Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Berkeley Blazer Overlooks: Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive"

Is your tea within arms reach?
Remember to sip with your pinky out, as you enjoy the second edition of 
The Berkeley Blazer Overlooks...
Poster art by Paul Stolper

How does a sentient being occupy himself given a virtually infinite amount of time? Jim Jarmusch explores this concept by making the titular lovers in Only Lovers Left Alive vampires, giving his characters centuries to cultivate their lives while they manage challenges of undead living, both epic and banal..

The film begins with Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve(Tilda Swinton) happily married but living on opposite sides of the globe, deciding to reconnect when Adam is hit with a particularly nasty bout of ennui. Adam isolates himself in his wonderfully drab and unwelcoming Detroit home, composing funereal guitar dirges and lamenting the decline of western civilization due to the “zombies”, his euphemism for humans. Eve cocoons herself in a tiny jewel box of a room in Tangier surrounded by piles of books, stalking the Moroccan streets as a tall white stranger. Both share a cultivated appreciation for cultural artifacts: Before Eve departs on her night flight to Detroit via Paris, she carefully selects which of her favorite books she will bring with her, lovingly pouring over each page and visibly moved reconnecting with her tomes. Adam is introduced while marveling at and caressing the exotic guitars that his gofer has fetched. This epicurean taking of pleasure in fine objects of culture is central leitmotif in Only Lovers. The duo’s vampirism seems to be a purely biological phenomenon: demons, gods, and ghosts are conspicuously absent from the world of Lovers, even in conversation. They are materialists not in a shallow or crass way, but in that they have a deep appreciation of the world of the here and now. There is no communion with phantoms or summoning of familiars, and these vampires don’t seem to fit into some supernatural spectrum of monsters; they are simply nocturnal, predatory humans. Theology is not discussed in the film, and according to Jarmusch their biblical names were actually an accident that did not occur to him until later in the production.

Adam is an appreciator of science as well as music and name-drops often, telling droll stories about the great luminaries he has gallivanted with and lamenting that many like Darwin and Tesla were vilified or exploited by “the fucking zombies”. Some of these very people can be seen on Adam’s “wall of heros” where there are portraits of famous zombies like Isaac Newton and Buster Keaton. As the film progresses we come to understand Adam is frustrated with what he sees as the often squandered potential of human beings. When Adam’s sense of futility and general boredom becomes too much to bear, he sends for a bullet made of the hardest of wood, just in case he wants to commit suicide. His profound love of music and the need to share his art, see his beloved, and to take a drain of that salubrious “Type O negativo” are presumably what keep him from crossing over, and perhaps his inventions. One of my favorite scenes has Adam bringing Eve outside to fix the underground generator he built in his backyard, a splendid construction of cords, motors, and charges all linked underground like bone and sinew in the earth (there is a great article on the theoretical technology here. After fixing the generator the pair notice a lone patch of mushrooms growing out of season in a secluded nook by the house. Eve observes how the little myconids are adapting to the changing environment, mirroring the coming minor catastrophe that spurs the two to flee Detroit and escape to Tangier. 

That Adam is not at peace and that later in the film both find themselves in dire straights due to some terrible mistakes further emphasizes that both characters are in precarious existential positions despite their long practiced hand at living. Adam also is justifiably paranoid that someone may find out who he is or where he lives. Despite their physical and intellectual superiority, Adam and Eve still struggle for survival, and are in many ways more vulnerable than their human counterparts that brave the sun and who are privy to wider social structures of protection. The trajectory of Adam and Eve suggests that while there is no escaping from an occasional sense of futility and tragedy, these aspects of conscious existence are apart of a rejuvenation cycle that compels us to change and adapt. Though they are vampires, the situation of Adam and Eve is thoroughly human and something we can relate to on a personal level. In fact, Adam’s struggle for new meaning and rejuvenation is not exclusive to bored immortals, but rather anyone who cannot endorse or believe in the idea of a teleological universe. Satisfaction and meaning in life is a continuous and creative endeavor that occasionally calls for a renegotiation of one’s current circumstances, and while Adam struggles it is his better half Eve -who manages her immortality with a cruising, quietly confident vivacity- that comes to chastise her beloved. “How can you have lived for so long and still not get it? This self-obsession is a waste of living that could be spent on surviving things, appreciating nature,nurturing kindness, and friendship....and dancing!” Out of context this is a set of platitudes, but Swinton’s portrayal of Eve throughout the film, as we shall see, give her words authority: we feel her profound years and believe she has strategy for the passage of time that will keep her both sane and happy. Eve relies on friends as well as her cultivated elan. It is established early on that her friendship with the vampire poet Ben Johnson is a strong source of happiness for her, and his death is the final nail in the coffin for both her and Adam’s past life arrangements. No matter how well one can bear their station, sometimes in the tumult of change one must struggle to find a new way, and it is often through unforeseen trials that we receive the education of wisdom. Adam and Eve are in their physical and moral nadir when they hear a deep, silky serenade of longing from an otherworldly singer (Yasmine Hamdan), while Eve takes the last of their money and buys Adam a precious oud (a sort of fretless lute used mainly in middle eastern music). Even near death, the pull of living art sustain our duo long enough that they encounter two lip-locked zombies to drink from and turn.

​This interpretation may be a bit too “"Alain de Botton” does Jarmusch” for many of the people who watch and enjoy Jarmusch films. However, I’m not interested in viewing Only Lovers as an inspirational film, but as a down to earth look at possible attitudes and values a secular person might experiment with. If nothing else the film is a great vehicle of discussion about the lives of the artist and the beautiful vicissitudes of Detroit at night. 

-Berkeley Blazer

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