dance scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation


Dance+: Permanent Vacation

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Pretty vacant… the dance scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation
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Dance brings a moment of presence within the waking dream of a world adrift

A carefree moment in an aimless life. Chris Parker in Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation (1980)

‘Life has no plot, why must film or fiction?’ – probably the frankest, simplest aporia towards any strict plotlines capturing life and its cinematic representation. Just to rephrase Jarmusch’s question: if life is a series of serendipities, why not embrace the riddle instead of figuring out the answer? Permanent Vacation (1980) is the first feature film of the American independent director Jim Jarmusch, but somehow it is already imbued with what became the signature style of his cinematic oeuvre: the slow, meandering pace of the unfolding story, the mystical yet mundane encounters between individuals, the presence of music and sound not just as an added layer to the picture but as an essential undertone to a whole spectrum of senses.

But if a story has no plot, what makes it a story? Who is it about and how do we follow the character? Here, it is hard to say if there is any goal to the go-nowhere existence of the main character, Chris Parker. We get that he is mainly a drifter, a post-industrial flâneur, but not exactly in the way Baudelaire saw himself in the Paris of the late nineteenth century. His itinerary in a post-apocalyptic New York City seems to be part imaginary, part realistic; maybe drifting is his way to survive in an uncanny, hostile world. A psychically traumatised soldier, a mentally deranged woman, a street saxophonist, a hospitalised mother suffering dementia parade in the film and although we don’t know what thread connects them, there’s a recurring theme and mood adhering to the many accidental encounters that try to fit into the story. It might be a kind of bitterness, the disarming sense that life murders dreams, or a joyous yet cruel feeling of being awake in a fuzzy, dream-like situation.

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Parker probably can’t yet recognise his own frail figure in the mirror

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There’s a wonderful scene capturing this alluring contradiction almost at the beginning of the film. It’s the only scene inside Parker’s apartment, who otherwise spends his life ‘just walking around’ because of lack of sleep. His (presumed) girlfriend is smoking a cigarette and looking purposelessly outside the window – a frame so elegant that one cannot avoid thinking it’s extracted from a Hopper painting – and asks him where has he been all night. Their dialogue is brief, reproducing all those mumbles, vacuums or silences we often find in any normal, daily conversation. Maybe it is the predominant silence which Parker wants to break as he turns to the record player. As soon as the vinyl starts turning, he responds to the beat, clicking his fingers to attune to the saxophone groove.

His impro dance is an act of transformation; only in retrospect do we realise that this is a moment of genuine carefree being which otherwise becomes swollen with aimless drifting and repetitive mood swings. His response to the bebop tune electrifies his body, he starts swirling, knees bent inwards, torso slightly inclined forward, head flapping from one side to the other. He does let himself be carried away by the rhythm – so much that he lets himself fall to the ground – but somehow his body is loose, weightless, and the fall doesn’t register as sad or melancholic. He stands up again and kicks off his shoes for the last bit of the music. The tune fades, his arms spread as if flying and a ‘phew’ is uttered – an exclamation to that unexpected yet much needed outburst.

The moment the music is off, he turns to the mirror, his attitude ‘straightened’ as if he had confided an aspect we shouldn’t be aware of. Just as youth frequently disguises any pain or fear, vaingloriously boasting ‘live fast’, Parker probably can’t yet recognise his own frail figure in the mirror – his dreams rushing ahead, still not aware that life is indeed lived fast, and dreams are murdered every day. 

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