Coolness and Connoisseurship in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive reimagines the vampire myth in the context of intellectual philistinism.
2014-04-11 (Limited)

Jim Jarmusch has the rare ability to depict boredom without becoming boring. His films focus is on outsiders who dwell on the peripheries of large urban centres, forming small, insular, often oddball, communities amongst themselves. And, with a few exceptions (Ghost Dog, Dead Man, The Limits of Control), the detail-orientated manner in which his films are structured mirrors the lethargic, directionless lifestyles of his characters: incident is elided in favour of an episodic string of mundane moments, rendered in a manner simultaneously naturalistic and faintly absurdist.

Jarmusch’s compositions may be static and rigid, but there’s plenty of room for spontaneity and playfulness within them; his films (largely thanks to the filmmaker’s keen ear (and eye) for deadpan comic timing and the rhythms of everyday human behaviour) are infused with a laidback sense of levity and airiness that keeps the action light without cheapening it. Also, it helps that his characters are just fun to hang out with.

The idea of a Jarmusch-helmed vampire film may sound like a departure, but his characters, with their semi-self-imposed solitude, sense of detachment from mainstream culture and general lack of direction, have always had a vampiric quality. The driving force behind Only Lovers Left Alive is the idea that vampires have the potential to become the ultimate culture snobs. Immortality gives them the opportunity to build up an impossibly rich and sophisticated knowledge of the arts, and their predatory aspects, when adequately restrained, needn’t come at the expense of refinement and good taste.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), the married couple at the film’s centre, are bound together by a mutual sense of cultural superiority that also isolates them from everybody else. He’s seen Schubert perform live and used to hang out with Byron and Shelley; she’s read a huge number of literary masterworks in multiple languages. Naturally, they can’t help but look upon the comparative vulgarity of humanity with gleeful disdain.

Adam, a disaffected musician living in a run-down house on the outskirts of Detroit, spends his time listening to vinyl records, noodling around with his collection of vintage guitars and occasionally recording the odd piece of music (though he dreads the idea of actually becoming a popular musician). The only other beings we see him make contact with are Ian (Anton Yelchin), who supplies him with antique instruments and unnamed doctor (Jeffrey Wright), who supplies him with quality blood from the hospital.

Adam communicates over an online video call fed into his retro TV (these vampires love to collect old things) with the Tangier-based Eve, who soon comes to Detroit with the intention of bringing him out of his extended funk. The film doesn’t doubt the genuine joy they take in discussing and sharing art with one another; in fact, their relationship is portrayed as being mutually fulfilling largely because it’s based on these shared interests. For them, art isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity, and it’s just about the only reason why they choose to continue roaming amongst the living.

Yet there is something undeniably adolescent about the way they express this affection. Though many of Jarmusch’s past characters have similarly defined themselves through their artistic tastes, their appreciation is typically unforced and unpretentious; they approach the subject with open wide-eyed enthusiasm that’s genuinely infectious. Think of the tourists in Mystery Train whose love of Elvis leads them to travel halfway around the globe just to visit his birthplace, or Roberto Benigni’s character in Down By Law who, upon meeting his new cellmates, immediately tries to strike up conversation by bringing up the work of Walt Whitman, or a number of the supporting characters from The Limits of Control, who kick off their interactions with Isaach De Bankole’s unnamed protagonist by trying to find common ground in regards to their interests in music, painting, or cinema.

Adam and Eve, on the other hand, are very self-conscious about their vast cultural awareness, and they need to constantly flatter themselves by mocking the relative crassness of others; in fact, doing so is just as important to them as experiencing the art itself. In this sense, Jarmusch equates their literal predation on humans with another, more subtle one. They rely on the presence of the humans they deem to be beneath them (they even go as far as to refer to them as “zombies”) in order to sustain their self-infatuation. They have both also deliberately constructed affected, “cool” personas, and constantly project studied, posturing auras of world-weariness and strident nonconformity.

Die-hard nostalgists, Adam and Eve luxuriate in the comfort of old-fashioned, material media. Adam frequently scoffs at YouTube videos, music downloads, and similar 21st century inventions. Eve is a little more forward-thinking, but when she uses digital technology it’s purely for functional purposes. She views an iPhone as a practical necessity, not an item to be prized like a record player or an old book. In their eyes, the decline of Western society is unavoidable, and they, as two of the few remaining serious-minded culturati, must preserve the standards of good taste and resist a world increasingly indifferent to the creation and thoughtful appreciation of great art.

That’s what they say, at least. But there’s another dimension to their obsolescence: they yearn for a period when it was considered cool to live in the margins. In Only Lovers Left Alive, a corporatized culture of extreme technological connection and media saturation, in which the idea of privacy is alien and everyone has the opportunity to project themselves into the ether of cyberspace using social media sites, is a culture in which the prospect of avoiding attention is unthinkable, at least to a zombie.

