This image comes from 1:00:00 into Stranger Than Paradise, the opening volley in Jim Jarmusch’s personal war against conventional cinema. Specifically, the kind of conventional cinema that focuses on adventurous people leading interesting lives. Or on cataclysmic events. Or on things happening. This nighttime driving scene—which runs about a minute and a half—is about as action-packed as Stranger Than Paradise gets, as Willie (John Lurie, on the left) banters back and forth with his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson). For the most part, it makes Clerks or Slacker, both of which it heavily influenced, look like Lawrence of Arabia.
But that’s because it’s about the rhythms of everyday life, which are filled with pauses and false starts. (Or, if you hate Jarmusch, because it’s pretentious and boring.) Jarmusch has a particular talent for visually capturing people who are awkwardly in transit. Earlier in Stranger Than Paradise, we get a tracking shot that recurs in Mystery Train: Eva wandering along city streets, past one identical block after another. Like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, Jarmusch’s characters keep walking but never get anywhere; as a title card in Mystery Train puts it, they’re “Lost in Space.”
The shot above is another one Jarmusch is clearly infatuated with, especially since he based a whole movie (called Night on Earth) around it. It’s another image of travel that never seems to go anywhere, an automotive version of No Exit, with our protagonists buckled into this triangular composition for their entire, interminable car ride to Florida. (And predictably, Florida ends up being no more of a paradise than Cleveland or New York.) It’s also the ideal vantage point for Jarmusch to just observe his characters in their natural (boring) environment, see what makes them tick, and see how they relate to each other.
In this case, what makes Willie tick is Eva pulling out her stereo and playing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” which serves as Stranger Than Paradise‘s unofficial theme song. Hawkins’ macabre, obsessive love song is such an oddly appropriate choice for this ennui-ridden movie filmed in fuzzy black-and-white; it might make for a great “Mix Tape” piece someday. Not only is the song fantastic, but it’s quirky and (at least within the context of this car) divisive. It gives Jarmusch’s jaded drifters something to argue about, something of cultural value to fight over. Willie says the song is awful, but Eva explains that Screamin’ Jay is her “main man.”
Well, there’s no accounting for taste, and it all transpires very affably. But that doesn’t mean their little musical squabble isn’t important—it lets Jarmusch turn this visually minimalist scene into a self-contained nocturnal vignette that also further develops the characters’ relationships. By keeping his camera trained on the forward-facing passengers, he gets at their little gestures, like how Willie turns his head in exaggerated disgust at the sound of Screamin’ Jay’s voice, or how a toothy smile slowly develops on Eddie’s face during the course of the mild argument. For all of Jarmusch’s occasional posing and empty style, Stranger Than Paradise still gets at the boredom, the waiting, the quiet resentment, and the rest of the qualities that define what we consider “real life.”