Permanent Vacation 1980 | USA | Dir. Jim Jarmusch | 71 min
I have seen an almost unreasonable number of films during this first month of the year. While my favourite arform, music, has lost some its meaning as it can no longer be performed or enjoyed with others, I have increasingly turned to films, but there was also a lot I needed to catch up on in that field.
When you indulge in so many films, it can be difficult to separate each one from the other, but one of them that really stood out was American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmuschs first feature-lenght Permanent Vacation (1980). It’s an apprentice work, shot on 16 mm camera, and one that is very much devoted to a specific and long gone place and time in history, but one which nevertheless seems to speak directly to our current pandemic era.
The film chronicles two days in the life of a young jazz hipster named Aloysious Christopher Parker or just Allie. He is the first of those existential misfits that we have later come to associate with Jarmusch's work and is played by non-actor Chris Parker who probably wasn’t that different from his character in the film.
For the most part of the film Allie wanders aimlessly around in the decaying Manhattan of the late seventies, more specifically the Lower East Side, where punk was in vogue at downtown clubs like CBGB and American counterculture experienced it’s last glorious moment. Permanent Vacation is probably the best time capsule of that particular era ever committed to celluloid and is worth seeking out for that reason alone.
However, Allie is not a part of the downtown scene of the day. He is more like a walking anachronism with his bebop kid look; a hobo in his time and in life in general. The backstreets he roams are desolate, filled with rubble and suggestive of a warzone (there are vague references to bombnings on American soil during the film).
Allie is like a ghost in a cultural limbo, and that is a feeling I can identify with when I occasionally put a film on pause and walk out in the desolate streets of the lockdown. The feeling of being a tourist in one's own town also strikes me as relevant for this day and age, as the center of Odense doesn’t really look like itself these days. It’s as if the lockdown has obliterated the differences between individual cities, they have all become non-places and we are apoleis as the ancient Greeks would have called it, citizens of no city.
I decide to walk into town as i I try to mimic Allie’s akward movements and tune into his wandering state of mind. It's surprisingly easy to do: Maybe Allie's searching aimlessness is not that far from my own usual way of life.
I walk along Sdr. Boulevard which is even more devoid of life than usual on this Saturday afternoon. The pulse of a city can get so low that the city and it's sense of community can seem to disappear. For the sake of the purpose I allow myself to indulge in my loneliness and stare alienated into the lit living rooms in the small townhouses I pass. Have the people living found what they were looking for? Maybe. Or maybe is wasn't what they were looking after all. They don't look too enthusiastic but then again it's the end of January during an pandemic.
Where would Allie go if he was in Odense on a Saturday like this? He would probably head towards Momentum, so I go there. On the door hangs a poster for a cancelled play called ZERO, and I can’t help laughing because that would definitely appeal to Allie’s nihilistic ethos. If Momentum had been open and there was some jazz going on, he would have gone in, tried to chat akwardly with some random people in the bar and maybe do some goofy dance moves.
This brings me forward to an unforgettable key scene in the film, where the nearly comatose protagonist suddenly jumps up and performs a show-stopping spasmodic dance to a spaced-out solo from alto sax legend Earl Bostic. It is a genuinely moving moment because it signifies an intense but brief escape from an uninhabitable environment and a hopeless future. At the same time it expresses a vital and uninhibited physicality, that is not only lacking in rest of the film, but also in our locked down society, that for so long now have hindered that kind of ecstatic affirmation of life.
Link to the event