Jarmusch’s first feature is at best a time capsule of New York City in the late ‘70s, and at worst, an aimless and meandering borefest.
Dir. Jim Jarmusch
1980 | USA | Drama/Experimental | 75 mins | 1.37: 1 | English
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Chris Parker, Leila Gastil, John Lurie
Plot: A young man wanders New York City searching for some meaning in life and encounters many idiosyncratic characters.
Source: Cinesthesia Productions
Subject Matter: Moderate/Offbeat
Narrative Style: Slightly Experimental
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion DVD)
Jim Jarmusch’s first feature is disappointing. It is one of those meandering borefests that gives arthouse cinema its bad name. One might argue, however, that Permanent Vacation isn’t really arthouse but an indie, or a super-indie even, considering that it was shot on 16mm in the streets of New York City. Jarmusch would, of course, get so much better with his subsequent works such as Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down by Law (1986), but for the die-hard fan, here is all how it began.
Permanent Vacation is a time capsule of NYC in the late 1970s, and that is perhaps its greatest selling point—a visual record of a period long gone, its sensibilities and essentialisms captured by an emerging filmmaker who is feeling his way around his environment, and finding the peculiar in normalcy.
“I can’t seem to sleep at night, not in this city.”
In a way, one could see Jarmusch exploring his own identity as a filmmaker. Some elements in Permanent Vacation would become ‘trademarks’ of Jarmusch’s distinctive if idiosyncratic brand of cinema, most notable of which is his use of famous musicians as ‘actors’, in this case, a spontaneous cameo by John Lurie on sax.
Jarmusch also collaborated with Lurie for the original score, which could be described as a mysterious mix of sharp sax and deep, ritualistic-like bells, the latter giving the film a sense of uneasiness, as if the soul of the city is struggling for redemption.
Speaking of sounds, the finest sequence in Permanent Vacation (one that actually works out well) is a conversation between two men outside a cinema playing Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), with strains of Morricone’s music echoing out of the hall. They talk about the ‘doppler effect’, fashioning it into a morbid joke.
The final shot of the film is an homage to that of Chantal Akerman’s “News From Home” (1977)
But I must confess Permanent Vacation didn’t work for me. I found it hard to be engaged without any real narrative, or even if so, its wandering lead character isn’t fascinating to begin with. Maybe that is Jarmusch’s intention—an exercise in banality and a treatment of humdrum, much like a ‘permanent vacation’, where nowhere or nothing quite excites… but one still has to go somewhere.