Sunday, August 24, 2014

The stars are out tonight


The film that teaches that suicide is never an option, at least not if you're married to Tilda Swintonso, obviously, something we already knew.  Nonetheless, it's rather enjoyable.

2013 (them)/2014 (us)
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
With Tilda Swinton (Eve), Tom Hiddleston (Adam), Mia Wasikowska (Ava), and John Hurt (Kit)

Spoiler alert: mild

Recasting is always problematic, but it was a stroke of genius for the franchise's new director to replace the leads with the infinitely more charismatic Swinton and Hiddleston.  If it meant losing Ashley Greene, it was still worth it.  However unfortunate that defection is, Wasikowska does prove a more-than-adequate replacement, though her new version of Alice sure is an obnoxious little

What?  Oh.

Okay, clearly I mixed up my notes, in order to make the most obvious joke anybody could about Jim Jarmusch's new movie.  But a vampire movie that I didn't hate, Let the Right One In and (yeah) Daybreakers aside, is a real accomplishment in this 21st century, defined as it has been on one side by the sexless, plotless porn known to developmentally-disabled tweens and their sad moms as the Twilight franchise, and on the other by the parade of blue-filtered horribles that drooling, masturbating neckbeards call the Underworld series.

Not that Only Lovers has much use for this century, anyway.  The two personalities that fill up the film's principal setting, a shittown mansion that's become a crawlspace thanks to the clutter of obscure artifacts and the corrosion of time, live deeply in the shadows of their long and storied pasts.  They differentiate little between events from forty years ago and four hundred: one speaks of a composer of funeral dirges executed by English Roundheads as if it happened yesterday; the other speaks of her fondness for the music produced by Stax Records, before declaring with neither optimism nor pessimism, only experience, that Detroit will rise again because "it has water"; they each complain about the contamination of human blood, apparently unwilling to recallas much as Jim Jarmusch is just plain unaware of the factthat 19th century England was a disgusting hellscape of environmental degradation and unchecked disease that makes Only Lovers' Motown look like heaven.

Yet, despite a broad and deep interest in our civilization, they speak littleand think lessof any human cultural endeavor to come after the 1970s.  Their sole referent past this date is the word "zombie," an epithet which they use to refer to us; and, knowing these people, they really do mean it in the Vodoun sense, rather than in the Cahiers/Romero repurposing of the term.  The other miracle of Only Lovers, then, is that it's a movie about hipsters who cannot die, yet is still a pleasurable thing to watch.

It does help that one of the secondary characters, though she is irresponsible and stupid, correctly diagnoses the two cooler-than-thou protagonists as snobs.  It also helps that their acid rock is, in fact, pretty good (though in no appreciable way does it seem hiplike I'm anyone to judge).  The score is excellent as well, incorporating those old themes and older ones than that.  The respective credits go to none other than Jarmusch himself, with his band Squrl, and to composer Jozef van Wessem.

It does not help, in the damned slightest, that in their discourses on cool ephemera our lovers routinely get details wrong.  The film itself doesn't mind committing fully to the Marlovian brand of Shakespeare conspiracy theory, compounding the sin of pride with the most off-putting vanity when the putative vampiric author of Hamlet declares that our wan hero would have been the perfect model for our civilization's most iconic sadsack.

To sulk or not to sulk... is not really a question.

Add in that our heroine can tell how old any object is, and therefore how worthy it is, by touch, and you could have had a motion picture rendered unwatchable by its pretensions.  But in the end, it's all of a piece: were this outrageously Gothic throwback made instead in 1994, it might've been bigger than The Crow and Sandman put together.  It's a pity.  This movie cut itself long after it was cool.

The first cuts are welcoming, however, with shots that bind our two immortal souls together, though they are, at present, on other ends of the Earth.  Their connection is the heart of Only Lovers; their low-key, matured love affair, its most enjoyable aspect.  It is, however, nearly matched by these hipsters' sense of nostalgia, so deep and genuine that it really does punch through all the condescension, the irony, and even the factual errors, and into true romanticism; but before that, we must consider the occasionally resurfacing sense of humor that routinely transforms understatement into unexpected laughter.

Swinton is Eve, Hiddleston is Adam, and they punch you in the face with a symbolism that, along with the title, suggests that they've been together forever already, and that they'll still be together, with a stockpile of purified human blood, when our species has returned to the dust.  (In any event, it's certainly less eye-rolling and mean-spirited than yesterday's deployment of baby's first Biblical metaphor.)

There's almost not a plot, though there is a modicum of incident.  There is some sort of subliminal narrative, regarding the theft of Adam's new music, which has something haughty to say about artists' relationship to their art; but it's of no matter, really.  Only Lovers is too low-key to even be called a character study.  It's a hang-out movie with vampires.  And yet I still insist that it is very good.

Doubt is cast, but not too tensely, upon Eve and Adam's continued entanglement, due to the ever-present threat that Adam's endless melancholy will bloom fully into suicide.  I sympathize; he's at least a few hundred years old, when even at 31 the void already beckons.  But I am not married to Tilda Swinton, so this sympathy only goes so far.  Once Eve returns to his side, it's hardly brought up again, and this is realistic, since Swinton's presence is, philosophically, basically synonymous with a life worth living.  (Swinton gets routinely described as androgynous; but anyone who forwards such a facially ridiculous claim surely must have limited observational experience of human beings, not to mention a blind and asexual man's sense of aesthetics.)

Even if your hair is ridiculous in this movie, I still think you're the best.

It's obvious it's not the first time Eve has had to salve his psyche, just as it's obvious it won't be the last.  It's not the first time, either, that they've come apart to pursue their separate interests, only to find the emptiness within their own inner reaches before they come together again.

But it's interesting to consider the conversations they have, once reunited.  Adam has surely spoken of the Shelleys before.  And he has, explicitly, told Eve many times of the odd effects inherent to coherent subatomic particles, here rendered as Einstein's "theory of spooky action at a distance," and thus the most hopelessly mangled of Adam's factoids.  (It can now officially join Schrodinger's cat in the pantheon of tragically misunderstood quantum mechanical parables.)

Misinterpreted or not, the philosophically inscrutable physics that underlay our reality deliver, as forcefully as those opening match cuts, the important idea that truly animates Only Lovers Left Alive.  Romantically, and maybe a little tritely, but also sincerely and convincingly, the meaning of life is revealed here, and it is the same as it's always been.  It is the time spent with one who will listen to the same fractured stories, over and over; the one whose hand you need to hold to believe you exist; the one who understands you.  Through this, even an endless life is made content, comfortable, happy.  The sad part is that only lovers really live in the first place, and it is rarely such an easy thing to be as Jarmusch suggests.

Score:  7/10


  1. This is certainly one of the most unique vampire movies I've ever seen. I'm not a huge fan of the subgenre, so I think the anti-vampire tropes appealed to me. Are there any vampire movies you really love?

  2. Silence of the Lambs. (I'm only barely kidding.)

    But the real answer, it's incumbent on me to say, is absolutely not Dracula '31. That's the miniscule, maybe 10% overlap Tim Brayton and I appear to have in taste, and it pleases me every time he brings up how that movie kind of sucks. It's better than Herzog's Nosferatu, but it's vanishly few movies that fail to clear that particular bar.

    But then there's Coppola's (Bram Stoker's) Dracula, which is kind of amazing; I don't know if I'd call it legitimately great, but it's some kind of great. And sure, Dracula '31 and Nosferatu '20 may be more influential, but did either of them inspire a Meat Loaf video? I didn't think so.

    It's either that or the original Fright Night for my favorite; that's the kind of movie you go into expecting one thing, based on the premise (a horror-comedy with a great deal more emphasis on the latter), and get something kind of completely different that is actually more often (a largely straitlaced but inventive and sometimes even genuinely scary movie--which may well make it unique in the whole subgenre).

    All that said, you could throw a real hammer through the hole in my vampire knowledge, and this is my great and ever-increasing shame.

    Oh, and what was the running joke you mentioned, in Only Lovers, that bothered you so? Was it Anton Yelchin's continuing failure to deduce that the recluse who doesn't go out in the daytime, wants a wooden bullet, and has super-speed was a vampire? Because c'mon man! PUT IT TOGETHER.

    1. Actually, if I remember correctly, it was Marlowe's repeated insistence that he penned the Shakespeare plays. I thought it worked better as a throwaway gag, not an endlessly beaten motif. Although it staunchly worked itself into the theme, so what do I know?

    2. Ah. See, I didn't count that as a joke, exactly, being resolute in not being particularly funny. But I realized belatedly why Anton Yelchin's cluelessness actually kind of is!