The Taste of Others
By Max Nelson
Only Lovers Left Alive
Dir. Jim Jarmusch, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
Jim Jarmuschâ€™s films have a knack for catering to (and implicitly confirming) the tastes of their ideal viewers: the record collectors crate-digging for that near-mint promo copy of Rain Dogs; the aging punks jostling for a front-row spot at a Stooges show; the adventurous indie kids braving a doom metal set. Itâ€™s no coincidence that so many of the directorâ€™s reference points are musical: thereâ€™s always been an especially clear parallel in rock nâ€™ roll fandom between what you listen to and who you areâ€”or at least who you seem to be.
Jarmusch makes films like a host compiling the guest list for a dinner party or a gallery owner curating an exhibition: each element of the casting, costuming, soundtrack and script has to justify its own existence by sheer force of personality, but also bounce effectively off all the rest. In Jarmuschâ€™s movies, everyone more or less ends up playing themselves, from Tom Waits in Down by Lawâ€”with his shambling walk and tar-riddled, radio-ready voiceâ€”to Screaminâ€™ Jay Hawkins as a grizzled hotel clerk in Mystery Train and Iggy Pop as a dress-wearing fur trader in Dead Man. Not that thereâ€™s anything wrong with that: one of the many pleasures of Jarmuschâ€™s films is getting to watch interesting people play with their own affectations, a trick that the directorâ€™s been skewing and amping up for the past decade or so.
Jarmuschâ€™s movies are also about taste on another level: the ways we define ourselves, or fail to define ourselves, by what we listen to, read, watch, wear, and quote. One thinks of Roberto Benigniâ€™s hapless, big-hearted Italian Bob in Down by Law, trying to win the approval of his fellow prison inmate with an out-of-the-blue â€śdo you like Walt Whitman?â€ť Or Nobody (Gary Farmer), the literature-loving Native American in Dead Man who bonds with the filmâ€™s literature-ignorant hero (Johnny Depp) on the basis of the latterâ€™s name. (â€śIt is strange that you do not remember any of your poetry, William Blake.â€ť) Or the vignette midway through Coffee and Cigarettes that finds Steve Coogan turning at the drop of a hat from disdain to eagerness when his coffee date Alfred Molina gets a call from Spike Jonze. Or, in an extreme case, the young Japanese couple in Mystery Train who make a trans-Pacific pilgrimage to Memphis in the name of the King. Jarmuschâ€™s heroes take the catalogue of manmade stuff they absorb and endorse as a fundamental, identity-determining personal commitment. They are what they like.
In this context, Jarmuschâ€™s twelfth feature Only Lovers Left Alive could be a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), the cheekily named married vampires at the movieâ€™s center, have been alive for a long timeâ€”in her case, long enough to have spent centuries poring over Renaissance poetry in the original Italian; in his, long enough to have hung out with Byron and Jack White, with time in between to teach himself quantum theory. Theyâ€™re the ultimate Jarmusch heroes, living through books, songs and works of art until theyâ€™ve read it all, heard it all, and know it all. They might be the first of the directorâ€™s protagonists to truly earn their vague air of cultural superiority, because theyâ€™re the first with the luxury of having unlimited time to develop encyclopedic bodies of knowledge and flawless taste. When they fly international (sheâ€™s based in Tangier; he in Detroit), they give their names as Stephen Daedalus and Daisy Buchanan. In one of the movieâ€™s best scenes, they listen reverently to a Charlie Feathers record; in another, they slow-dance to Denise LaSalleâ€™s â€śTrapped by a Thing Called Love.â€ť In a sense, their marriage is a blissed-out vision of what itâ€™s like to liveâ€”and loveâ€”through mutual aesthetic appreciation. When so much of their common ground is outside themselves, in literature and music and history and art, every exchange of judgments (â€śIâ€™m more of a Stax girl,â€ť she replies when he asks if she wants to see the Motown museum) becomes a re-affirmation of whatever it is that keeps them bound together across distance and time.
