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November 22, 2016


At the end of the year, Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson" is scheduled to be released in the United States. The film stars Adam Driver as a bus driver cum poet named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, and the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as his wife. (I was introduced to Farahani in one of my favorite films of all time, "Chicken with Plums." See 20012: Foreign Films) In anticipation of Jarmusch's 13th film, I undertook a retrospective, which began with "Permanent Vacation." Though it won the Josef von Sternberg Award at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival in 1980 and was shown at the Anthology Film Archives in New York in 1990, the film has rarely been screened. It was available, however, on videocassette before becoming a bonus feature in 2007 on the Criterion Collection's DVD release of "Stranger Than Paradise."

When "Permanent Vacation" was shown in 2014 as part of the British Film Institute's (BFI) Jim Jarmusch season,  Michael Wojtas observed in The Quietus, "That it's most readily available as an extra attached to Criterion's edition of 'Stranger Than Paradise' tells you plenty about 'Permanent Vacation'’s reputation. Hardly any real scholarship has been devoted to the film, which Jarmusch made before leaving NYU's film program sans degree. In an insightful and glowing review of ...'Paradise' that supplements the aforementioned DVD release, noted film critic J. Hoberman dismisses 'Permanent Vacation' as 'a plotless portrait of a teenage drifter.' Meanwhile, Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the most reliably perceptive of all film journalists (and a champion of Jarmusch's), referred to the effort as 'apprentice work,' lacking in 'characteristic charm, stylistic focus, and feeling for interactions between people.' Reverse Shot's Nick Pinkerton provided what is probably the most evenhanded, thoughtful take on the film, though he also chides it for being 'draggy.' But it's just that anti-plot quality which deserves investigation. Because it's here that we can see the beginnings of that most ineffable yet vital aspect of Jarmusch's cinema: A slowness that suggests a constantly wandering consciousness, one untouched by anything but the basic need to just keep moving in search of something unnameable" ("Blank Generation: Jim Jarmusch's 'Permanent Vacation.' " September 12, 2014).


“Permanent Vacation” opens with a soundtrack that evokes a 19th century thoroughfare pulsing with the sounds of a multitude of horses clomping along cobblestones, yet the scene that emerges in slo-mo is of a bustling contemporary streetscape. When it segues into stark deserted wind-blown backstreets, the music becomes surreal; then the scene segues again into a montage of empty rooms. A voiceover states, “My name is Aloysious Christopher Parker (Chris Parker) and if I ever have a son he will be Charles Christopher Parker, just like Charlie Parker.... This is my story… a connect the dots…. All of these stories are like rooms….”

We land in a suitably bohemian room with its bare accoutrements – mattress and phonograph on the floor, mirror leant against a wall, girl settled in a chair at one of two windows, cigarette in one hand and feet upon the radiator. He has been gone days. “I can’t seem to sleep at night, not in this city.” “Doesn’t seem like you sleep at all.” “I have my dreams when I’m awake.” He is Aloysious aka Allie, an adolescent, would-be flâneur who drifts through the streets of downtown Manhattan.
Chris Parker as Allie and Leila Gastil as Leila
in Jim Jarmusch's "Permanent Vacation"
“Permanent Vacation” evokes an atmosphere of enigma that recalls the collaboration between New Novel writer Alain Robbe-Grillet and New Wave director Alain Resnais in “Last Year at Marienbad,” along with a decided dose of Surrealist ennui. Indeed, the book that has recently engaged the couple is Lautréamont’s “The Songs of Maldoror.” “I’m tired of being alone,” she says. “Everyone’s alone,” he says, “…but it’s easier to feel that you’re not alone if you’re drifting” – and drifting is what Allie does. Some people have ambitions, Allie drifts.

The film progresses episodically, languorously, in a time out of time. Allie returns to the site of the building where he was born, explaining to a shell-shocked veteran that the rubble is the result of a Chinese bombing. Bombs punctuate the soundtrack. Are they contemporaneous or the man’s aural hallucinations? Allie visits his schizophrenic mother in the asylum where she resides. Back in the littered streets, he encounters a woman on a fire escape raving in Spanish. He goes into a movie theater playing Nicholas Ray’s “The Savage Innocents” only to buy popcorn and on his way out encounters a black raconteur spinning yarns of a Charlie Parker-esque jazzman, a nonconformist who was told he should go to Paris because his “sound was too advanced,” who, on the brink of suicide, is saved by a ray of light coming through the clouds as the soundtrack fills with a jazz rendition of “Over the Rainbow” – apropos for the Kansas-born Parker.

In the film’s denouement, Allie encounters the embodiment of this chimera, dressed in a white suit and toting a sax upon which he plays dissonant, discordant notes, though somewhere in the phrasing is a semblance of “Over the Rainbow.” Allie awakes on a quay; Big Ben tolls. In its tolling we recognize its steady gong, gong, gong has been a leitmotif throughout the film’s soundtrack, intensifying as the film nears its close. Allie wanders, steals, then fences a convertible, retrieves a suitcase and his passport from the garret room, and heads back to the quay where the white-suited saxophonist has remained. As both are setting off, Allie asks, “Think I would like it in Paris? I just got a tattoo the other day.” “So did I,” the man replies. “It’s in Islamic.”

Chris Parker in Jim Jarmusch's "Permanent Vacation"
So much in “Permanent Vacation” will become hallmarks of Jarmusch’s narrative and visual mythos – the allusion-laden scripts, the richly layered soundtracks that always precede the opening images on the screen – but most profoundly, the nature of the spiritual quest always at the heart of a Jarmusch film – episodic stories of loners, émigrés, strangers who meet strangers along their way on America’s mean streets and highways and byways – in taxis, on trains, on buses and planes.

"Permanent Vacation" (1980)
Written, directed, edited and produced by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Chris Parker as Allie
Music by Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie
Cinematography by Tom DiCillo and James A. Lebovitz
Available on the Criterion Collection's "Stranger Than Paradise" 2-disc DVD

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