The opening narration of Jim Jarmush’s debut ‘Permanent Vacation’ is worth quoting at length as it sets the agenda for his entire career: having name-checked Charlie Parker, the voice-over says of this story,
“I don’t expect it to explain that much, but what’s a story anyway except one of those connect-the-dot 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 really doesn’t make that much of a difference.”
2016’s 'Paterson' may be slicker but despite Jarmusch’s dalliances with genre – thriller, westerns horror – this philosophy hasn’t really changed. In fact, it’s Jarmusch’s application of this philosophy to the formal rigidity of genre that has produced such distinctive results (with perhaps 'The Only Lovers Left Alive' showing a failing of application).
The opening credits of ‘Permanent Vacation’ play over alternations of views of the crowded city and deserted litter-strewn back streets, which is where our story takes place. Allie (Chris Parker) walks around a dilapidated Manhattan thinking he’s cooler than his surroundings. He gives his introduction over a montage of various places, from prison cells to upper-class lounges via unremarkable bedsits, possibly places he’s been. The first thing we see him do is tagging his name on a wall, as if staking a claim. Refusing to be tied to anything, he goes from barely furnished apartments with women to unpopulated lobbies of cinemas via slightly hysterical encounters with women on fire escapes. These vignettes do not articulate a narrative but rather a mood of deliberate and delicious aimlessness. No need for dramatic denouements here.
Michael Wotjas calls this a “freeform, rough draft of a film” with its no-budget and student-film formal deficiencies clearly and somewhat proudly on its sleeve, but it’s this that gives it a no-money authenticity. It’s a view of the city more in line with Buddy Giovinazzo’s ‘Combat Shock’, Frank Henenlotter’s ‘Basket Case’ or William Lustig’s ‘Maniac’ rather than, say, Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’. Yes, it’s a class thing. He wanders into parts of the city that like look like bombsites. There’s the sense that there’s not much art design at all, that the camera was just pointed in the right direction. This teenage aimlessness is the point: Allie can be conceived as Jarmusch’s avatar, roaming through long takes, looking for cool and the end point. Occasionally, like youth do, Allie says inadvertently funny things that he thinks are profound. Jarmusch would soon hit comedy gold with his use of non sequiturs with Roberto Begnini in ‘Down by Law’. Jarmusch hasn’t quite perfected his mastery of random encounters here, but all the elements of his approach are present. The comedy is droll: an apathetic cinema girl, when Allie asks if she thinks he’ll like the film he’s just bought a ticket for, proceeds to synopsise the plot to him; or how he meets someone who seems to be his French doppelganger on the waterfront and they proceed to swap cool instead of hanging around to be friends.
He visits his mother in hospital, displays his yo-yo skills, steals a car. It’s quite a romantic view of homelessness conceived as an expression of ultimate wanderlust and freedom. Here, Allie is a long way from Paterson in ‘Paterson’ – which is like ‘Permanent Vacation’ come middle-age – who has made peace with the intimacy and subjectivity of art. Allie still seems to think the whole world is watching. And when he dances for his own amusement while a woman he is being cool for looks disinterestedly out of a window, Jarmusch shows that from the start he could capture people at their most entertaining in the most humdrum of contexts. It's a humane, generous, disarming and amusing wordview.