Monday, August 24, 2009

Permanent Vacation

Having previously only seen three films by Jim Jarmusch, one of the filmmakers who, along with Gus Van Sant, Richard Linklater and the Coen brothers, set the stage for the American independent explosion of the '90s, I resolved to delve deeper into the filmography of one of the more notable American talents of the last 20 years. His Ghost Dog and Down By Law are interesting, witty, highly literate looks at America through the eyes of those who don't understand it; you'd be forgiven for thinking him a European filmmaker.

That tendency to look at American life through the perspective of a foreign or a loner is evident in the first shots of his first feature, Permanent Vacation: as images of pedestrians moving through New York play in slow motion, the soundtrack of bustling footsteps plays at normal speed. Even here, we, through Jarmusch's camera, cannot process what we're seeing as we see it. Jarmusch casts this New York as the victim of some sort of quasi-apocalypse, the result of a war with the Chinese. Funnily enough, the decay of the sets looks less like the aftermath of a war and more the mass neglect of the city's landlords.

Through the rubble and squalor wanders Aloysius Parker (Chris Parker), who signs his name "Allie" when he sprays graffiti on the walls. Allie tells us that he wants a son so he can name the boy Charlie, after jazz legend Charlie Parker. In his apartment, this young beanpole dances along to Parker's records with a combination of stiff white boy jerks and rhythmic soft shoe. Allie's so lanky and hip that you can't help but be amused by him, but he espouses a decidedly glum worldview.

Allie hasn't slept in days, and when his girlfriend asks him about it, he shrugs her off by saying, "I have my dreams while I'm awake." Searching for some level of meaning in this bombed out, decrepit world, Allie wanders the streets of New York without purpose, stumbling across a bevy of idiosyncratic characters all as removed by madness as Allie is from disillusionment. He speaks with a shellshocked veteran, his institutionalized mother, a hysterical Spanish woman trapped in her own tortured monologue. At last he steals a car, and sells it to buy passage to Paris. As he boards the ship to leave, he remarks to us that he feels like a tourist on "permanent vacation

What's most readily apparent about the film is its commitment to French New Wave styling. Permanent Vacation lacks any identifiable narrative structure, and when a moment of plot presents itself -- the theft of the car -- Jarmusch skips along the story with the same speed as Godard's introduction of Michel and his crime in Breathless. At one point, Allie pops into a theater to see Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents (Jarmusch befriended the director when Ray took up teaching at NYU and even served as his assistant), a literal quotation of film amidst textual and subtextual use. Allie himself plays like a Blank Generation update of Truffaut's Antoine Doinel, with his hyper-literacy and his feelings of alienation.

Permanent Vacation was made for $12,000, but it looks and feels like a debut regardless of the budget and film stock. By 1980, New Hollywood was about to implode, collapsing in on the weight of its excess. Jaws and Star Wars shifted focus from more personal filmmaking to merchandised saturation booking, where an auteur could get any amount of money requested for the most indulgent projects under the sun simply on the notion that it would somehow turn a profit. That's not to say that films like Apocalypse Now or Spielberg and Lucas' epics don't have their merits beyond simple ambition and scale, but compare Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to New York, New York, or Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot to Heaven's Gate.

Jarmusch perhaps seeks to return modern American auteur cinema to the more intimate realms of post-New Wave filmmaking. Unfortunately, its self-absorption is evident from the start, and where a film like Down By Law or even a strung-together anthology like Coffee and Cigarettes contain a hipness in every frame through its intelligence, Permanent Vacation feels the need to call attention to itself at all times. This also is of course indebted to much of French New Wave, which was not only self-reflexive but somehow self-referential about its self-reflexivity (I still haven't made up my mind about Breathless because of its incessant need to point out how daring it is), but it's still distracting at times. But you can't deny Jarmusch's spark, even this early; an artistic and political commentary on an America adrift at the start of the '80s, it steals from Godard, Ozu (Jarmusch conveys one scene through a series of silent, beautiful establishing shots), and Ray among others. As much, if not more, is said through pauses than dialogue, a minimalist approach clearly on display in the stoic hit-man of Ghost Dog. Permanent Vacation is no masterpiece, nor is it even excellent, but it's a promising, intriguing start to an interesting career.

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