Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January we’re celebrating the work of godfather of independent film Jim Jarmusch. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Whatever one might think of the qualifications of the auteur theory, one part of it that is undeniably important to evaluating the work of a filmmaker is the inherent relationship between his or her films. There is a single common denominator between all of a filmmaker’s work — a living breathing human with political beliefs, cultural insight, and a personal relationship to what they create — and we must evaluate their work from the point of authorship.
For this reason, watching a filmmaker’s movies in chronological order becomes an illuminating exercise – to clearly see the development of choices, smoothing of edges, picking up new tricks, and over time, a changing of worldview as the world itself changes. It doesn’t always turn out like this, but even careers that have descended into eventual artistic stagnation and failure (Terry Gilliam, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Kevin Costner) are of unique interest and relevance to the art of cinema.
To examine the birth of his career in retrospect turns out to be just as important to understanding where his tendencies and views lie as an artist. In that respect, Jim Jarmusch’s 1980 debut Permanent Vacation was the catalyst for a much greater independent cinematic movement that brought us a new generation of filmmakers (Richard Linklater, Harmony Korine, Kevin Smith, Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, Mike Mills, Greg Mottola, several others).
To witness the genesis of a style that would be developed decades on, to see the first signs of a personal vision, brings into context the ways in which an artist thinks and struggles. It highlights the tribulations of the visual medium and the minute adjustments to political and social consciousness as the years add on.
I came back to Permanent Vacation nearly seven years after I first watched it, and after having seen every Jarmusch film since then. It’s a flawed, experimental, and exploratory film, shot on 16mm and comprised of the typical structural molecules that would later become foundational ideas for his work.
While some filmmakers come out of the gate ready to impress (like Terrence Malick with Badlands and Lars von Trier with The Element of Crime), Jarmusch’s debut is more in line with John Cassavetes’ Shadows and Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door. It’s a learning process that slides into the classic first-time filmmaker pitfall of trying to say everything all at once. Yet these movies survive as classics specifically because of their relation to the filmmaker’s later masterpieces.
The film follows a bohemian slacker named Allie (Chris Parker) whose primary occupations include weird forms of dancing, smoking cigarettes, avoiding important life decisions, and starting casual conversations with the people he meets while traversing the decrepit landscapes of an overcast Manhattan. It’s a typical expression of apathy and aimlessness that young adults feel at the peripheries of being thrust into adult society and out of the school system.
It’s a flawed, experimental, and exploratory film, shot on 16mm and comprised of the typical structural molecules that would later become foundational ideas for his work.
In Jarmusch’s case, he had recently dropped out of school, and the effects were similar if not augmented. The harsh glares of the camera and the grain that melds with the dirt and dust of forgotten remnants of an empty city block and a claustrophobic apartment are all indicative of people who live as ghosts. They’re alive, but for what? For who? It’s fitting, perhaps even comical, that I watched the movie in my senior year of college, for I wouldn’t have associated with it so deeply had I been more well-adjusted.
Coming across the realization as a young person that no, you actually don’t know what the heck you want to do is overwhelming. Despite the movie’s bleak look, it is laced with humor (the title itself is a dry joke) that on occasion shrugs off the existentialism that becomes a much more weighted talking point in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking & Screaming (1995) and Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002).
Jarmusch is not quite as worried about the abyss of the future here, and his central character’s traversing of Manhattan and meeting of vagabonds and vagrants is both an ode to a city and an acknowledgment that one is never alone in their loneliness. He allows his camera to move without structure or pattern the camera the way Linklater would later do in Slacker, where the aimlessness is the aim itself, a freeing of the spirit to find inspiration in whatever and wherever it can.
From his opening monologue, Allie decrees a personal philosophy that he has built around his aimlessness. He uses “if” a lot. He believes stories are merely random points connected together that eventually from… “something” — a good way to describe Jarmusch’s filmography.
The vignettes of Allie in different areas of the city are laced with diegetic and non-diegetic sounds that both call to a past (Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and evoke a sense of the film’s present (sounds of nuclear missiles). Jazz music, a major characteristic sound of ‘being in Manhattan’, plays in spurts throughout the movie, as do the echoing of church-bells. Amidst this, Allie has light to heavy conversations from small-talk about The Savage Innocents with a girl in a movie theater to a discussion about life and being stuck with a schizophrenic who lives in an abandoned bunker.
Not all of the encounters are light and quirky. He also visits his mother at the psychiatric hospital, the only moment in the film where we get a chance to peer into a darker past about the character. It’s the scene that holds the most disturbing weight, as his conversation with his mother leads to nowhere (though she does recognize him), while an older woman rooming with her cackles hysterically from what is clearly a medical condition. While the moment isn’t specifically referenced again, it does linger as something that would be on Allie’s mind thereafter — a ghost that follows him around while he goes from place to place.
Looking back, Permanent Vacation reveals itself as a prophetic signpost for Jarmusch’s career. It astoundingly predicts the way his filmmaking would be defined 40 years later. “I’ve hung out with all kinds of people… watched them act things out in their own little ways. To me, those people are like a series of rooms. Just all the places where I’ve spent time,” Allie says.
Jarmusch’s dedication to independent cinema remains as vital and strong and ever, a singular thread through his filmography has developed into a philosophy of how to make films. With Paterson, he nearly came full circle, recreating a more stabled, 21st-century version of Permanent Vacation. While his character surrogate, Adam Driver’s Paterson, was more settled, he still found himself, like Allie, traversing the landscapes of his home and meeting new people. In Allie, Paterson, and many protagonists in between, Jarmusch reveals himself to be a filmmaker evaluating himself as an auteur and connecting the dots from the beginning to form something profound.