Sunday, May 18, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive


Only Lovers Left Alive is what happens when Jim Jarmusch, the best living example of what it means to be "independent" in American cinema, comes to the vampire genre. If you are familiar with Jarmusch's career then you won't be surprised to learn that here he is as disinterested in structure and narrative expectations as he has ever been, instead there is a broader set of concerns that feel like a summing up of something the director has been trying to say for some time. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about culture and why it matters, and why in a way the world needs snobs in order to keep on moving.

 A vampire movie needs some rules, and I'd be curious to know whether Jarmusch viewed the world-building aspects of writing this script as a chore or a challenge. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) lives as a recluse in what looks like a nearly empty Detroit, where he sleeps by day and composes experimental drone music by night. Neither Adam nor the other older vampires we meet pursue humans; they view bites on the neck as a sign of bad manners. Adam gets his blood from a friendly doctor (Jeffrey Wright) and consumes it in something that you or I might use to drink sherry. It's not clear why Adam's wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) is in Tangiers, other than the great blood supplied by Christopher Marlowe (yes that Marlowe, played by John Hurt), but she soon joins Adam in Detroit and thinks his new music is his best work yet. Adam's music is essentially artisanal, a "zombie" (human) associate (Anton Yelchin) sells unlabeled 180-gram vinyl to hipsters in clubs in the same way that people in Brooklyn might buy cheese or bread. Adam abhors conventional fame but wants to get his music heard, and it's that conflict that Jarmusch is interested in. The wall of fame in Adam's house contains pictures of Thelonious Monk, William Burroughs, Neil Young, and others who are legends for their work as opposed to their personality. We're told that Adam gave Schubert an adagio and that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays, and since the vampires aren't going anywhere they'd like to see their work hang around too. Jim Jarmusch is dry and self-deprecating in interviews and those Criterion Q&A things, and I certainly don't think he's claiming a spot for himself in the cultural pantheon but rather asserting the importance of having a canon. Only Lovers Left Alive is a slow (not boring) film about creatures who live forever, and the music and art they need to keep on going.

 What "plot" there is comes with the arrival of Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a vampire from L.A. (Adam: "Zombie Central") who isn't averse to mingling with or biting humans on her way. Ava's behavior pushes Adam and Eve towards an ending I'm still thinking about, one that pushes them back into the world in order to survive and which suggests that Adam may not have time to compose music for awhile. Art isn't made in a vacuum, and what Adam doesn't get is that the personal or societal obstacles faced by the artists on his wall helped shape the work they did. Jim Jarmusch has privileged his independence over a certain level of fame, and I doubt he regrets the choice except maybe for the fact he can't make films as fast he'd like to. Jarmusch may not wind up on the same tier of cinematic regard as his own heroes, but he has done what Adam tells Marlowe is the key: Get the work out there.

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