“This is your wilderness? Detroit?”
A couple of people left midway through the advance screening we caught. Perhaps they were expecting Thor pyrotechnics. Already a fan of Jim Jarmusch’s work, I knew the sort of film I’d be getting—in fact, I was eager for it.
Only Lovers Left Alive hooked me from the opening notes of Wanda Jackson’s ‘Funnel of Love’ played at a slightly slower pace with a looping crackle of vinyl sound, the swirling 45 alternating with swirling images of Tilda Swinton’s Eve in Tangier and Tom Hiddleston’s Adam in Detroit. The circular, swirling images repeat throughout the film and heighten the impression of the circularity of time for the long-living vampires. Even at the start of the film, we see things from Eve and Adam’s viewpoint, looking down at the world below.
Jackson’s tune was a lynch pin of my novel White Rabbit, so no surprise that worked on me, but the music drives the film from Adam’s morose soundscapes created with his treasure trove of antique guitars and classic Premiere drum kit. Jarmusch’s own band, Sqürl (I laughed out loud at the name) and Jozek van Wissem have created a wonderful soundtrack that I can’t wait to get. It has the same feel of swirling spirals that the narrative evokes.
Vampires offer a way to see the world over a long period of time. You can get the maudlin world-weariness of Anne Rice’s Louis or the hedonistic heedlessness of the teens in Lost Boys. Mia Wasikowska’s Ava seems to embody the latter with a great sense of puppy-like fun. Hiddleston’s Adam rises above the breast-beating self-pity some vamps have (cough *Angel* cough) despite his nigh on suicidal depression. This is in sharp contrast to Eve’s joi de vivre (or would that be mort?); she asks him at one point why he doesn’t just dance. She fills her suitcase with inspiring books—from Orlando Furioso, where she pauses to look at an illustration of the creation of Adam and Eve to Don Quixote and even the hipster’s handbook Infinite Jest)—in fact Eve fills her days with wonder and beauty.
Adam’s depression is not the usual “I’ve lived too long, seen too much” vamp sob, but the pain of the creator. That’s what Jarmusch is really after: reigniting that spark. Adam has a familiar desire to get his work “out there” but to resent the “zombies” (as they all call humans) having access to it. His pet zombie Ian (Anton Yelchin) warns him that his reclusiveness only makes him more interesting, but he can’t see that. The jokey part of this is that he of course wrote many famous pieces but gave the credit away to others.
The agony of influence is a big part of that (and inevitable for a vampire film). When Eve refers to his heroes, Adam angrily spits back “I have no heroes!” Yet the wall of his room has (seemingly signed) portraits of many friends and influences from William Blake, Mary Shelley and Oscar Wilde to more modern folk like Iggy Pop. John Hurt’s ‘Kit Marlowe’ (yes, this movie is just full of things that delight me) clearly has a career beyond that particular name, but after centuries he’s still writing and has a devoted apprentice, Bilal. I can easily imagine continuing to write for centuries, reading all the time, but it seems music requires more outside input and hearing new people to spark ideas. Playing the same old vinyl seems to increase Adam’s depression. When he sees people actually enjoying his music, it affects him.
Detroit as a golden wreck, preserved like a fly in amber at its apex of dissolution. It feels more like an art installation than a rapidly imploding city. The destruction is clear, but also held at a distance, as the Ren Center appears almost as a ghost in the distance of one shot. Apart from the hospital where Jeffrey Wright’s “Dr. Watson” works, it’s also a remarkably white city, which jars. Mostly it’s empty; coyotes wander the streets and out of season amanita muscaria grow, in contrast to Ava’s L.A. which Adam dismisses as “zombie central” (heh).
I don’t want to say too much about it. I was grateful that all I knew was the cast and it was about vampires, which turns out to be a motif rather than a subject. I love the music, the imagery and the completely realized world Jarmusch has created (the Thousand and One Nights café!). I love the little rituals of normalcy for them, such as the politeness of asking to remove their gloves (they glean so much from touch) or waiting for an invitation to cross a threshold. I know I’ll want to watch it over and over just to admire the set decorating and costumes.
And the music: that I’m already listening to now. The cast of course is superb. Even small roles are perfectly cast. The film is beautiful, intoxicating and mesmerizing. I recommend it to anyone who usually enjoys this kind of immersive film experience. Dive in.