Thursday, July 24, 2014

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE - FILM REVIEW (2013 - Directed by Jim Jarmusch)


“For rhythm and harmony penetrate deeply into the mind and have a most powerful effect on it, and if education is good, bring balance and fairness, if it is bad, the reverse.”
- Plato

“It is part of the business of the critic to preserve tradition - where a good tradition exists.  It is part of his business to see literature steadily and to see it whole; and this is eminently to see it not as consecrated by time, but to see it beyond time; to see the best work of our time and the best work of twenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes.”
- T.S. Eliot

“The cinema ... is - in Jean Cocteau’s famous words - ‘a dream that can be dreamt by many people at the same time’.”
- John Wain
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It is all but superfluous to point out that movies and TV shows about vampires have recently been, let us say, trendy.  But the sheer quantity of it, produced by popular demand, can still be rather surprising even now.  The Twilight phenomenon alone was incredible to observe.  From a literary point of view, one can’t help feeling at least a tinge of curiosity whenever a book, or series of books, is suddenly being voraciously read by millions of people all at the same time (all of whom do not normally read books).  It was that curiosity (combined with the fact that an attractively engaging person I knew was reading it) that led me, years ago, to open up Stephanie Meyer’s first Twilight book at the bookstore.  Unsurprisingly, upon opening it, the first few pages of the book soundly demonstrated the tragedy that besets all those writers who have yet to develop any ear at all for the natural rhythms of English prose.

Ms. Meyer somehow managed to blend an impoverished and clunky writing style with inane lines of dialogue, and then peppered this concatenation throughout with cut-and-paste story-board clichés.  This whole sordid exhibition of third grade level sentence structure was sold to the public - all in order to tell the story of the transitory mental states of a teenage girl, with the required amounts of low self-esteem necessary in order to be seduced by a one hundred and four year old vampire.  The result?  Why, naturally, a bestseller.

That book was published in 2005.  The first film was released in 2008.  But I would feel both redundant and cheap to go on criticizing the Twilight fad.  By now such criticism is both commonplace and demonstrably futile.  But I have started out with it in order to make a different point.  My point is more generally related to all the vampire films and TV shows we have seen over the last decade.

What is it that is most obviously wrong with today’s vampire stories?  I would submit that it is in the conversation of the vampires.

Both The Vampire Diaries and HBO’s True Blood suffer from the same defect.  (See them uttering lines like “Damon, please, after all these years, can't we just give it a rest?” or “Well, I figure if you’re gonna dump me, you should at least ... um ... know who you’re dumping.” and then compare where vampire Bill sadly delivers lines like “Oh, but you have other very juicy arteries. There is one in the groin that’s a particular favorite of mine.”)  Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the dialogue was often quite clever, still has Angel, the two hundred and forty-one year old vampire, saying things like “Listen, if we date, you and I both know one thing's going to lead to another” or “A hundred years, just hanging out, feeling guilty ... I really honed my brooding skills.”  There were at least sixteen different vampire films from the year 2012 alone.  Among them, indicative examples included: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (“There are two kinds of man, Mr. Lincoln. Those that have the guts to pull the trigger ... and those who do not.”), Byzantium (“We are the pointed nails of justice.”), Underworld: Awakening (“For a brief moment of time, we were safe. But, then, a new Darkness arose!”) and Vamps (“I didn’t put in rollers so I’m gonna have coffin hair tomorrow.”)

So ... why, in all of today’s vampire stories, are these vampires so mentally vacuous?  Why are the lines of dialogue that they are given so stupid and empty-headed?  Why do they never speak as though they had really lived for hundreds of years?  This occurs, mind you, even when the filmmakers are careful enough to explicitly point out to the viewer that the vampire has lived for hundreds, if not for thousands, of years.

Imagine, for just a moment, that you were to actually experience meeting and conversing with a vampire.  If one really were to run across a vampire in real life, what would the most striking thing be that you would notice?  Pale skin?  Too many of us are pale these days.  It comes with all the office cubicles and florescent lighting.  Sharp teeth?  I would venture to guess that all vampires who proceeded to show first acquaintances their sharp teeth would be just those vampires who possessed very short nonlife spans.  A black cape?  Hallucinatory eyes?  Long finger nails?  Please.

Here is where today’s scriptwriters degrade and humiliate their vampires.

