It Is Better to Travel Hopefully than to Arrive

By Rosy Rockets

permanent-vacation-jim-jarmusch.jpgPermanent Vacation, 1980  

The Jim Jarmusch Collection brings together the ready, steady and go of the director’s landmark career. With Permanent Vacation, a fidgety, crumbling examination of adolescent discontent in crumbling 80s New York, he’s ready to have his say. This student debut might be technically shabby, but its cinematography shows a deeply idiosyncratic aesthetic, and there is a strong sense of the young auteur’s musky earnestness and integrity. With the three-part Stranger than Paradise, a pared down precursor to Swingers, Jarmusch found his feet. But it’s not until Down by Law, the elliptical, groovy forefather to O Brother Where Art Thou? that he gets going. When we reach this last film, his characters have matured and his set pieces are richer, yet he still rejects the narrative conventions that often handicap great character-led pieces, an example from the comedy/jailbreak genre being Stir Crazy. The confident execution of Vacation and Paradise contrasts with the awkwardness of its players – the characters in Down by Law are made in their creator’s image.

Life is rife with coincidence and peculiarity. Jarmusch’s films have a Stuckist sensibility; it is lazy to refer to his films as quirky. Evidence of an ongoing fascination with lookalikes and coincidence occurs not only on but off-screen, in his “Sons of Lee Marvin” club, formed for those who bear a passing resemblance to the actor (to the chagrin of the real Marvin Jr). The characters in his early films frequently walk through a world which scrolls like a SNES game, as though they will never turn a corner but continue treading an infinite equator. In each section of this triptych there features at least one scene in which sullen or paranoid morbidity is met with end-of-the-pier automaton cackling, because life is far too important to be taken seriously. Jarmusch’s characters are recognisable partly in the way that they converse – in the self-absorbed, guarded manner of work colleagues in a smoking room, even when nobody is smoking. His characters don’t need cigarettes to convince themselves they are brooding. They follow the "no hugging, no learning" ethos of Curb your Enthusiasm.

permanent-vacation-jim-jarmusch-2.jpgPermanent Vacation, 1980 

Permanent Vacation’s Aloysius “Allie” Parker is the dark side of Ferris Bueller. Every child of the Eighties sees Ray-Ban Wayfarer shades and a saxaphone when they hear the word “cool”, and these are the trappings of Jarmusch’s pup hipsters. Permanent Vacation has a post-Aristocats preoccupation with alleys, jazz, Paris and wanderlust. Aloysius is a name for saints and singers, but in this case is probably a conceit in the style of Tom Verlaine. Other apt namesakes include the fluff-lashed, lazy eyed rumour-turned-citizen of Sesame Street, Aloysius Snuffleupagus; and the warped icon of nostalgia that was Lord Sebastian Flyte's stuffed bear Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited. Permanent Vacation depicts the dichotomous adolescent need to explore and assert one’s individuality through extremes, and to be accepted and nurtured. Allie reads Maldoror but still plays with a yoyo. Actor Charlie Parker’s voice has a flyblown kazoo quality which must have jarred in the adult films of his later career. During his “vacation” Allie repeatedly bleats, zoots and leaves different aspects of Reagan-ravaged New York, with barely audible consequences. A snoozy soliloquy is drowned out by a dog barking at the end of its tether. John Lurie’s jazz soundtrack plays like toys trailing after the characters on strings, or ghost train sirens. The musical phrasing follows a frustrated moebius strip, from the distorted sound of remembered ice cream van chimes to the repeated opening verse of "Over the Rainbow". The circularity of Allie's dance in his androgynous girlfriend’s stagflation era apartment, and the synchronicity of his doppelganger encounter, conducted with Beeblebrox cool, follow the same Moebius strip.

