Friday, October 14, 2016
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writers: Jim Jarmusch, Marion Bessay
Photography: Yorick Le Saux
Music: Jozef van Wissem, Sqürl
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Slimane Dazi, Jeffrey Wright
The only thing you can call Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie, which means it comes with the usual clutch of confusing vampire rules about sunlight, wooden stakes, invitations across thresholds, garlic, reflections in mirrors, and all that. As a project of director and cowriter Jim Jarmusch, however, Only Lovers Left Alive is nearly as much a movie about hipsters, his more typical theme, reimagining them as a secret society of long-lived rationalists who love music and science and poetry to distraction, even as they can't put much time or confidence in actual people. They are the usual bunch of misplaced record store clerks in a Jarmusch picture. Their tastes are refined, precise, even admirably noble, but their pouty arrogance is off-putting. It's the usual problem with hipsters.
I'm probably not making this movie sound very good, but I actually think it's exactly that: very, very good. You have to skip by the various conceits—for one, the main characters are named Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, the alternative Meryl Streep). A friend of theirs with many names (John Hurt) is the actual author of most of Shakespeare's plays. These indulgences mostly work with the given air of romantic hedonism, but in spite of themselves, and just barely. What's best to me here is the touching faith in Enlightenment values, the romantic passion these vampires have for science, clarity, and beauty, which is the result of centuries of perspective. They refer to plants and animals by their Latin genus and species names. They share latest news of scientific research. They can't believe the stupidity of the masses. Only Lovers Left Alive has a wonderful sense for how it would feel to be marginalized and intelligent for centuries, with an incidental appetite for blood that's guaranteed to keep you out of the lamestream.
In fact, so potent is the effect of blood on them that it is basically their drug, a form of sustenance but also a source of dark pleasure and oblivion. Adam and Eve have learned to manage it, with a mindset of "all things in moderation, including moderation itself," another hipster tenet. Like heroin addicts of the past 20 years, they often find it better to work with pharmaceutical options, making contacts as directly as possible within hospital black markets. An even better reason in their case is the blood-borne pathogens in the population at large, such as HIV, that threaten them above and beyond the usual problems of vampires associated with assault, kidnapping, and murder.
They have found a simpler, better way to live. At the beginning of the picture, Eve is living in Tangier and Adam is in Detroit. Detroit, at night—Jarmusch's vampires must avoid sunlight—is a particularly appropriate setting for what this movie is really about: contemplating a shift in human history, arguably even planetary history, that is epochal. These vampires have seen many terrible things in their time (clues suggest they are on the order of 700 years old) but even they are staggered by what has happened to Detroit. Jarmusch finds any number of ways to show the scope of the physical devastation, which suggest civilization end-times in blunt and vivid terms.
Adam is a mysterious rock 'n' roll cult figure—the music, much of it from Jarmusch's band Sqürl, is noisy, throbbing, and wonderful. Adam has a friend named Ian (Anton Yelchin, in another performance reminding why he will be missed), who is a kind of music industry hanger-on, a familiar type. He is personable and charming, really a little innocent, but skilled at wheeling and dealing and finding things like rare guitars and recordings, probably drugs, and other rock 'n' roll desirables. The whole scene is seductive and attractive, though also hipster-damaged. Adam and Eve both have a taste for Jack White and the White Stripes, for example. In the movie, the Detroit scene is represented by the New York City band White Hills, which has a number of purely coincidental touch points with the White Stripes.
Adam and Eve call the rest of us "zombies," a neat turn of phrase in this day and age and not inapt. Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), when she shows up, has a different kind of contempt. Ava is actually a lot of trouble, and central to the main narrative arc, which is not altogether a happy one. You can't be creatures of the night and expect a happy ending, is part of the deal here I guess, but a lot like this election cycle we are presently trapped in, the real tragedy appears to be the missed opportunities. Like it or not, the vampires Adam and Eve are a certain memorable ideal of human aspiration, one that most of us share on some level and/or could benefit from. But no, it appears we prefer to gorge until we bust wide open like infected pustules. These vampires, like hipsters and hippies, have some better ideas than fossil fuels, white supremacy, and nightly corpses. Cast an open mind this way, listen what the vampires say.
Top 10 of 2013
1. 12 Years a Slave
3. Only Lovers Left Alive
4. Jodorowsky's Dune
8. Before Midnight
9. Pacific Rim
10. Blue Is the Warmest Color