Art, Love, and the Undead: Only Lovers Left Alive

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It’s not at all surprising that indie stalwart Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed a vampire movie. Indeed, it only seems surprising that he didn’t do it sooner: Jarmusch has long displayed a feel for misfits, weirdoes, and nightlife in his films, and with works like 1995’s essential revisionist western DEAD MAN, he’s also displayed a knack for making familiar genre tropes interesting again. And hey, the posters for Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE do look like they could have been beamed in from twenty years ago: Tom Hiddleston’s gothed-out appearance and guitar are evocative of Brandon Lee in THE CROW. But LOVERS feels very much of our own weary times, as its immortal characters search for meaning and hope in the 21st century.

Hiddleston plays Adam, a vampire exhausted and severely depressed by the state of modern society and the “zombies” (i.e. humans) who inhabit it. Shying away from the tech-obsessed, media-saturated outside world, he hides away in a forgotten corner of struggling Detroit, surrounding himself with stacks of analog audio equipment and composing funeral music dense with squalling guitar. He tells his longtime love Eve, played by Tilda Swinton, that he feels like “all the sand is at the bottom of the hourglass.” Eve’s personality, meanwhile, counterbalances Adam’s: while he mopes in Detroit, she is more at home in the much warmer Tangier, where she can be close to her friends (including Christopher Marlowe – yes, that Christopher Marlowe – played by a wonderful John Hurt). She travels light, and prefers her sleek iPhone to Adam’s clunky older gadgets. While Adam despairs, Eve attempts to coax him into seeing the beauty and possibility in the world, or to at least muster the energy to dance along to his old record player. Adam and Eve even create a visual yin and yang: he has jet-black hair and a Johnny Cash wardrobe, while she sports white-blonde hair and clothes to match.

With all of their differences, what unites the two lovers is not just an endless hunger for human blood (which they procure via local blood banks, as civilized vampires will), but also for culture, art, and ideas. The vampires in this film adore books and records, and share small talk about Tesla and the stars. Jarmusch often seems more interested in how Adam and Eve nourish their hearts and minds than in their ghoulish lust for blood. The film’s greatest conflict comes from Adam’s potentially suicidal depression – he commissions a wooden bullet while Eve is away in Tangier – and so every scene where the two vampires look for beauty amid urban decay, or embrace one another, or talk about heady ideas, is a scene where Eve is fighting for Adam, and willing him to fight for himself. These moments also surface in the mind hours and even days after seeing the film – Adam showing Eve the ruins of a once-magnificent theater; Eve describing a star that resembles both a diamond and a gong.

A more conventional conflict does emerge when Eve’s vampire “sister” Ava blows in from Los Angeles, looking to crash at their place and guzzle their precious supply of blood. Ava is selfish and immature, sharply contrasting her graceful and contemplative hosts. In short order the bratty younger vampire takes up with Adam’s human ally Ian, who drops by on occasion to sell Adam vintage guitars. Next to Adam and Eve, Ava and Ian look like poor imitations, and their connection proves shallow and destructive. The presence of these foils sheds light on one of the film’s other major concerns: the vast difference between the compulsion to create art, and the desire to receive recognition for it. Ava annoys Adam by listening to some of his recordings without permission, and Ian has been selling bootlegs of Adam’s music on the sly, though Adam himself can’t court much attention for fear of exposing himself as a vampire. Adam’s vampiric elder, writer Christopher Marlowe, obviously has the same problem when it comes to risking exposure. While they both have chosen share their work on occasion, it’s usually under someone else’s name. (The film takes a mischievously Marlovian stance on Shakespeare’s oeuvre, and suggests that Schubert received an assist from an anonymous source as well.) Marlowe and Adam understand that the work is mostly its own reward.

During one spellbinding musical sequence, singer Yasmine Hamdan belts out a gorgeous love song that underscores the importance of Adam’s relationship with Eve, but also emphasizes the significance of his relationship with art. If Ava and Ian serve as reminders of shallowness and selfishness, Hamdan’s performance is a reminder that transcendence can sneak up on us out of nowhere. With this scene, Jarmusch seems to suggest that art is one of the most compelling reasons to embrace life – even, or perhaps especially, an eternal one. It’s refreshing to spend time with a film that makes no bones about being literate and atmospheric, and it’s comforting, in an age of YA vampires who keep repeating high school, to watch creatures of the night who bother to be worldly, cramming their lives with words and music, and even looking up from their navels occasionally, to wonder at the stars.

 

 

 

 

Victoria Large is a Massachusetts-based writer who has also contributed to Bright Lights Film Journal and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

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