Written by: Wayne Byrne
Photo Credits: (Live shot by Deirdre McGaw, head-shot portrait by Patricia L. Brown)
1984 is often considered to be one of the greatest years of modern American cinema. In terms of quality commercial and mainstream-oriented product, there is some truth to that. But such reverence is often due to the staggering financial figures accrued by such behemoth blockbusters as Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop, Romancing the Stone, The NeverEnding Story, and Footloose. There were also a number of significant crossovers, from humble independent origins they came, bursting out of the gate to become financial and/or cultural touchstones of the decade, their effect still felt today with sequels and remakes. Think A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Terminator, respectively low-budget genre films with a built-in B-movie audience ready for their midnight movie fix. But both ended up giving birth to two of the most successful franchises in film history while simultaneously offering two of the most iconic figures of contemporary American cinema: Freddy Krueger and the eponymous Terminator. The financial success of Wes Craven’s horror film built a major studio, New Line, while James Cameron’s tech noir would harvest a veritable one-man industry in itself. Behind the biceps and finger-blades, there was another important independent film released which, while nowhere near as commercially viable nor as visible on the marketplace as the above mentioned works, nonetheless paved the way for an aesthetic revolution in American cinema.
Stranger Than Paradise is Jim Jarmusch’s second feature film, following his inspired debut, Permanent Vacation (1980). Since its release Stranger Than Paradise has become a touchstone of hip, beatnik indie cool; a minimalist, idiosyncratic exercise in formal precision, a film school graduate’s ode to Yasujiro Ozu and the French New Wave, yet born to the avant-garde styling of the downtown New York City art scene of the late-70s and early-80s. In the year of the Gremlin and the Marshmallow Man, Stranger Than Paradise is a very unconventional American movie. It adheres to an influence of alternative European film rather than classical narrative cinema of the US. The static cinematography and tranquillity of the film’s mise-en-scene nods to the quiet serenity of the cinema of Ozu, the Japanese director whose masterly late works must surely have inspired Jarmusch’s theme of familial discontent and emotional distance, as well as providing such notable aesthetic influence.
The film stars John Lurie and Richard Edson respectively as Willie and Eddie, a duo of idle misfits whose myopic world of TV dinners and small-time gambling is invaded by the arrival of Willie’s Hungarian teenage cousin, Eva, played by Eszter Balint. Willie’s insular hipster sphere is disrupted further when Eva informs him that she needs to stay with him in the interim ten days en route to her final destination of Cleveland, Ohio, where she will ultimately live with her Aunt Lottie. When Willie and Eddie win a poker game by deceit, they use their illicit fortune to travel cross-country, first to frost-bitten Cleveland to see Eva, and then to sun-kissed Miami for a day at the races. While visiting the torpid house of Aunt Lottie, the eternally nonchalant duo decides to rescue Eva from such cultural quiescence and bring her along their journey south, where fortunes are lost and found, in this case, literally.
I spoke to Stranger Than Paradise star Eszter Balint, looking back on thirty years of the film and its profound legacy, her career and her concurrent musical path. I wanted to know how being a vital part of one of the most influential and important films of modern American cinema may have impacted upon her life.
“Well, I’m still figuring out how it has affected my life. It comes and goes, it disappears and then it comes back again…it has different meanings to me in different ways. I would say that it has been something of a help and a hindrance throughout my career.”
“It was a help in that I had an instantly recognisable back story to other things that I wanted to do with my life. On the other hand, it really identified me for a long time as being the only thing that I did and I felt that was such a weight on me because I did many other things in my life before and after it, so it feels weird when you do this one thing that more people see than anything else; you start imagining that they think you haven’t done anything else and that everything else you’re doing is in relation to that one thing.
I was really young when we did the first part of the film, I was sixteen when we started and I was seventeen when I finished it. I thought acting was going to be a way for me to make a living, which was absolutely not the case. It brought me a lot of attention, which in a way was not all that good, because I was really young and inexperienced in life; I mean I was very experienced for my age, but when you’re seventeen you’re only seventeen, you only have so much life experience. So it was a little bit of an adjustment to understand that there are highs and lows and that the highs don’t always pan out every day. That taught me a lot.