It’s so obvious that I’m disappointed in myself that it took my watching Only Lovers Left Alive for me to think of it.  If you were to actually meet a person who had lived even an “undead” life successfully for a historical age or two, the first thing you would notice would be that person’s conversation, intelligence and education.  He or she would make you feel the limitations of your own I.Q.  After all, considering the way modern culture has gone over the years and considering the way that education has been gutted in the last century, most likely a vampire in today’s time would be pretty depressed at the current state of things.  In fact, any person who was educated before the 20th century would most likely struggle with a very great temptation to have contempt for us all and for the ways in which we now live.

How could they not?  Most likely, if you met a vampire who was not new and who had not got himself killed over the last couple centuries, then you would be meeting a person who had not merely mastered street smarts.  Most likely this person (a) has read all of the classics of history and literature, (b) has absorbed all the greatest works of philosophy, Western and Eastern, (c) has at some point pursued all the lines of thought (sometimes as they were contemporaneously developed) by all the greatest minds of science, (d) speaks dozens of different languages and (e) has spent entire decades meditating and reflecting upon the lessons, vagaries, follies, wars, loves, successes and failures of human life - along with plenty of time to make careful observations.

If you were a scriptwriter, how, how, in the name of everything under heaven, could you leave this part of being a vampire out of the story you were writing?  Any half-decent vampire would be bound to have very particular views about our modern mass-media consumerized age.  Why, oh why, would you use a vampire and then tell just another love story or just another action story without there being any difference at all?  What do you think any classically educated vampire would feel upon nonliving in the year of our Lord, 2014?

The decline of culture, the modern obsessions with pop fads, the uglification of architecture, the dumbing down of news and political discourse, the mass-produced and artificially processed foods in the grocery stores, the addictions to television, social media, computer games and iPhones, the apparently willful neglect of art and learning and beauty in our modern age ... all these things would most likely profoundly affect any person who had been living through century after century after century.

Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control) - director, scriptwriter, producer, editor, music composer - understands the great importance of this necessary consequence of a vampire story.  In an interview, Jarmusch commented on how negative reviews the film has received have criticized his protagonists for being snobs.  He explained: “And someone said, ‘Yeah, but they’re just snobbish characters.’ Well, if you and I were alive for 500, 1,000, 2,000 years, we would certainly appear as snobs to everyone else, because our knowledge and experience would be so much more vast ...”  As a result of this insight, he has just given us one of the most intelligent vampire films ever made.  And not only does Jarmusch give us an intelligent film, but he takes the traditional idea of a vampire and then uses it compellingly to take a look at where we all are right now.

There are many different forms of social commentary, but sometimes, when you have a director like Jarmusch who views film as art rather than as mere entertainment, something very special can happen.  The end result here is not just social commentary; it’s a beautiful, bluesy, slow, meandering, nightmarish, melancholy, contemplative dream.

With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch is doing what any artist ought to do.  The film reminds me of an excerpt from Gregory Wolfe’s challenging book, Beauty Will Save the World.  Wolfe wrote:
“The artist, like anyone else, is a representative of his time.  His role, to paraphrase Hamlet, is to reveal ‘the form and pressure of the age.’  By ‘pressure,’ Shakespeare means impression or stamp.  While it is true that some art can portray the ideal, the primary burden of art is to grapple with the reality of the present.  Only by engaging the present can art achieve universal meaning.  Modern artists create works that reflect modern conditions; they explore modernity, as it were, from the inside.  The least imaginative of them merely reflect the surface of things.  But the great artists dramatize the conflicts of their time, embedding meaning deep within their works.”
So what are the challenges of modernity today?  What have we done to ourselves over the last few decades that shape the ways in which we live?  Only Lovers Left Alive could be seen as a sort of futuristic, dystopian tale.  But really, once you take a second look, there is nothing in it that would logically lead one to think that it wasn’t set in the present.

The two main protagonists in the film are named Adam and Eve.  Adam, played with dry humor by Tom Hiddleston (Thor, The Deep Blue Sea), is a vampire who is still living with one foot in the Romantic period of the 1800s and the other in the ‘60s & ‘70s world of classic rock & blues guitar.  He’s a composer and an inventor.  His walls are covered with hanging guitars and other instruments.  He recruits a human, Ian, played by Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy, Star Trek), to find old collectible guitars.  Ian has managed to help Adam acquire an early ‘60s Silvertone (played by both Bob Dylan and Jack White), a Chet Atkins 1961, a 1960 Hagstrom (played by Jimi Hendrix) and even a 1905 Gibson (think Roy Oribson, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, B.B. King or Jimmy Page).  Adam names his guitars after Renaissance composers but also fondly remembers watching early rock n’ roll artists like Eddie Cochrane perform.  If you look closely, you will also see, hanging on Adam’s walls, portraits of thinkers, writers and composers (including Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Johann Sebastian Bach and Christopher Marlowe).

