Jul 23, 2015

Permanent Vacation

Admittedly, while I tend to either love or hate most auteur filmmakers, especially those of the arthouse or avant-garde oriented sort, Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive) is a rare a filmmaker that I both like and loathe, though his most recent films have caused me to feel mostly more of the latter. Of course, unlike a lot of contemporary cinephiles (who typically borrow most of their ideas and fetishes from the French New Wave and the anti-Occidental Frankfurt School influenced academics and critics), xenophilia, non-ironical ethno-masochism, flagrant La Nouvelle Vague worship, dimestore existentialism, post-Beat Generation hipsterdom, and degenerate jazz are things that leave a rather bitter taste in my mouth, so naturally I find it to be an innately impossible task to fully embrace any of the films in Jarmusch’s somewhat uneven oeuvre. Although not really a major figure of the movement when it was still around, Jarmusch's roots lie in the underground No Wave Cinema scene of the mid-1970s through mid-1980s where he did things like work as a second recordist on his bud Eric Mitchell’s largely forgotten midnight movie Underground U.S.A. (1980), acted as a cinematographer on his longtime girlfriend Sara Driver’s Paul Bowles adaptation You Are Not I (1981), and ultimately directed his first and mostly rarely seen feature Permanent Vacation (1980), which I finally decided to watch the other day after many years of procrastination. According to Jarmusch himself, it was his comrades of the No Wave scene who talked him into directing his first feature, or as the auteur stated in the documentary Blank City (2010) directed by Celine Danhier, “I used to sort of follow Eric [Mitchell] and Amos [Poe] around and they were always saying, ‘Jim, when are you going to make a feature film. Come on, Jim make a film.’” I must confess that, after reading a couple reviews of Permanent Vacation, I expected the worst and braced myself for a film that I assumed would be an all the more slow, pedantic, and posturing take on Jarmusch’s second feature Stranger Than Paradise (1984), yet it ultimately somewhat surprised me and exceeded my admittedly fairly low expectations.  Indeed, while I would probably hate Jarmusch if I met him in real-life, his debut at least allowed me to somewhat understand where he is coming from and why he has an insatiable love for old dead negro jazz musicians, goofy anachronistic clothing, emotional sterility, and seemingly pointless posturing (or what he and his fans probably call ‘style’).

 Shot on a relatively miniscule budget of around $12,000 as an intended master's thesis while Jarmusch was attending the film program at NYU (somewhat humorously, he was denied a degree because the university did not appreciate the fact that he used his Louis B. Mayer Foundation scholarship to fund the film), Permanent Vacation is a slow burning, very consciously stylized, semi-autobiographical (the lead character is a composite of Jarmusch, his factory worker brother, and lead actor Chris Parker), and a virtual manifesto of the filmmaker’s seemingly fairly consistent Weltanschauung as a passive nihilist, self-stylized NYC hipster, degenerate jazz lover, and perennial too-cool-for-school rebel-without-a-cause. Indeed, for a Jarmusch fanboy to describe the film as one of the director’s lesser works (even respected critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described the film as, “The only Jim Jarmusch feature that qualifies as apprentice work”) is nothing short of hipster heresy and strong evidence that they do not actually sincerely like the auteur or his films, but instead are more interested in what he and his films stand for (e.g. negrophilia, hipsterism, passive nihilism, etc.). Featuring a real-life eternal wanderer and decidedly disillusioned social outcast in the lead role (Jarmusch specially tailored the character for the lead ‘actor,’ who fittingly uses his real name), Permanent Vacation is a sort of overtly offbeat (anti)bildungsroman about a metaphysically dead hipster hobo and fiercely forlorn fashion victim who probably felt he found a true kindred spirit (or at least, a cool quote to steal) when he read Arthur Rimbaud’s words, “I found I could extinguish all human hope from my soul.”   While Jarmusch's film will not give you hope for hopeless hipsters, it will give you the sense that Nietzsche was right in regard to his ideas of the ‘eternal return’ and especially ‘Amor fati’ (of course, Jarmusch is still interested in these themes as Broken Flowers (2005) especially demonstrates).

