkles and breathes with a heretofore unthinkable vibrancy. But this being Criterion, there are a treasure trove of extras included on a second disc, the most surprising being the entirety of Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch's 1980 debut film. Although the film isn't half as good as Stranger than Paradise (it's one of the only Jarmusch film that could benefit from something actually happening), it is still an essential watch for any fan of the then-burgeoning indie film circuit. Also included is an hour long documentary on both the films, which was made in 1984 and features interviews with most of the actors and crew from each movie. And in addition to a couple trailers and location photos, there is the requisite Criterion booklet, a 43 page mammoth with articles about the two movies from both film critics and Jarmusch alike. It's a fantastic package for a fantastic film.

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