Permanent Vacation – Jim Jarmusch starts his journey of cool. (film Review)
“You know, sometimes I just think I should live fast and die young, and go in a three-piece suit like Charlie Parker. Not bad, huh?”
Probably the most arresting thing about Permanent Vaction (besides the ambition behind this first feature by Jim Jarmusch) are the opening images of an empty New York City. They reminded me immediately of the French New Wave, and indeed there is a moment at the start of the film where Aloysius Parker walks in front of a wall with “Allie Total Blam Blam!” gratified on it which has to be a nod to Godard’s Masculine/Feminine. Only a few shots later he is reading from Les Chants du Maldoror which is a nod to the film Weekend. Les Chants du Maldoror carries its own references that Jarmusch may have been inviting beyond the influence of Godard. The book involves warnings to the reader that the protagonist is about to go on a deep philosophical journey. Aloysius is bored by what he reads and sick of the book, so he gives it to his girlfriend who proceeds to rip it up. This is a film filled with metaphor.
Permanent Vacation was made in 1980 and is Jarmusch’s first film, made just after he dropped out of film school. In 1980 art films in America were undergoing an identity crises, mostly due to Jaws and Star Wars having taken the American film world by storm. The story of a disaffected youth wandering aimlessly, meeting interesting (and sometimes not at all interesting) characters along his journey to no where could be seen as a statement about the lost indie / arthouse film maker and the change in American studios and their audiences. This idea explains the Godard references, plus Jarmusch had just been working with Wenders, so he was high on European influence.
If this is Jarmusch’s point, and I think it is is, what is also interesting is that Aloysius is a rather objectionable character. He’s in love with his own prattling, self indulgent and suffering from a superiority complex that takes the form of staring people down who usually didn’t notice they were in a stand off. His voice is irritating and whiny and he looks barely out of adolescence having a face filled with pimples. If this is Jarmusch’s take on the indie film maker, its an interesting one. Or, perhaps its just his take on himself – a kind of meta, self referential joke about his own ambitions being completely at odds with his ability and environment.
The film has a distinct euro feel to it. Made on a budget of 15,000 and filmed on location in a strangely deserted New York City, the slow pacing never actually drags the film down – this is a credit to Jarmusch’s talents as a film maker and the screenplay which he wrote. The camera work is credited to Tom DiCillo and it seems miles ahead of the budget. The score also, off tune tolling of bells with very little underlying it by John Lurie is a powerful contribution to the feel of ennui in the film – and of course it is multiple tolling bells which contain their own judgemental cleverness. However, the early days and the low budget are apparent in the sound recording. Sometimes its so difficult to hear anything above exterior sound and voices get very muffled. The acting is choppy too. Chris Parker is really great as Aloysius, but other scenes – like the one in the institution with his mother – lose power because of poor acting. Its pretty easy to see where the money was spent.
Generally, Permanent Vacation is seen as a début on the way to the real thing. It’s worth noting Regan had begun his march to the oval office, so the future looked bleak and I am guessing, as post-apocalyptic as Permanent Vacation’s setting. Margaret Thatcher was now in place – a period in office that would inspire another great film about a man on permanent vacation (unemployed) walking the streets speaking to people, Mike Leigh’s Naked. In many ways Leigh’s film, made thirteen years after Jarmusch’s film, could be Aloysius after many years of his permanent vacation with all the polish tarnished and the naive philosophising turned to deep fear and desperation. This is where the power of Permanent Vacation lies. In Jarmusch’s judgement of Aloysius as a white brat thinking his wanderings are anti-establishment but really having no idea he is fully representing a white middle class milieu. And having no real grasp on what is headed his way.
Perhaps that is a statement that can be made of all art film makers.