Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
Dir. and written by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright

With ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE and DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS, it looks like 2014 is finally the year for celebrated indie auteurs to give in and join mainstream film’s inexorable slide towards an all-vampire-all-the-time format. And hey, that works for me, at least while they’re making vampire films they can give zombie films a rest for awhile. And since it’s painfully clear that there’s nowhere left to go with the conceit as it was originally envisioned, I suppose it’s the natural order that now the tattered scraps of the concept drift down to the indie underworld to be fully deconstructed and rebuilt as bijou postmodern trifles. Circle of life, I guess; the whale carcass of the Vampire film has finally exhausted the sharks swimming near the culture’s surface and has drifted down to the ocean’s floor so the giant isopods and spider crabs can wrest the last bit of meat from its bones. What a time to be alive.

But hey, there is an obvious upside: we get a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie! Jarmusch has been cool pretty much since they invented the concept (and has distanced himself now that it got popular), and it’s always fun to see him working in quasi-genre mode (DOWN BY LAW, DEAD MAN, GHOST DOG). Even if this one could stand some cheaper thrills, its neat to see how his offeat, conversational filmmaking incorporates something as shamelessly hokey as vampirism. If it doesn’t lend him the same focus and energy that the urban* samurai concept did in GHOST DOG, at least it gives him a few fun gimmicks to play around with, and adds a little color to his typically talky, cerebral slacker screenplay.

Happiness is a warm blood.

What we got here is this guy, Adam (Loki), an eccentric musician who lives in self-imposed hermitude in a dilapidated rowhouse somewhere in the abandoned ruins of Detroit (no, it’s not in the post-apocalyptic future, that’s just what Detroit looks like now). Between this movie and SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN, I’m beginning to wonder if the only remaining residents of Detroit are reclusive musical geniuses, but Adam has an extra gimmick up his sleeve to ace out Rodriguez: he’s a centuries-old vampire (I’m assuming Rodriguez isn’t a vampire, obviously. If he is, the movie is uncharacteristically tactful about it). He’s been kickin’ it with the cool kids for the last couple hundred years, rubbing elbows with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, always a delight), Schubert, Lord Byron, etc. and now apparently spends most of his time name-dropping them into casual conversation. But lately, he's in a funk, shirtlessly sulking in his gloomy, analogue-recording-strewn house and glumly bemoaning the current state of mankind. He’s so gloomy he even considers suicide by way of wooden bullet (cool idea, maybe Blade should consider making the switch to wood) and so his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton, another in a string of great performances this year) decides to leave her Tangiers home and fly over for a visit. At least this way, there's someone around who appreciates the names he's dropping.

On the subject of namedropping, it’s a bigger part of this than you might think. “Remember when you gave that string quintet to Schubert?” they’ll say, and we laugh, haha, its funny because thats a famous person from a long time ago. Jarmusch must find that particularly amusing, because he does it again and again. Possibly more times than you will find amusing, and certainly more times than I did. OK dude I get it, you went to college. But it’s not like these are exactly deep cuts. When Eve (get it? It’s a reference!**) checks onto a commercial flight under the name “Daisy Buchanan,” the obnoxious indie snob audience I watched with tittered, haha, its from The Great Gatsby. Uh, yeah, I guess, but so what? Shit, who knows if she even read the book, she probably just saw the 100 million dollar all-star 3-D movie adaptation from last year. Its weird, Jarmusch has never struck me as a guy who felt insecure enough to name drop a bunch of Freshmen historical references, so I don’t know what he was going for here. It just makes these guys seem like total fame whores. In fact, small wonder their lives are so empty these days given the sorry state of modern celebrity. What, they’re gonna go from Christopher Marlowe to Kim Kardashian? All this depression is starting to come into focus here, I think I cracked the code.

There is one celebrity that we know for sure Adam likes: as he gives Eve the Detroit tour, he excitedly points out the house where Jack White grew up. You’d think he’d introduce himself, being a famous musician and all, but maybe he’s too shy. I mean, he hung with Lord Byron, sure, but Jack White? That’s the big leagues. We don’t find out if the lovebirds also stop at Kid Rock’s house, but I figure it’s implied, obviously. The bigger disappointment is that they don’t go visit Iggy Pop! They could have even got a cameo, since Jarmusch knows him from DEAD MAN and COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. So no Iggy, no Kid Rock, no Eminem, and to add insult to injury the one band we see in Detroit (stoner rockers White Hills) are from New York, they’re not even locals. They’re gonna have a lot of Detroit musical cameos to squeeze EXPENDABLES-style into the sequel to make up for that one. Adam’s music, incidentally, is provided by Jarmusch’s own band, the excellently named SQÜRL. Seems a little pretentious to attribute your own music to a character that everyone is constantly calling a musical genius, but oh well, they are pretty good tunes. Maybe a tad gloomy for my usual taste, but they sound cool and work nicely with the atmosphere. Hopefully he can throw a couple novelty joke songs or something on there for the kids before the album drops.

Somewhere in the infinity of existence, there is an alternate universe where Joe Strummer lived long enough to play a vampire in a Jim Jarmusch film. It is a happier universe.

Of course, a little levity was probably a good thought, because on their own these vampires aren’t really a whole lot of fun. They’ve been around so long they’re basically just tired of the whole “life” thing, they’ve reached that stage in their relationship where all they want to do is stay in, watch a movie, drink a little blood, and go to bed early. Both Hiddleston and (especially) Swinton do a brilliant job inhabiting these incomprehensibly ancient creatures, turning in performances which reveal the weight of all the years hanging on their still-youthful bodies. There’s a sense of truly profound romantic melancholy that lingers here; these people are too old to be angry, they’re just sad and clinging tightly to the few truly good things they’ve found in a world which experience has taught them is mostly full of disappointment. There are a few magic moments, as Jarmusch makes use of the jaw-dropping urban decay of modern Detroit, where the haunting atmosphere, low-key sexual intensity, and jarring real-world devastation fold sublimely into each other and create scenes of subtle power. But a few transcendent scenes do not a movie make. Loki and Swinton are never less than excellent, but that doesn’t always translate to being interesting to watch. After all, who wants to watch old people lay around feeling sorry for themselves and mumbling about the world going to crap? After a few days with these morose goth kids, you’re starting to eye that wooden bullet a bit more closely.

Fortunately, just as things seem doomed to sink into an abyss of twee artistic sad-sack self-gratification, Ava happens. Ava (Mia Wasikowska) is Eve’s sister, a force of chaos destructive enough to shake these two grumpy cats out of their slump and introduce a note of jagged volatility to the proceedings. Adam is openly hostile to her over an unspecified event from some time ago (dozens of years? hundreds?) but Eve tries to play peacemaker, keep the family together. For her part, Ava can barely contain her glee in tormenting her somber host.  It’s a fabulous dynamic, because Wasikowska is every bit the dangerous live wire, the total antithesis of our protagonists’ staid, intellectual gloom. This is a being that lives for tumult, and every minute she’s around there’s a crackling apprehension about when and how she’s going to bring the hammer down.

That's a helluva evil eye.

Ava’s introduction jars the film to life, stirring conflict and delivering focus to what was threatening to become an atmospheric but impassive affair. She forces Adam and Eve to get off their asses and actually go places and do things, revealing how surprisingly fragile their little world is and pushing them, reluctantly, into some discomfort. Almost against its will, the film seems to summon some energy and even some tension, testing the resolve of its languid protagonists and making them genuinely consider if it's worth fighting to live in this world which so disappoints them.

At first I wasn’t sure the whole vampire aspect really mattered much, thought maybe it was just kind of a romantic conceit that Jarmusch was associating with gloomy emo kids. But actually in retrospect, it makes more sense: the movie is fundamentally about a kind of parasitic entropy. The vamps in question are parasites of humanity, they need them as a source of food and to secure their safety and anonymity. The humans (derisively referred to as ”Muggles” “Zombies” here***), for their part, are parasites on the very planet itself, sucking it dry and poisoning it and themselves in the process, to the point where their very blood is dangerous fodder. And maybe the whole system is starting to come down, just look at poor Detroit, the shadow of its former splendor still unmistakable enough to taunt the locals with a reminder of better times. Just how long can these two parallel vampire cultures persist before the whole thing collapses, and how are we supposed to feel being part of such a horrifying enterprise?

At first it seems like the movie’s answer is my own: if we’re horrified of the system we hide from it, hole up in a house somewhere feeling depressed and superior to everyone, try to imagine we’re independent from it. But that’s a facade, and the movie’s interested in what our immortal heroes will do to survive if push comes to shove. And of course, we Zombies are no different, we just have a few more middlemen in between us and the murderous vampirism which allows our world to function so we don’t have to experience the consequences of our selfishness quite as directly. At least, not until it all comes down.

Cool kids wear shades. 

Still, I don’t think Jarmusch is judging us, or them; he’s simply bemoaning the inevitable nature of entropy, and that no matter how immortal you may feel, someday everything eventually winds down. Detroit, vampires, rock n’ roll, the amount of amusement you can get from repeating tedious freshman lit references to famous historical figures. All you can do is try and find the things that really mean something to you, and hold onto them as fiercely as you can until they, too, are inevitably taken away. If we do that, maybe on some level our rapaciousness is an act of love, even as its destructive consequences pile up.

Anyway, a pretty good movie if you’re in the mood for a somewhat lethargic, atmospheric-laden vampire slacker romance stoner flick. If this is the future of Indie horror genre deconstructionism, well, at least it’s better than having to deal with a bunch of new Dracula adaptations. It’s a bit slow, a bit meandering, but it gradually draws a kind of ephemeral power out of its quiet alchemy of music, darkness, chattiness, and evocative locations. I think I liked more of it than I loved, but even if in the end only lovers will be left alive****, hopefully us likers will still have a good run. Or at least long enough to see what Spike Lee does with this.

"Remember that historical event that we witnessed that one time?" 

* That’s code for “black guy”

** But, Jarmusch says, not exactly convincingly, not to what you think it is. Instead, it’s a reference to Mark Twain’s “The Diaries of Adam and Eve.” Might want to make that a bit more explicit, Jim; its like saying you’re a big Elvis fan, and then acting confused when I play “Hound Dog” and rejoining that you meant Elvis Costello.

*** Oh great, next thing you know Jarmusch is gonna be making Zombie movies too.

**** A subtle variation of the oft-repeated HIGHLANDER prediction, of course. Anyone else thinking crossover?

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