According to one reading, Only Lovers is a late-career act of self-accounting from a director famous for seeming cool and aloof. Certainly Jarmusch identifies with these two immortal romantics, and shares at least some of their faith that an emotionally open, lifelong love can still be mediated by taste. Above all, he shares their attachment to physical mediaâ€”witness how his camera caresses the pages of Eveâ€™s book collection as she packs for Detroit, the way it ogles Adamâ€™s assortment of vintage guitars, or the moments when it lovingly follows (and mimics) the spinning of a recordâ€”and their bleak attitude towards technological change. Like his protagonists, Jarmuschâ€™s camera gravitates towards the burnt-out sidelines of major urban centers. It studies the weathered surfaces of abandoned buildings during the coupleâ€™s night drives through Detroit, pokes cautiously into the Tangier back alleys where pushers hawk their wares, and lingers with the two lovers in a rundown movie-palace-turned-car-lotâ€”all of which makes it suspiciously easy to align Jarmusch with Adamâ€™s tirades about the evil of MP3s, the toll of celebrity culture, and the general moral bankruptcy of the age. Only Lovers seems, in other words, to side decisively with the past against the present, and with its world-weary esthete heroes against the crudities of modern society.
But that doesnâ€™t entirely account for Only Loversâ€™ deep-set tonal contradictions, or for the extent of its built-in self critique. That critique, I think, comes through less in the moment when Eveâ€™s loose-canon younger sister, having been kicked out of Adamâ€™s house, calls the couple a pair of â€ścondescending snobsâ€ťâ€”in their defense, she did break a century-old guitarâ€”than in the movieâ€™s pervasive sense of feet-dragging exhaustion. Jarmuschâ€™s films have always been at once enormously entertaining and strangely leaden, as if they were always threatening to burn out their last reserves of energy. But that tension is especially pronounced in Only Lovers, with its momentum-killing birdâ€™s-eye-view interior shots, its muted performances, its grey-blue color palette, and its looping, narcotized pacing. Hiddleston tends to half-whisper his lines in a drowsy, droopy-eyed swoon, while Swinton seems like sheâ€™s always repeating herself for someone who didnâ€™t hear her right the first time. Without the motivation to see, read, hear, and do as much as you can while you can, connoisseurship can be a bit of a drag.
In the world of Only Lovers Left Alive, it can also be deadly. Adam and Eve are civilized vampires, smuggling their supplies of choice O-negative out of hospital blood banks. (Rebuking Eveâ€™s sister after finding a bloodless, fang-punctured corpse on their sofa one morning, they act as if theyâ€™re giving her a lesson in table manners: â€śThis isnâ€™t the fifteenth century!â€ť) And their breed are, Jarmusch suggests, a kind of motor for human creativity: Adam once gave Schubert one of his adagios, and Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), it turns out, has been writing covertly for the last four hundred years out of a sixteenth-century-style study tucked into the back of a bar in Tangier. But the fact remains that Adam, Eve, et al. need the â€śzombiesâ€ť around them; they are, in a sense, parasites feeding off the warm-blooded living so as to never be parted from their Stax singles and copies of Infinite Jest. Itâ€™s a deeply discomfiting image of artistic taste as a literal, primal thirstâ€”specifically, a thirst for the lived experience of others. Eve and Adam spend the last few minutes of Only Lovers wandering through the backstreets of Tangier, blood supplies critical, before stumbling on a pair of young lovers. They hesitate for a secondâ€”â€śitâ€™s so barbaricâ€ťâ€”then approach anyway, with hunger and not a little relish. Adam has the movieâ€™s second-to-last word: â€śI get the girl.â€ť
It would be uncharitable to end thereâ€”though the film does. This is, after all, a movie torn dramatically between self-loathing and self-love, to the point where the two come close to canceling each other out. Which is fitting, given Jarmuschâ€™s obsession here with the ways people manage to navigate the distance between extremes: Detroit and Tangier; life and death; Stax and Motownâ€”all of which boil down, in the end, to the centimeter-wide distance between two bodies. Itâ€™s telling that Jarmusch precedes Only Loversâ€™ final, elided act of violence by having Adam give a monologue on quantum entanglement: â€śSeparate two particles, place them at opposite ends of the universe, produce some effect in one, and the other will be identically affected.â€ť In a film that manages both to celebrate and satirize so many of Jarmuschâ€™s past sources of securityâ€”his impeccable taste, the captivating personalities of his actors, and his own stylish personaâ€”itâ€™s the relationship between Hiddleston and Swinton's long-suffering lovers that comes through unscathed. For all its left-field revelations and tonal ambiguities, the biggest surprise of Jarmuschâ€™s film is that it ends up being exactly what it promises to be: a love story.