Permanent Vacation (1980)

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Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch’s first film, is only 74 minutes long, and yet it spends a lot of time doing nothing.  The story follows a kid named Allie, a drifter, as he, well, drifts through New York City, getting a glimpse into the lives of a variety of characters before moving on.  He’s just a kid, but he has the voice of an old man for whom every word is labored.  Maybe that’s why he doesn’t talk much, but rather listens to the people around him.  Actually, he mostly just hears the world around him.  He never has any conversation as much as he says a few things or they say a few things, and both people leave knowing nothing more than they did before.  He has a very set view of the world and his place in it, which is that he has none.  Now that I’m remembering it, most conversations seem incredibly unbalanced.  In a couple scenes, only one person speaks and the other says nothing.  There is never a back and forth or any kind of dialogue.

Allie seems to take pride in his own isolation.  The film begins with a voiceover, him telling us about all the rooms he or you or anyone has been in within their lifetime.  This is intercut with shots of deserted New York streets as well as slow motion shots of crowded New York streets.  Allie spends his time in the deserted streets, often finding locations that look like bombed out territories in postwar Europe.  We meet him in one of these streets as he walks into frame and then out of frame.  There are a succession of static shots like this in which Allie literally drifts in and then out, simply reflecting the way he lives his life.

He has a girl, Leila, but he hardly sees her.  The camera cuts from room to room, visualizing Allie’s monologue about being a drifter, and then the last room is the one he shares with Leila.  He stands and she sits motionless for a little too long, just waiting.  Finally she remarks that she hasn’t seen him since Thursday, and we can assume that it’s been a few days since Thursday.  Allie’s response is that he has just been walking around, and based on what we see the rest of the film, there’s no reason to think he was doing anything else.

Allie, apparently, likes to explore and has troubling sleeping at night.  He feels very inhuman, very alien.  This is due not only to his lifestyle and his wardrobe, but the way he does his hair, the way he carefully chooses his words (as if there is a limit each day) and his general behavior.  Soon after their brief conversation ends or just ceases to exist, Allie puts on music and dances by himself while Leila sits nearby, paying no attention.

It’s unclear if Allie even wants the attention.  He seems lonely, but he also seems to prefer loneliness over whatever might come of a normal life.  Other than walking around and meeting new people (who might not even remember his visit a few minutes later), Allie stops by a mental hospital to see his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in over a year.  It’s unclear what kind of affliction she has, but she plainly tells him that she knows he’s her son, but there’s no love behind those words.  She appears unable to connect the emotional dots despite logically understanding her circumstances.

So is Allie like her?  He seems able to feel certain things, unlike his mother, but he really just seems to be jaded, as if he’s withdrawing from society as an act of protest for his mother’s treatment or whatever might have happened to her.  When characters visit parents in a story, it’s often symbolic of them tracing back to the beginning something in themselves.  The idea is that the basis of any person lies in their parents, whether that’s true or not.

So Allie visits his mother, and he does it very early in the film.  There is no buildup to it.  Jarmusch could very easily have structured the film so that it featured Allie’s journey around New York, leading up to an emotional confrontation with his mother, about whom he most definitely has some strong feelings.  Instead he visits her before most of his wanderings.  When he walks into the room, the camera is stationary, looking at two women who look right back.  What struck me is that it was unclear who was his mother.  He might not even have known right away, demonstrating how far removed from the world she is.

Nothing much comes of this interaction.  Allie moves on and wanders the streets, perhaps affected by the visit, however his behavior seems to be right in line with how he’s been living his life this entire time.  So on one hand maybe Allie was formed by his mother in some way, but on the other hand, maybe she had no effect on him whatsoever.  This would seem to imply that he was born through society.  The way he dresses and behaves is very much influenced by the world around him, but it also feels very old fashioned, like it was inspired by a world that no longer exists.  It seems simplistic to say that Allie is living in the past (which he very well might be), but I think it’s at least safe to say that he’s not living in the world around him.  He’s simply outside of it all.

The amazing thing is that Allie can afford such a lifestyle, with no job, no support system, nothing.  He goes to a movie and doesn’t stress over the money required for a ticket and popcorn.  Later in the film he casually steals a car (in a brief conversation with a women in which he doesn’t speak), and he sells it for $800.  Despite the confidence that he could get more money elsewhere, he says he needs the money and that’s that.

This offers a glimpse into the cycle of his life.  He probably commits petty theft (in this case, not petty) to fund his own lifestyle.  What’s possibly telling about this scene is what was set up earlier in the film.  While talking to a war veteran suffering from PTSD (we hear the bombs and planes that the veteran hears), Alie tells a story about a shiny new car that he keeps seeing.  He discusses wanting to drive that car, like it’s the object of his dreams.  Then he does get to drive that car, a convertible, but he goes straight to a garage to sell it for less than market price.  It never occurs to him to keep the car, possibly because he understands the risk involved with a stolen vehicle but maybe also because he’s resigned himself to an isolation from people as well as any optimism.  He chooses this nomadic lifestyle over something he claims to dream about.  It makes his journey feel that much more redundant, as he will continue to live the same way, going nowhere.

Allie’s conversations all take place with people on the fringes of society, like himself.  These are people I imagine he feels one with, though their reasons for living on the edge of society are due to mental illnesses or drug abuse, unlike him.  In other words, they didn’t choose to be where they are, but he did.  In the early conversation with the schizophrenic war veteran, Allie tells him he’s got to pick himself up and move somewhere else, like he plans on doing.  It never occurs to him that the man can’t.  Allie dabbles in these worlds that other people have to actually live in.  He never settles in long enough to understand what the world is like or what the people in it actually feel.

Later in the story, another man tells Allie about his friend, a saxophone player who never felt like he fit in.  He ultimately went to the top of a building, prepared to leap to his death.  Then he began playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and people came out, drawn to the sounds of his music.  The problem was that he didn’t know the entire song.  So the police come up, and when he sees them, he goes through with the jump, only he survives.  As the ambulances arrive, the man began to mimic the sounds of the ambulance.  So what at first sounded like an inspirational story, quickly devolves into one about a mentally unstable man who needs help.

Much of the film feels like that story.  There is nothing for Allie to learn, because he’s not open to learning anything.  He’s stuck in his ways like the characters he interacts with and hears stories about.

The film ends with Allie boarding an otherwise empty boat, one that might as well not function.  He narrates his journey, claiming he’s on a permanent vacation, and then he leaves New York.  The title, of course, needs no explanation.  This is a character who has chosen the life he lives, despite its shortcomings and loneliness.  To him it’s a better solution than the busy life he imagines other people live, hinted at in the opening shots of the film as people with not enough elbow room make their way down New York city streets and intersections.  He abstains from life, and life abstains from him.

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