Stranger than Paradise
With this breakout film, Jim Jarmusch established himself as one of the most exciting voices in the burgeoning independent-film scene, a road-movie poet with an affinity for Americana at its most offbeat. Jarmusch follows rootless Hungarian émigré Willie (John Lurie), his pal Eddie (Richard Edson), and his visiting sixteen-year-old cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) as they drift from New York’s Lower East Side to the snowy expanses of Lake Erie and the drab beaches of Florida, always managing to make the least of wherever they end up. Structured as a series of master-shot vignettes etched in black and white by cinematographer Tom DiCillo, Stranger Than Paradise is a nonchalant masterpiece of deadpan comedy and perfectly calibrated minimalism.
Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise receives a Blu-ray upgrade from the Criterion Collection, presenting the film again in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Comparing the restoration notes of this Blu-ray edition with the notes that came with the 2007 DVD edition it’s clear that Criterion is simply reusing that same master, so my expectations were a little low throwing it in, ultimately expecting a “fine” but dated picture. This actually isn’t the case! There are a handful of minor issues but on the whole the image looks fantastic, delivering an incredible level of detail at times and maintaining a filmic texture and look throughout. The film is, unsurprisingly, grainy, and though this was present on the DVD it was cleaned up a bit to avoid a compression nightmare for the format. It looks like they have let that breathe here and I was surprised by how fine it actually is. I suspect that somewhere along the line some sharpening may have been applied since the grain can look like mosquito noise or blocky here and there, but on the whole, I thought grain looked good.
The image is also far sharper than what we got with the DVD, textures of the costumes or settings looking more natural. Contrast is also excellent, and gray levels are good. Blacks are deep, though a few darker scenes show sign of crush. Whites are also good, never blooming, best showcased in a few scenes featuring snow. It also looks further restoration efforts have been made: doing a few quick comparisons between a few scenes I could see that some bits of dirt, some pulsing, and remnants of what could have been stains, are mostly gone.
In the end I was pretty impressed. It’s using the same master as Criterion’s original DVD but the improvement here from simply delivering the full high-definition image ends up being significant. A new 4K scan and such would certainly look incredible, but what we get here is nothing to turn one’s nose up at. Honestly, if the notes didn’t confirm it was the same master I would have sworn that an all-new scan was done and it just needed a little more work. It looks really good.
The audio, delivered in lossless PCM 1.0, also manages to sound impressive, though doesn’t offer a noteworthy improvement over the DVD’s Dolby Digital track. Fidelity is still excellent, offering a wide amount of range, and both dialogue and music are clear and clean. There can be some faint background noise at times but on the whole the track is clean and doesn’t feature any significant problems.
Criterion carries over all of the special features from their DVD edition and, in a very big surprise, adds an audio commentary featuring Jim Jarmusch and actor Richard Edson. My understanding is Jarmusch doesn’t like doing commentaries, so this was a surprise, but the even bigger surprise is that (according to the notes and the track’s own introduction) this commentary was recorded by Criterion in 1996 for their LaserDisc edition but was ultimately dropped at Jarmusch’s insistence. Why he wanted it dropped and why he has changed his mind (23 years later) is never explained.
After listening to the track I’m at a loss as to why Jarmusch would have scrapped it because it is a very informative and enjoyable track. He talks a lot about his development as a filmmaker, explaining how he fell into the career (I guess I’m not too surprised he drifted a bit) before making the short-film version of Stranger Than Paradise. He talks a lot about how that short film came together and then explains how, while editing the shorter version, he came up with the idea for the longer one (it’s bothered me that the short version was never included as a feature but Jarmusch does explain the first 30-minutes of the film, before the “One Year Later” title, are, outside of some tightening, exactly the same). He also talks about the characters, the influences, what he was hoping to accomplish with the film, and gets into his influences.
