~ by MARCUS PINN ~
This annual October series considers the consequences of when international auteurs reknowned for excellence in the field of le cinema dip their toes in the chilly waters of the disreputable horror genre; an exploration of what happens when Claire Denis or Jim Jarmusch takes on vampirism, Nicholas Roeg dreams about killer dwarves, Philip Kaufman gets paranoid about pod people, Ingmar Bergman howls at the moon or Michael Powell indulges his voyeurism fetish. A series about the beautiful collision of grindhouse and art-house.
Categorizing Only Lovers Left Alive as a horror movie is a bit of a stretch. Jim Jarmusch himself has even said it's not a horror movie on more than one occasion during the promotion of the film. But it is a story about vampires, so I guess that makes it eligible to be written about for the October Horrorthon. If anything this is a love story, hence the title of the film, with a few moments of "vampirism" that happen either off screen or through some kind of an implication. Had Jarmusch made this a few years earlier during the latest vampire craze, I would have been a little skeptical of his intentions but now that the Twilight movie series is over, True Blood is in its final season and America got that one remake, Let Me In,* out of its system, I kind of find myself wondering what took him so long to make a Vampire movie? But at the same time I think it's kind of cool that Jim was late to the party. Last time I checked, being late was still something that cool people intentionally do and who's cooler than Jim Jarmusch?
Only Lovers Left Alive seemed to come out of nowhere. Shortly after Limits of Control there were rumors of an Iggy Pop/Stooges documentary in the works, so I kinda forgot about Jim for a little while because that didn't sound like anything I wanted to see. Then towards the end of 2011, around the time my Michael Fassbender mancrush started, I saw on IMDB that Fassbender was cast in an unnamed Jim Jarmusch vampire project and just like that he was back on my radar. Maybe it was during Jim's research on the Iggy Pop documentary (Iggy got his start in Detroit) that the genesis of Only Lovers Left Alive came about. Fassbender has obviously since been recast with Tom Hiddleston taking over in the lead role, which is just fine with me. He's an actor who's been growing on me over the years thanks to films like Midnight in Paris, Deep Blue Sea and The Avengers. He gives an excellent performance in Only Lovers Left Alive. **
Jarmusch is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, but that didn't stop me from worrying about whether or not his latest film would be any good or not. It's been a strange era for Jarmusch post-Dead Man. He hasn't exactly been consistent these days. Ghost Dog maintains a strong cult fan base, but outside of that it's a film that still goes over a lot of people's heads. Coffee and Cigarettes wasn't anything amazing, Broken Flowers was great, Limits of Control was very disappointing and, no offense, but does anyone remember that Neil Young/Crazy Horse documentary? In the 17 years since he made Dead Man, Broken Flowers may be his one universally-loved film.
The fact that he'd be doing a genre film worried me even more. The road movie is probably the only genre that Jarmusch has mastered. After that it's iffy - he's only made one western, so you can't exactly call him a veteran of that genre. His exploration in to the world of hitmen is uneven at best, and he's only got one documentary under his belt. You'd think after Limits of Control he'd want to play it safe with his next film. It would have been easy for Jim to reclaim the throne he once held in the 80's and 90's by calling up Bill Murray or Steve Buschemi to make an awesome dead pan road movie, but instead he challenged himself with Only Lovers Left Alive. In my opinion Ghost Dog was the last time he really stepped outside of his comfort zone as a filmmaker and tried to do something new - until now. This was a pretty unique vampire story that breathed life in to a pretty stale genre...
In the film, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, a slightly jaded vampire couple living apart from each other who suddenly decide to rekindle their love. Adam is suicidal while Eve is a bit more optimistic. Instead of dealing with a rival werewolf gang or some high authority trying to do away with vampires, Adam and Eve do battle with something that most vampire films have yet to truly touch on: time. That, in my opinion, is really what the film is about (that and their struggle to not feed on innocent humans). Not to turn any of you off, but that same droning vibe that's in Limits of Control is all over Only Lovers Left Alive, except this time it actually works.
The one consistent complaint that people have had of Jarmusch's work over the years is that his films are boring. Although there are plenty of positive reviews of Only Lovers Left Alive, there's still quite a few negative responses complaining about the lack of plot or nothing happening in the story. I'm sorry but if you're still shocked at "nothing happening" in a Jim Jarmusch movie after three decades then you should probably just stop watching his stuff and save yourself the aggravation. Do critics honestly expect something conventional or "action-packed" from him? The closest thing anyone will ever get from Jarmusch in the form of "action" is Ghost Dog, and people continue to dismiss that masterpiece to this day. Surprisingly it's Mia Wasikowska, who bored us all to death earlier this year in Stoker, who brings excitement to Only Lovers Left Alive as Eve's bratty little vampire sister Eva, who pays Adam and Eve an unwanted visit that ends up destroying their happy existence.
Only Lovers Left Alive marks one of the few times where boredom totally works in Jim's favor. Think about it - vampires have to get bored after a while. They live forever. There's bound to come a point where jadedness kicks in. The average vampire movie depicts this cool fantasy of pale sunglass-wearing vampires flying around in packs, flashing their teeth, having an awesome time terrorizing unsuspecting bystanders in dark alleyways. But there has to be a century or two where they get tired of sucking blood and ripping people's heads off. Adam and Eve are the epitome of the phrase, "Been there, done that."
