Yeah, I am going to discuss Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. I’m sure my title for this entry totally gave that away but, in spite of my initial glib reaction, I like this film. But it has to be said: the main characters are pompous, thin and have the worst hair ever. Tilda Swinton’s weave is one of the worst weaves ever seen in film since the one Michael Wincott was forced to wear in his role as Top Dollar in The Crow. Hiddleston doesn’t fare much better on the hair front.
Several people told me I would love this movie and I suspect it is because Tilda Swinton’s character, Eve, packs nothing but books when she travels. Or maybe they assumed I shared the current online love of Tom Hiddleston, who plays Adam. Not that Adam and Eve, for this Eve has an annoying little sister named Ava, though it may be justthat Ava is her blood kin via vampirism, so maybe they are that Adam and Eve. Those who are into Shakespeare authorship conspiracies will find elements of this film charming. Christopher Marlowe, as played by John Hurt, makes it clear who really wrote all those plays attributed to Shakespeare, so Marlovians may want to have a look.
Quick synopsis: Adam lives in Detroit and is a musician who spurns the spotlight, and has done for centuries, yet has influenced and written for famous musicians throughout history. Eve lives in Tangiers, drinking the blood Christopher Marlowe procures for them both, but travels to Detroit when Adam is obviously in distress. The modern world inhabited by “zombies,” as they call humans, with all its increasingly aggressive planned obsolescence, weighs heavy on Adam, to the point that he is suicidal. Eve comes to comfort him, her kid sister shows up, shenanigans ensue.
But be warned – though there be shenanigans, they are sedate shenanigans. Not much happens in this film and what happens is… mostly very calm. Never before has disposing of a body been so tranquil. As much as I appreciated the Jim Jarmuschiness in Only Lovers Left Alive, I did find myself longing for Bill Paxton (of Near Dark fame) overacting. I think we all find ourselves longing for Bill Paxton overacting regardless of the situation – don’t deny it.
I’ve always been fond of Jim Jarmusch. Mystery Train is one of the best movies from the ’80s. No one ever put John Lurie to better use than Jarmusch did in Stranger Than Paradise. But I have to admit that even Mystery Train, one of Jarmusch’s more involved films, has a very minimalist plot. Jarmusch films are atmospheric, stylish and deadpan – you can’t really expect gore or intense story-building in a Jarmsuch film, which I think is what caused this film to seem a bit pompous. All the name dropping of the people these vampires spent time with throughout history wore thin – evidently Mary Wollstonecraft was “delicious” and I don’t know exactly what was meant with that description – surely Adam didn’t drain her. Or did he? Who knows? But he hung around with Byron and Shelley, and during a scene where Eve questions her husband about events in his life she surely already knew about, I was reminded of a lyric from a Rod Stewart song: “I couldn’t quote you no Dickens or Shelley or Keats, because it’s all been said before.” If you’ve been married for centuries, you’ve said it and heard it all before but if you remain true loves – only lovers left alive, remember – you want to hear the stories again. They will always sound new to a lover, if quite pompous to outsiders.
Despite the cluttered and run-down house in Detroit that Adam settled into in his attempt to avoid the zombies, their increasingly grotesque world and their often diseased blood, this is a pretty film. There are scenes where Adam and Eve take night time drives in Detroit that are very visually arresting, and Adam shows Eve the ruination of paradise – the empty Packard factory, the theater turned into a parking garage. Yet of all the amazing places in Detroit that revolved around excellent music, music of the sort that Adam and Eve play and listen to (Wanda Jackson, Denise LaSalle and Charlie Feathers), he takes Eve to see the house where Jack White of the questionably talented White Stripes grew up. Jack is evidently the seventh son in his family, and I guess that matters to vampires, but surely he could have run by Florence Ballard’s house or the Leland Baptist Church where Bessie Smith performed with Louis Armstrong. Except we only see one black dude in all of Detroit and he’s the doctor who sells Adam untainted blood. It’s a strange, discordant note in this film that otherwise seems to pay a lot of attention to detail and name drops so many important people of cultural worth.
The clever jokes in the film also sort of fall flat. Adam and Eve travel using passports under the names “Stephen Dedalus” and “Daisy Buchanan.” Why Stephen Dedalus? Kit Marlowe says in the film that he wished he had known Adam when he wrote Hamlet because Adam would have been a far better model for the suicidal Dane, and Stephen Dedalus, if I remember my college analysis of Joyce, shows Hamlet-like qualities. So that kind of works. But Daisy Buchanan? It would be hard to find a more loyal, faithful wife than Eve, despite living on a completely different continent than
Adam. Whenever Adam is in need, she rushes to his side. She has no other lovers. She is no Daisy Buchanan. It’s hard for me to think of a better female literary character for her to use for her passport identity, but I’m no filmmaker, to be sure.
And if it sounds like I am bashing this movie, I may be a little bit, but I tend to like pomposity when it is handled well. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is one of my favorite books. I love the films of Whit Stillman, one of the most pompous filmmakers ever to breathe life into preppy culture. But it speaks to the nature of this film that the best part is when Ava comes into Detroit and wreaks havoc on Adam and Eve’s reunion. She is a force of chaos in Adam’s very cloistered life, a vampire who loves the modern world as much as Adam hates it, who gives in to her base impulses in a way her sister cannot. The scenes with Ava are the price of admission for this film.
But even as I found myself wondering how it is that Adam made the transition from writing adagios for Schubert to becoming a Detroit rock god, how the fuck their passports made any sense, I still found this film enjoyable. As I mentioned it is visually appealing, even when it is shabby. There is no humor but there is plenty of wit. And the actors are all very pretty – including the aged John Hurt – even if they have terrible hair. I think this is a movie that I felt strangely about when watching, realized I enjoyed it at the end, and will love it the second time I watch it.
This film has also given me a terrible itch to see The Hunger, Trouble Every Day and Near Dark before Halloween gets here. All three vampire movies, all three extremely stylish in very different ways, and I think this Halloween needs David Bowie, Vincent Gallo and Bill Paxton to join Tom Hiddleston in the vampire game. Oooo, maybe I’ll watch The Addiction and add Christopher Walken to the mix, too. And all four of those actors have much better hair than poor Hiddleston as Adam. So if nothing else this movie whetted my appetite for more bloody fare (and bloodier fare, too). If you have a favorite vampire film, share it, and if you’ve seen it, let me know what you think of Only Lovers Left Alive.