Edson was recorded separately, first popping up just before his character’s first appearance, and then here and there throughout. He recalls his first film experience (after playing in bands, which included Sonic Youth) and how films compared after this, and shares stories from this time in his life, like how they would all hang out at Jarmusch’s parent’s house. In all it’s a great track, tightly edited to keep things going. I’m happy it is now seeing the light of day.
Criterion also presents Jarmusch’s first feature, Permanent Vacation, presented here from a high-definition restoration. The 74-minute film follows an aimless young man (Chris Parker) as he travels about the city looking for meaning (I guess) and coming across an assortment of characters (including ones played John Lurie and Frankie Faison), before coming up with a way to leave the city. In the commentary, Jarmusch mentions how his films are accused of being plotless (he doesn’t agree but he understands what people mean) and that might be a fair assessment for this one. It has a few rather strong moments (an impromptu dance scene, Faison’s appearance, the last bit involving a car) but the film always feels to be keeping one at a distance, making it hard to feel much of anything for the protagonist. It has a very student-film vibe to it, yet it’s still very assured, professionally made, and you can see (and feel) Jarmusch finding his voice, getting comfortable with each element of filmmaking.
For the presentation Criterion is reusing the same high-definition master used on the original DVD, though they’ve cleaned it up a bit more doing a few quick comparisons. I remember being impressed with how it looked on the DVD (I honestly figured they’d use some crappy standard-definition master) and it does look quite a bit better here in full high-definition. The colours are still a bit muted and dull, but the image is razor sharp most of the time (a few shots look out-of-focus) and film grain is rendered well. Unfortunately Criterion doesn’t offer a lossless audio track, instead only offering a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono presentation. It’s a bit flat, but sounds fine.
Next is a 42-minute documentary made for West German television in 1984 called Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch. The film covers to an extent the making of both Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise, getting interviews with Vacation’s Parker, and then Paradise’s Lurie, Edson, and Eszter Balint. Jarmusch, producer Sara Driver, and director of photography Tom DiCillo also appear. While a lot of clips from both films unfortunately eat up a lot of the running time there’s some wonderful discussions with the participants for each film (Parker is interesting, to say the least), with DiCillo talking quite a bit about the camerawork and framing for Jarmusch’s films, and Sara Driver sharing a few stories, including a very funny around the car that appears in Permanent Vacation. There are probably too many clips (but since it was made for television this excusable of course) but it offers some solid insights into each film, from story to technical attributes.
Some Days in January 1984 offers a collection of Super 8 footage filmed by Jarmusch’s brother, Tom, during the filming of Stranger Than Paradise. The footage is silent and is a mix of colour and black-and-white and showcases material primarily around some of the driving sequences in the snow. It’s fascinating to watch (especially in colour) and it’s a bit of hoot to see how they rigged the camera to the hood of the car.
The disc then closes with two theatrical trailers: an American one and a Japanese one. They’re pretty much the same though the Japanese one is shorter.
Criterion also includes a booklet, which is split into two sections: one for Stranger Than Paradise and the other for Permanent Vacation. For Paradise the section opens with a reprint of notes written by Jarmusch for the original pressbooks, explaining aspects of the film, from style to acting to cinematography. This is then followed by two essays on the film, one by Geoff Andrew and the other by J. Hoberman. Luc Sante then offers a lengthy essay on Vacation. Altogether the booklet works as a wonderful way for newcomers to familiarize themselves with the director.
The DVD was always a little disappointing, feeling as though more could have been added from an academic perspective, even if the booklet does fill that gap decently enough. But with the addition of an abandoned commentary from 1996 the supplements end up feeling far more satisfying thanks to the additional details from Jarmusch and Edson about the production. It’s a really good track and I’m still a surprised it was axed from the original LaserDisc.
I figured this would be a ho-hum edition, a so-so upgrade, but it ends up being far better than that. Though still open to improvement the video presentation ends up offering a rather significant improvement over the DVD. This edition also not only ports over all of the supplements from the DVD, but it also adds a commentary track that had originally been abandoned. It’s a strong upgrade and comes with a very high recommendation.