 While fairly unknown (it never received a theatrical release) and poorly reviewed in the United States, Permanent Vacation was well received in Germany where it earned the Josef von Sternberg Award at the 1980 Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival and impressed New German Cinema ‘alpha-auteur’ Wim Wenders so much that he gave Jarmusch some film stock to work on his next feature Stranger Than Paradise (notably, Jarmusch also worked as an assistant on Wenders’ doc Lightning Over Water (1980) aka Nick’s Movie about the remaining days of Hollywood rebel Nicholas Ray, who the filmmaker also acted as a personal assistant to). Undoubtedly, one of Jarmusch’s greatest ‘talents’ as a filmmaker is that he is one of the few American filmmakers that has been able to express the sort of existential despair that is quite common in the films of the great European arthouse filmmakers of the post-WWII era, especially those of New German Cinema. Indeed, as a largely plot-less work sprinkled with occasional cinephile references that features a quasi-antihero with a flat affect and nothing to live for except vintage negro music and attempting to look and act ‘hip’ (personally, I found the young man to be quite unwittingly ludicrous, which is probably the only thing charming about him), Permanent Vacation almost seems like Jarmusch’s attempt to make a NYC equivalent to early Wenders flicks like Summer in the City (1970) and The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972). With its gritty and almost cinema-vérité realist aesthetic, Jarmusch’s film falls somewhere between the scum-covered American-dream-damning of exploitation auteur Nick Millard’s anti-masterpiece Criminally Insane (1975) and the German era ‘hard ghetto’ meditations of Iranian auteur Sohrab Shahid Saless like Tagebuch eines Liebenden (1977) aka Diary of a Lover and Ordnung (1980) aka Order.  As far as American influences go, aside from the No Wave scene, Jarmusch's film seems to owe a very heavy debt to the fairly small yet nonetheless very important and highly influential oeuvre of largely forgotten NYC underground auteur Peter Emmanuel Goldman. Aside from the plight of the lead in Permanent Vacation being quite similar to the protagonists in Goldman's features Echoes of Silence (1967) and Wheel of Ashes (1969), the opening scenes of the almost somnambulist-like masses walking in slow-motion in the seedy streets of NYC bears a strikingly resemblance to various scenes in the forgotten auteur's short Pestilent City (1965) to the point where it almost seems like borderline plagiarism.  Luckily for Jarmusch, Goldman is now largely forgotten today, including among serious cinephiles, even though his final feature Wheel of Ashes starring Pierre Clémenti is probably the only real direct link between the NYC underground and La Nouvelle Vague.  Of course, what makes Jarmusch important and singular is that he dared to make such decidedly dejecting and audience-alienating works in the land and era of Spielberg and Lucas where movies are mostly made with the exact opposite intent as Permanent Vacation, which is a work that prides itself on escaping from the escapism of Hollywood and instead dwells in an inwardly dead state of mind where Weltschmerz reigns. 

