‘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.