Adam assumes that pretty much anything modern that has achieved popularity is inherently shallow, and is irritated when he learns that a song of his has become a hit in L.A. He even chooses to stay off-the-grid by generating his own electricity in his back yard. Ian, the product of a generation raised to aspire to public visibility, is genuinely shocked by Adam’s reluctance to seize the opportunity to have his music heard by as many people as possible.

In this sense, the vampire/zombie dichotomy takes on particular weight. Vampires are refined creatures who dwell in the shadows, out of human sight, while zombies consume mindlessly, thoughtlessly swarming all over while endlessly self-perpetuating. And the fact that human blood is becoming increasingly contaminated to them signals that the titular outcasts will soon be snuffed out entirely. Adam and Eve may look down on the “zombies”, but they also see them as a genuine threat to their existence; if anything, they view them a threat more so than the vampires.

As usual with Jarmusch, the carefully controlled languorous pacing of Only Lovers Left Alive gives it an intentionally soporific feel that reflects its’ characters’ experience of time. But here, it takes on a newfound cosmic weight. Being immortal, their lives lose all sense of momentum and urgenc; they live in a perpetual, drawn-out present moment without endings or beginnings. Adam and Eve bask in their ennui, responding to the perceived vapidity of the contemporary world by withdrawing into their memories, and therefore supposedly holding their own against the poisonous influence of modernity.

However, their actions are portrayed as being closer to a result of apathy, idleness and an immature refusal to accept the new. Instead of actively fighting for change or making an effort to adapt, they simply retreat into a self-constructed fantasy world, inertly cocooning themselves away from the perceived “crappiness” of pop culture using irony and scorn. It’s easy to sympathise with their worldview (after all, it’s always easier to gaze lovingly at the past than to engage with the contemporary), though their despondence is still cloyingly over-the-top, melodramatic and chronically self-pitying.

Fortunately, however, Jarmusch doesn’t share their regressive perspective. The welcome entrance of Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who is exactly the kind of energetic, extroverted philistine that they (and Adam, in particular) are hostile towards, half-way into the narrative explicitly disrupts their slightly suffocating cliquishness. Her presence adds some levity; she undercuts their solemn self-involvement and, when pushed, she even counteracts their thinly veiled contempt towards her with some of her own. Unlike them, she’s adapted to modern culture, but she’s done so without discretion.

Acting as Adam’s polar opposite, Ava gleefully swallows anything popular, has no respect for regional or cultural history, and demonstrates little interest in anything aside from where her next high is coming from. She’s a welcome presence, but her unquestioning embrace of forward progress doesn’t exactly provide a better alternative to Adam and Eve’s stagnant snobbery.

Jarmusch is most successful at undermining Adam and Eve’s narrow-mindedness on a formal level. In one stand-out sequence, the couple spend some time driving around the city at night, before stopping to admire the Michigan theatre. As he looks, in awe, at its Renaissance-esque architecture, Adam glumly explains to Eve that the place had a lengthy, glorious run after its construction in the ’20s, but has recently been turned into a car park.

Jarmusch’s camera first takes in the indeed glorious site of the theatre’s still-standing ceiling, justifying Adam’s adoration, and, seemingly, aligning the film with his perspective. Jarmusch certainly recognizes the appeal of his characters’ nostalgia, as evidenced by the attention lavished on Eve’s collection of centuries-old books and Adam’s analogue recording equipment.

However, the film then cuts to a wide-shot of the pair standing in said car park. They’re placed in the centre of the screen, standing back-to-back, with large swabs of negative space on either side. The single source of light is a blue-tinted, phosphorescent streetlamp in the distance; it illuminates only a small section of the ground, the side wall of an adjacent building, a thin portion of a nearby car, and the outlines of the two bodies. The darkness that dominates the frame has an appearance of incredible depth and tactility. It’s a beautiful, striking image, one only possible to achieve using the specific light-capturing qualities of digital cinematography.

This is just one of several scenes that create a fresh aesthetic experience through the blending of old and new, the most explicit, and the only one shared by the central duo, being a musical performance by Yasmine Hamdan. It’s an intoxicating mix of ancient Melismatic and electronic, and an artistic experience totally different from the ones Adam and eve have indulged in so far. This fact is, unfortunately (but not unsurprisingly), goes unnoticed by Adam, who simply quips that he hopes she’ll never be famous; “she’s far too good for that”.

James Slaymaker is a critic and essayist for Alternate Takes, an online journal of film culture. I have also written for White Coffee Magazine, The Shirker, Mcsweeney’s Internet Tendency, and several other online publications.