 Almost terminally nihilistic teenage protagonist Aloysious Christopher Parker (Chris Parker) is a man with no plan aside from perennially drifting from one place to another, or as he less than eloquently narrates in a fairly monotone fashion that makes one question whether or not he is a eunuch (he sounds like a drug-addled lesbian hooker), “My name is Aloysious Christopher Parker and, if I ever have a son, he'll be Charles Christopher Parker. Just like Charlie Parker. The people I know just call me Allie, and this is my story -- or part of it. I don't expect it to explain all that much, but what's a story anyway, except one of those connect the dots drawings that in the end forms a picture of something. That's really all this is. That's how things work for me. I go from this place, this person to that place or person. And, you know, it doesn't really make that much difference.” A sort of passive misanthrope who probably does not even have enough energy or will power to truly love or hate people, Allie compares people to inanimate objects and rooms, stating that, when it comes to individuals, there always comes a time when the, “newness is gone [...] And then there's this kind of dread, kind of creeping dread. You probably don't even know what I'm talking about. But anyway I guess the point of all this is that after a while, something tells you, some voice speaks to you, and that's it. Time to split.” Although he is still just an adolescent, Allie is already wise enough to know that, “People are going to be basically the same” and thus has no problem physically and emotionally drifting in and out of peoples’ lives like some sort of melancholic ghost (actually, Allie's parasitic lifestyle, superficial charm, lack of long-term goals, criminality, emotional shallowness, and proneness towards boredom, among other things, indicated that he might suffer from psychopathy). Upon randomly dropping by the dilapidated apartment of an assumed lover named Leila (Leila Gastil), Allie is asked, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you since Thursday” and he less than emotionally replies as if it is no big deal that he has worried the shit out of his quasi-girlfriend with his unexpected absence, “Walking….Just, walking around. I can’t seem to sleep at night. Not in this city.” Not even seemingly vaguely interested in love or even carnal pleasures, Allie proceeds to goofily dance to degenerate jazz while Leila hypnotically stares out of a window as if hoping that she could be anywhere else other than where she currently is in life. When his culturally confused one-man dance session is over, Allie demonstrates he is a degenerate descendent of Narcissus by intently staring at himself in a mirror while combing his hair and proudly declaring, “You know, sometimes I think I should just live fast and die young. . .and go in a three-piece suit like Charlie Parker. Not bad, huh?” Needless to say, Leila is less than impressed with the protagonist's outmoded James Dean-esque declaration, but it seems that in Allie’s own mind he is a misunderstood superstar who is the only person that is truly capable of understanding his own brilliance. 

 In a scene that seems to reflect Allie’s fragmented mind and incapacity for concentrating on anything for any extended period of time, the protagonist reads an excerpt from mysterious pseudonymous French poet Comte de Lautréamont’s classic proto-surrealist poetic novel Les Chants de Maldoror (1868) aka The Songs of Maldoror and then says to Leila, “I’m tired of this book, you can have it.” When Leila tries in vain to receive some warmth and affection from the protagonist by complaining, “I’m tired of being alone,” Allie matter-of-factly replies, “Everyone is alone” and then goes on a predictable pessimistic rant where he attempts to rationalize why he is proud of being a bum and then mentions how his once-normal mother went totally insane after his father abandoned their family. After discussing the fact that he has not seen his institutionalized schizophrenic mother in over a year and that he would like to the visit the ruins of his childhood home, which was supposedly destroyed in an imaginary war by “The Chinese,” Allie leaves Leila for good and heads to the place where he was apparently born, though he does not seem to find what he is looking for. In the ruins of where he was born, Allie bumps into a shell-shocked war veteran (Jarmusch regular Richard Boes) who is convinced that he is still fighting the Vietcong. After giving him a cigarette, Allie gives the mentally unhinged vet the somewhat sound advice “go some place different […] that’s what I’m going to do” and the ex-soldier abides as if following an order given to him by a drill instructor. Unfortunately for Allie, he is far less open to taking advice from others, as he is a young man who treasures personal sovereignty above all else, even if it requires that he lead the life of the most destitute of rootless cosmopolitans. 

