Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Stranger Than Paradise, by Geoff Andrew

Stranger Than Paradise: Maverick Film-makers in Recent American Cinema, by Geoff Andrew. (New York: Limelight Editions, 1999). Cloth, $38.00, 374pp, ISBN 0-87910-277-2.

Geoff Andrew is the film editor of London’s esteemed Time Out, and in Stranger Than Paradise he writes with passion and intelligence on the classic American “outlaw auteurs” of the ‘80s and ‘90s — the Coen brothers, Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, David Lynch, John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Wayne Wang, each in an individual chapter.

The book opens with a “prehistory” of the American indie, tracing it back to a source that was more influential on the genre than an indie itself: Citizen Kane. Cassavettes and Corman were also key figures, and they’re discussed with brio, along with later talents like Altman, Peckinpah, Coppola, Scorsese, etc., who had one foot in the indie camp and the other in mainstream Hollywood.

In the course of the book he brings up some intriguing insights. In the “it’s true but who knew it?” department, he says that in spite of David Lynch’s reputation as an obscurantist, he’s reached larger audiences than any his peers in the book (via the Twin Peaks TV show) and worked on a larger scale than any of them (in Dune). Andrews is also persuasive in rescuing John Sayles from the cliché that he’s more interested in his screenplays than in his films’ mise-en-scene, and he convincingly shifts the charge of “bombastic” from Sayles to the tiresome self-promoter Oliver Stone.

In the chapter on Todd Haynes, Andrews includes a superb reading of the director’s banned (allegedly due to uncleared music rights) Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a puppet play about politics, social breakdown, and anorexia played by Barbie and Ken dolls. He’s equally good on Haynes’s rarely screened short satire of America in the 1950s, Dottie Gets Spanked: “Even more unusually, the sexual aspect of the six-year-old’s obsession [with a 1950s I Love Lucy type star] is explicit: his fears of being spanked by his father find an echo in his fantasies about spanking and being spanked by Dottie. At the same time, it’s characteristic of Haynes that he presents the boy’s obsession and fantasies as natural, rather than problematic. When he buries his drawings [of Dottie] in the garden, the impression is not that he is acting out of shame, but that he is beginning to find his voice, standing his ground, storing up his true needs and desires until he is old enough to reveal them to a world that doesn’t understand them.”

Good stuff.