The problem with Adam is that he’s struggling through deep depression.  This is where the film is clever.  As the story progresses, we learn that modern humans (Adam calls us “zombies”), have infected their blood with drug use and unhealthy diets.  The result is that most human beings are so unhealthy and infected, that for a vampire to drink their blood is to risk becoming terribly sick.  Adam is also too much in love with the true and the beautiful to be able to stomach most of modern culture or media.  This is why he stays alone in his house at night, just sitting there in the darkness, dejectedly contemplating what has been wrecked by the modern world.  His rooms are absolutely covered in stacks of old books, stereos, amps, vinyl records, guitars, violins and old photographs.  He still composes blues music and calls it funeral music.  At one point, it is casually revealed that he composed and gave music to Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt to pass off as their own.
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Eve: “What is it?  You look tired.”
Adam: “Do I?  I guess I am.  Yeah.”
Eve: “... So what is this then? Can’t you tell your wife what your problem is?”
Adam: “It’s the zombies and the way they treat the world.  I just feel like all the sands at the bottom of the hourglass or something.”
Eve: “Time to turn it over then.”
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Eve is played delightfully by Tilda Swinton.  I don’t think many films quite get her beauty, but this one does.  She is made by Jarmusch and cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, to look both ageless and as if she were a sort of albino enchantress.  And yes, albinos can be very beautiful.  (Le Saux also filmed Swinton appealingly in Luca Guadagino’s I Am Love.)  There are numerous scenes where Swinton appears almost to glow.  Eve lives in Tangiers, one of the haunts of the writer, William Burroughs.  Her saunters through the streets of the city are like moving through a dreamscape of brown, white and golden light mixed with endless variations of shadow.  She walks (or stalks) with a determined saunter that matches the way that she talks, no nonsense and to the point.  Her walls are also covered in books, even more than Adam’s.  She reads poetry.  In preparation for travel, she fills two suitcases with nothing but books, from Cervantes’s Don Quixote to Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Best of all, she is a voice of reason and encouragement against Adam’s doubts and depression.  She cautions him that he always has “the convenience of the zombies to blame” whenever he gets low and reminds him of his scientific and literary heroes, who stood for the good things of human life that he believes in.  “How can you live for so long and still not get it?” she asks him, “This self-obsession, it’s a waste of living that could be spent on surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship and ... dancing.  You’ve been pretty lucky in love though, if I may say so.”  She regales him with the wonders and mysteries of creation, telling him of a white dwarf up in space which she describes as “a diamond up there the size of planet” that emits music into the ether.  She encourages him to open his eyes to his surroundings and hints that depression is closely tied to spending too much time thinking of nothing but one’s own self.

Putting these two characters together and developing their relationship allows Jarmusch to encourage the viewer to think of the bigger picture.  Whatever problems our own selves may be struggling with at any given moment, there are real things that still make life worth living.  There are great scientific discoveries and works of art that demonstrate the finer things that make us human.  Set in the midst of the modern age, watching an ancient Adam and Eve meditate upon and react to the world around them offers us a different and older point of view about our own lives and how we now live them.

While I won’t give away any spoilers, it will not be a spoiler to point out what is revealed in the opening minutes of the film, namely, that in the universe of Only Lovers Left Alive, William Shakespeare is still alive.  Played as a weary and worldly-wise vampire by John Hurt, he is a friend of Eve in Tangiers.  He still wears his favorite clothing from 1586.  Technically, Shakespeare is here really Christopher Marlowe, but that doesn’t really matter.  In the world of the story, different famous names are often the humans who passed off the works of vampires as their own.  This isn’t meant to be controversial or to decrease the works’ value.  At one point, Eve teases him by saying that they should leak proof that he is the one who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  She suggests playfully that “It would cause such thrilling chaos.”  “I think,” he replies, wryly, “the world is in enough chaos to keep it going.”

Marlowe/Shakespeare also knows Adam.  In an early scene, he tells Eve to give his regards “to that suicidal romantic scoundrel.”  Humorously enough and hinting at the sort of person Adam is, he tells her: “I wish I would have met him before I wrote Hamlet.  He would have provided the most perfect role model imaginable.”  Eve responds with a tempered view of Romanticism: “Well let’s hope he’s just romantic.  Even so I mainly blame Shelley and Byron and some of those French assholes who used to hang around him.”  Adam is more sensitive than anyone else.  The problem is that he indulges in his sensitivity by making it flirt with an unhealthy narcissism.

Read more at Filmwell -