Saturday, June 07, 2014

Night of the Living Hipsters

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, directed by Jim Jarmusch) is another in a long line of films that examine the problems of living as a vampire in the contemporary world. Like most such films, it postulates a crippling ennui to plague its undead protagonists, and dresses it up in a certain amount of glamour. Certainly, its lead actors--Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton--lend the film an appeal that many another vampire film lacks. Indeed, I'm not sure of why Tom and Tilda haven't broken the internet yet, given that both of them are in dishabille in this movie. You never can tell with crowds, I guess.

The film follows Adam, a vampire rock star living in seclusion in Detroit as he works through an existential crisis. He's bored of life and the games he has to play with the world in order to even exist. He makes music for himself but doesn't send it into the world. He collects musical instruments and records. He does this through his human go-between, Ian, who doesn't have a clue about what Adam is. Adam has asked Ian to have a wooden bullet made for him from a dense wood, the denser the better. Adam's blood supplier is Dr. Watson, a hematologist to whom Adam appears randomly when he needs to restock. Watson guarantees that the blood Adam receives is untainted. You can never bee too careful these days. The one person in whom he confides is Eve, his wife, who lives across the world in Tangiers. Like Adam, she's made accommodations with a modern world where the blood that is available to sustain her may be tainted. Her source is Christopher Marlowe, who lives nearby, stewing in his resentment for the human "zombie" through whom he had to publish his "posthumous" works. When Eve gets wind of Adam's crisis of self, she flies to Detroit to be with him and rekindle their long-simmering romance. Into their idyll comes Eve's sister, Ava. Ava is a reckless, irresponsible vampire who Adam doesn't trust, least of all around his supply of good blood. One night after she convinces the couple to go out to a bar, Adam realizes that Ian has been feeding his music to the underground club circuit on the sly, a problem taken out of his hands by Ava, who "drinks" Ian. Suddenly, Adam's sequestered life is no longer so insulated...

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive

This is a character piece rather than a story. What story there is is merely there to complicate our protagonists' interactions with each other. This is a curiously insular film which seems to take place in some pocket corner of the universe, away from everything else. While there are threats implied in the negative space, those threats never really materialize. Instead, most of the film is devoted to the conversations between its characters and languorous scenes of their lives and habits. In principle, I can groove on that sort of thing. Only Lovers Left Alive makes it easy to take an interest in its doomed lovers, too, given that its lead characters are played by two of the most watchable actors on the planet. Movies still cling to movie stars as some kind of predictor of box office, but this film--perhaps not as interested in the global box office--indulges in one of the older pleasures of movie stars: they command the screen. The "it" of movie star charisma is strong in this movie, and not just in Tom and Tilda. You also get it in fits from John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright, and Mia Wasikowska in small roles. Really, that's just gravy, because this film's gaze is always held by its leads. As I say, it's fun to watch Tom Hiddleston and listen to his voice. Hiddleston is in the process of becoming one of the premiere stars of his generation, I think, and this will be a cult item in his portfolio for years to come. He's utterly charming and utterly gorgeous, like Loki's grown-up older brother. He's utterly believable as a jaded rock star or romantic poet or whatever other identity the film wants to graft onto him because his movie star persona will support anything. Tilda Swinton looks vaguely alien in this film, which isn't necessarily uncommon for her late career, but that alien-ness is tinged with kindness. When she reads her keepsake books a page at a glance, she's my kind of alien. As a pair, they're a kind of power couple, a binary star around which everything in the film orbits.

Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive

I say that I can groove on this in principle, but I have to admit that I chafe a bit at vampire narratives. That's ground that's been leeched by generations of vampire films such that even this film's cleverest conceits come at second hand. If it's not clear from the synopsis, this is basically an addiction film dressed up with neurasthenic immortal ennui, a use of the vampire archetype that's common enough to qualify as a trope. This is compounded somewhat by the cinematic anima of its director. Jarmusch's style of filming is never urgent and often it's not even compelling. Like many of his films, this one deadpans its narrative at a single pitch. Sometimes, this works. When Adam and Eve discover the exsanguinated Ian on their couch, Adam's tired exclamation, "You drank Ian!" is all of a piece. It's pretty funny. Other times--during Adam and Eve's frantic retreat to Tangiers at the end of the film--it doesn't. Eve's line wondering, "Are they fighting about water yet or is it still about the oil," should be more resonant, but the film undercuts it. The tone of the film had me wondering if there was an actual point by the time it was over. I'm not sure there was. The end, when it comes, is an anti-climax. Deliberately so, I think.

Tom Hiddleston and Anton Yelchin in Only Lovers Left Alive

Still and all, I'm not hostile toward Only Lovers Left Alive. I enjoyed watching it, even while I was wishing for a more full-blooded experience, if you'll pardon the pun. There are images here that I loved, including the montage at the beginning of the film themed around a spinning Wanda Jackson record ("Funnel of Love," if you must know), in which we see our characters' addictions at work. Its vision of a night-time Detroit destroyed by late capitalism is haunting and beautiful. If ever there were a landscape for modern monsters, this is it. There's not really any menace in the night here, though (Tangiers is more menacing, which is an element that's loaded with politics). There's only a once-thriving city whose culture is as much a ruin as its landscape. Eve pokes at it when offered a trip to the Motown Museum and replies, "I'm more of a Stax girl, myself."

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive

This is a film that's arch with culture to the point of precociousness. This is like spending a long night with a couple of old hipsters who speak their own lingo based on mutual experience of culture and if you're in sync with that, it's great. If not...well. I mean, I like old rock and roll and beautiful musical instruments and books and all of that, but these are no substitute for narrative. I like narrative, too, and that's something that Jarmusch has always reneged on. This film teases with threads of narrative--Ian's absconding with Adam's music, Ava's irresponsible depredations, the needs of finding uncontaminated blood--but in Jarmusch's aesthetic, these are set-dressing without much worth. I found myself wishing he'd pursue one or two of these threads. By the end, I gave up wishing. No point it. No point at all.

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