References to a fictional 20th century war with the Chinese are widely inferred, in reviews, from a war vet’s flashback from ‘Nam and from the paranoia of Allie’s institutionalised mother who doesn’t dare look out of the window. However, these characters could be deluded by the residual trauma of the actual Vietnam war. Allie’s claim that the “Chinese” bombed his birthplace comes across as a melodramatic reinterpretation of the truth, rooted in the fact that it was the intervention of the US in the Vietnam war that led to the lapidated NY slums. In the 80s, New York was only bombed in the fifties slang sense. On an aspiring beat poet’s coolometer, “the rubble of the house where I was born” excels even the titular catchphrase. The name of the film’s distributor, a play on the word “synaesthesia”, sticks in the mind and forms a link between the “doppler effect” anecdote and the prevailing “grass is greener” theme that bleeds into the next part of the collection.

stranger-than-paradise-jim-jarmusch.jpgStranger than Paradise, 1984 

The black leader sections in Stranger than Paradise are not, as the layman might assume, bits where the camera was turned off. They require a special type of film stock and post-production faffing. The blackness is a presence, not an absence, illustrating the way that the characters have nothing to do, but are busy doing nothing – just as Nobody is a person in Jarmusch’s later Dead Man. The recurring use of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ song “I put a spell on you” brings a pulse to the film, as though life itself is saying to the characters: "I don't care if you don't want me, I'm yours". Man flees from mother or even motherland into the embrace of a new woman, a new country - only to find himself in the same place, with the same woman. For Willie, Eddie and Eva, the stillborn Jules et Jim triangle, Paradise is Florida. They speak of pink flamingos and orange oranges which are fated to be diegetically and symbolically grey. A dawn chorus style pizzicato heralds the third act, and brings hope to the trio. But, to paraphrase Socrates, you can't ever really go on holiday, as wherever you go, you're there.

In Paradise, nobody can scream, so Screamin’ Jay does it for them. In Down by Law, John Lurie’s “Jack” demonstrates to Robert Benigni’s “Bob” the silent scream of someone who’s too cool to emote. The film opens with the excellent Tom Waits song Jockey Full of Bourbon, which has since been cheekily bastardised for Dylan Moran’s Black Books. The early scenes follow the achingly cool surliness of Waits and Lurie through a New Orleans painted by Edward Hopper turned goth. To those who only know him from his Life is Beautiful, and found the film abhorrent, the casting of Robert Benigni as Bob, the comic relief, might be disheartening. However, his detractors must prepare to forgive him. Jarmusch tends to pick his players from his social circle, and the dynamic between Benigni, Waits and Lurie is beautifully selected, if a little too good to be true.

down-by-law-jim-jarmusch.jpgDown by Law, 1986 

The early scenes of Down by Law make use of a certain low angle reminiscent of Yasujir┼Ź Ozu’s “tatami shot”, but in this case better termed a “beer crate shot”. It plants us on the sidewalk with Waits, in a bed with a prostitute, on a jail bunk by Lurie, forming an intimacy and conspiracy with the characters so that by the time the frequency of bird-in-a-tree shots increases, our gaze is detached but affectionate. Benigni’s capacity for memorising and conveying classical poetry is much exploited, and the celebration of the music of language extends in one scene to exuberant Absurdist logorrhea. Lurie’s lovely leitmotifs dissipate towards the middle of the film, which finds the trio sharing a prison cell, and “what do you do?” mingles with “what did you do?”. The omission of the actual escape process should not be mistaken for a penny-dreadful deus ex machina. A digression into logic and cunning would break the fateful flow. Silence pours into the film like swamp water into a canoe, and the characters fill it with soliloquy babble. Finally, Bob finds a fairytale ending when he meets Nicoletta, played by Benigni’s actual wife. Their rapport is so profoundly, simply and warmly bared as to suggest that this has all been a dressing up game between adults, played out at Mr and Mrs Benigni’s house.

You might well find yourself coming back to Down by Law, when you’re looking for a thinking man’s chicken-soup film. Even those who don’t enjoy the first two films will be left pondering at least one existential question, even if it’s only “How do I get the last 84 minutes of my life back?”. Don’t take your questions to the director, who will respond in the style of Beckett when interrogated on the characters in Waiting for Godot: “Maybe they owe you explanations. Let them supply it. Without me. They and I are through with each other.” And if you don’t feel like ever watching his films again, that’s okay – neither does Jim Jarmusch.

“I got to keep movin', I got to keep movin', blues fallin' down like hail.
And the day keeps on worryin' me, there's a hell-hound on my trail” – RL Johnson


Rosy Rockets is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge.