Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Ennui lovers left alive

Privileged vampire lovers descend into melancholy in Jim Jarmusch's delightful 'Only Lovers Left Alive'

Only Lovers Left Alive
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, Jeffrey Wright and John Hurt
Rated R / 2 hours, 3 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive exists within a lonely, drug-fueled haze from which there is no escape and no room for outsiders. The junkies are Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton), who live solitary lives on opposite ends of the globe but, as vampires, share the same addiction for blood.

The film opens on the steady spin of a vinyl record, intercut with overhead shots of our two lovers/addicts, the camera rotating around and around as the figures below lie there, looking still and peaceful. Both are in a position to sit back and enjoy their habit rather than grovel for every last fix. They can afford the good stuff, and they can afford not to have to resort to violence to get it. Through the wealth they've amassed over the centuries, and a few similarly well-to-do friends, they can almost always get what they want. Only when their supply unexpectedly runs short do they begin to get desperate, roaming the streets in search of just a little taste and willing to do anything for it. Jarmusch makes the motif very clear; the whole film could be interpreted as an allegory about addiction, like the expressionistic confessions of a junkie.

There's a ceremonial aspect to the way to the way these vampires feed. They reverently poor themselves bloody aperitifs in fancy, antique glasses. When they finally take a sip, the camera presents the experience with the out-of-body ecstasy that has so often been the visual language of heroin - the floating weightlessness as smiles carve into the faces of the user, all of their other cares and complaints fading away for another few hours.

Adam lives on the abandoned outskirts of Detroit in a poorly lit, ramshackle house, where he spends his days making music and hoping to remain as anonymous as possible. The only human - or "zombie," as these vampires refer to us - he allows into his home, tolerating for a few minutes at a time, is Ian (Anton Yelchin), his lackey who stops by every few days to drop off a rare guitar or other curiosity. Ian doesn't know Adam's secret, casually accepting that his mysterious his friend is just an eccentric artist.

Eve, meanwhile, lives an equivalently isolated but brighter and more luxurious life in Tangier. She settles for no less than the best blood from a doctor associate in France (of course), via her close friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (yes, that one), played indelibly by the great John Hurt.

Despite their distance, Adam and Eve speak regularly (thanks, iPhone!) and clearly share a deep intimacy no matter how far apart they are physically.

The film has an easy warmth to it from the start, establishing a poignant atmosphere dripping with nostalgia, mourning and passion. Jarmusch has always been a master of character interaction, and he's in fine form here, as his characters amusingly extol the virtues of Tesla and slag off the "illiterate" Shakespeare while reminiscing about the past, and their various (and impressive) contributions to the history books. They philosophize about the lives they've led and the state of the world. They wax poetic about the minutiae of objects and instruments - what year it's from, what material it's made out of. (One wonders what a purist like Adam would think of his story being shot digitally instead of on 35mm - no, better yet, 16mm - but that's a whole other topic.) Addiction-wise, it plays almost like a hipster Trainspotting, with the Sean Connery trivia swapped out for tales about Schubert and Byron.

There's an effortless enjoyability and wit to virtually every moment. When Eve makes a visit to Adam's apartment, she goes to the freezer and pulls out a pair of bright-red popsicles, one for each of them. "What is that?" he asks. "O-negative," she cheerfully answers.

As we get to know the two of them, they become a source of both delight and, from time to time, annoyance. Adam and Eve are, essentially, aging hipsters, and they spend an inordinate amount of time lamenting the toxicity of modern times - the way the zombies don't remember or appreciate great artists, the degree to which they've poisoned their planet and their own bodies (namely their blood, which is apparently making it harder and harder to get good, pure stuff for their consumption). Adam in particular, despite having lived through centuries of artistic eras across the planet, seems to have no interest in any of the endeavors and creations of 21st Century humanity - or at least 21st Century Americans.

His dissatisfaction has turned into full-blown depression. When Ian stops by one night, Adam gives him a wad of cash to bring him a custom-made wooden bullet - "For an art project," he insists - and, as if to make sure it can get the job done, specifies the best kinds of wood. Once he has the bullet in hand, we see him try to psych himself into pulling the trigger, but he can't yet do it. He may need a little more time to get the courage - but hey, time is the one thing he's got plenty of.

Judging by Eve's reaction to his state, Adam has been through periods like this before, but perhaps none quite as serious as this. Adam sees the modern world as culturally and spiritually bankrupt, and fears there's no going back. Which essentially makes him just like every other whiny middle-aged or old person who thinks their generation was better and that the yougsters are destroying everything. At one point, he comes perilously close to yelling at a group of "rock and roll kids" to get off his damn lawn. (Really.)

Frankly, if I ever got that bitter and miserable and lacked the self-awareness to see the absurdity of those emotions, I'd take a wooden bullet to the heart, too. As for the movie, I'm not sure if Jarmusch is aware of quite how pathetic Adam comes across - or if he's channeling his own feelings on the matter, which would be even more disheartening. As funny as the dialogue is, and as much verve and wit with which Hiddleston and Swinton play the roles, the implicit commentary is rather empty. I'm the nocturnal sort myself, and let's just say I share many of the same tastes as Adam and Eve. But Adam is the kind of hipster that makes hipsters - or any high-minded patron of the arts - look bad.

The film is strongest when it's at its most tempered - a passion for life laced with a cool ironic distance, a wealth of experience and privilege blended with the cynicism to not take it too seriously. Jarmusch cleverly plays with ideas of mystique surrounding artists in general - Adam admits that his reclusiveness only makes him more interesting to fans of his music, which only adds to his frustration - while simultaneously indulging those romantic notions. That's ultimately where Only Lovers Left Alive lands - in a conflicted space, both wistful and carefree, but with the charm and humor to reconcile the two.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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