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                                       politics + culture

Monday, October 31, 2005

stranger than paradise

I was driving a big truck around the abandoned industrial streets of West Oakland tonight and it made me think of one my favorite scenes in the movies.

It occurs in Jim Jarmusch's movie Stranger than Paradise when Willie and his buddy, Eddie, have driven to Cleveland to visit Willy's recently-arrived Hungarian cousin, Eva, (the beautiful Esther Balint...whatever happened to her?) who is living with their Aunt in less than happy conditions, and working as a waitress in a diner.

It's winter in Cleveland. It's dark and it's cold. It's brutal. Big factories line the streets. The wind blows snow.

Eddie, played deadpan by Richard Edson (original drummer for Sonic Youth, btw) and Eva and Willy go for a drive. They stop. Get out. They face the cold, empty streets of the industrial American city that is Cleveland.

Eddie observes, matter of factly, "Hey, Willie, this looks just like Brooklyn."

I laughed at that. My American buddy laughed too. We were two of twenty people in a small movie theater in Paris where no one was laughing. They took the entire movie way too seriously. The French, sometimes.

But, yeah, West Oakland looks like Cleveland with palm trees....and Cleveland looks like Brooklyn...which looks like Montgomery or Ft. Collins or St. John's, Oregon or anyplace in America with train tracks, grain elevators, truck yards and factories...anyplace that is going to have that...godforsaken industrial vibe.

And, yeah, tonight I was thinking about how I love this country despite that brutal face.

I remember campaigning for Jesse Jackson in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1988 one snowy night....walking down exactly that godforsaken prototypical industrial street with two buddies looking for a bar where we might get away from the cold linoleum floors of the Manchester Teamsters Hall...only to have some car full of long-haired metal heads drive by us...and yell, "fags, faggots, fags.....you fags!....faggots!!"

Of course, given enough time away from America and you can miss, or at least laugh at, even its most blithering idiots.

1988 is a long time ago. So is 1984, the year, Stranger than Paradise came out. I miss that too.

You see, Eva plays this old Screaming Jay Hawkins song, "I Put a Spell on You" on her cassette deck...just like we used to do. (Those school-issue, single-speaker, deck-with-a-handle models that were all that anyone had before boom boxes ruled...and for a long time afterwards.)

I remember sitting in the back of the school bus with that exact type of deck...except we were playing Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and singing along. And some cool kid, with an older sister, had a copied tape of the Jam. Tonight, somebody from the photo shoot I was working on was off to see Bau Haus at the Fillmore. A blast from the past, but it's all the same.

And, yeah, it all gets mixed up like that.

Driving the streets of West Oakland, I saw a homeless couple stretched on a park bench off Peralta, then I saw an old man sitting aimlessly and motionless on the meridian of Mandela Parkway, then a woman who was lying on a street corner just off West Grand, curling to stay warm.

I don't miss that part of America. And it's been there every day of my life.

I remember, one night, coming out of the Mars Bar in the East Village I saw a girl I recognized with green hair. She was collecting bottles and cans at 2AM. She'd taken a semester off of school. Rent was $300 for a room in a crappy railroad firetrap apartment. The Bowery that night was like every other American industrial place. Cold and godforsaken.

Gwynn looked at me and smiled. "Fuck" she said, "I guess I should be embarrassed collecting cans, but I gotta make rent." I wasn't judgmental so much as impressed. I found her doing what she had to do. Hell, if I hadn't run into her, she would've been there anyway.

New York was like that then; it still is in some parts, and so is West Oakland.

So is the reality of the brutality and poverty of so much of American life.

Jim Jarmusch put that Screaming Jay Hawkins song in his movie for the same reason he put that scene in Cleveland, or the "TV dinner" scene, or Esther Balint's wry, beautiful, Hungarian immigrant face, a face a bit like pictures of what my mom and her sisters...who are Czech-American...looked like when they were young, and their lives were far from certain or safely middle class.

He put it in to tell a story about America.

It's haunting. It get's to the core of something. I don't know exactly what. But I find it compelling anyway.

I put a spell on you
Because you're mine

Stop the things you do
WHOAHUH - what's up?
I ain't lyin'
Yeaaah, I can't stand - HOO!
No runnin' around
I can't stand
No put me down
I put a spell on you
Because you're mine
WHOAHAA - yeah!

[saxophone solo]

Stop the things you do
WHOAHUH - what's up?
I ain't lyin'
AAHH!! AAH! I love you
I love you
I love you anyhow
I don't care if you don't want me
I'm yours right now
I put a spell on you
Because you're mine, mine

There's something about America in that song, and Jarmusch's movie paean to it, that isn't about jingoism or patriotism. If anything, there's a kind of fear in it, and power.

And once you've felt it, it never lets you go.



  • Ezter Balint's most recent acting gig in imdb was in Trees Lounge. I loved that movie but can't recall right now who her character, Marie, was.
    Thanks for the lovely memory of Stranger Than Paradise.

    By Blogger vacasmagras, at 5:40 PM  

  • I loved "Stranger Than Paradise," and all Jarmusch's early, weird little films. I think "Stranger Than Paradise" is his weirdest, with its outsider view of America. 1984 was a long time ago.

    John Edwards came and spoke at The University of Michigan on Friday. One of my students introduced him and did a fine job. He didn't really give a speech--it was a Clintonesque, intense TALK about poverty in the US and where is the US on this issue in the world. Very few one-liners, and the audience was listening HARD (none of that clap clap stuff after the pithy one-liner).

    He said something that struck me, about how, in the absence of governmental interest or will, it's up to the people to make the government take interest. He talked about how twenty years ago students on campuses across the country made the US government take notice of Botha's apartheid government, and largely because of student protest, corporations and city governments divested from South Africa and shone a light on the injustice.

    I thought ... wow, twenty years ago, 1984, I sat in shanties on my college campus, and now that's historical, and students today don't know about it. And I'm not yet 40.

    By Blogger SimoneDB, at 6:20 PM  

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