Review by Aaron Cutler
Posted on 04 August 2008
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
The question of what makes a film American – one from, about, or based in the U.S., specifically – looks simple. An initial response might be to say that American films are set in the U.S., but then one would have to include Stroszek, Werner Herzog’s film about German expats in Wisconsin which principally features a German crew and actors. That failing, one might suggest that American films feature American characters, yet that would have to include Voyage to Italy, which despite the presence of Hollywood stars George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman as American tourists was helmed by an Italian director for an Italian studio. Is Voyage to Italy American?
Many would say no but, judging by the American Film Institute’s selections of avowedly British productions like Lawrence of Arabia and The Third Man in its list of the 100 greatest American films, and the Oscars’ equating foreign films with foreign languages (only films more than halfway in a non-English language may be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, a rule to which last year’s wonderful Israeli film The Band’s Visit fell victim), all that it takes for a film to be American is for its actors to speak English. Colonialism works along the same lines: one of the most telling signs of a subjugated nation is the way that its people are made to speak the ruling power’s language. Yet rather than include non-Anglo films like The Band’s Visit – or even Anglo films like Voyage to Italy – in their midst, faceless entities like the AFI and AMPAS declare that for a film to be American, it must be at least partially financed by an American studio, or else have an American producer behind the scenes (hence neither film counts, but Letters from Iwo Jima does). For these corporate acronyms – and, by extension, for the millions of audience members who absorb both their cinematic output and the propaganda machine surrounding it – the distinction between American and foreign is not aesthetic but financial.
For the average viewer to accept a film as “authentically” American, however, it must somehow conform to his or her assumptions about what constitutes “American.” Amélie is one of the most popular French films to ever play in the States, in large part because its winsome heroine and chintzy music fulfill the l’amour-and-cobblestone expectations that many Americans hold of France; in much the same way, both the film version and the original novel of To Kill a Mockingbird are national icons because of the uncomplicated, archetypal myths that they present about America (the Civil Rights Movement rewritten as a tale of wise, gallant whites defending good, helpless blacks from evil Southern whites). A great number of viewers, rather than be stirred from their comfort zones, deliberately watch films that tell them what they already know, whether about their own country or others. This seems true of consumers of art in general; the novelist Brian Evenson, a former professor of mine, once told me that his Utah-set books were more popular in France than in the U.S. because he wrote them in a European style and syntax. He appealed to non-Americans, he claimed, because he wrote about the country in a way they understood.
The past three paragraphs have taken the roundabout way towards explaining why the American director Jim Jarmusch’s debut feature, Permanent Vacation, proved more popular abroad than it did in the U.S. Jarmusch wrote the 1980 film, in a sense, in a European syntax, and shot it in a European style. It lacks both the narrative structure and Hollywood genre trappings of later (and admittedly, better) Jarmusch films like Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Broken Flowers; consequently, American viewers not already versed in Jarmusch’s influences might overlook the film’s hypnotic beauties and simply dismiss it as weird. Many already have—while Vacation won the grand prize at a German film festival, it received a minor theatrical release Stateside and is only available here now as a bonus feature on Criterion’s Stranger Than Paradise DVD.
What shred there is of plot follows Aloysius Parker, a romantically self-involved youth in languid free-fall. The film opens with “Allie” walking around a desolate Manhattan; he returns to his apartment, and in dialogue with his girlfriend we learn that he hasn’t slept in days but that “I have my dreams while I’m awake.” Allie dances to a jazz number and reads aloud from the French novel Les Chants du Maldoror before leaving the apartment to visit his mother, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and is being held in a hospital in the middle of an array of grass and concrete bombed out by the Chinese during “the war.” He subsequently listens to monologues from a war veteran, a crazy woman outside the hospital and a laughing man in a movie theater, where he has gone to see Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents, a film about Eskimos. He steals a car and uses the money to buy a ticket for a boat to an unknown location. After a brief conversation with a Frenchman about Paris, he climbs aboard. As the ship sails into the distance, Allie’s voiceover tells us that he feels like he is a tourist on “permanent vacation.”
Jarmusch wrote Vacation’s screenplay and shot it on a budget of $15,000 shortly after dropping out of NYU’s film school. On one hand Tom DiCillo’s assured camerawork, John Lurie’s recurring, bell-heavy score and Jarmusch’s steady pacing all go a long way towards masking the film’s budgetary deficiencies; on the other hand, the poor sound recording and lack of polish in many of the performances go nearly as far in highlighting it. The locations stay credible, though, and the sense of postapocalyptic ennui is keenly felt. Yet while the film is never boring, despite its slow movement, it might leave most viewers with little to process outside of what is immediately seen and heard. Meandering in form, with a high, whiny-voiced lead annoying enough to throttle, Vacation initially seems more interesting as a hyperlink to other films than as its own work.
First there is the French New Wave, as Allie comes across like a more monotonous, less frenetic version of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, and both the Maldoror reading and the early scene of Allie walking by a wall covered in graffiti reading “Allie Total Blam Blam!” seem inspired by Godard (the first a scene from Weekend, the second Masculine/Feminine). Even more important to the film than the Nouvelle Vague’s polyglot pop culture love – Allie’s role model is Charlie Parker, and a jazz version of “Over the Rainbow” plays on Permanent’s soundtrack – is the roaming disaffection of the New German Cinema, in particular the films of Wim Wenders, for whom Jarmusch had served as a production assistant on a film about Nicholas Ray, Lightning Over Water. As with Wenders and other New German filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Jarmusch and DiCillo (who worked with Jarmusch again on Stranger Than Paradise and later became an acclaimed American indie director in his own right) keep the camera at a nonjudgmental distance from the characters, capturing a scene’s action in as few shots as possible. Like Wenders and company, Jarmusch often withholds information about his characters, rendering them cryptic; and like them, he makes his film’s subject perpetual displacement. Needless to say, American and German modes of disaffection are far from identical, but at the time of Vacation’s release both could be said to revolve around war; by using the filmmaking methods of artists still trying to work through their country’s legacy post-World War II, Jarmusch might have been commenting on America’s loss of stability following Vietnam. The reference to the Chinese can be read as commentary both on lingering fear of Communist Asia and on the American stereotype that all Asians look the same, while Allie’s desire to leave the country mirrors the sentiment of many intellectuals from the late ’60s on that America had let them down. Allie might be on permanent vacation because he doesn’t have a home.
Vacation can also be seen as a critique of how America had gone adrift not just politically, but artistically. Jaws and Star Wars altered the film industry irrevocably, and the American art film suffered for it; while living on the fringe almost by definition, personal filmmakers like Elaine May and John Cassavetes were pushed even further out of the system than they had been previously. The “independent film” suffered an identity crisis, and so it made sense for an American like Jarmusch not just to make a film with rootlessness as its primary subject, but to do so using European models. The film’s title, among other things, is a euphemism for unemployment; Allie’s creator, in a sense, was on permanent vacation, too.
Jarmusch is far from the only filmmaker to have adopted such an outlook, but to assess the extent of Vacation’s distinctiveness it might be useful to compare the film to another American independent’s ultra-low budget first feature, Richard Linklater’s 1988 film It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, made nearly a decade later but still before “indie” became a fashionable term. The plots of the two films are superficially similar, as Linklater’s film follows a young man (played by the director) from city to city as he looks for a place to settle down. Yet while Linklater, the eventual auteur of Dazed and Confused, Waking Life and School of Rock, is as much of a cinephile as Jarmusch is (he was even the programmer for the Austin Film Society, the most popular attraction of which seems to have been Pasolini’s Sálo), his film feels far more lived-in, organic and spontaneous. Linklater allows more bright lighting and handheld camera movement into his film than Jarmusch permits in his – neither protagonist has direction in life, but Linklater keeps his moving faster (Jarmusch, by contrast, could mount a fine Waiting for Godot). Linklater also grounds his narrative further in the everyday than Jarmusch does; while Aloysius’s motivations for wandering stay vague, Linklater’s nameless slacker is a college kid who has dropped out of school, and while Jarmusch films deliberately artificial, stylized scenes, one always gets a sense of Linklater’s action unfolding in the real world.
