Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch) 2013 (review)

I’m a bit late catching up with the 2013 Jim Jarmusch movie Only Lovers Left Alive, but now that I’ve found it, it’s replaced my perennial go-to romantic film Velvet Goldmine as the standard for films about eternal lovers.

Ex-rock star Adam – he’s 500, but looks 30 – and the older Eve – 3000, who looks somewhere between 40 and 2500 – are married but live separately. Eve lives in Tangier, surrounded by piles upon piles of books, where she can regularly meet her friend Kit Marlowe, who has settled in this historically literary Moroccan city to ‘scratch out’ more plays and live with his current protégé, Bilal.  Adam lives in a Detroit Victorian home, in a part of the city that has returned to nature. He lives in America’s musical heartland, but his only neighbors are coyotes and the occasional skunk. 

Adam and Eve. To his credit, the filmmaker seems to realize that's an old fiction chestnut and goes beyond.

He’s a musician, and a determinedly analog one.  The film opens with him relaxing with a lute and his home is a paradise of reel-to-reels, wave-generators, tube amplifiers and record players stacked up to the ceilings.  He puts on the 45 of Wanda Jackson’s Funnel of Love and we see that he and Eve have a psychic connection; from Tangier she can tell he is sinking into ennui. It’s happened before.  He despises zombies (humans) and their lack of imagination, their non-acceptance of their own brilliant scientists, their lack of ecological stewardship and the creeping, but unexplained ‘contamination’ that’s driven the vampires away from most supplies of human blood. (All three get their fixes from hospital supplies of nice, clean O negative. Adam disguises himself as a ‘doctor’ – called Dr Faust first, Dr Caligari the second time we see him - to infiltrate the hospital. Marlowe also obtains his and Eve's blood from a hospital. He doesn’t say how, but it’s hinted that all things are available, in Tangier.)

Wanda Jackson. At first I thought it must be the Cramps version, but no, it's the 45 played at 33.

Eve calls Adam on her iPhone – her Apple, get it? – and Adam answers on his old fashioned telephone handset with a cord, which he hooks up to a cathode ray tube TV in order to Skype with her.  She agrees to come see him, though travel, even at night, is debilitating for their kind.

Meanwhile, Ian, his eager but gormless roadie/hanger on, brings him some goodies he’s scored: a 1959 Supro (Adam sights along its neck to check for straightness like a pro), a “weird” Hagstrom, a Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 with double-cutaway and an early sixties Silvertone with the amp built into the guitar case.  We get our first joke:  As Adam respectfully looks over the Gretsch, he mentions he saw Eddie Cochran play one of those...but it had been modified - the front pickup was a Gibson P-90.  “You saw Eddie Cochran play?” Ian asks incredulously. Cochran died in 1960. “Yeah,” Adam replies, thinking quickly, “On YouTube.”  There’s no chance, of course, that Adam watches YouTube.  There are a lot of jokes, all delivered so deadpan that at first I didn’t realize how funny the movie is.

Eve comes over, and while he’s out picking up more blood, she discovers he has a revolver with a single wooden bullet.  Distraught, she tries to bring him out of his existential malaise and they go for a drive, at night, obviously, through deserted Detroit. The vacant lots, the faded glory, the stately procession of sights – the Michigan Theater, the Packard plant - all build the feeling of long lives flowing towards some sort of enforced change.

Hastening this, Eve’s “little sister” – (“Is she a blood relative?” “Well, blood was involved.”), an apparently Millennial (she can’t be much more than 85), vacuous, LA-dwelling bundle of energy, unsophistication and raw need blasts into their lives (without even waiting to be invited over the threshold!), wrecks everything and is ultimately unceremoniously thrown out. Adam and Eve flee to Tangier, where they find Marlowe is sick from contaminated blood, though he manages to summon the energy for one more dig at Shakespeare. Marlowe wrote all his plays, of course.

Eve, Adam, Little Sister Ava and gormless Ian. 

Drained from travel, without a supply of clean blood, they listen to a Lebanese singer in a local café and contemplate their options.  Adam finds time for another bon mot – no, he doesn’t wish fame on the singer; she’s too good for that.

Starving, they sit on a bench as the cock crows.  A pair of lovers walk by and embrace by a wall. Adam and Eve can drink the couple’s blood or die when the sun comes up. They make their choice, and the film fades to black.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are perfect for this film. He’s dark, snake-hipped, high-cheekboned and a perfect high-register RP English speaker. He handles humor, particularly where the younger sister is concerned, with understated physical action. Swinton is blonde to the point of translucency, with eyes the size of saucers, a mane of hair uncombed since about 360 BCE and a cut-glass upper class accent.  They flawlessly portray lovers who have been together so long they don’t need to be in close contact, and who have their undying love of art and science in common.

Other reviews seem to think of them as hipsters – effortlessly cool. I didn’t see it that way. True, they were into your favorite artist before he was popular, but that’s because they’re over 500 years old. They knew Shakespeare. Adam remembers Byron as a bit of an ass.  I saw their eclectic tastes as having brewed slowly. One trusted way to play electric guitar, lute and oud well is to practice. And if you practice for a few hundred years you’re going to be very good. If you’ve read everybody in every language, more than once, your taste in authors will be wide-ranging.  And yes, they name-drop Jack White, a hipster fave, but I got the impression that’s because Jack is one of them – they were excited to drive by his old house, but note neither of them suggests finding his current house for a visit, just as they keep away from ‘the others’.

Ultimately I see the movie as a meditation on love, on art, but also on the phenomenon of middle-aged people trying to come to terms with the changes in their city, the world, the newfangled fashions and technology, and above all the lack of artistic sophistication that (the film suggests) characterizes the Youth of Today.

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