 When Allie visits his mother (Ruth Bolton) at the scum-covered mental institution where she has been interned, it becomes quite apparent why the protagonist has a hard time emotionally connecting to other people, as his mentally perturbed progenitor barely acknowledges him and treats him like he is a pestilence when she actually does, randomly stating to him regarding his eyes in a fashion that reveals that she clearly has yet to get over her husband leaving her, “They don’t belong to you. They were taken out of your father’s head.” With his mental mommy treating him with an emotionally crippling combination of disdain and apathy and her all-the-more-mental roommate laughing hysterically for seemingly no reason, Allie naturally decides to use the opportunity to leave when a nurse (played by Jarmusch’s longtime girlfriend, filmmaker Sara Driver) comes in the room and tells the protagonist to temporary leave so that she can give the patients their clearly much needed medicine. After his brief stop at the ghetto nut-ward, Allie walks through a ruined neighborhood that resembles a bombed-out third world city where he happens upon a literally raving mad yet stunningly beauteous Hispanic woman (María Duval of Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1988)) who is wearing nothing but a slip and has make-up smeared across her tragic little face. When Allie asks the loony Latina “Are you alright?,” she screams, “Go! Get out of here!,” so the protagonist decides to go on his less than merry way.  Of course, seeing such a ravishing babe in such a sad and sorry state only provides validity to Allie's hopelessly pessimistic personal philosophy.  Indeed, it as if misery, absurdity, and destitution follow Allie everywhere he goes, but I suspect he would not have it any other way.

 In a fairly blatant tribute from Jarmusch to his mentor, Allie wanders into a movie theater that is screening Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents (1960) starring Anthony Quinn and Peter O'Toole, though the protagonist seems less interested in seeing the film than chatting up random strangers that he meets in the lobby. After buying some popcorn and asking an attractive movie theater employee about the “Quinn Eskimo movie,” Allie is told a story relating to the Doppler effect that he surely will forever cherish about a suicidal saxophonist playing “Over the Rainbow” by a jolly middle-aged negro (Frankie Faison of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008)) with a bad case of the giggles. After leaving the movie theater without actually watching the movie, Allie happens upon an avant-garde saxophonist played by John Lurie (who co-composed the film's musical score with Jarmusch), who asks him, “What do you want to hear, Kid?,” to which the protagonist replies in an uncharacteristically excited fashion, “I don’t care, as long as it’s vibrating bugged-out sound. Man, what a sax.” After Lurie passionately plays an autistic avant-garde jazz version of “Over the Rainbow” on his sax, Allie goes to spends the night on a roof on some random apartment building. The next day, when some random young bourgeois bitch in a fancy convertible asks Allie to do her the simple favor of putting her envelope in a mailbox that he is obnoxiously leaning on, the protagonist retorts in a prissy fashion, “What do I look like, the mailman?” and then steals the young lady’s car after she makes the mistake of attempting to deal with the letter herself. As the young lady bitches about the fact that Allie has stolen her car, some random negro hobo pops out of nowhere and adds insult to injury by boorishly blabbering, “That dude was wild style. Ohhh, no. You better get your ass out of her before he snatches that up too.” After some momentary hesitation, Allie decides he needs quick crash and opts to sell the stolen convertible for a mere $800 to some lowlife crook played by French-born No Wave auteur Eric Mitchell.  Of course, since the car is stolen, it is no big loss for Allie, who just wants to get the hell out of the rotten Big Apple before he rots with it.

 Ultimately, Allie gets a passport, buys a boat ticket, and prepares for a pilgrimage to Paris where he assumedly plans to live in exile for an indefinite period of time just like so many artists and would-be-artists before him. Almost too fittingly in what one would might describe as a borderline mystical scene, Allie spots his French doppelganger (Chris Hameon)—a character that may or may not be inspired by a young version of Jarmusch's French-born buddy Eric Mitchell (who somewhat fitting plays the crook who gives Allie the money that he uses to buy his boat ticket)—while leaning against a fence while waiting for his boat to France. When Allie asks the stylish frog, “Are you going on the boat, too?,” the suave Frenchman says “No” and explains, “See, I had a lot of trouble, so I have to get out of Paris. And now my friends are crying. See, I never cry. 'Cause I know when things change, I have to go somewhere. And now I think that New York is going to be Babylon for me. Well, that's where I've got to live.” After sharing their tattoos (the Frenchman has one reading “mommy”), the two kindred spirits part way and Allie narrates, “I was thinking about the note I left her when I got on the boat. But how can you explain something like this to someone? I'm just not the kind of person that settles into anything. I don't think I ever will be. Isn't really anything left to explain that can be. And that's what I was trying to explain in the first place. Just not like that. I don't want a job, or a house, or taxes although I wouldn't mind a car, but... I don't know. Now that I'm away, I wish I was back there more than even when I was there. Let's just say I'm a certain kind of tourist...A tourist that's on a... permanent vacation.” In the end, Allie stares back at NYC as the city gets farther and farther away as his boat drifts to Frogland where the protagonist probably hopes to find a surplus of pretentious plodding deadbeats just like himself. 