This comparison is not meant to suggest that one filmmaker is necessarily better than the other, nor is it meant to say that one is more “American”; the differences between their styles can be described reductively as differences between New York and Austin. It is meant to suggest, though, that Plow, like many of Linklater’s subsequent films, takes place in a world recognizable to viewers – even when, as in Slacker, that world is conveyed through a radical brand of ensemble storytelling that kicks much of Altman to the curb. In Linklater films, the characters can’t stop talking; in Jarmusch films, pauses are as common as words. Unlike Linklater, whose style grew progressively gabbier, Jarmusch’s filmmaking grew more restrained. Perhaps this is one reason why, despite a steadily increasing American cult following, Jarmusch has not yet broken into the mainstream of big-budget filmmaking as Linklater has – the last thing that one would ever want of recent Linklater stars like Jack Black and Billy Bob Thornton would be for them to scale back.
Yet even though he may never make a $100 million-grossing movie in his native land, Jarmusch’s American reputation has risen since Permanent Vacation, beginning with Stranger Than Paradise’s breakout in 1984 and climbing ever since. He has stayed truly independent for nearly 30 years ( unlike most American filmmakers, Jarmusch owns the negatives for all of his films), and he has done so by learning how to tell a story sparingly – for example, Stranger’s celebrated one scene-one shot technique, with blackouts between scenes – while still gratifying audience desires by giving them subverted versions of familiar worlds. While Linklater’s debut may feel more “real,” it offers few glimpses of the world outside the U.S.; Permanent Vacation, by contrast, was Jarmusch’s attempt to re-envision American film with a foreign perspective, and since then the filmmaker has revisited American film genres with actual foreigners (in films like Before Sunrise and Fast Food Nation, Linklater would eventually include non-native characters as well). Stranger Than Paradise, with its happy-sad dynamics between Americans and Hungarians, was lower-class Lubitsch; Down by Law a Hawksian comedy and adventure film featuring Roberto Benigni in Louisiana; and the remarkable Dead Man a retort to the Western, in particular to The Searchers—while John Ford’s canonical Western posited white civilization as a haven from savage Indians, Jarmusch’s acid Western marks Indian society as a haven from savage white men.
Although they unfold in constructed Americas, Jarmusch’s films also often feature a strong political awareness of the real thing, with a willingness to poke fun at the establishment and include outsiders in their discourse. Allie steals a car from a white woman in designer clothing who leaves her key in the ignition. As she stands on the sidewalk shrieking, a black woman in loose-fitting clothes enters the frame laughing and says that she’d better watch her ass “before he snatches that up, too.” There’s a short journey from this black woman to the Native American Nobody in Dead Man and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, who can only shake his head at Caucasian blunders and mutter, “Stupid fucking white man.” One senses even in an abstract Jarmusch film like Permanent Vacation a great deal of truth about life in America – the aimlessness of prosperity, and the way that people close themselves off from each other, especially when they have different accents or skin colors (it’s also worth noting that Jarmusch depicted America as a wasteland in the same year that Reagan marched towards the Oval Office). Jarmusch’s people are a long way not just from the simplistic sanctimony of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also from the implicit master-slave dynamics in recent Hollywood films like Iron Man. Permanent Vacation may have a European style, but it’s the work of an important American artist, one canny enough to see Allie not as a hero but as a stupid, stuck-up kid. Allie wants to leave society, yet is too myopic even to step outside himself; while Jarmusch stays in-country, his ability to view the States critically makes him a much greater rebel. “American” can mean all kinds of things; I’ll take Jarmusch’s view.