Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Permanent Vacation (1980)

Permanent Vacation (1980)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Chris Parker (Allie), Leila Gastil (Leila), John Lurie (Sax player), Richard Boes (War vet), Lisa Rosen (Popcorn girl), Frankie Faison (Man in lobby), Eric Mitchell (Car fence), Chris Hameon (French traveller).

Permanent Vacation plays exactly like what it is – a student film by a young Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch used (or misused really) scholarship money he had to finance this $12,000 film – and NYU was so unimpressed, both by the way he funded the film, and the film itself, that they wouldn’t give him his degree – even though it was his final film project needed to graduate. This didn’t stop Jarmusch – who took the film to various festivals, and actually won an award for it at the International Film festival Mannheim-Heidelberg. Yet the film was never (really) released theatrically, and was unavailable in any form until in North America 2007, when the Criterion Collection added it as a special feature on the DVD re-release of Jarmusch’s “debut” film, Stranger Than Paradise (1984). Permanent Vacation is certainly of interest to Jarmusch fans – he seems to have come to his first film almost fully formed – there is no doubt whose work this is from the first frames, as it contains many of Jarmusch’s stylistic hallmarks, as well a “story” and “characters” similar to what he would go onto to explore in his later films. Permanent Vacation is every inch a Jim Jarmusch movie – it’s just not a very good one. This is understandable as Jarmusch was making his first feature, with little to no money and a bunch of people who had never acted before – most who would never act again. If you’re a Jarmusch fan, looking to see where he started, than Permanent Vacation holds value. The film is not very interesting in and of itself however – just how it relates to the career that would follow.

The film stars Chris Parker as Allie, a young man in New York. He hangs out in his apartment reading books, talking to Leila (Leila Gastil), a young woman who may be his girlfriend. In perhaps the films most famous sequence, he dances in front of her, while she looks on with indifference. He heads out into the streets of New York – which look more decayed and rundown than I’ve ever seen them before. He meets various people – a homeless war veteran, a saxophone player (played by Jarmusch regular John Lurie) among them. Many of the people he meets seem to be afflicted with some sort of mental illness – just like his mother, who he visits in a mental hospital, and who doesn’t seem to know who he is. He goes to a movie theater – where they’re playing Nicolas Ray’s The Savage Innocents (1960) – Ray being a friend and mentor of Jarmusch’s – and talks to an indifferent concession girl, and then another crazy man – this one played by Frankie Faison (best known for his recurring role in the Hannibal Lector films) – who explains to him the Doppler Effect.

Allie, like most Jarmusch protagonists, is an outcast. He doesn’t fit in anywhere, and he doesn’t really try to fit in anywhere either. He doesn’t fit in with normal society, but when presented with people who are also on the outside looking in, he runs away from them as well. In the film’s ending, the too one the nose voice over narration explains the “thesis” and title of the movie – Allie sees himself as someone on Permanent Vacation – always walking through a foreign land, never quite understanding what is going on, and never fitting in. He is going to leave New York, and head to Paris – and at the docks, he meets his French counterpart – who has just left Paris for New York, hoping to find the same meaning there that Allie hopes to find in Paris. I doubt either will be very successful.

The film is definitely the work of Jarmusch. He has a way of making everything feel foreign and strange – somewhat surreal. His love of long, stationary takes is here as well. Parker, as Allie, is effective, up to a point, as a young man who doesn’t connect with anything, and doesn’t seem to want to. He’s adrift, searching for meaning, but unlikely to find any – I doubt he would know it even if he did.

As a document of the start of Jarmusch’s career, Permanent Vacation is fascinating. It is interesting when compared to his other work, to see where he started, and see the roots of themes he would explore far more successfully in just a few years’ time. As a film unto itself, the film is rather dull – the dialogue too on the nose, the acting not particularly impressive. It’s good to see where Jarmusch started – I’m certainly not sorry I watched the film. Yet I also have to admit that for most people, Permanent Vacation would be a rather dull way to spend 75 minutes. It’s a film for Jarmusch completists only. On that level, it’s interesting. On any other level, it really does feel like a student film – made by a student with promise – but one who hasn’t quite figured out what he wants to say or how to say it. Not yet anyway.

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