It's a little on-the-nose at times, but Jarmusch implies that throughout history it was our vampire protagonists who supplied music for Schubert and ghost-wrote for Shakespeare. Adam and Eve find attacking innocent humans to be pointless, probably because they've had their fill of it in the past. They require new forms of stimulation so they spend their time making music (Adam is a reclusive underground musician), philosophizing about "zombies" (their nickname for humans) and reading as many books as possible. The last 30 minutes of the film takes a darker turn as Adam and Eve's hunger for human blood starts to get the best of them and they have to try their hardest to not give in to temptation.
From Night on Earth to Ghost Dog and everything else he's done, Jarmusch always makes it a point to tip his hat to other films and filmmakers in his work. In Ghost Dog, he drew upon the style of everyone from Jean-Pierre Melville to Seijun Suzuki. His early work (Permanent Vacation through Mystery Train) was a combination of 1960's Robert Bresson and vintage Wim Wenders. And Night on Earth was essentially a tribute to his contemporary filmmaker buddies like Spike Lee ("New York City"), Claire Denis ("Paris"), Roberto Begnini ("Rome") and Aki Kaurismaki ("Helsinki"). Only Lovers Left Alive certainly follows suit with references to films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Faust, along with opening credits ripped right out of Fearless Vampire Killers.
Jarmusch's new film is also spiritually rooted in a few older films that just so happen to be directed by some of his close friends. The poetic exploration into the world of immortality and the boredom and banality that come along with it in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire seems to have indirectly rubbed off on Only Lovers Left Alive. True, one film is about angels while the other is about vampires, but there's still a loose connection. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston exude the same bored curiosity that Bruno Ganz shows in Wings of Desire. There's also a hint of Claire Denis' anti-vampire flick Trouble Every Day in that both films deal with the struggle some vampires face to not feed on the innocent.*** In doing a little research, I came to discover that Only Lovers Left Alive shares the same name of a science fiction book from the 60's that was supposed to be adapted into a film by Nicholas Ray, who just so happens to be Jim's mentor. The book and the film are completely different, but in my opinion Jarmusch's choice of a title has to be a tip of the hat to Ray.
But like always, Jim always manages to put his own stamp on everything he does no matter how many movie references he makes through the course of a film. My only criticism of Only Lovers Left Alive is that outside of the extensive use of Wong Kar Wai-esque slow motion, this film is edited fairly traditionally when compared to Jim's other work. I'm all about a filmmaker growing and trying new things but I never want Jim Jarmusch to abandon his use of long continuous shots. Only Lovers Left Alive has way too many cuts for a Jarmusch film. Maybe it’s time for him to reunite with Robby Muller or Tom Dicillo.**** There's also two supporting characters played by Jeffery Wright and Anton Yelchin that could have easily been combined in to one person but it's not that serious.
I seriously can’t stress how un-scary this movie is especially when compared to other vampire films. But that’s not to say there’s no blood sucking or murder. It’s just done a little differently. In over three decades of filmmaking there's only been three Jim Jarmusch films where murder takes place (Dead Man, Ghost Dog and Limits of Control). Only Lovers Left Alive marks the fourth time where a character in one of his films commits murder. A death in a Jarmusch movie is always a significant event and someone always delivers some cryptic quote before killing someone or being killed: "Do you know my poetry?" (Johnny Depp, Dead Man), "It's ok. I've seen everything I need to see" (Forrest Whitaker, Ghost Dog), "I used my imagination" (Isaach Debankole, Limits of Control).*****
The one and only "violent" death that happens in Only Lovers Left Alive takes place off-screen and, even though we only see the aftermath, it's still a big deal that affects the rest of the story. The only other deaths in the film are either from natural causes or it's only heavily implicated that someone was murdered. If you're used to True Blood or anything like that then by those standards there's hardly any blood in Only Lovers Left Alive. But if you're use to the cinema of Jim Jarmusch then this is a blood fest.
As much as this stands out from everything else in Jarmusch's filmography, it still has a few mainstays. Tilda Swinton (this is her and Jim's third consecutive collaboration), an emphasis on music, deadpan humor and, like Mystery Train, most of Only Lovers Left Alive takes place in another desolate American music mecca: Detroit. I'm actually surprised there isn't a White Stripes cameo in Only Lovers Left Alive, given that it takes place in their hometown and they've worked with Jim before (Coffee and Cigarettes), he has a habit of casting musicians in almost all of his films and they look like vampires minus the teeth.****** Detropia would make an interesting companion piece to Only Lovers Left Alive as both films focus on outside artists taking up residence/studio spaces in Detroit because it's so cheap to do so nowadays given the city's current condition. Jarmusch certainly captures the depression and desolation of modern day Detroit, but he doesn't dwell on it like most people would and he makes it a point to show the city's beauty and history as well.
Not for nothing, but the final moments of Only Lovers Left Alive (like, literally the last 30 seconds or so) are worth sitting through the film whether you may find it boring or not. Not since Down by Law has Jim Jarmusch crafted such an eerie open ending that stays with you long after the film is over. You see the events in the end shaping up from a mile away, but the execution is so on-point that you have to love it. Jarmusch may have dismissed his latest film being labeled a horror movie, but the final moments certainly say otherwise.
~ OCTOBER 21, 2013 ~