jueves, 2 de junio de 2011


I put a spell on you ‘cause you’re mine
(Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)

Having described the operation of labeling as “foreign language” any criticism against the American Paradise, I would like to add that at the level of the biblical myth, this procedure stands for the identification of any criticism with the motive of the serpent and its speech, whose subtlety and power of seduction ended up with Adam and Eve’s fall. Consequently, ensuring a life in Paradise also means to understand the danger of seductive discourses against male authority: like the words of the serpent, those discourses should be considered as intrinsically evil, harmful spells that one needs to be protected against in order to avoid being expelled from Eden. Needless to say, this crossing between language and seduction as source of evil has been traditionally associated in our culture with women.
This symbolism is particularly relevant when analyzing the film “Stranger than Paradise” directed by Jim Jarmusch, in which the arrival of a young girl from Budapest (precisely called Eva) in New York is meant to deconstruct the American Paradise where her cousin (the Hungarian Bela, who has changed his name into Willie after moving to America), and Eddie, a friend of his, live. Ultimately, she is part of a confuse episode that ends up with Willie flying back to Budapest by mistake. This implies, symbolically, that Eva is partly responsible for the expulsion of Willie from Paradise. Framed by these inverted events (Eva’s arrival, Willie’s departure) the film shows how Eva’s questioning undermines the certitudes of the two friends about their Paradise: this situation is mirrored by a song she plays again and again on her radio cassette called “I put a spell on you”, as to emphasize the effect of Eva’s words over the two boys. Certainly, is not only Eva’s gender what makes her a destabilizing character for her cousin and his friend but also the fact of her being a foreigner –and, more significantly, one from a Soviet country. However, whereas her national identity is absolutely relevant to question the construction of the American capitalist system and urban landscape as a Paradise (as I will do later on), her gender identity is determinant to make evident the Paradise her cousin and his friend believe to live in as based upon male bonding. The two boys structure their friendship hierarchically upon the figure of a leader (Willie) that defines the strategies for economic survival (when to play cards, what horse to bet on) and a loyal follower (Eddie) that obeys the leader without questioning him. Even though their mutual resemblance –both physical and in terms of clothing- seems to expose the absurdity of this structural division, it is ultimately Eva, with her spell, the one who questions both Eddie’s obedience and Willie’s leadership. To a certain extent, the whole situation of Eddie obeying a male leader who provides the supplies and to whom Eddie resembles, replicates the relationship between Adam and God in Paradise[1] as well as Eva’s interference replicates the function of the biblical serpent and of Eve. Both in the Bible and in the film this male bonding precedes the appearance of the female character and finally gets damaged by it. Unlike the Bible, Jarmusch’s film shows some degree of disagreement among the two friends in relation to the female figure: whereas Eddie, attracted by her, wants to make Eva a full-fledged member of the group, Willie reads Eva as a potential rival regarding Eddie’s attention, and tries to disempower her. To do so, Willie places himself as the one who knows the way the American Paradise works and therefore as the person in charge of adapting Eva to America by correcting and instructing her.
It is through these corrections that the spectator perceives the irony and scepticism of Jarmusch’s view on the American Paradise. One example of that skepticism can be found in the following transcription from the scene in which Willie presents Eva to the TV dinner as the American way of eating:

Willie: You're sure you don't want a TV dinner?
Eva: Yes. I'm not hungry. Why is it called TV dinner?
Willie: Um... You're supposed to eat it while you watch TV. Television.
Eva: I know what a TV is. Where does that meat come from?
Willie: What do you mean?
Eva: Where does that meat come from?
Willie: I guess it comes from a cow.
Eva: From a cow? It doesn't even look like meat.
Willie: Eva, stop bugging me, will you? You know, this is the way we eat in America. I got my meat, I got my potatoes, I got my vegetables, I got my dessert, and I don't even have to wash the dishes.  
 In this dialogue, we notice not only Willie’s desire to turn Eva’s behavior into what he thinks the typical American behavior is, but also his will to be perceived as an American himself. The problematic relationship with nature I have pointed out regarding Cheever’s novel can also be found in Eva’s remark about the appearance of the meat. However, in the film, Eva’s comment and Willie’s answer have a double meaning: as they show the distance of the industrial subject in relation to nature, they also show the ignorance and lack of interest of this subject regarding the industrial processes that defines his way of living and its objects of consumption. Willie’s arguments rely upon the capitalist analysis of considering the goods in terms of their cost/benefit ratio: he lists the ingredients and points out the added value of not having to wash the dishes. Wherever his food comes from, what circumstances are involved in its processing of industrialization of it and at what cost, either for himself and for others, Willie does not care about all this.
This dialogue is also paradigmatic in terms of the issue of origin: whereas Eva keeps asking about the place the meet comes from, Willie dismisses the importance of its origin, which he only may guess, and focuses on the final product the meat has turned into. Willie’s view coincides with his interpretation of his own identity, as we can see in the first dialogue he has with Eva when she arrives to his apartment.

Eva: Hello. I'm Eva Molnar.
Willie: Yeah, no kidding.
Eva: Are you Bela Molnar?
Willie: No. I used to be. Call me Willie if you gotta call me something, all right?
Eva: (Speaks Hungarian)  
Willie: Oh! Don't speak Hungarian at all. Only English, all right, while you're here? Only English.

As it is for the Mayor in Oh, What a Paradise It Seems, the American Paradise is monolingual also for Willie. This standardization appears to be one of the main points in Jarmusch’s criticism, and it applies not only to the linguistics but to a more general view of the American Paradise. As the director points out:

“there’s a certain continuous tone in America, especially if you don’t have a lot of money. All the motels look alike within a certain price range. (...) Although landscapes change, you’re still going to the same 7-11 store. (...) And for that reason and for these characters, there is no paradise” (Hertzberg, 20).

Jarmusch’s black and white film reinforces the idea of a homogeneous urban landscape. The characters move from New York to Cleveland and then to Florida but all the places look equally devoid of charm and strangely similar one to another, as Eddie remarks[2]. Juan Suárez, in his books about Jim Jarmusch, relates this similarity to “what the French ethnographer Marc Augé has called non-places: transitional locations devoid of symbolic significance (…) and intended for passage or temporary use” (34). This explanation, however, does not give account of the critical inversion between the images of capitalism as Paradise and communism as its reverse America has been delivering for decades, as Jarmusch has argued in an interview[3].
            I would say, therefore, that Stranger than Paradise denies the existence of an American Paradise and relates the creation of this imaginary to the American upper classes. As for an alternative Paradise that Jarmusch may suggest, I think the film proves to be very sceptical about such degree of perfection. However, Jarmusch favours Eva’s resistance to male authority: her refusal to behave and dress according to the requirements of her cousin turns out to be the disruptive element that ultimately causes the exile of the God-like figure (Willie) from Paradise. Therefore, we can infer that Jarmusch’s alternative is not restoring a Paradise, whose structure has proved to be inherently discriminatory, but to suggest a new model that has not already been tested.


[1] “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him” (Gen. 1. 27)

[2] You know, it's funny... you come to someplace new, an'... and everything looks just the same.” (Stranger than Paradise)

[3] “one aspect of the story is that Eva is coming from Central Europe where- you know, in America we have a certain image that we’re given of what life is supposed to be like in Central Europe, and I wanted to reverse that, and apply it to America”. (Hertzberg, 35)

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