 The fact that Permanent Vacation was included as a mere extra feature with the Criterion Collection DVD release of Stranger Than Paradise as opposed to receiving its own individual release is a true testament to the fact that it is most certainly Jarmusch’s most wrongly neglected and most understood work and the fact it only received a warm reception in Europe, especially Germany, is only fitting.  After all, as the great cinematic works of New German Cinema certainly demonstrate, no group of people expressed a great sense of existential despair, deracination, social and cultural alienation, and nihilism better than the post-WWII German filmmakers, but I digress.  Personally, I would rather re-watch the director’s debut any day over his later and more conspicuously contrived works like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Broken Flowers (2005), The Limits of Control (2009), and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), but then again I am not a Jarmusch cheerleader and find many of fetishes and obsessions to be nothing short of odious, obnoxious and, in many cases, laughably shallow and insincere. Indeed, if I want to watch a film that pays homage to Godard and the French New Wave, I will watch an early Fassbinder flick like Götter der Pest (1970) aka Gods of the Plague or Der amerikanische Soldat (1970) aka The American Soldier and on those rather rare occasions where I get an irrational thirst for ebonics and negrophilia, I will most certainly go to a real black director like Melvin “Block” Van Peebles, Felix de Rooy, or Jarmusch's perennially pissy pipsqueak pal Spike Lee. Indubitably, what makes Permanent Vacation so raw, refreshing, and authentic is that it features a real-life shrieking hipster hobo of the pathologically posturing sort in the lead role as opposed to a dry Hollywood clown like Bill Murray or all-too-stoic exotic spade like Isaach De Bankolé (ironically, one of the biggest complaints that most reviewers seem to have against the film is lead Chris Parker’s grating voice and dubious acting skills, but I personally found these admittedly annoying ingredients to be perfect for the specific character). In fact, the film is such a singularly delectable and unadulterated expression of its particular zeitgeist that Jean-Michel Basquiat was snoozing in a sleeping bag in John Lurie’s apartment while Jarmusch was shooting the scenes where Parker hangs out with melancholy hipster diva Leila Gastil. Additionally, Jarmusch structured the film around Parker’s authentic natural aura and attitude, or as the auteur explained regarding the film in the doc Blank City, “…I wrote it for Chris who’s a very animate person in real life. And, as I started filming, he was not animated in the same degree, so I followed that and the style of the film sort of slowed down.” Indeed, Permanent Vacation is surely slow, but it would not work any other way, just as Jarmusch’s buddy Wenders’ greatest films would not either.  After all, there is nothing really exciting or action-packed about existential despair and passive nihilism.

 Although it might surprise some, Italian self-described ‘super-fascist’ philosopher Julius Evola had some positive things to say about beatniks, bohemians, hipsters, and other counterculture types in an essay featured in the volume L’Arco e la Clava (1968) aka The Bow and the Club, where he stated, “From our point of view, a brief study of these phenomena is justified, because we share the opinion, expressed by a number of “beats”: namely — and in opposition to what psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and “social workers” think — in a society, a civilization, like ours, and, especially, like that of the USA – one must in general admit that the rebel, the being who does not adapt, the a-social being, is in fact the sanest man. In an abnormal world, values are inverted: whosoever appears abnormal, in relation to the existing milieu, is most probably precisely the “normal” person, in the sense that in him there still subsist traces of integral vital energy; and we do not follow those who want to “rehabilitate” such individuals, whom they consider to be sick, and “save” them for “society.”” Of course, what separates super-fascists like Evola from neo-Beat hipsters like Chris Parker and Jarmusch is that, while the former supports a sort of active nihilism as endorsed by Nietzsche, the latter embraces a sort of frivolous passive nihilism that can only lead to a life of nothingness upon nothingness without end.  In a chapter entitled  ‘Sartre: Prisoner Without Walls’ featured in his classic text Cavalcare la Tigre (1961) aka Ride the Tiger, Evola would point out that commie existentialist messiah Jean-Paul Sartre once absurdly wrote, “Freedom, choice, nihilation, and temporalization are one and the same,” but of course such naive thinking only leads to the sort of psychological prison and metaphysical purgatory that plagues the protagonist of Permanent Vacation, which was highlighted by the Guido Baron when he wrote, “One finds oneself already faced with the well-known situation of a freedom that is suffered, rather than claimed: modern man is not free, but finds himself free in the world where God is dead. ‘He is delivered up to his freedom.’  It is from this that his deep suffering comes.  When he is fully aware of this, anguish seizes him and the otherwise absurd sensation of a responsibility reappears.”  Of course, like the protagonist of his film, Jarmusch seems to have bought into the existentialist con that he is totally free, even if the self-satisfied cynicism and literal jazz worship of his films says otherwise.

 Luckily, Jarmusch apparently does not fully embrace the attitude and lifestyle of the patently preposterous ‘pretentious deadbeat’ protagonist of Permanent Vacation, or as he stated in an interview with Bomb Magazine, “I think nihilism is a realistic outlook, but I see both positive and negative aspects in the approach of the main character. His self-imposed exile from existing institutions: work, school, family, etc., is certainly positive, but his difficulty in communicating with other people in the same situation is relatively hopeless. More and more, intelligent young people are put into this almost hopeless situation. That’s what the film is about.”  While it is certainly true that more and more people are dropping out society, these individuals, not unlike the protagonist of Jarmusch's film and the countless carbon-copy hipsters with ironic Civil War mustaches that currently live in NYC and other trendy urban neighborhoods, have ultimately taken a path that is ultimately more hopeless and senseless than that of the average sub-literate Evangelical Christian hillbilly.  Certainly, the same defeatist ‘postmodern slave morality’ that led Hebraic hipster Norman Mailer to proudly proclaim himself to be a “White Negro” and inspired William S. Burroughs to become a trust-fund-sponsored “junky” and “queer” also led Jarmusch to directing a film like Permanent Vacation, which also acts as a sort of unintentional cautionary tale about what might happen to you if you're a bourgeois white boy who starts mimicking the culture of poor old dead negroes. Naturally, the same dead-end passive nihilist (anti)philosophy also explains why that, aside from technical prowess and overall professionalism, Jarmusch’s films have not changed all that much since his debut, as they typically rehash the same sort of offbeat scenes and eccentric encounters. In fact, Jarmusch’s treasuring of the Tschandala and metaphysically dead deadbeats and derelicts seems to have only grown over the years, yet he is now much more personally distanced from his material and, to the decided detriment of his films, instead of hiring his friends to play themselves, he dreams up rather ridiculous fantasy characters like jigaboo samurais and undead rockers.  At least when Permanent Vacation was first released, the viewer could entertain the idea that Jarmusch might one day grow out of his already-then-outmoded hipster Weltanschauung.

-Ty E


Tony Brubaker said...

What i like about Jarmusch is his rampaging heterosexuality, his films however are total cobblers.

Tony Brubaker said...

How appropriate that a loathsome homo like Ian McKellen is playing Mr. Holmes, the bloody odious Limey fairy woofter poofter scum-of-the-earth filth.