Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Movies You May Have Missed - Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

I didn't know Jim Jarmusch had released a vampire film in the last couple years—I was completely in the dark about Only Lovers Left Alive, so to speak. Its marketing budget must have been quite under-funded. Jarmusch is an interesting director who's content to make films about people talking, walking and driving. He's not overly concerned with the concept of story arc. He's an idea guy, a visual guy, and he plays in the band Squrl. He's an artist.

His earlier films, Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, and I'm going to throw in Dead Man, felt fresh and playful, no matter how decayed the vista, or lost the protagonist. Beyond that, I kind of let go of Jarmusch. I was so annoyed by the miscasting of Winona Ryder as a grease-monkey cabbie in Night on Earth, that I just shut my Jarmusch door. It was unfair of me—but Ryder had been cast in so many films at that time, even in roles that she couldn't possibly fulfill. I couldn't take it anymore.

So of all things, why would I recommend a Jarmusch VAMPIRE movie? I like a good classic vampire story, but modern vampires are done, especially romantic vampire sagas. Jarmusch tried to make this film nearly a decade ago but couldn't get the funding together. So it stewed and brewed in his consciousness and oh, the resulting visual richness! I am such a sucker for decay and artistry of the past. If you are too, this could be your sleeper DVD rental. Plus Netflix recommended it for me, and they're never wrong. But it's a sad state in the distribution industry when I can't even remember how I discovered this, from a well-known independent film director no less.

What does the Jarmusch treatment add to the overworked genre? The idea of immortality weighs on the narrative, specifically for vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston), who resides in an abandoned mansion in Detroit. His centuries-old wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), finding delight in speed-reading books in multiple languages within her bohemian lair in Tangier, seems more at ease with her agelessness. Her pal, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), can get her the "good stuff." Blood as a drug is a recurring motif, and Eve, swathed in brocaded silk, silently walking the back-alleys of Northern Africa like an urban spirit, finds joy in nature, dancing and love.

But Adam finds modern life depressing. He especially decries the lack of care of the environment and in people. We have let ourselves go to the point that our blood is potentially poisonous for a modern night-stalker. These vampires have to find untainted blood through underground sources. Getting a daily blood fix requires a highly specialized dealer.

This is ultimately a love story and a believable one. If you don't mind a quiet, contemplative look at endless night-bound existence, you'll appreciate this Jarmusch-created world that looks familiar but feels like an ongoing dream. And now:

This film can be taken as a celebration or a satire of hipster culture. If you find that unappealing (it's a wry look at centuries-old creatures who can't help but look backward all the time), then just enjoy the sumptuous visual ecstasy of old-technology form and function.

A dirge-like cover of Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love" spins us down into the psychic connection between Adam and Eve.

Adam is a musical gearhead cult star, layering drones and feedback on reel-to-reel tape in his cobbled-together home studio. By personal philosophy or vampiric necessity Adam has come to loathe the concept of fame, glorifying art for art's sake. His connection to the outside world, Ian (the perfectly cast Anton Yelchin), sells him vintage guitars of incomparable beauty and excellence. Ian may also be leaking Adam's music and whereabouts to the outside world but this narrative goes unexplored in order to focus our rapturous attention upon fine, beautifully crafted musical instruments.

Tom Hiddleston doesn't look entirely comfortable with guitars and is in fact a pianist

Ooh, mama likes!

Adam calls on Eve, using his Tesla-inspired contraptions. Hipster.

Eve surrounded by literature. My kind of vampire queen.

I've been in houses like this—ideal for creativity to thrive but dust-coated and not recommended for asthmatics.

Another fine objet d'art!

More objects. Have collections of old stuff ever been more lovingly lit and filmed? When I realized  Jarmusch was more in love with his set design than his characters that's when I actually started liking this film a lot. Film as visual medium still entices. In their isolation, these two have an intense connection with aesthetics. They're artists and artists can be annoying and self-involved. But we need them to make sense of our chaotic existence. Hail, art.

Detroit figures into this as well. On Adam and Eve's night drives, Detroit's former greatness and current decay is a character unto itself.

ALL THE WORLD'S BOOKS. And all the time to read them.

Adam's manse. We're not told how Adam can afford his lifestyle. He pays for everything with wads of cash. Perhaps he invested wisely over the years...?

We also never know why they choose to live separate lives when they get along so well together. Maybe you just get sick of your partner after a few centuries and need a break.

More Detroit. The cinematography, like a threadbare velvet painting.

Adam in the light.

More objects in the dark.

Adam's inspirational shrine to genius, which someone at IMDB kindly and obsessively listed: Jean Michel Basquiat, Nikola Tesla, Isaac Newton, Christopher Marlowe, William Blake, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, William S. Burroughs, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, John Keats, Sitting Bull, Bo Diddley, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Patti Smith, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane Thelonious Monk, Johann Sebastian Bach, Nicholas Ray, Bruce Lee, Buster Keaton, Rodney Dangerfield, and Harpo Marx as well as numerous musicians whom Jarmusch has worked with on various films including Tom Waits, Neil Young, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Iggy Pop, and RZA.

Adam has excellent taste in geniuses but where is da Vinci?

A visit from Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), is described in the film's summary as a "disruption." She's trouble all right. But dread and horror are secondary concepts in this story. Eternal survival of body and mind is of more interest in Jarmusch's thoughtful approach. As I face the back-half of my lifespan, that's interesting to me.

Apparently long lifespans make for dry unmanageable hair

Only Lovers Left Alive isn't for everyone, but as a meditation on time, art, and eternal love, it works.

Love endures, however darkly


No comments: