Thursday, May 1, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE           B                   
Great Britain  Germany  (123 mi)  2013  d:  Jim Jarmusch           Official site

I’m more of a Stax girl, myself.            —Eve (Tilda Swinton)

Typical of what’s happening today in the movie industry, Jim Jarmusch indicated this film was seven years in the making due to an inability to obtain funds to make the movie, as American backers dropped out, so he had to search for European financing.  And while Tilda Swinton and John Hurt were onboard throughout the lengthy ordeal, Michael Fassbender was eventually replaced by Tom Hiddleston, where it’s impossible to think of the film without him, as Hiddleston’s imprint is all over this film, especially the slowed down pace of lethargy that captures the creepy feel of vampire characters that have lived for centuries.  Hiddleston plays a worldly vampire with connections to a centuries earlier golden age in science, literature, music, and the arts, once friends with Schubert, and authors Shelley and Byron, now a depressed underground musician, aka Adam, whose spacey, mournfully hypnotic music Only lovers left alive | Adam's music YouTube (1:49) played on retro equipment brings back opium-induced thoughts of the hallucinogenic world of APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and is reminiscent of an earlier 60’s era of Lou Reed with the Velvet Underground, yet he plays the part of a reclusive rock star who makes psychedelic new music while in hiding, much like Mick Jagger as Turner in Nicolas Roeg’s PERFORMANCE (1970).  Only Gus van Sant’s LAST DAYS (2005) captures the same dreary mood, a portrait of a suicidal Cobain-like musician’s final days where nothing much happens, but he similarly retreats from reality and ignores everyone, lost in a haze of oblivion.  This atmospheric funk is beautifully realized by Jarmusch’s choice to shoot the film in the empty ruins of the economically ravaged Detroit, which he calls “a decimated city.”  Truly representative of a city in decay, we return to constant images of empty downtown streets and the remnants of an industrial wasteland, where the residents feel like ghostly inhabitants of a once thriving city.  Living in a dilapidated Victorian house in a deserted area on the outskirts of town, looking like the morbid set for a Halloween movie, Adam collects vintage electric guitars, builds his own underground electronic grid, but also has various electronics memorabilia like a 50’s TV, a 70’s phone, while playing classic turnstyle LP records like Charlie Feathers “Can't Hardly Stand It” CHARLIE FEATHERS Can't Hardly Stand It - YouTube (2:52). 

On the other side of the globe living in Tangiers, with the streets cast in a golden hue, is Adam’s wife Eve (Tilda Swinton), a collector of books in every language, which she’s able to fathom simply by running her fingers over the pages.  Dressed in a hijab covering her hair and neck, Eve literally glides through the empty streets ignoring the men popping out of dark corners promising “We’ve got what you want,” as she proceeds to a near empty café where she meets fellow vampire Marlowe (John Hurt), Shakespeare’s contemporary and her longtime lover/confidante who hoards his secret that he secretly penned Shakespeare’s works, while also being her blood supplier, offering her a taste of “the good stuff.”  These vampires have long ago sworn off attacking human victims, who they call “zombies,” claiming they’ve tainted the blood supply with their careless lifestyles and reckless disregard for their health.  Adam has a black market procurer (Jeffrey Wright) in the blood supply section of the hospital, where he arrives with a large wad of cash dressed in a doctor’s gown posing as Dr. Faust or Dr. Caligari, where getting their fix is like feeding a heroin habit, as they’re seen going through a rush of euphoria, with fangs starting to protrude.  Adam uses Ian (Anton Yelchin), in awe of the man’s genius and one of his biggest fans, but also a naïve stoner kid as his Renfield, a go-between to the outside world, while also using him, no questions asked, to track down hard-to-find specialty items, like vintage guitars or recording equipment, and even a specially-made wooden bullet.  When Eve realizes the extent of his deep gloom, she decides to board to flight to Detroit, packing Dostoyevsky and David Foster Wallace, wasting no opportunity as they reminisce about their glory years, as Adam recalls when they hung out with Byron, “a pompous bore,” or wrote an Adagio movement for Schubert, and recalls with affection meeting Mary Shelley.  When asked what she was like, Adam snarls “She was delicious.”  Not since SID AND NANCY (1986) have we seen such a dreamily lethargic and quietly disengaged couple, where he drives her through the empty streets of Detroit at night, past the deserted Roxy Theater and the Michigan Theatre, which is now used as a parking lot, where they seem alone in the vast desolation of boarded up warehouses and factories.  “How can you have lived for so long, and still not get it?” she reminds him.  “This self-obsession is a waste of living.  That could be spent on surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship… and dancing!”  Suggesting he might show her the Motown studios, she responds, “I’m more of a Stax girl, myself,” grabbing her partner off the couch as she chooses to play a Denise LaSalle song, “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” Only Lovers Left Alive - Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton dancing YouTube (2:00), which just happened to be released on the Detroit-based Westbound Records label. 

Shot entirely at night by Yorick le Saux, with an extraordinary score from Josef van Wissem and Jarmusch’s own band Sqürl, Jozef Van Wissem & SQÜRL - The Taste Of Blood YouTube (5:54), where it’s easy to lose yourself in the feedback and trance-like psychedelic guitar sounds where the desolation of the vampire underworld stretches to an endless abyss.  The opening forty minutes or so are riveting and show great promise, but peters out a bit by the end, where the sophistication and urbane wit of Adam and Eve represent a kind of cultured, upper class variety of vampire, where Jarmusch has created a uniquely original, alternate universe existing right alongside the present that sarcastically comments upon the superficiality of the modern era where there’s scarcely a genius left alive, no one to challenge their infinite knowledge, forcing them to withdraw ever further into themselves, yet constantly needing to feed, resembling drug addicts.  The film perks up with the arrival of Eve’s naughty kid sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a cute but mischievous brat vampire whose unstoppable impulses are a destructive force of nature, returning to the reckless carnage and instability of youth, bringing nothing but turmoil into their orderly lives.  They make an appearance at an underground music club, hoping to be inconspicuous, but Ava’s continued flirtatiousness draws unwanted attention, where the kick-ass music, however, is White Hills “Under Skin or by Name” White Hills - Under Skin or by Name YouTube (5:40) and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club “Red Eyes and Tears” Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Red Eyes And Tears  YouTube (3:59).  Despite this surge of energy, it’s only a reminder throughout time of family dysfunction and the capacity for humans to destroy the world they live in, which includes, among other things, the contamination of the blood supply.  Of note, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s recent take on the vampire novel, which led to Tomas Alfredson’s film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), was similarly concerned with the harmful effects of “impure blood.”  This leads to the question of whether vampires can survive under these toxic modern conditions, which, of course, looking at the nearly demolished picture of Detroit, is a question we should be asking ourselves?  How does a city’s destruction, caused by the unconscionable eagerness of people or corporations (like Ava) to thoughtlessly serve only themselves, benefit anyone?  Through the perspective of centuries, we are at a particularly noteworthy crossroads in determining just what kind of future we’ll have, yet Ava’s gratuitous self-centered greed and her childlike refusal to see the bigger picture suggests a dire future, emblematic perhaps of those ineffectual voices currently haggling over world peace, where self interests above everything else certainly places the planet at even greater risk.  Of course, it wouldn’t truly be representative of a Jarmusch vampire format unless the future of the human condition was utterly dismal.

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