I’ve become aware that there are renewed interests in the film periodically. It seems to get forgotten and then there’ll be a twentieth anniversary, then a twenty-fifth anniversary, or if people start talking about indie films again…I’ve made a lot more peace with it these days, I feel that now I’ve found my footing having done enough other things since then and I can look back and really appreciate the film and the work we put into it.”
Balint informs the role of Eva with an endearing, understated quality; blunt and uninhibited, she is a sharp riposte to Willie’s disingenuous chancer, while a cleverer, world-wearier contrast to Eddie’s guileless nimrod. The actress brings a raw natural presence to the screen which works in tandem with the studied eccentricity of her two fellow performers. Perhaps Balint’s ease in front of the camera has something to do with a bohemian upbringing in an arts culture that served the actress well in the realm of performance, whether in a theatrical, musical, or cinematic milieu. Balint was practically born into the world of performing arts; her father, Stephan Balint, was one of the founders of the experimental Hungarian theatre troupe, Squat Theatre. Formed in Budapest in the late 1960s but having fled under political pressure in the mid-1970s, the group travelled around Europe before settling in the Chelsea district of Manhattan’s 23rd Street. The group’s performances became a fixture of the alternative NYC art scene, cultivating a nucleus of likeminded artists, musicians, and filmmakers. This vital New York sub-cultural art scene was the influence behind Edo Bertoglio’s 1981 film, Downtown 81, wherein the director attempted to capture the vibrancy and spirit of the movement. Balint had a small part in the film, which starred art world luminary, Jean Michele Basquiat.
““Downtown 81” was one of the many things that came out of that time, that place, and those people. I was too deep into that whole world to judge whether “Downtown 81” really captured something authentic, I mean it’s sort of a silly fairytale, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way, it just has this tacked-on fairytale quality that wasn’t really how our lives were, but it does have a lot of the soul of that era. While it is a more romanticised version of that life, it definitely has some of the people, and the faces, and the music that were important to me growing up.
That whole No Wave scene was a very close-knit community of friends and acquaintances, of artists and like-minded people. That was probably how I first met Jim Jarmusch. He came to the theatre where I performed, which was a very central location where a lot of the creative people of that era came and went and I’m sure that it was because of this connection that Jim hired me for “Stranger Than Paradise””.
For Balint, a career in film acting was not a conscious endeavour, rather, an alternative artistic outlet and form of expression to revel in and satisfy her creative needs, those which were cultivated and honed through a childhood and subsequent adolescence very much on the stage.
“I think it had a lot to do with it being another form of artistic expression for me,” the actress admits. “I was exposed from an early age to a life in the arts. Film and the cinematic influence played a major role in the aesthetics of the theatre group and they utilised film a lot. I think being that I wasn’t completely new to performance, my acting style in “Stranger Than Paradise” didn’t really come from any specific direction; it was more that I had developed a particular aesthetic over the years and I brought that to it. The theatre company really had an approach to acting that was all about bringing some strong personal presence in to the performance. Some people were more natural at it than others, and I’m not trying to say that I was, but even in my music I feel that kind of stage presence is just a strong part of my aesthetic, I can’t really explain it or how I “do” it. It does kind of come natural but that isn’t to say that I don’t struggle with it a lot, believe me. I struggle in the moment but I always think there is something there deep within me. I do feel that whether it’s in front of the camera, or on stage, or singing, or performing, I’m searching for that moment of being real and being present. So, “Stranger Than Paradise” wasn’t a completely new thing for me but I would say that the idea of acting in a film was an extension of being an artistic creative person. But, then I learned, after living in Hollywood, that it isn’t always the case and that maybe acting wasn’t for me.”
