Fangs for the Memories
They are highly-educated, obviously literate, poetry-spouting, music-loving British subjects (well, at least we think they’re British), and they have the accents to prove it. They seem to suck the very life out of others, but who are they, really? They are the indolent rich, the upper-class city dwellers who snobbishly look down on everyone else, the essence of entitlement. Oh, and one more thing: They’re vampires.
Independent writer, director, producer, and part-time musician Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive from 2013 is a knowing stab at vampire legends old and new. More likely, the film is a repository of modern-day notions about vampirism and their relationship to the dominant ruling class.
For what they are worth, vampires are elegant creatures: slim and handsome, the so-named “beautiful people.” To behold them is to be in thrall to them. Their manners are cultivated and urbane, their command of language and culture without question. Yet they scrupulously avoid encounters with the locals, the oblivious riff-raff they often disparage as “zombies” or the walking dead, the ones who lack the soul and wit of their fellow brethren (how ironic).
Cruising around the neighborhood in a vintage automobile, our vampire popstars radiate a wealthy person’s curiosity (more like disdain) for how the “other half” lives. In this case, the neighborhood the couple drives through happens to be a hollowed-out Detroit, the very symbol of a once thriving metropolis whose innards have been gutted bare by riots, mayhem, and firebombs.
Author and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, described Jarmusch’s films as “gentle, offbeat, and poignant,” and as having “a rare feeling for urban desolation, for loneliness, and the sweet, whimsical overlap of chance and companionship” (p. 439). This latest offering is no exception and a complete fulfillment of that assessment.
Frustrated with their mortal counterparts and saddened by what humans have done to the environment and to their beloved Motown — a metaphor for the hollowness of human existence and the emptiness of their lives — the vampire lovers travel the world on red-eye specials, first-class all the way. Where they got their financial windfall is anybody’s guess.
As is their nature, vampires have the power to take a life or preserve it indefinitely. When they use the expression “to turn,” they mean to transform someone into one of their own. Yet they do so cautiously, never in haste and never indiscriminately. They are intimately aware of their surroundings, an inborn sixth sense guides their thoughts. Indeed, they are forever mindful of whatever environment they happen to inhabit.
Basically, Only Lovers Left Alive is concerned with four British vampires (Mia Wasikowska, the actress who plays Ava, is Australian by birth and of Polish descent; the others are UK natives). They speak from a multiplicity of opposing viewpoints. By the way, they are older (oh, so much older!) than their looks betray. One of them, the brooding Adam (Tom Hiddleston), is the rock-star recluse, a weary guitar freak who adores his original instrument collection. He’s also a songwriter and trained musician, someone who has invested his time and energy (in the manner of a Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the ne plus ultra of pathological purgatory) in strictly artistic pursuits.
(Author’s Note: Spoilers ahead!) The doctor at the hospital where Adam obtains his regular supply of O negative blood, whose name tag reads “Dr. Watson” (played by a glum and solemn Jeffrey Wright), is overly inquisitive about his motives. Coincidentally, the vampire has a name tag of his own: “Dr. Faust” (later, “Dr. Caligari”), a tribute to Adam’s closeness to poet Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), the (ahem) true author of Hamlet and other Shakespearean delights (we kid you not), or so the movie wants us to believe. Adam also sports an out-of-date stethoscope, which almost gives him away.
His opposite number, Eve (Tilda Swinton), Adam’s soul-mate and steadfast supporter, never goes anywhere without her precious book collection. Her suitcases are packed with literary classics of international repute (Beckett, Cervantes, Kafka, Mishima, Verne, et al.), no doubt to remind her of a passion deeper than any living creature can provide. Personality-wise, she exudes curiosity and appears receptive to new ideas and experiences.
Her little sister Ava (definitely not your “Gardner” variety sibling) is a nonstop party hound, the epitome of teenage impulsiveness, a grasping, needy twenty-something or other (but who can really tell, right?). She is cold and calculating, feigning admiration for but demanding constant attention from everyone she meets. Ava invents every excuse there is for overindulgence. Unnerving yet unrelenting, she is heedless of the advice given to her: that is, to tone down her act lest she betray their presence among the living.
Although Adam, Eve, and Ava come across as languid, even lethargic, they are far from it. We soon learn that vampires can turn in a flash with lightning-quick velocity: a thrust of a hand in the blink of an eye. Ava, the petulant third wheel, is a constant sore in Adam’s side. She’s high maintenance and quite the cross to bear. On a double date with both Adam and Eve, Ava makes a play for the gullible Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is either too dumb to notice the threat to his person or too eager to hit it off with this brattish woman-child.
Taking delight in his receptiveness, she draws attention to herself which, as we have stated, goes against the grain of a vampire’s basic instinct to be inconspicuous. Later, Adam displays a controlled rage when he and Eve discover Ava has trashed his prized LP collection. Worse, she has (oh dear!) sucked the life out of poor Ian, Adam’s human go-between, a scrounger to end all scroungers, a fellow dedicated to serving the would-be rocker. (Note how Adam greases Ian’s palm with a thick wad of bills whenever he needs a “favor.”) Every vampire has his Renfield, that Guy Friday between the daylight hours, to run errands the night creatures are incapable of performing, given their susceptibility to the sun’s rays.
