We’re all vampires.
That is to say, we all have particular kinds of “blood” that we seek — sources of sustenance and inspiration that keep our eyes open and our hearts beating in a dark and punishing world.
For me, it’s a particular kind of beauty and mystery that I find in art. That art cost the artists their own blood, sweat, and tears. It cost them countless hours of labor. It cost them, to some extent, their lives. But I need the passion they have poured on on paper, the dreams they have released through the veins of their guitar strings, the pain they have endured to give something meaningful to the world.
In my memoir of dangerous moviegoing, Through a Screen Darkly, I’ve written about how the pursuit of excellence in artistry has led me off on a lonely road. As I followed my questions, obsessions, curiosities, and passions, the art that called to me led me farther and farther from the commercial entertainments that dazzle (and sometimes merely distract) “the Majority.” Even as I have found greater and greater joys, more and more substantial sources of sustenance, I’ve also felt a greater alienation from the Majority, and a deeper sadness at just how much great work goes overlooked and misunderstood by so many. It seems that many settle for splashing in puddles and never move on to discover the rivers, the lakes, and the seas of great art.
I know, I know: These sound like the words of a snob. But ask yourself: What in your life are you passionate about? If you like mountain climbing, don’t you wish that you could bring the Majority with you, if you could show them the view from a mountain peak, they would change their lives and strive for those rewards with greater zeal? If you love baseball, don’t you find yourself wishing you could communicate to the Majority just how marvelous and mysterious and thrilling and fascinating this sport that bores so many can be? If you are a “foodie,” and you discover a favorite restaurant that nobody else knows about, don’t you wish you could reveal the particularities of that place to people who seem content to live on burgers and fries?
For me, it’s movies. And I wish I could open up the worlds of director Jim Jarmusch to larger audiences of moviegoers. But the rewards of his work are only likely to come to those who invest a lot of time and patience and discussion in the experience. He does not design his work for those who accept only instant-gratification. (I tried to describe Jarmusch’s artistry in a two-part blog post — here and here — when his last film, The Limits of Control, arrived.)
The curse of the vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s new film Only Lovers Left Alive is that they are lovers of all that is best in life. Their physical need for nourishment from human blood reflects the way each one of us needs beauty, truth, and excellence — the good things that human beings “spill blood” in order to convey.
Adam, played with magnificent gravitas by Tom Hiddleston (Loki from The Avengers), is an ancient vampire who has learned to love — and help create — the best of art and culture through the centuries. He is increasingly depressed, put off by the ignorance, the immature appetites, the thrill-seeking, the recklessness, the childish and unthinking ways of “the zombies” … by which he means the majority of the human race. By this perspective, it is not the vampire but the common human being who is a monster — the one who follows appetites in the pursuit of happiness, rather than following discernment in the pursuit of life-giving beauty and sustenance.
By the way, Adam lives in Detroit — a place that was once a symbol of America’s passions and its drive for excellence and innovation. But now, Detroit is in ruins, a ghost town, a place that represents the disintegration of America’s greatness. He can still find a decent rock and roll show from time to time, but most nights you’ll find him playing with guitars and amps in his haunted house, trying to drown his blues in sound.
His “dealer” — a “zombie” called Ian (Anton Yelchin) who is “alive” enough to recognize the greatness of Adam’s music — brings him vintage guitars for his collection and he jams through the night in search of the next beautiful noise.
But Adam cringes at the idea of fame. The truly tremendous artists, he believes, know better than to fall into the trap of celebrity. Nevertheless, his music is leaking out into the world, where it will be exploited and, ultimately, misunderstood. His depression is leading him, at long last, to suicidal thoughts.
Adam, being a lover of all good things, has a timeless love for Eve, his partner in passion through the centuries. Eve, played beautifully by Tilda Swinton, lives in Tangier, where she hangs out with another ancient vampire — Christopher Marlowe (yes, that Christopher Marlowe). Marlowe — John Hurt, magnificent — snarls about Shakespeare as a hack and a thief, and bemoans how difficult it is anymore to find blood that isn’t “contaminated.” This, too, speaks to how difficult it is for those who love good things to find authenticity in art and culture, things that are not corrupted by commercial influences.
So what happens when these melancholy guardians of cultural treasures are visited by Eve’s long-absent younger sister, Ava? Ava has no sense of responsibility, no respect for what is truly valuable in the world. Mia Wasikowska plays Ava with the energy of a rambunctious, undisciplined child.These characters, as they drift through urban disintegration, are the ultimate Jim Jarmusch characters. Like the burdened pilgrims in Down by Law, Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers, and The Limits of Control, they are possessed by a terrible melancholy as they tour the world in search of something worth living for, as they watch mediocrity flourish and excellence neglected, as they see people settle for insufficient, manufactured comforts. They are philosophical loners, wandering through wastelands. Cherishing what is wise and wonderful, they are doomed to alienation. And their need for one another runs deep.
Only Lovers Left Alive is Jim Jarmusch’s dark and mournful version of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. His angels are vampires. And as these immortals watch over a decaying city (Detroit, this time), they are not exhilarated by the movement of grace so much as burdened by disappointment with, and even contempt for, careless and zombi-fied human beings. They’re more Cassiel than Damiel.
The most obvious correlation with Wenders is the vampires’ attraction to great music: As they meander through night life, lamenting their bloodthirsty curse, they’ll put everything on pause and stick around for a great show (White Hills and Yasmine Hamdan — wow! — taking the spotlight that Wenders has given Nick Cave, Lou Reed, and Sam Phillips). Peter Falk doesn’t show up playing himself, alas — oh, I wish he were immortal — but John Hurt’s turn as Christopher Marlowe provides a similarly witty twist.
I found Only Lovers to be the perfect late show on a stormy night. It offers the rare luxury of a dreamy stroll through an exquisitely detailed world. I especially love Tilda Swinton here — this is easily my favorite performance of hers. With her wild hair, her penetrating gaze, and her somewhat spooky demeanor, she seems to be doing an Annie Clark (St. Vincent) impression. (Or maybe Clark has been imitating Swinton all this time?) She brings the same distinct mix of beauty, fierce intelligence, and alienating strangeness that causes her to stand out from all other actors working today, but this time there’s also a softness and a joy that makes her more sympathetic and enjoyable. She and Hiddleston are a perfect pair. Similarly surprising, Wasikowska is turned loose from her usual uptightness, and gets to be gloriously unhinged — finally!
And the camera has never loved John Hurt’s face as much as this camera does. The amazing cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who filmed Swimming Pool, I Am Love, Arbitrage, and Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, finds extravagant beauty in the ruins of Detroit, the exotic back alleys of Tangier, and the fantastic disordered museums of the vampires’ living quarters, just as he finds more beauty in the faces of these actors than most movies bother to notice.
I’m inclined to suspect that Only Lovers will be regarded among the “good but not great” Jarmusch films. There are times when I wish the script had given these actors more to discuss, more questions to wrestle, more testimonies of their experiences. I’d like to believe that the vampires (and, thus, Jarmusch) see potential for greater good in humankind than just… you know… good taste. What do they think of human kindness? Are they aware that there is a higher love than that of young lovers making out by moonlight, or music lovers adoring a Gibson guitar? If all of these great books, beautiful musical instruments, and sweet late-night jam sessions don’t bring these “true lovers” any lasting consolation, then what good are they, really? Don’t these treasures point us toward a sense of cosmic love, a suspicion of some grand design?
As Henry Miller once wrote,
Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself.
I think the richest idea that this film offers, one that Jarmusch only begins to explore, is the idea that bloodshed is necessary for the vampires to know “everlasting life.” Isn’t it true that those who truly love the world give freely of themselves to sustain the world? In Jarmusch’s dark world, vampires survive on blood that others have given up. But in order to enter that world of immortality, they must give up some the blood they call their own. There’s something happening here. A sequel could explore this idea further.
Frankly, I’m dreaming of a long-running TV series that follows them from city to city, around the world, learning to live with the zombies that spoil everything, savoring the treasures that remain. In that sense, when the vampires bite in order to “turn” the more promising minds and hearts among the common folk, they are evangelists bringing the blind to the threshold of salvation. They are drawing them toward the world’s great lights. Now, if only they would see that those lights are not the source of light, but rather, as Arcade Fire has sung… just reflectors of the light’s true source.
Still, while there is little to suggest a religious vision among the vampires, they have a sense of the sacred that the rest of the world has lost. In pursuit of what is beautiful and real, they’ve taken the road less traveled, and that has made all kinds of difference. Their growing appreciation for all that is best has made it harder to live humbly and patiently among other human beings, but it has also given them a deep love for one another and for what is possible in the world.
What is it in your life that you love that the rest of the world fails to appreciate? Perhaps we can all understand the longings these vampires feel. Perhaps we can “turn” one another toward the light.