Last night I saw the new Jim Jarmusch film, Only Lovers Left Alive. It is beautiful.
Only Lovers Left Alive filled me with nostalgia and lament for a world that has now been lost. Even though Jarmusch shot his vampire film on HD, the images bear witness to the fact that this is a man who understands the cinema. Jarmusch understands how to use a camera, how to create meaning through engaging in the medium’s history, in its substance, aesthetic, in all of the things that the cinema can do that no other medium even begins to approach. Among the most gorgeous of images are those of a ghost town so perfect for a vampire movie that it must have been used many times before, but it has not: Detroit.Through Jarmusch’s camera, Detroit resembles a vision that it might be more likely to find in a Werner Herzog film, such as Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), a world so empty but so beautiful to look at that we want to dive into it. However, unlike Herzog’s Wismar, no one brings the plague to Detroit, the plague has already passed through by the time we meet Adam and Eve. I know: vampires called Adam and Eve doesn’t really make sense. Until we go inside the logic of Only Lovers Left Alive.
Another of the most mesmerizing aspects of Jarmusch’s film, besides its Romantic painting of Detroit, is that this city is the backdrop for a whole other world, a world in which lovers stay together for centuries — Adam and Eve are vampires who had their third marriage in 1848 and, we rightly imagine, their first took place on expulsion from the garden of Eden. Not only are they still together, but they cannot get enough of each other. How unusual. This is also a world in which words, and literature, history and thinking, science and nature, the hand made and the touch of fabrics are sensuous, meaningful, delightful. It’s a world in which obsolete musical instruments, wooden bullets and a nineteenth century dressing gown are given beauty. Jarmusch underlines the esotericism of this world for a young generation who only knows history as far back as John Coltrane, and then, only through Youtube.
I went with a young American friend who just didn’t get it. He thought the film was boring because “nothing happened.” This is precisely what makes Jarmusch’s film brilliant: he is one of those filmmakers who knew a time when cinema didn’t depend on action packed cause and effect narratives, a time when just being was enough for a character to pique an audience’s interest. In revolt of the demands of Hollywood and its audiences in search of utopian entertainment, Jarmusch chose independence. He made films deeply rooted in the generic codes and structures of Hollywood that also embraced the freedom and existential being of European art cinema. The result is the creation of worlds that Jarmusch is in love with. And they are worlds I want to exist.
True to Jarmusch’s habit, Only Lovers Left Alive adheres to the codes and values of the vampire film. The sucking of blood as a sexualized hunger, the choice to turn, rather than consume the blood of the human to whom they have an emotional attachment. And the constant threat faced by vampires, the threat of extinction at sunrise, is almost comic in Only Lovers Left Alive. After a narrative of drinking blood of the highest quality, procured from hospitals and pharmacies, from the most elegant of glasses, the lovers in the title rapaciously feast the old fashioned way on unsuspecting prey. Though we are left to wonder about their fate, we assume, like Herzog’s Jonathan Harker, they will find their way to life in the light, a life stolen from others, driven by the vampire’s instinctual tenacity to survive. But what gives this film its beauty are all of the ways that it departs from the expectations and demands of a conventional narrative: its gorgeous images, meandering narrative, characters so carefully drawn that their appeal is in their creation, and the infinitude of references to a learned, esoteric world of books and culture that are unknown to today’s generation. Most of all, what makes Only Lovers Left Alive so compelling, is Jarmusch’s love of the cinema: the angles, the camera movements, even as it watches from a car window as the lovers drive through the ghost town of Detroit, the movement of creatures of the night across impossible times and spaces. This is a film to comfort all those of use who feel alone in a world of blockbusters, special effects and empty, if linear, narratives.