In 1980, film-school dropout Jim Jarmusch released the short, low-budget feature Permanent Vacation. Shot in color on 16mm film, it follows hyper-verbal star Chris Parker from the lonely, run-down apartment he shares with his girlfriend through seemingly abandoned pockets of a possibly post-apocalyptic Manhattan, then back again. Jarmusch's approach almost defines the word "spare," offering little plot and less stimulation, letting the film unfold in long takes with minimal editing. When it came time for the follow-up, Jarmusch decided to trim the remaining fat.
In Jarmusch's 1984 breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise, the color has drained away, the action rarely breaks from a series of gloomy rooms, the camera barely moves, the cuts come only at the end of scenes, and long silences keep interrupting conversations that go in circles, when they go anywhere at all. It's filmmaking stripped down to the bare essentials, and it's where Jarmusch found his signature style, a deadpan approach that gives him room to maneuver from comedy to tragedy without blinking.
There's a bit of both in Stranger Than Paradise, making its debut in the Criterion Collection. (Permanent Vacation comes included as an extra.) Musician John Lurie plays a small-time New York card sharp of Hungarian extraction who's obsessively remade himself as an American. Latching onto what he sees as the best parts of his adopted land—'50s hipster duds, baseball, science-fiction movies, Chesterfields—he adopts them as a shield, shutting out anything that would negate the world he's created for himself, even if that means spending a lot of time in his room playing solitaire. He even chooses a best friend (Richard Edson) who looks like him. But Lurie's past catches up when he's forced to babysit cousin Eszter Balint, a recent arrival from Hungary, whom he decides to school in all things American. (Most memorably in a monologue on the beauty of TV dinners: "This is the way we eat in America I don't even have to wash the dishes.") But Balint leaves, with her education unfinished, to stay with an aunt in Cleveland, and a year later, a bored Lurie and Edson take to the road to pay her a visit.
They're looking for something. First Edson promises that Cleveland will be beautiful, without having seen it. Then a later trip to Florida finds them hanging out in a hotel room, mourning their exhausted peanut supply while seagulls make promising noises outside. But the title is no joke. There's more going on in the film's mundane moments than the excitement its heroes imagine is waiting beyond the horizon. They never find the postcard America they were promised, but there's a lot of beauty, and a lot of America, in the way they keep searching for it, never quite saying what's on their mind as they go.
Jarmusch took that vision global with 1991's Night On Earth, which includes five stories mainly told from the inside of moving cabs, and set in five cities, moving eastward from L.A. to Helsinki. Almost unavoidably uneven, it gets off to a rough start in a segment that relies too heavily on Winona Ryder's charms as a pixieish grease monkey. But it improves as it goes, and in segment after segment, Jarmusch's characters strive, almost heroically, to make human connections, even ones that won't last beyond the moment when they pay their fares.
Key features: The Permanent Vacation disc houses some vintage making-of docs, while on the Night On Earth disc, a typically wry Jarmusch spends nearly an hour answering questions submitted by fans.