The term “independent film” is extremely malleable in the realm of American cinema. A film may be considered “independent” if it is financed and/or distributed outside of a Hollywood studio, or if it bends and/or breaks the conventions of mainstream American movies. There are numerous, if not infinite, ways to categorize and classify films as independent, and any attempt to do so is nearly impossible. That said, there are certain films that inarguably deserve the controversial classification, and certain filmmakers that approach American cinema in a manner that undeniably independent. One such film is Stranger Than Paradise (1984), and one such filmmaker is Jim Jarmusch. The film, Jarmusch's second feature as writer/director, was financed with a shoestring budget (around $110,000), and became an archetype of what American independent cinema would strive to be in the following two decades. The narrative style of Stranger Than Paradise bends nearly all the “rules” of mainstream cinema. Everything about the film is minimalist, to put it lightly. In the early 1980's, when films with grand narratives—such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984)—dominated the box office, Jarmusch's film served as a daring, wholly original way to approach American cinema. Stranger Than Paradise's sparse visual and narrative qualities frame its subject, American identity, in a way that few movies had ever attempted. His emphasis on the small, mediocre, and often-unexamined qualities of everyday life, made for a truly independent film.
[...] Each scene of Stranger Than Paradise is long and, at times, tedious, with characters exchanging little or no dialogue. This minimalist approach is highly effective in Stranger Than Paradise, which focuses on three essentially banal, lethargic characters. Willie is not the type of protagonist one would find in a mainstream Hollywood movie. In his review of Stranger Than Paradise, Roger Ebert states that Willie spends his time “perfecting his New York accent and trying to make nothing out of himself. [...]
[...] Stranger Than Paradise centers around three people, and the vacancy that fills their lives. The story is, at first glance, as empty as the characters that inhabit it. In his book Stranger than Paradise, Geoff Andrew states that Jarmusch's film's “story is so simple and slight [that it is] almost non-existent (Andrew 138). Willie (John Laurie), the protagonist, is a twenty-something Hungarian expatriate who now lives in New York City. Willie considers himself wholly “Americanized”, and when he is asked to let his sixteen-year-old Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), who wants to visit New York City before going to Cleveland to see their Aunt Lottie, he is quite hesitant. [...]
[...] In Cinema of Outsiders, Emanuel Levy calls Stranger Than Paradise outgrowth of his notion of America as a ‘throwaway culture'” (Levy 186). Willie and Eddie's view of American culture consists of killing time and “looking and Eva finds her slice of Americana by getting a monotonous job at a Cleveland fast food joint. Geoff Andrew speaks of how, in one scene, when Eva tells Eddie she is going to Cleveland, tells her the city is so beautiful she is sure to love it—before admitting that he has never been there” (Andrew 141). [...]
[...] Stranger Than Paradise is a film that derives great meaning from the parts of life that usually go unobserved in mainstream Hollywood films. If ever there was a film justified in being called “independent”, this is it. Jim Jarmusch unfolds its unconventional narrative with a meaningful minimalism; a filmic language as simultaneously sparse and rich as its subject matter. It represents American identity as being as empty as the black spaces that tie its scenes together. And yet, Jarmusch is able to make this emptiness as intriguing, and entertaining, as most conventional narratives. [...]
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