I’ve been a fan of Jim Jarmusch since the 1980’s but I’d never seen his first feature film, Permanent Vacation before. But after watching the documentary Blank City (2010), a film about the New York film scene in the 1970’s and 1980’s, my interest was piqued. It had been released as part of the Criterion Collection’s version of Stranger Than Paradise (1984), his breakthrough film.
Permanent Vacation feels like what it is, a student film, made with actors that a student would know, made within aspects and limitations of budget. And while Jarmusch’s films are all low-key and low-budget, a lot of his strengths were in a more primordial stage at the point of this film. Still, it’s not uninteresting to watch it among his other works, and it has certain characteristics that offer genuine interest.
Shot in New York City, the film captures aspects of the time and place of its making. I’ve noted that this time and place reveals a very different New York to that of contemporary city, a glance into a milieu that spawned so much music, culture, and vibrancy, it’s really interesting to see how gritty and grim it could be. A much more dangerous place, a much less corporatized place.
Jarmusch uses some particularly derelict neighborhoods to depict the world of his film. It’s a little vague, but apparently is meant to be a post-atomic war or at least post-another major war. The main character, Allie Parker (played by Chris Parker), is a hipster dude, hep on Charlie Parker, literature, cinema, but who is seeking to escape this desolated city. He wanders the mostly run-down blocks, only occasionally seeing the city’s more stable and healthy elements, often in background.
One shot in particular finds Parker awaking on top of a building, south of the Chrysler building and the Empire State Building. I recognize that vantage to an extent from my own travels there in a time beyond his. Jarmusch’s meditation on the city and the restless angst of youth wind up bearing witness to a world now also deeply changed.
Frankly, it’s not the greatest film in the world. John Lurie does show up as a saxophone-playing street musician, who seems to bleat out a free jazz version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. What Jarmusch pulled together by his next film and haphazardly with occasional utter brilliance over his career was something more sublime and profound than he stumbled on in his student work. For a Jarmusch fan, it’s certainly worth the effort. Beyond that, not so much.