For better or worse, Jim Jarmusch has developed a reputation as the cineaste of cool. He has only himself to blame. For one, he has a rare genius for the suave posture and the shockingly odd image. Think of Johnny Depp in a checkered suit and black bowler, limping through a birch forest in the surrealist Western Dead Man (1995), or the two Japanese tourists in Mystery Train (1989), ecstatic with passion for Elvis Presley, sitting on the floor of their Memphis, Tenn., hotel room with lipstick-smeared faces. He also frequently casts musicians as his actors (John Lurie, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, and Jack and Meg White, among others), and his soundtracks, featuring Charlie Parker, Elvis, and Ethiopian composer Mulatu Astatke, help give his films their distinctive mood—the cinematic equivalent of a world-weary shrug. Most responsible of all for this reputation, however, is his trademark dialogue, with its reliance on antiquated slang, digressive riffs, and bathetic one-liners.
Jarmusch's hipness offers its own distinct pleasures—how could an encounter between Bill Murray and the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA (in 2003's Coffee and Cigarettes) fail to amuse? But there's also something distracting about this aspect of his work—it tends to obscure the qualities that distinguish him as one of the great American filmmakers of his generation. What's unique about Jarmusch isn't his flair for antic conversation, it's his stunningly expressive visual compositions. In his best films, he creates his characters through painstaking attention to gesture, subtle changes of facial expression, and other forms of nonverbal communication. It's usually not until the characters stop running their mouths that Jarmusch makes himself heard.
The finest example of Jarmusch's visual style is his early masterpiece, Stranger Than Paradise (1984), recently released by the Criterion Collection. The film is a road movie in three parts—New York, Cleveland, and Florida—that follows the awkward love triangle between two schmendrik grifters, Willie (John Lurie) and Eddie (Richard Edson), and Willie's 16-year-old Hungarian cousin, Eva (Eszter Balint). The plot is purposefully incidental: Eva is forced to stay with Willie for 10 days in his Lower East Side studio until she can move to Cleveland to live with her elderly aunt; a year later, Willie and Eddie drive out to visit her; then, deciding that winter in Cleveland is "a drag," the trio takes a road trip to Florida. Each departure is inspired by the doomed desire, shared by all three characters, to escape familiar confines and seek out something new and strange.
The real story of the film, however, lies in the almost imperceptibly shifting relationships between Willie, Eddie, and Eva. When Eva first arrives from Hungary, she is painfully uncomfortable, with a hideous haircut that looks like an overturned swallow's nest. Willie, meanwhile, projects a cool, hardened glare. He resents Eva's intrusion into his world of desultory hustling and all-day mopes, and her presence serves as a constant reminder of his own humble émigré past. He bullies her with snide lectures on how to act like an American, and when she tries to speak to him in Hungarian, he yells at her so loudly that she shudders.
But a dramatic transformation occurs over the course of the short scenes that follow Eva's arrival in New York. No event of consequence happens—the characters sit around the house, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music—yet we can tell that Eva begins to see past Willie's shtick, recognizing in her cousin someone as isolated and adrift as she is. She stops being intimidated by him, and starts talking back. Willie, meanwhile, softens, and becomes protective of Eva, forbidding her from coming with him and Eddie to the racetrack, and warning her to avoid certain parts of his neighborhood at night. By the time she leaves for Cleveland, Willie has gone from sneering at Eva to relying on her company. In one awkward display of warmth, he even buys her a dress (which she declares to be ugly and casually tosses aside).
The night after she's left town, Eddie stops by Willie's for a beer. Jarmusch's camera doesn't move; the characters sit frozen and mute; and the shot goes on for nearly two minutes. It seems, at first, as if Jarmusch has forgotten to turn off the camera, until you notice the subtle transformations altering the two characters, as Willie's perpetual smirk petrifies into a pained grimace, and Eddie's eyes, darting anxiously between his beer and his friend, betray his realization that Willie may not be as tough as he appears. The viewer senses that Eddie is disturbed by his friend's display of weakness, and is helpless in his inability to offer comfort.
In a taped interview included on Criterion's supplementary disc, Jarmusch quotes a line from his mentor at NYU film school, director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, In A Lonely Place): "Acting is like piano playing. The dialogue is just the left hand; the melody is in the eyes." There's an even more arresting example of Jarmusch's attention to the melody of the eyes in the Cleveland section of the film, when Willie and Eddie tag along on a date Eva has planned with a local teenager. Nothing happens in this scene, either—we simply see the four characters sitting in a movie theater, watching a kung fu movie. The scene is shot from the perspective of the movie screen, so we just hear the sounds of punching and kicking. But as Jarmusch's camera lingers—again, for nearly two minutes—we learn everything we need to know about the characters: the teenager's frustration at not being alone with his date; Eva's boredom; Eddie's childlike wonder at the movie; and most of all, Willie's mounting disgust—at the teenager, and at Eva's indifference to him.