Spiritual zombies, with irony

If nothing else, the Criterion release of Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 Stranger Than Paradise should put to rest any lingering doubts about the identity of the true godfather of the late ’80s-early ’90s indie-film explosion. Any arguments for Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers or even Richard Linklater seem pretty flaccid in its wake.

Stranger Than Paradise tells a non-story about ennui, frustration and loneliness among three young people—a New York gambler who refuses human kindness (John Lurie), his bored Hungarian cousin (Eszter Balint) and his sweet but dim sidekick (Richard Edson).

Almost nothing happens: They argue about TV dinners, she dances around the kitchen to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, they drive to see an aunt in Ohio, they hole up in a Florida hotel. Jarmusch presents the “action” in a series of blackout sketches and montages, as though the film was struggling to stay awake.

It may sound dull, but Jarmusch’s bemused eye for the details of human frailty and Tom DiCillo’s stark black-and-white photography make it a light and entertaining experience. The three leads are like spiritual zombies out of Antonioni, but spiked with a uniquely American sense of irony.

Jarmusch shot Stranger Than Paradise on discarded film from Wim Wenders’ The State of Things (Jarmusch contributed to the soundtrack; ironically, that film is about a director who runs out of film stock, and was made by Wenders only because Francis Ford Coppola usurped his Hammett soundstage to shoot One From the Heart), and composed the film as a series of long takes shot in sequence with live sound.

An expansion of a 1982 Jarmusch short, Stranger Than Paradise is being packaged with his 1980 debut feature Permanent Vacation. Criterion is simultaneously releasing Jarmusch’s worst film to date, the 1991 off-the-mark taxi-cab anthology Night on Earth.