While looking back on Stranger Than Paradise one is witness to the beginning of the careers of several people who are now distinguished artists in the worlds of film and music. Director Jim Jarmusch and then-cinematographer Tom DiCillo have both become lauded auteur filmmakers in their own right, with Jarmusch taking the reins from the likes of John Cassavetes and John Sayles as an influential and recognisable figurehead of Amercian independent cinema, cementing his distinctive authority with appreciable works such as the offbeat Down By Law (1986) and the wonderful Mystery Train (1989). DiCillo established himself as a formidable directorial force in the early nineties with his own distinctive and stylish aesthetic in his debut, Johnny Suede (1991), then following it up with one of the defining films of the mid-nineties independent boom, the dynamic Living in Oblivion (1995). Actor John Lurie was already a cause celebre on the downtown scene thanks to his post-punk jazz combo, The Lounge Lizards, while over the ensuing decade he would appear in films as varied as Susan Siedelman’s downtown love letter, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Martin Scorsese’s inflammatory The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and David Lynch’s subversive ode to Oz, Wild at Heart (1990). Lurie’s co-star Richard Edson carved out a career as a consummate and indelible character actor, supporting big names in commercial and critical hits like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Platoon (1986), Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Do the Right Thing (1989).
For Balint, the transition to Hollywood success wasn’t so easy, nor that desirable. In the succeeding years following on from her memorable turn as Eva, the actress appeared in few big screen roles, and less television ones. Despite the scarcity of her on-screen presence, Balint chose wisely, the few roles she did undertake each showcased her unique talent, working as she was for the likes of Woody Allen, Richard Shepard, and Steve Buscemi. Allen cast her in his luscious tribute to German Expressionism, Shadows and Fog (1991); for Shepard, she co-starred with Rosanna Arquette and David Bowie in the flawed but visually arresting and eccentric delight, The Linguini Incident (1991), and perhaps most notable, Balint gave a striking performance in Buscemi’s wonderfully empathetic depiction of alcoholism and the denizens of a working class neighbourhood bar, Trees Lounge (1996), playing Mark Boone Jr.’s emotionally bereft housewife. Marked roles with significant directors, yet Hollywood has eluded her. Why?
“I spent about seven years living in Los Angeles, hoping to do more acting while I was there. I did do a little bit of acting but I absolutely did not fit into what the acting world out there meant. I do, however, feel I was able to find my true self. So much of this acting stuff came about early on because I was in the right place at the right time. Perhaps I possessed a certain quality that worked for certain things, but it wasn’t like I set out to be an actor, I mean I was cast in some plays when I was younger and it turned out that I had a bit of a stage presence and that led on to other things. A lot of it I sort of happened into, and I had to kind of reinvent myself when I realised that whole lifestyle wasn’t my lifestyle.”
Balint has only recently returned to the screen, the small screen that is, but in a show that perhaps owes more to independent cinema than what is actually classed as independent cinema in today’s film culture, Louis CK’s Emmy Award-winning Louie. In the fourth season of the acclaimed show Balint plays a Hungarian love interest for the eponymous protagonist.
“I never discussed this with Louis but I think part of his inspiration in hiring me, and part of his aesthetic of some of that show, is that there’s conscious or unconscious hints or homage to “Stranger Than Paradise”. I do feel certain TV is venturing into what independent film used to be about more so than cinema currently is and I would put that show “Louie” up there for sure. I think the influence of “Stranger Than Paradise” has its tentacles in certain elements of independent film of today, but certainly in the more adventurous side of television.”
Has this recent return to acting intrigued Balint enough to return full-time to the profession?
“It would, and I hadn’t acted in a long time and it was really scary for me to do it, but I feel like I rose to the occasion and with it I found a connection to my life experience and to my performing; even though I haven’t been acting I have been active as a musician consistently through the years so it didn’t feel like that giant of a leap. I’m inspired because there’s a lot of great acting out there, especially in television and in shows like “Louie” and some of the cable shows, the calibre of acting has gone up. In a weird way, for the first time in a long time I am inspired to act again based on this experience with “Louie”, but he is special and very creative and I may not encounter that again so easily.
One of the problems out there is that the whole financial system for an independent film like “Stranger Than Paradise” has collapsed. I know people who work in the independent film world and they say there is just no money anymore for films like that. There are very weird rules about how to get independent films made, like you have to have some millionaire film buff who is willing to finance your project but as long you cast someone on his wish list of actors, or cast someone who will inevitably meet video sales targets and such and such. Obviously if we had those rules at the time of “Stranger Than Paradise” then the film would never have happened.”
While acting has only been a sporadic pursuit, for Balint music has been a constant in her life. Her debut album, Flicker, was released in 1999, followed by the sophomore release, Mud, in 2004. Both albums were produced by alternative country stalwart, J.D. Foster. Balint’s primary instrument is violin, her performance style utilises the instrument as it is rarely heard; her playing is at once passionate and violent, melodic and discordant. There seems to be an avant-garde and punk influence in her approach to a traditionally classical form of music, evident in her live performance as much as on record. Both Flicker and Mud feature a variety of soulful and often rustic tones, while conversely performed and produced with a decidedly alternative aesthetic.
“I know this may sound funny but I sometimes worry my songs are too “normal’ or “pretty”. So in part out of insecurity, in part because I truly do love contrast, I need to throw in some dissonance, and some punk rock spirit. I was lucky in that I was exposed to a variety of musical styles growing up and I have always sought contrast in my own work. The violin in particular can have an almost nostalgically pretty sound; it is good to rough it up a bit now and then, lest it become too sugary.”
Now set to release her third solo album, Balint is experiencing the music industry’s own challenges for an independent artist. Like many acts, new and established, Balint has sought the assistance of a crowdfunding platform via Pledgemusic. Crowdfunding is an interesting model of business that has seen concerts, albums, and films being funded by their own fanbase, a direct connection between artist and audience. Balint offers a variety of incentives for fans looking to connect directly and to participate in the recording of her new album. Ranging from original lyric sheets, to signed artwork, to production credits, to private concerts, depending on the package one wishes to pledge support by. This method of purchasing music is enabling more and more independent artists the freedom from label and industry bureaucracy. But how willing are people to engage with and participate in the actual creation of art by the artists they adore in this age of downloading and seemingly “disposable” music, a culture of streaming single tracks versus the album as a piece of art. How does this modern cultural-industrial milieu affect an artist like Balint, whose goal is to produce a unified piece of work?
“I’m still in the midst of my campaign so I’m not ready to summarize the experience yet, and I shouldn’t. But I can say that on one hand, I’ve been very moved by the support thus far, and on the other, I have a very uneasy relationship with anything requiring public relations, so this process is tricky for me to navigate for sure. I’m guessing I’m not alone.
I can only imagine and hope that there are still a few others like me out there, who relate to the idea of a cohesive album. At the same time I have no problem with people who appreciate the individual songs too; after all we used to get a big kick out of mix tapes back in the day. (I know: I’m dating myself). But for me to make an album, I have to believe that these individual “stories” will somehow make sense as some whole, even if it’s not entirely obvious how, it’s a bit of a mystery. But I don’t worry too much about that right now, I’m just thinking in terms of the album as a whole. I’ve written all the lyrics and am tinkering with the music on a small handful, while the others are finished. I’ve performed more than half the material in a live duo setting, with my long-time guitarist Chris Cochrane, and have done home demos of much of the new stuff. It’s taken me an immense amount of time to get to this point. For many, many reasons which I won’t get into here; it’s too boring and long. But I’ve been raising a boy, so there’s that. I’m definitely not prolific, which I’m working on, so there’s that. And the music industry has completely shifted to where making an album is ever more difficult and pointless, so there’s definitely that. But in the end I decided to hell with it, I have these songs, I’m getting older, time is passing, I want to do at least one more. As I’m putting my toes in that water, I’m definitely getting giddy.”
Between albums Balint has found time to tour and record with Tom Waits’ guitarist Marc Ribot and his band Ceramic Dog, an improvisatory fusion of the kind of experimental tones and sounds not out of context with the avant-garde world from which Balint blossomed.
