To what extent do Anthony Giddens’ theories on existential anxiety and late modernism apply to the film Permanent Vacation by Jim Jarmusch from 1980?
A Critical Analysis by Anna Sofie Jespersen
Chelsea College of Arts
Throughout his studies in Modernity and Self-Identity, Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, sociologist Anthony Giddens refers to humans as actors, society as the stage or settings, and the occurrences in life as the ongoing narrative. (p. 11, 20, 33, Giddens 1991) A terminology that curiously refers the Shakespearian ideology that life is a stage and we must all play a part. Film is a reflection of life, and to an extent life is a reflection of film. Does the sociological and philosophical paradigms used within modern and late modern contemporary society apply to the understanding of the parallel universe that we call cinema? And could this analysis help comprehend reality? Giddens refers to today’s society as the high modern or late modern society. High modernism constitutes a society where the individual has obtained a certain amount of freedom of choice within their own existence, primarily because of the post-traditional order of society. (p. 3 Giddens, 1991) One is no longer fixed within certain strata, the possibility of network within the digital age and increasing social mobility has made the human able to communicate and exist across time and space. This obtained freedom results in an element of doubt and especially risk, which Giddens believes is an unavoidable constant in high modern society:
“Modernity is a risk culture, I do not mean by this that social life is inherently more risky than it used to be; for most people in the developed societies that is not the case. Rather, the concept of risk becomes fundamental to the way both lay actors in technical specialists to organize the social world. Under conditions of modernity, the future is continually drawn into the present by means of the reflexive organization of knowledge environments.” (p. 3, Giddens, 1991)
Two significant components, reflexivity and knowledge, which have improved our society greatly within terms of social security and freedom of the individual, are, according to Giddens, also the ones hindering us in our choice. The freedom of choice results in the unavoidable fear of not succeeding. In a pre-modern or traditional society, the individual’s responsibly for her own success and happiness was very minimal, because of the non-mobility and the fixation of social class, family tradition and religion. This responsibility results in a continuous confrontation with our own contemporary social existence. With this observation he puts himself next to existentialistic philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger, whom he both quotes throughout his book. An existentialist phenomenon that both Giddens and Kierkegaard have been occupied by is the question of the existential anxiety. He says: “Anxiety in a certain sense comes with human liberty, as Kierkegaard says; freedom is not a given characteristic of the human individual, but derives from the acquisition of an ontological understanding of external reality and personal identity.” (p. 47, Giddens, 1991) So, according to Kierkegaard the individual freedom is a double-edged sword; it liberates us and it imprisons us. Human existence does not simply consist of the subject’s ability to recognize their actions, but also to question the very nature of their own actions and participation in life. This does not only apply to the individual, but to society in general, this Giddens refers to as institutional reflexivity (p. 20, Giddens, 1991), which means that a given society must reevaluate and use its knowledge to consider its own existence as a whole.
“We begin from the premise that to be a human being is to know, virtually all of the time, in terms of some description or another, both what one is doing and why one is doing it.” (p. 35, Giddens, 1991)
In his debut film from 1980 Permanent Vacation, American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch examines the rootlessness and restlessness characterizing his own generation, through the young Aloysius ‘Allie’ Parker, a disenfranchised, half-criminal hipster who is flickering about in the forsaken backstreets of New York. Gloominess and solitude of the individual is an often examined subject within Jarmusch’s films. In the beginning of Permanent Vacation we see footage from a birds perspective of a crowded street walking in slow motion. The “norm” crowd becomes juxtaposition to the rest of the movie, which constitutes only of Allie’s random and disturbing encounters with lonely, bored, broken and utterly insane personages in his tour de force through the city’s ripped backsides. In an interview with Terrence Sellers, Jarmusch talks about his cinematic portraying of existential loneliness:
“There are many places in New York that are really unfrequented, there are a lot of alleys in Lower Manhattan where there aren’t even derelicts. Chris’ character (Allie, red.), very early in the film, in discussion with the girl whose house he’s living in, talks about being alone: that everyone’s always alone, and they deal with it by pretending they aren’t, and he refuses to pretend he isn’t. We emphasized this visually. We wanted the feeling that there was nobody around, just nobody.” (Jarmusch, p. 1, interview, Jarmusch Resource page)
Jarmusch’s portraying of the lonelyness of the city becomes an allegory for Allie’s way of life. Allie is a sort of ultimate realist. He refuses to be concieved by the normative society, and he actually chooses loneliness over the charade that he believes the world around him to play. As he says: „It’s better to think that you’re not alone when you’re drifting, even though you are. Instead of just knowing that you’re alone all the time.“ (Aloysius Parker in Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch, 1980) The sense of loneliness is a factor of the high modern society, the individual is left on its own devises, and the existential choice can be a lonely one.
“And then there is this kind of dread, kind of creeping dread. You probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. But anyway I guess the point of all this is that after a while something tells you, some voice speaks to you. And that’s it; time to split. Go someplace else. People are gonna be basically the same, maybe use some different kind of refrigerator or toilet or something but this thing tells you… and you have to start to drift. You may not even wanna go.”(Aloysius Parker in Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch, 1980)
What Allie here is explaining can be understood as a sense of existential anxiety, rooted in his absolute moral and physical freedom. Giddens talks about the term ontological security, first used by psychologist Erik Erikson, as an important factor in establishing the narrative self. The ontological security is established in the early years of childhood and functions as an “existential anchor in reality” (p. 38, Giddens, 1991), which rests on the reliability and trust towards the caretaker. Giddens points out that if the ontological security is broken doing childhood or adolescence, a person will lose the sense of continuity and coherence that must exist for the individual to create a narrative self. He says: “As Helen Lynd puts it, once this happens, ‘we have become strangers in a world where we thought we were at home. We experience anxiety in becoming aware that we cannot trust our answers to the question, “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” … with every recurrent violation of trust we become again children unsure of ourselves in an alien world.’” (p. 66, Giddens, 1991)
We get a look into allie’s past as he visits his mother in a mental institution. She becomes the image of the pathological self, and and an explanation for Allie’s lack of social attachment and narrative self. He refuses to conform to the social norms and expectations, in fear of losing himself. Therefore he has, in a rather realist sense, commited himself to ‘drift’, and to accept life’s meaninglesness as a series of rooms, as he describes it. Giddens refers again to Erikson and continues: “Erikson has observed that ‘the patient of today suffers most under the problem of what he should believe in and who he should – or, indeed, might – be or become; while the patient of early psychoanalysis suffered most under inhibitions which prevented him from being what and who he thought he knew he was.’” (p. 69, Giddens, 1991)Considering Eriksons point, Allie has in a way chosen to completely disregard the effects of his own contemporary society; the fear, despair and isanity that has gripped the remaining characters in the film, and left them paralyzed within their own existense, is precisely what Allie is running away from.
With Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch allows his protagonist to become arepresentation of a whole generation of individuals feeling rootless and restless in their own body and existence. The disgregarding of place and almost hateful contempt towards materiality, becomes a note of Jarmusch’s generation’s abandonment of society’s previous social norms. Jarmusch has often been accused of pretentiousness and “hipsterism” which he responds to in an interview with the German Intro Magazine, where he instead describes himself as a ‘cultural whore’ (Intro Magazine, 2012). He has no genre preference, no hierarchy, no tools of filtering out what is “the right kind of art”, and as a director he is self-reliant to the extreme, and has been referred to as godfather of American independent film. Like other contemporary filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, etc.), he hails the mythology and history of storytelling, and many of his movies contain hidden homages to other directors, often non-American. This element of re-usage and reproduction of mythology is what Jean-Francois Lyotard would call postmodern. Sociologists and philosophers still discuss whether our present society is postmodern or merely late modern. Lyotard describes the postmodern artist as such: “A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work.” (p. 81, Lyotard 1979)
According to Lyotard, the postmodern artist does not have to conform to the rules and structures of traditional art criticism, nor can his work be compared within the genre that the work exists. The art becomes genre-less. Jim Jarmusch could to some extend be called a postmodern artist: Giddens might not have written his analysis on late modern society in 1980 when Jarmusch was a film student, but the thematic of doubt, restlessness and existential loneliness, was certainly established within the Jarmusch stylistic already then.
In relation to my own praxis, the relationship between film and art has always been a huge source of inspiration for my work. Exploring the boundaries between fiction and reality, and quite literally drawing comparisons between memories, mythology, science fiction and reality is my main drive when working with the drawn image. I find Jim Jarmusch especially essential to pull into an art critical context now, as his films represents a way of making art that Nicolas Bourriuad talks about in Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, from 2005, according to him the artist’s use of image appropriation is now more than ever, and Jarmusch’s way of using a reference point in his filmmaking is an example of that; a way of working that is extremely familiar to my own perception of creativity.
▪ Barthes, Roland: Mythologies, 1993, Vintage Books, London
▪ Bourriaud, Nicolas: Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, 2005, Lukas and Steinberg
▪ Flynn, Thomas R.: Existentialism, 2006, Oxford University Press, New York
▪ Giddens, Anthony: Modernity and Self-Identity, Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, 1991, Polity Press
▪ Giddens, Anthony: The Consequences of Modernity, 1991, Polity Press, Cambridge
▪ Jarmusch, Jim: Permanent Vacation, 1980, Fortissimo Films
▪ Lyotard, Jean-Francois: The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge, 1979, Manchester University Press
▪ Mactaggart, Allister: The film painting of David Lynch, 2010, Intellect
▪ Peranson, Mark: Stranger Than Fiction, in Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, edited by Yvonne Tasker, 2002, Routledge, London
▪ Renaldi, Léa: Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch, 2014
Wartenberg, Thomas: Philosophy of film, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014
Jim Jarmusch im interview, November 2013, Intro Magazin, Berlin
Jozef Van Wissem & Jim Jarmusch: The Mystery of Heaven, 2012, Sacred Bones Records
A conversation with Jim Jarmusch, 03-02-2011
Bitel, Anton: Permanent Vacation, 13th may, 2008, Eye for Film
Pinkerton Nick: New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones, August 1, 2005, Reverseshot
Interview in Vacation Project 13, 1981, New York, The Jim Jarmusch Resource Page