Permanent Vacation (1980) is to the filmography of Jim Jarmusch what Dark Star (1974) is to that of John Carpenter: it’s the director’s final film school project. Ok, I admit it, I’m always mentioning John Carpenter! Then let me compare Permanent Vacation to Eraserhead (1977) by David Lynch and to Following (1998) by Christopher Nolan. In other words, it’s a debut film made with little money starring novice and unknown actors where it’s possible to spot many of the ideas that the director would then develop with his subsequent films.
What about Permanent Vacation? The movie is just over an hour long and it’s shot in 16mm format. It shows the last days in New York of the protagonist Allie (Chris Parker), a slacker who spends his time walking around the city, meeting quite absurd characters, and philosophizing about life. For example, in the initial monologue he compares people to rooms, each one to be discovered, each one different. But I don’t want to lie to you: this movie has no plot.
Allie talks to his girlfriend Leila (Leila Gastil), although they don’t show much affection for each other. Then he meets a Vietnam veteran (Richard Boes) in a surreal scene with sounds of war in the background, then he visits his mother (Ruth Bolton) in a psychiatric institution, then he goes to the cinema where the popcorn lady (Lisa Rosen) reviews splendidly the movie The Savage Innocents (1960)… in short, the movie is a series of disjointed/slightly connected dialogues, one after the other until the car theft which allows Allie to buy a single ticket to France.
Thus, the most interesting aspect of the movie is to see the elements that turned out to be typical of Jarmusch’s later work. For example, the music is omnipresent: the protagonist adores Charlie Parker, the central point of the story of the African American guy at the cinema is Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and one character is played by musician John Lurie, who’s also the author of the ominous soundtrack together with Jarmusch.
The fact that, in the movie, New York is ugly, dirty, noisy, and sometimes completely devastated (like in many movies of those years, like Taxi Driver, 1976, and The Warriors, 1979, to name two), is also something that can be found in later works by the director: he never never looks for beautiful or spectacular shots! Finally, the lack of a real plot is another of his trademarks: just think of the aimless wandering of Johnny Depp in Dead Man (1995), or the repetitive and boring days of Adam Driver in Paterson (2016)! And naturally everyone smokes like a chimney.
In short, you should watch Permanent Vacation only if you are a true fan of Jim Jarmusch and you want to grasp the first sprouts of the ideas that he would later develop in his career. I’m convinced that everything in this movie is based on his actual wanderings around the city, even the car theft is probably something he witnessed! But these are just my speculations, of course. Who knows, maybe Jarmusch as a film school student really felt like he was on a permanent vacation like the protagonist of this movie. Ciao!