September 30, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive may be a hard sell for some. It is slow-moving, and its two main characters—a pair of centuries-old vampires named Adam and Eve—are a trifle pretentious. (They sit around reminiscing about days past, when they rubbed arms with Shakespeare and hung out with Byron.) Perhaps it would help any uninitiated viewers to go back and watch a couple movies by the director, Jim Jarmusch, as a primer for this one. I despised his somber 1995 Western Dead Man, but I think it prepared me to respond to this film, which isn’t particularly “exciting” as vampire movies go, and yet it’s a truly beautiful movie, one in which the characters are given the time and space to truly inhabit the screen.

Tom Hiddleston plays Adam, the moody, depressed musician who pisses the night away recording music in his creaky Victorian house in Detroit. That music isn’t supposed to reach an audience, and yet Adam has a coterie of hipster music enthusiasts loitering outside his house from time to time. He has a young friend—a musician-type named Ian (played by Anton Yelchin) who runs errands for him (like tracking down rare and expensive guitars), and who tries to coax some music out of Adam from time to time.

As Adam’s wife Eve, Tilda Swinton exudes a pretty groovy fashion sense; she has beautiful white hair that makes her seem ageless; she’s a book lover; and she lives all the way in Tangier, like the tragic author Jane Bowles did during the last 20 years of her life. But Eve seems a lot more even-keeled than the sad-faced Adam, perhaps because she’s just not the brooding, loner type. She passes most of her time either reading or visiting with her old kindred spirit, the poet Christopher Marlowe (played by John Hurt), who, it turns out, is also a vampire. What’s more, he wrote all those plays for which Shakespeare got the credit.

When Eve packs her bags to leave Tangier and visit Adam, she doesn’t take clothes. She takes books. And as she decides which books, she devours several of them then and there. (It takes her mere seconds to read a page.) They’re dusty volumes of thick yellow husks of paper in various languages, the kind of books that belong in your dream library. (And maybe in the dream someone else can dust them and keep them from deteriorating.) It makes you realize just how wonderful it would be to live hundreds of years if only for the sheer number of books you could read. However, as I pondered the strange and wonderful freedoms these two characters had, I thought: Could vampires travel into deep space? Would they want to? Seeing as such endeavors can take decades or even longer, it stands to reason that immortal beings would be ideal candidates. But then, what if they were gone for 150 years or longer, and came back to a society that had become utterly foreign to them? Perhaps it wouldn’t feel worth it to take such a long break from things, even if they spend their days as outsiders. 

Adam and Eve have of course existed over multiple centuries, but they’ve been present in all of them, not away on some interstellar mission. They’ve been—however marginally—a part of history and culture. We see this in the measured, frustrated contempt they have for the “zombies” (humans) over how much we’ve ruined our own planet and our resources. Their longevity enables them to put the momentary world crises into a pretty awesome perspective. But again, there are moments when these kinds of observations (“Remember the English Civil War?”) feel more than a bit pretentious.
Viewers may wonder about the blood. Yes, these vampires do subsist on blood, only they don’t go prowling the streets for fresh victims. They aren’t killers (generally), and prefer to get pure blood from trustworthy sources like blood banks. There are a lot of amusing jokes about the fears of getting contaminated blood, and the dreadful sicknesses that can befall a vampire if this happens. So they have reliable suppliers of clean blood, and this is made all the easier by the fact that both of them seem to have an endless supply of ready cash.

While there are no vampire movies like Only Lovers Left Alive (one of the reasons it’s such an interesting film), there are two that we might call its distant cousins: Bill Gunn’s strange, lost vampire-art film Ganja and Hess (1973) and George A. Romero’s celebrated yet also overlooked Martin (1978). Gunn’s film, which was barely seen upon release and then wasted away in obscurity for years, looks at vampirism through the lens of addiction in the black community. Martin asks the question "Is any of this supernatural stuff actually real, or is it just in the vampire's mind, and the minds of those that oppose him?"

Martin is particularly akin to Jarmusch’s film in that it’s set in a dying factory town (Pittsburgh). There’s something fascinating about this. Why would vampires be attracted to these symbolically rotting cities? Perhaps they can go unnoticed more easily. It certainly aids Adam and Eve when they are forced to dispose of one of Ava’s victims’ bodies. In the dead of night, they drive to an abandoned, unfinished building and dump the body into a pool of acid. They aren’t proud of it, but they’re also not particularly sad either. More likely it's Detroit's music roots that have attracted the loner rock star Adam. 

Only Lovers Left Alive is a lovely night owl of a movie, and the crowning achievement of a director whose films have always been praised/cursed with that word “idiosyncratic.” But what if more directors were able to take something as tried and true as the vampire legend and fashion it into an original work of strange, melancholy genius like this one? It’s rare to find a film that lets you simply enter inside it and walk around. But you have to be open to this kind of viewing to really enjoy it. Otherwise, it will probably tax your patience.

With Mia Wasikowska as Eve's fun-loving vampire sister, who lives in L.A. (and riles the curmudgeonly Adam when she comes unexpectedly for a visit). 

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