The seemingly inevitable time has finally come for Jim Jarmusch's first directorial efforts, Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise, to join the Criterion Collection’s already brimming Jim Jarmusch subsection, thus far consisting of, in order of DVD release: Down By Law, Night On Earth, Mystery Train, and Dead Man.
For the completionists arranging the Jarmusch subsection of their collections in chronological order, Stranger Than Paradise aesthetically compliments its 1986 follow up, Down By Law (Criterion’s first Jarmusch release) beautifully, offering something of a full circle for the filmmaker whose future Criterion release output is anyone’s guess. While there are oh-so-many worthy works in his filmography, I’m personally calling Coffee and Cigarettes. Perhaps the three B&W films will make for a stunning Criterion trilogy.
And yet, while Stranger Than Paradise, a package which includes Jarmusch’s real premiere directorial debut, Permanent Vacation, certainly offers the ‘meet Jim Jarmusch’ story - friend of the Bowery, whose prose were stark and never flowery - Criterion’s true ‘meet Jimmy J’ can be found in the soul and supplements of Howard Brookner’s Burroughs: The Movie. It is a gem of a student film wherein an NYU student (Brookner) documents the late-70s times of the lower east side’s own William S. Burroughs, with his fellow student and friend, Jim Jarmusch in tow wearing the audio mixer and lending sound to Brookner’s priceless footage.
All this Criterion prologue to say, at long last we have Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise in one glorious package, most-deserving of your hard earned cinephile bucks - as if you need to take it from me. The films themselves are not only cornerstones of the filmmaker many of us all love so dearly, but a prime relic of an extinct, desolate, end of the century NYC, to add to other such zeitgeist-evoking triumphs like The Ramones or, CBGS/Max’s, or Susan Seidelman, or Burroughs, or Sonic Youth, or Abel Ferrara or Scorsese, and on.
Permanent Vacation, which offers an eerily candid tour of the apocalyptically empty downtown streets, plays like an angsty youth-film brimming with the ideas of a first-time novelist wearing his existential confusion like a badge. Charlie Parker (no relation) bops in his decomposing apartment, before taking to the ancient dead-end streets, wandering around the rest of the film (his life?) “like a tourist on permanent vacation”, waiting for something to happen, taking it in stoically when and as it does, until eventually, Parker finds himself, like so many romantically alienated souls before him, adrift at sea.
Considering Jarmusch had just come off the heels of an involved documentary on William S. Burroughs, watching these final images of New York City drifting further and further away into the past as our hero ventures abroad by sea, I don’t think it's so unreasonable to recall a young Jack Kerouac forging into the white abyss on an open-minded road via the U.S. Naval Reserve. Not to mention, a younger Jarmusch himself, who years prior studied abroad in Paris where his real education began. It was there that the newfound-cinephile developed a taste for the minimalism of Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and others who alighted Jim’s young imagination.
This, of course, leads to part two of Criterion’s package: Stranger Than Paradise, Jarmusch's masterfully sardonic exercise in minimalist comedy, among other cinematic virtues distinct to the newly arrived filmmaker. If Permanent Vacation is something of a sincere Kerouacian question to the universe, Stranger Than Paradise is its smartass anti-answer. Like the great road novel before it, Jarmusch’s film takes to the open road ostensibly in search of adventure, only to find kicks exactly as exciting as the destinations they traverse... like Cleveland, Ohio... in the dead of winter.
It’s a priceless double feature worthy in and of itself of purchase, but as per usual, Criterion accompanies the latest HD transfers with mouth-watering goodies for us supplement-fiending junkies. You’re not going to find a transfer ranging into the Ks for this release, but the Jarmusch-supervised HD digital restorations are about as good as can be expected for both films. The transfer on Stranger Than Paradise certainly outdoes the previous MGM release by a landslide, not to mention the difference offered by the quality of its uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sounds as good as ever booming from Eva’s low-fi portable shoebox cassette tape recorder.
Any opportunity to hear Jim Jarmusch speak is one I take keen advantage of, so you better believe I enjoyed the audio commentary, which Jarmusch shares with the extremely amusing Paradise actor, Richard Edson. The U.S. and Japanese trailers are predictably dynamite, as they both prominently feature the cackling blues of wildman, J Hawkins casting a spell onto the marketing efforts. As for the package’s fat booklet, there’s plenty of good reading to be found within, from critics Geoff Andrew and J. Hoberman, to Low Life author, Luc Sante, to Jarmusch himself, who offers ‘“Some Notes on Stranger Than Paradise” from 1984.
Best of all, the features contain a treasure trove of vintage footage, including 14 minutes of home video silent super 8 footage capturing the road trip production shot in January ‘84 by Jim’s brother, Tom Jarmusch. The real prize pig of the package comes in the form of a random German television featurette, also from 1984, consisting of a young Jarmusch taking a German reporter around on a tour of his New York, as he revisits old locations and former cast-members of Permanent Vacation. Interviewed atop his own lower east side roof, Jarmusch points out a former field - a pivotal location of Permanent Vacation - now occupied by a prison-esque apartment complex.
Over the coming years, the faces that suffered the places, the people who built the memories and laid them down on record, would cease to recognize their old ruthlessly squalid stomping grounds. It’s a shame I suppose, but then, so is death. And while I’ll never know a world as cool as that time and place seem to have been, what is cinema if not a sort of public memory for people far and wide across time and space to access and lavish within? It's one holy feature anyway! As for Criterion's latest means of time-travel, Permanent Vacation/Stranger Than Paradise are two anti-trips worth taking.