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).
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.