Tom Waits, pirate singer with a throat of ash, once said of director Jim Jarmusch: “He went grey when he was fifteen. As a result, he always felt like an immigrant ... all his films are about that.” (Spike Lee also spoke appreciatively, albeit less eloquently: “Jim is my man.”) Jarmusch’s back catalogue certainly supports this notion of the alien, or alienated: Dead Man, Stranger Than Paradise, even the oddball Ghost Dog: Way of The Samurai feature this to some degree of fascination especially.
With this in mind it’s hard to imagine characters more alienated than ones that are otherworldly, or more specifically, vampires. These aren’t the vampires of today, overdosing in teenage brooding and sexual tension. Jarmusch’s latest is a theft of meaning, bringing them back to a more simpler definition – bloodsuckers who live for an eternity, lest they be killed along the way (but it won’t be through lame institutions such as garlic – these guys are killed via ‘bad’ blood, that of alcoholics or drug addicts).
Only Lovers Left Alive drops us straight in without a moment to ponder; a spiralling camera entering their universe, almost dream-like, falling onto Adam and Eve as they lay on the couch and at the foot of their bed respectively, listening to the first example of the outstanding drone soundtrack that scores the film. Adam, played wonderfully by Tom Hiddleston, is a musician who has only been alive for a few centuries. His music has gathered a strong cult-like following in the underground scene [think early Boris or Sunn O)))] and he whittles away his nights recording drone pieces, playing every instrument in a house in outer modern Detroit. (Jarmusch recorded all of these himself with his band Sqürl.) He communicates with the outside world via a courier, Ian, who despite signing a non-disclosure contract he insists on bringing in outside help to fix Adam’s toilet. It’s a question demonstrating Ian’s innocence at being clueless to his boss being a vampyr – he knows better than to ask directly. But it’s Adam’s handling of the issue that is otherworldly, as if he really has had almost two hundred years experience dealing with it.
The forever-impressive Tilda Swinton plays his wife Eve with sleepy accuracy. She resides in Tangiers, spending time with close friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Playing with their immortality in a beautifully framed mid shot early one morning, backed by a stunning artificial streetlight glow, she urges Marlowe to “disrupt” the world and reveal Shakespeare’s fraudulency, something that he declines because “the world has enough disruptions already.” It’s a poetic acknowledgement of the state of the world that unfortunately possesses more truth than it cares for.
There’s not so much a story within these walls. Only Lovers Left Alive doesn’t care for such things – a lot of what goes on isn’t explained, ranging from the vampires wearing gloves to how Adam knows a certain someone at a nightclub. All we’re given is a glimpse into the world of a married couple that have been together since the early 1800’s. Besides the vampire thing, they’re foreigners because of this age gap; nothing is more resolute than being out of touch with the generation proceeding you, nor the eight (or nine?) that have since the marriage. Adam’s attachment to relics of the past – he Skypes via a lengthy series of cables attached to an old television, in contrast to Eve’s iPhone – is open for discussion but one thing is certain: he doesn’t care for this world. He “hates what the zombies have done to it”, lamenting to Eve from his suburban Detroit housing, the epicentre of everything that is wrong with today. Perhaps he’d have a different view if he lived somewhere nicer (New York? Berlin?), like Eve does, but that’s living in denial. Adam is out to expose the awful truths of the world and while he insists on not possessing any heroes there’s a wall in his housing covered with framed photos of artists, scientists and philosophers.
It’s a grab-bag of pull quotes but maybe one from Burroughs could sum Adam’s feelings up the best: “There is nothing more provocative than minding your own business.” Seeing as they’re eternally on the run from nosey humans intent on knowing everything, it’s a clash they’re destined to always fail. Whether the ‘they’re’ is the vampires or the “zombies” however is the unknown.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire