Permanent Vacation (1980)

First published by EyeforFilm


“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?”

So says Aloysius ‘Allie’ Parker (Chris Parker) to his girlfriend of the moment Leila (Leila Gastil), as he preens and slicks back his hair before the mirror in their barely furnished apartment. With his self-avowed wanderlust, his need for the “vibrating bugged-out sound” of jazz, and his endless line in beatnik jive, Allie knows he is too cool for school.

Except that he isn’t. Leila already looks bored with his self-aggrandising clichés, and wishes he would just stop running out on her (“I’m tired of being alone”). When he deigns to visit his ‘crazy’ mother (Ruth Bolton) at the hospital for the first time in a year, she complains to her errant son, “Those eyes aren’t yours, they don’t belong to you. They were taken out of your father’s head.” She was also abandoned, you see, by Allie’s father. Cool, huh?

Cool is a word that always crops up when people try to describe the films of Jim Jarmusch – but part of his coolness as a filmmaker is the aloof, oblique way in which he exposes the folly of his characters. Their failure to be cool despite their every effort is the very lifeblood of his success. Allie’s flaw is the arrogant narcissism of his youth, the emptiness of his talk, and the quixotic nature of his dreams. He is always on the run from anything like responsibility, and never, for all his travels, gets any closer to his elusive desires. He is earnest and driven, to be sure, but a fool no less – and we are invited not so much to identify with this rebel without a cause as to laugh at him.

When the student Jarmusch submitted Permanent Vacation as his final thesis at New York University’s Tisch Film School, it was rejected for being “a waste of time” – but one suspects that the judges might have confused the film with its main character. Permanent Vacation may drift and meander like its protagonist, travelling from one scene and encounter to the next with apparent aimlessness, but in fact, unlike the vainglorious Allie, the film is a structured, mature affair, already rippling with the narrative symmetries, evocative allusions and existential absurdities that would mark all Jarmusch’s later works.

Insomniac Allie claims to have his dreams while awake – and sure enough, as he takes his picaresque journey through New York’s abandoned backstreets and dilapidated buildings, it remains unclear whether the film takes place in the slumland realities of the early Eighties (when and where it was shot), or in an alternative world of post-war fantasy to which Allie, his crazed mother and an equally crazed Vietnam veteran (Richard Boes) all refer.

Still, Jarmusch takes a defamiliarising, ethnological view of the metropolis, transforming it into a place as alien as the icy Inuit tundras of Nicholas Ray’s 1960 The Savage Innocents (which is showing at a cinema visited by Allie). If Permanent Vacation opens, like Alain Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad (1961), with a voice-over intoning narrative and life into a montage of empty rooms, that is because Jarmusch’s film, too, turns real locations into a place of claustrophobic dreams and alienating myth.

Allie dreams of following in the countercultural footsteps of the jazz legend Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, although he seems wilfully oblivious to the bleak fate of both his sax-playing hero (whose death at 34 was precipitated by years of drug and alcohol abuse) and of a similar (fictional) 1950s sax player whose doom-laden tale is revealed in a ‘joke’ (significantly dubbed ‘the Doppler effect’) told to Allie by a stranger (Frankie Faison). Allie ignores the clues and hints around him of where his own story is inevitably headed, too busy chasing the rainbow to realise it never ends.

Made for just $15,000, Permanent Vacation launched the career not only of Jarmusch (who won the Josef von Sternberg award at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival for his efforts), but also of its cinematographer Tom DiCillo, whose own directorial debut, Johnny Suede (1991), has not a little in common with this film. Permanent Vacation at times betrays its low budget, especially in the frankly awful location sound recording, and some of the scenes in which Allie is shown wandering the streets make even the modest duration seem to stretch at the seams – but DiCillo’s wideshot vision of the Big Apple as a bombsite is simply stunning, while Jarmusch’s script shows a sophistication beyond the budding filmmaker’s years. So, while no classic, this student’s film is surprisingly adult about its adolescent preoccupations – and well-nigh unmissable for the Jarmusch fan.

Anton Bitel