“My year with Ceramic Dog was an immensely valuable education. Not just in teaching me new things but also and perhaps most significantly it taught me about essential things I didn’t cultivate and appreciate sufficiently before, things which were already right there to be had. Ribot takes huge risks with each performance, certainly with Ceramic Dog shows. That is to say, he almost deliberately seeks out a situation where it is utterly impossible to settle into any kind of comfort zone for the musicians. And he doesn’t spare himself either, even though obviously he’s at the helm. This makes for the kind of live experience where there is something truly at stake. The Ceramic Dog musicians have some immense chops, so I felt out of my league at times. I think I have good ears, I am musical, but I’m not a virtuoso. But I was forced into a situation of letting all that kind of thinking go, and just seek that deep connection with the music, to fully invest myself the way the Dogs did, and this makes for better musicianship too. I’ve been able to generate more of this in my own live shows since my time with Ceramic Dog, so I’m very grateful for the experience.”
And so as Stranger Than Paradise celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, it is as good a time as ever to revisit the film that initiated the cult and celebrity of Jim Jarmusch, that paved the way for several generations of young filmmakers looking to eschew the traditional forms of cinema, and which has given birth to the modern indie film. The wider cultural impact of Stranger Than Paradise is not insignificant, with its influence creating a ripple effect that has been prominently felt since American independent cinema truly came to the fore in 1989 with Steven Soderbergh’s hugely successful Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and its impact and aesthetic ubiquitous throughout the commercial zenith of indie film in the 1990s. Stranger Than Paradise is a snapshot of a period of cinema wherein it seemed possible that a new breed of young auteur could pick up where the old auteur of the recently-felled New Hollywood movement left off after Heaven’s Gate dragged Hollywood to Hell, but it would take the colossal impact of the aforementioned Soderbergh film to truly lift the lid off the indie urn and instigate a crossover movement where alternative aesthetics and mainstream economics met briefly and instigated an industrial milieu that afforded left-field filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Tom DiCillo, and Hal Hartley a moment to reign as the immediate visionaries of American cinema. The legacy propagated by Stranger Than Paradise in the 1980s and which prospered in the 1990s can be looked back upon as perhaps the most creatively fertile period of American cinema since Penn, Peckinpah, and Nichols changed the game in the late ‘60s.
So while Stranger Than Paradise is continually lauded as an important and seminal piece of 1980s American cinema, with ceaseless support from the critical establishment, and having won coveted awards upon its release at the Cannes, Locarno, and Sundance film festivals, its legend is no more surprising than to Balint, who looks back with astonishment as to how the modest black-and-white film made with her intimate group of friends and acquaintances could become something so influential and important in film and pop culture.
“I was genuinely surprised afterwards,” Balint recalls. “I thought we were just making another little film, as I say it was a creatively vital time in New York and especially so in that scene that I was a part of, everybody was making films or performing music, writing and producing art. This was during my teenage years so I thought this is how life is and that this is normal, and I’m still adjusting to the unfortunate fact that it’s not. I don’t think any of us saw “Stranger Than Paradise” as any different to anything around us. I think for us who were a part of that movement, everything was unconventional. The life we were living was unconventional, and by us I mean everybody who was a part of that whole downtown New York scene, the era of my theatre group. So for us, this film was just another thing that we created from this aesthetic that was natural to us; it may have been unconventional to others outside of that scene, but not to us. When it first popped out and reached a higher level of attention we were all like “wow!” Maybe Jim wasn’t surprised, maybe he had a design to reach more people, but I know the level of attention it got was a genuine shock to me.
It’s funny looking back on it historically because I didn’t really experience it the way its influence is felt today, that it paved the way for all this art – which it did, it absolutely did. When I think about it, thinking back over my career with you, I realise that I got to work with some really cool people, I made some films that I’m really proud of, and who knows, maybe none of that would have happened had I not done “Stranger Than Paradise.””
You can participate in the making of Eszter Balint’s latest album via her page at: http://www.pledgemusic.com/artists/eszterbalint
For further information visit http://www.eszterbalint.com/