Directed Viewing: Intro to the Jarmusch Project, “Permanent Vacation”

It’s been a while since my last director’s project, where I spent a bunch of time working through the filmography of Stephen Spielberg. I learned fewer lessons from that project than I would have liked, but among them was the need to reexamine who I choose for these projects before I do another one of them.

That time is now, and I’ve settled on Jim Jarmusch at the subject for my next director’s project. There were plenty of other great choices, to be sure, but this one has the benefit of a) I’ve only seen one of his films, the Bill Murrayled Broken Flowers, and b) he’s released relatively few movies, so I’m not going to be mired in months of watching.

Unlike my other projects, I’m jumping into this one mostly blind, writing a bit about my experiences with each step of this project as they happen. I’ll be back every week with another movie (or two, I don’t know quite how this is going to play out yet) and some more about how watching further into the filmography is informing my impression of the director and his work. Kind of experimental, but hopefully the approach will bear some interesting material.

Permanent Vacation (1980)

We open on New York City, bustling with people and noise. Slowly we cut further and further away from the life of the city to the darker, quieter places–side streets, back alleys. We see our hero Aloysious Christopher Parker, a young 16 year old nobody, rail thin and with a carefully manufactured air of disinterest, wandering down one of these innumerable alleys.

He stops and spray paints a wall with “Allie, total blam blam!” No greater context is provided to the Bowie reference, and his voice over begins talking about how isolated he feels, how removed from the normal flow of life, and we’re left to figure out a kid who seems from the get go to have little idea who he is himself.

Permanent Vacation belongs in the long line of creative works about Young Man Alienation. From Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, there’s a long line of stories about young men creating a bubble between them and the world, then using it to indulge in various levels of lashing out at the world that doesn’t understand them.

There’s certainly varying degrees of quality in that list, and personal tolerance for that sort of thing varies from person to person, but Permanent Vacation is perhaps the most insufferable version of it I have ever seen. Allie, as he likes to be called, is a child so full of beat-generation rhetoric that he reads like a parody of disaffected young men everywhere. It doesn’t help that he’s played by Chris Parker in a needy, whiny monotone that makes even-tempered folk like me want to punch him in his stupid face.

For the first twenty minutes I was sure I was watching what was intended to be a self-aware satire of the genre, with Allie wandering around dimly lit run down New York City settings turned into nigh-apocalyptic trash heaps by grainy 16 mm photography, talking about his philosophy on life and how he always feels like he needs to keep moving because the world just wants to keep you down, man.

Allie preening and dancing poorly in front of a mirror. This is the liveliest the movie gets.

He shares a room with a girl who is probably his girlfriend but acts like she barely notices he’s there. He finds her in a room smoking, feet propped up on the windowsill, more a feminine sculpture stuck in the corner of the room for him to look at than person he’s actually in some sort of sane human relationship with. He preens in the mirror, carefully slicking back his hair and artfully placing a cigarette behind his ear, as her legs stick out from behind him in the mirror. It turns her into just another pretty thing he has around, more for his own amusement than anything.

He talks to her about how the world is such an awful place. He talks about the wreckage of the run down sections of New York City. Bombed out buildings that are his supposed birthright, history that should exist but doesn’t. The girl asks the obvious question “Bombed by who?” but he has no answer because of course he doesn’t know. There were no bombs, he just thought it sounded cool. And when he finally goes to these run down, rubble-strew buildings he’s haunted by imagined bombs that supposedly did violence to this normal urban decay that has never seen the kind of violence that he imagines. It’s the worship of an elegaic postcard of a past that only exists in the minds of men like Allie, searching forever for something they’re convinced they were born too late to be a part of.

There he finds a homeless, possibly strung out Vietnam vet that does hear bombs. Here is a man haunted by violence, and the encounter turns Allie into just another normal boy. He tells the man the bombs aren’t real, of course they aren’t real. And that’s just a news chopper flying overhead, not a war plane. He talks to the man about a cool futuristic car he saw once, sounding more like an eight year old than the world-weary adult he tries to be. If he wasn’t too startled by the homeless vet to notice, I’m sure he’d be mortified for himself.

Of course, he’s not above causing harm himself. When a woman leaves her car running to do a quick errand, Allie doesn’t mind sliding into the car and taking off. The woman comes out upset, only to be greeted by the disinterest of fellow New Yorkers, who tell her she should be glad that’s all he took. The apathy is everywhere, as true for the random people walking by as it is for Allie. Is it a slight on the culture of 1980s New York City, or just endemic of people? The movie never bothers asking, so wrapped around its main character’s bullshit.

New York City stands in for an Eastern European wasteland.

He sells the car and uses the money to buy a boat ticket out of the city. The man he buys it from is a real New Yorker, as styled and disaffected as Allie, with an equally desperate air but a much more convincing accent. Here’s someone he can actually relate to, right as he’s leaving. But what do the two men do? Compare baggy sports coats, show off tattoos, go through the motions of masculine posturing like two birds showing off their plumage. Nobody relates to anybody, even when they share relevant interests.

He gets on the boat, and sails away, and that’s it. 75 minutes of meandering, self-indulgent pretension for no goal and no payoff. Allie has learned nothing and we have learned nothing with him. New York slowly recedes in our view from the boat as the credits roll, shining in the sun, not at all the dark and crumbling city we saw during Allie’s travels. So what are we to take away? A sense of this young man’s ignorance? The movie isn’t nearly self aware enough for that. But if we’re seeing this as autobiographical of the director of the time, then I suppose it’s apt. Because only an ignorant director would make this film, amateur and raw and unappealing outside of a curiosity to a future career.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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