Aloysius Parker (Chris Parker) is known as Allie for short, but if he ever has a son he would call him Charles so he would have the same name as the jazz great Charlie Parker. He lives in New York City with his girlfriend Leila (Leila Gastil) in a tiny apartment located in a rundown tenement block in a dilapitated area, but he finds the people he meets are like rooms, for when he first goes into a room the novelty of being somewhere new excites him, whether it be the furniture or the television or whatever, but once he gets used to his surroundings a listlessness sets in and he feels the need to move on. So it is when he tries to have a conversation with the unresponsive Leila and resorts to dancing to a jazz record instead...
Doyen of American indie movies Jim Jarmusch had to start somewhere, and Permanent Vacation was that jumping off point, essentially a pumped up student film shot on 16mm and cast with various people he knew to bring to life a very specific time and place, the New York apparently on its last legs as the seventies turned to the eighties. It seems as though the director didn't have to look around very hard for locations, as right outside his door were shabby streets littered with trash, buildings either on the brink of falling down or actually falling down, and inhabitants who were, away from the slow motion hustle and bustle that opens the film, pretty much mirroring their surroundings in their sense of hopelessness and attrition.
Not many directors set out to make a boring movie, but that's what this came across as, an attempt to capture the bone deep ennui the characters felt living in this impoverished region. For this reason, Permanent Vacation is not everyone's favourite Jarmusch effort, most dismissing it as a largely tedious stumbling baby steps towards the more accomplished if no less idiosyncratic stylings of his works to follow. On the other hand, if you appreciate the ambience that was concocted, that feeling there was something very close to life as it was lived in New York in 1980 being brought out in the drama even as it was affected to some degree, then you would find much to like here; for some viewers, Jarmusch never bettered his efforts in this.
They're wrong, but the curiously laidback determination to go against the grain and more or less give birth to the American indie scene which really took off in this decade (John Sayles was making Return of the Secaucus Seven around this point too - there was obviously something in the air) does contain an undeniable appeal, whether you liked the strong atmosphere of time and place or not. Episodic is the key word here, as you might have gathered from that opening narration Allie prefers to flit from character to character in his endeavours to fill up his empty days, so most scenes featured him in an encounter with someone he happens to meet as he wanders the streets, such as the Vietnam War veteran (Richard Boes) reliving his harrowing experiences in a ruined building.
Allie puts his mind at rest, but we perceive someone really needs to do the same for him when he goes to visit his mother (Ruth Bolton) who resides in a mental hospital. In an unnerving sequence, he tries to chat with her in her room there but finds he has nothing to say and they each can offer no comfort for their relative, not helped by the other resident laughing like a drain whenever Allie opens his mouth to speak. Other parts are more humorous; when he ventures into a cinema foyer he asks the cashier (Lisa Rosen), who is relaxing behind the desk by poring over J.G. Ballard's Crash, if the film - Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents - is any good, and she gives her impressions of two scenes which may or may not play out the same way as her recollections. Then a man seated across the lobby (Frankie Faison, one of the few performers here who went on to a very decent career in acting) tells a long, rambling story which turns out to be a joke, complete with punchline referencing John Lurie's early appearance, here contributing the saxophone music to a hauntingly downbeat little snapshot of a film.
[Soda Pictures have released a Blu-ray box set of Jim Jarmusch films which includes this along with other classics from his career like Down By Law and Dead Man. The picture quality is exemplary and the entire set, with extras, is a must for fans or those interested in getting into Jarmusch's work.]