Director Jim Jarmusch Stars Chris Parker, Leila Gastil, John Lurie USA 1980 Language English (with a bit of Spanish) 1hr 15mins Colour
Jim Jarmusch’s student film. Approach with caution
You know those really early episodes of The Simpsons in which the characters look more sketched than drawn and Homer not only sounds completely different, his personality hasn’t emerged yet? You can see traces of what was to come but so much of the good stuff isn’t there. That’s roughly where Permanent Vacation – made while he was at NYU – stands in relation to Jim Jarmusch’s later work. It’s a hint of the future, but it’s missing so much of what matters.
In outline, though, it sounds deceptively close to his later films. It’s very short on plot, and consists almost entirely of a young man (Chris Parker) wandering around New York City and encountering strange people. He is, as you might imagine, the picture of thrift-shop cool, and he’s mad about old jazz.
But although there are scenes that could have come from Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law, there are many that are very different in tone. A large part of the problem is Parker, who was – the director has said – basically playing himself. Jarmusch appears to have been enthralled by this latter-day beat, petty criminal and self-educated thinker. Unfortunately, he comes across as a crashing bore, spouting the usual ’you can’t tie me down’ clichés, only vaguely mitigated by the fact he looks about 12. Since he’s in every scene of the film, that’s a problem.
Then there are the people he meets. Everything that isn’t visual or musical in Jarmusch’s work could be boiled down to: ’Bumped into this chick/cat… Man, what a character!’
Here, though, the characters are either severely mentally ill or catatonically hip. Neither are entertaining to spend time with, yet nor are you going to get any insight into their lives. Various anecdotes are preceded by ’Funny story…’, but they never are. Lacking here, but present in Down By Law or Dead Man or Ghost Dog, is a sense of humour along with a generosity of spirit.
Permanent Vacation does have a value, and it’s an ironic one because Jarmusch is one of those film-makers who tries to create his own, distinctly non-topical world. What you see here is a document of the extraordinary condition of New York City at the start of the ’80s, when sizeable chunks of lower Manhattan looked – as a couple of the characters suggest – as if a war had been fought there. Parker drifts amid the ruins, walks down streets with pot-holes that are like canyons. It would have been hard to imagine then the stiflingly affluent NYC of today. Parts of it then were hellish – dirty, dangerous, unpredictable – but it was ideal for a young musician/film-maker like Jarmusch. It was a great time and place for art, for all sorts of music, for comedy and for low-budget movies*… It’s no surprise that Jarmusch’s most recent film, Only Lovers Left Alive, visits the even more wrecked landscapes of Detroit.**
Permanent Vacation is a transparently immature film, filled with the kind of self-important moodiness that people often grow out of – and luckily Jim Jarmusch soon did.
*The movies bit is explored in the entertaining, if factually erratic, documentary Blank City. For art and music, it’s worth checking out the narratively weak but historically fascinating features Downtown 81 (aka New York Beat Movie) and Wild Style.
**There is an excellent chapter on the fetishisation of modern ruins, and the tricky politics thereof, in Mark Binelli’s The Last Days Of Detroit.