"So this is your wilderness...Detroit." So says Eve to Adam as they drive by night through the moribund Motor City in a white Jaguar. Only Lovers Left Alive is not, as it happens, an update of the book of Genesis that Jim Jarmusch has overlaid onto the urban wasteland of Detroit. The action Only Lovers Left Alive occurs by night, as Adam and Eve are vampires. While they're not the primeval lovers of the Bible, the names do obviously carry significance. Mr. Jarmusch's eleventh feature is an elegaic one, lamenting not only the tenuous existence of analog recording, lovely old guitars and other beautiful objects, but the looming loss of our very own paradise of a planet.
There would seem a certain inevitability in Detroit if you happen to be a vampire. What better place to take up residence? A city built for two million now now home 700,000. It is in significant ways - figurative and quite literal - a city of night. Former residential blocks now exist as open fields of grass. Once grand residences stand solitary on otherwise abandoned streets. The devastated quiet is broken at night by coyotes as well as stray dogs. "Everyone left," says Adam to Eve during their first nocturnal drive about the abandoned streets.
In his own forlorn structure on such a street lives Adam (Tom Hiddleston), not only a vampire but a kind of reluctant rock star. This makes Detroit an all the more logical place to do his daylight sleeping. From an upstairs window, amid the clutter of lovely, throwback instruments and recording equipment, he occasionally peeps out to the street from between his heavy drapes, either to acknowledge his Man Friday, Ian (Anton Yelchin), or eye warily the "rock and roll zombie kids" who have managed to track him down.
There would also seem to be an inevitability in writer and director Jim Jarmusch landing in Detroit. From the very outset of his career, Jarmusch has often set his stories amid the decay and fading beauty of American cities.
Only Lovers Left Alive actually has two settings. While Adam broods amid the dereliction of Detroit, his partner, Eve (Tilda Swinton), resides with her beloved books in a flat within the hillside labyrinth of the Tangier medina. We see the two vampires, each living a kind of elegant junkie's existence, in early rotary shots from above. First we see a black night sky full of stars. As the image begins to swirl, the sky is replaced by the black vinyl of a 45 rotating on Adam's record player, Charlie Feather's "Can't Hardly Stand It." Finally, the separated lovers recumbent with their favorite objects about them. So begins Only Lovers Left Alive.
It should hardly come as a surprise that Jim Jarmusch's film is no way a typical vampire film. The fact that Adam and Eve are vampires who have lived for centuries - she for several more more, apparently - merely invests them with knowledge and world-weariness that suits the writer/director's mournful narrative.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a strong return to form, or perhaps a return to the winning, stylish formlessness for which Jim Jarmusch has become so known and loved. All the more welcome is the arrival of the writer/director's latest feature, following as it does what may well be his worst film, The Limits of Control. Jarmusch's previous effort had its nearly mute hit man (Isaach De Bankole) roaming about Spain, exchanging matchboxes with a series of characters of various nationalities, who expound upon molecules, film, the derivation of the word Bohemian and other esoteric topics, before they drift mysteriously on. So minimal tends to be the dialog and plot in Jarmusch's films, that much depends on atmosphere, cinematography and a delicate balance between the measured silences and telegraphic utterances of their characters (Coffee and Cigarettes being a major exception in that regard). Perhaps for the first time in his body of work, that balance seemed woefully off in The Limits of Control, rendering the information dumps of the matchbox-swapping drifters almost laughably pretentious at its worst moments.
Both Adam and Eve of Only Lovers Left Alive are full of their own knowledge, almost to the point of omniscience. But here the fit is better, the balance returned to a far more pleasing position. We see an early example of this when Ian brings Adam several vintage guitars, all of which the vampire can readily identify. As he hoists a lovely old Chet Atkins, Adams recalls having seen Eddy Cochrane play a slightly modified version of the same guitar..."on YouTube," he adds to quiet a suddenly confused Ian, who does not know his boss' ultimate secret. Regarding another beautiful guitar, Adam proclaims, "I shall call him William Dawes." This after the 17th-century English composer of funeral music whom, Adam explains, was shot dead by a Parliamentarian during the English Civil War. "That sucks," says his Ian, with his dude's understatement.
Eve for her part is also full of knowledge and redoubtable mental powers. She names all flora and fauna encountered by their Latin names, as when as skunk crosses her path as she walks toward Adam's front door. "Ah, mephitis mephitis!" she says delightedly. The stylish vampire also possesses the ability to determine the age of objects by touch. Adam guides her hand to the body of an old acoustic guitar whose age is one of the few bits of information he seems to lack. With eyes closed, Eve says, "Ah! She's a pretty one. A Gibson. 1905."
Otherwise, the pair are indeed like a pair of globe-trotting junkies, their waking routines dictated by the need to acquire what their bodies crave: "the good stuff," "the good shit" as the vampires refer to their pure blood in turn. Not that they come by their blood the old-fashioned way, either "drinking" or simply "turning" victims. The fangs into the neck business is something these sophisticates find gauche.
These vampires go about the drinking of blood with style, each sipping the rich, oxygenated stuff from antique cordial glasses. Then a neck-craning kind of ecstasy, which Jarmusch matches with a tilt of camera, a kind of visual baptism into the satisfied abandon. That elegance of consumption notwithstanding, neither vampire is above the lure of fresh blood coursing through the humans about them. We see both Adam and Eve tempted by the cuts or wounds of people they see. Swinton, ever mesmerizing, has Eve respond to the opened finger and dripping blood of a passenger near hear on a plane with the slightest, feral twitch of lips.
To acquire his coveted pure O negative, Adam dons surgical scrubs, sunglasses, an outdated stethoscope and a name badge that reads "Dr. Faust," to collect blood from a Detroit hospital. He's abetted by a doctor working in the lab, who accepts large wads of cash for his assistance. This Jeffrey Wright, amusing as he was in Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, supplying Adam with metal canisters of "Type O...NEG-ativo," while unwisely tweaking his vampire client, calling him "Dr. Strangelove," "Dr. Caligari" during their brief transactions.
Eve must stroll by night through the lonely Tangier medina to get her blood, alighting at the Cafe Mille et Une Nuits for the "really good stuff," which her source acquires from a French doctor. The source: Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Not that you should refer to him by name: "I told you this! Never call me that name in public!" he protests. "You nutcase," Eve's affectionate reply. She thinks her old friend in the four hundred year old waistcoat is being silly and considers it high time the world know more about the English writer. She prods him to let the cat out of the bag to "the most outrageously delicious literature scandal in history." This, of course, the theory that it was Kit Marlowe who wrote those 37 plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare.
Given the audience to whom Jarmusch is playing with this literary fancy, further elaboration is hardly necessary. But he gives us more, as when Marlowe later says of Eve's partner, "Anyway, give my regards to that suicidal romantic scoundrel....Oh, I wish I met him before I wrote Hamlet. He would have provided the most perfect role model imaginable." After they part, we see Eve on a plane enroute to Detroit and hear Swinton in voiceover reading the final lines of sonata 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds:" as with Hamlet, a choice that approaches cliche), after which she quietly exclaims, "Marlowe!" The point has more than been made, but one last broadside is uttered by Marlowe on his deathbed, attended by both Adam and Eve. When mention is made of the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, we see the most familiar image of Shakespeare tacked to a nearby wall. "Illiterate zombie philistine," says the dying Kit, fairly expectorating his words. No explanation of why the picture of the despised figure would actually on his wall.
And yet there is in the personalities of the two vampires a pleasing balance consistent with the best spirit of the films of Jim Jarmusch. Much as the director might be something of a punk, enjoying his jabs at beloved cultural figures like Elvis Presley and Shakespeare, there is an obvious reverence for beloved people and things. With all the vintage trappings there is usually a progressive spirit; Jarmusch might frequently antique his way through past, but he keeps an open eye and ear for the best of the present. So, here analog Adam with his old guitars and recording equipment, looking like a late 70s Jimmy Page, holed up in a dark room, taking a violin bow to one of those guitars, recording his funeral music, listening to evocative old 45's, wearily proclaiming "what a drag," when Ian tells him that his reclusiveness might actually make his fans seek him out all the more. There his counterpoint Eve, no less discerning, but exuding a spirit of inclusiveness, even optimism. Adam manages his half of their transatlantic Skype conversation with a complex arrangement of devices that leaves Eve looking like a soap opera character in permanent Cathode ray close-up; Eve simply turns on the camera of her sleek, white iPhone and stares lovingly at Adam, noting how tired he looks.
Beyond the estimable cool with which Jarmusch's films teem, particularly in his knowledge and use of music, there is something approaching exuberance in the way he sometimes throws around names and characters, as when we find out that the names on the vampires' passports: Daisy Buchanan and Stephen Dedalus. Adam might twice protest that he has no heroes, but we see Eve examining a veritable wall of fame in his house while he is out procuring blood, pictures of everyone from Marlowe to Mark Twain to Iggy Pop adorning the wall, all likely beloved of Jarmusch as well.
In a downright sweet moment, Jack White receives the ultimate name check during the couple's first night drive around the city. Just prior, there is the film's best stealth joke, when Adam asks, "Do you want to see the Motown Museum?" before adding, "Well, there's not much to see from the outside." "I'm more of a Stax girl myself," answers Eve. "Actually, there is something I could show you," says Adam. This the boyhood home of former the White Stripe. "Ah, I love Jack White!" exclaims Eve. "Aw...little Jack White. Nice."
|Eve, enjoying a blood pop. Type O-negative, of course. |
The appearance of Ava is a rare and seemingly superfluous plot digression in one of Jarmusch's typically lean stories. The younger vampire who both drinks Ian and destroys one of Adam's beloved old guitars - he appears to be more upset at the loss of the Gibson - seems to on hand as another sign of a world going to hell. These kids today...even the vampires, apparently.
When Ava tells Eve and Adam that she had been spending time in Los Angeles, the latter's response is typically, almost childishly negative, "Oh great - Zombie central." At the first mention of zombies in Only Lovers Left Alive, it's unclear just to whom Adam refers. The answer would seem to be humanity in general, the truly benighted ones destroying the planet. "And now they've succeeded in contaminating their own blood.. Never mind the water." This Adam says with disgust as Eve tries to draw him out of a gloomy mood shortly after her arrival in Detroit. Given that so much of humanity daily finds new ways to distract themselves as dire problems loom, Jarmsuch's characterization, if not entirely original, is certainly apt.
Once they dispose of Ian's body, the vampires decide it best to leave the country, Adam regarding his vintage guitars as children he must leave behind. They return by night flight to Tangier, where they stagger up the stairs of the medina like any tourists desperate to reach their room for the night. With the vampires, the enervation is even more urgent, as they need some pure blood to restore them. Sadly, a visit to Marlowe results in just a few precious drops of the "good stuff." The poet lies on his deathbed, a victim of contaminated blood.
Jim Jarmusch has found with his story for Only Lovers Left Alive and these characters who just happen to be vampires an excellent vehicle to both celebrate much of what he finds sacred and mourn what seems almost inevitably lost. The film's elegaic air reaches its deepest pitch after Adam and Eve leave Marlowe's deathbed and wander the medina. Even with their own timeless existence on verge of extinction, Eve goes off on her own to buys Adam a beautiful oud as consolation for the instruments he left behind. As he waits, Adam it transfixed by a female singer performing in a club. "Jasmine...she's Lebanese, " says Eve as she leans over Adam's shoulder. "I'm sure she'll be famous." "God, I hope not," Adam's quite predictable response.
Adam and Eve consider a reprieve for their impending demise that's "...so fucking 15th-century." Perhaps there's more life, further centuries of nocturnal reading, composing, making love, even grousing, for the sophisticated vampires. Whether there will still be planet worth inhabiting is another question. At least for the present, the discriminating outsider who is Jim Jarmusch seems to have a good bit of life left in him.