Contrast Ian’s behavior, which can be deceptive and secretive, to that of the submissive yet amiable Moroccan manservant Bilal (Slimane Dazi), who caters to Eve and Marlowe’s every whim. In the end, Bilal is rewarded for his loyalty and friendship, especially where the elderly and infirm Marlowe’s health is concerned. Subservience, it seems, all-but confirms the leisure-class notion of blind loyalty and paying obeisance to one’s betters. Ian, on the other hand, is held in suspicion (and rightly so) for his underhanded bootlegging of Adam’s music without his knowledge or consent.
Another point of contention is Adam’s shunning of the rock-star limelight, as it were, which Ian cannot comprehend. Adam’s music is absolutely fabulous, so Ian claims, openly broadcasting his naiveté regarding his mentor’s vulnerabilities. But Adam does not buy it. Having personally befriended many of the world’s most stimulating minds (his wall is covered with their portraits, among them Johann Sebastian Bach, Henry Purcell, Gustav Mahler, Billie Holiday, Oscar Wilde, and Nicola Tesla), the ageless Adam remains what he is: an enlightened yet elusive recluse. Ian fails to recognize, too, that Adam seeks not fame and fortune but personal satisfaction (a young Bob Dylan or Neil Young would be the ideal role model) — a highly unusual aim for such a talented individual, but understandable under the circumstances.
The illogical nature of British intellectualism, then, and the feeling of superiority they engender over lesser mortals — these are but a few of the themes offered up and developed in Jarmusch’s picture. But don’t be fooled by the shiny exterior or highfaluting veneer. Jarmusch’s little in-joke is that we are ALL British subjects, in one way or another, under the skin. And we’re all hungry vampires to some extent — but in our own way, of course; that over-exposure — those fleeting fifteen minutes of fame that pop artist Andy Warhol once warned about — will, in the end, no doubt do us all in. In other words, enjoy your life while it lasts. It may soon be taken from you.
Regardless of the foregoing, we are in the presence of vampire royalty. The décor, the furniture, indeed the basic layout itself tend to (you’ll pardon the expression) “reflect” (snicker, snicker) a self-absorbed lifestyle tailored to exalted pursuits. In reality, Adam’s unkempt abode is that of someone who has spent too many late nights pondering the meaning of it all, which has left his residence in near ruin. The plumbing doesn’t work, the toilet doesn’t flush — but what do vampires need a functioning toilet for, anyway? They don’t eat or defecate, not as we know it. What they drink only goes in and never comes out, unless someone pierces their sides with a wooden stake, or a wooden bullet through the heart.
Speaking of which, early on a despondent Adam contemplates suicide in exactly that manner. Why not end it all, he muses fitfully? This maddening nighttime existence can be soooo trying at times! Fortunately for all concerned, he thinks the better of it, thanks to Eve’s timely intervention. Best to stimulate the senses with a shot of iron-rich blood, or slurping a frozen-blood popsicle. Is that what they call “living”?
The sight of a 45-rpm single spinning round and round propels the story into motion. One reviewer employed the phrase “a whiter shade of pale” to define the vampires’ sickly skin tones. How utterly apropos! Let us consider the fact that sixties progressive-rock band Procol Harum once re-appropriated Bach’s “Air for the G String” (from his Orchestral Suite No. 3), to the same “A Whiter Shade of Pale” title, in an effort to evoke the song’s classical construct. The organ riff at the start and throughout that number completes the sonic picture of classicism in a contemporary pop setting.
Which also describes Jarmusch’s film, his first in the digital realm: It’s a bit of classical pop, you see, with a cinematic twist of lemon on the side. Music plays an integral part in numerous sequences, as do the soundtrack’s ambient night noises (howls, barks, screeches, that sort of thing). What sweet sounds they make, yes?
The late David Bowie and former singer-actress Marianne Faithfull have also been cited in several reviews as major influences, associated mostly with Tilda Swinton’s looks, voice, and attitude, albeit with stringy, tousled coiffure. Adam’s equally wiry bird’s nest of a mane reminds one of a wigged-out Tiny Tim (the quavery-pitched ukulele player, not the Charles Dickens character). But the Swinton/Bowie connection is the most promising, androgyny and gender-based polemics to the side.
Those Enlightening Times
The Age of Enlightenment and how individuals of learning — people such as Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Newton, Darwin, and others — dealt with the nature of things, as well as the importance of science, politics, education, and the observation of the world around them, serve as the backdrop to higher thought that is prominent throughout Only Lovers Left Alive.
As an example, vampirism was taken up and discussed by the most illustrious heads, even discoursed and commented upon at length, but in the context of the times. In the book Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection from Count Dracula to Vampirella, author, biographer, and cultural historian Christopher Frayling quotes a passage from the philosopher Voltaire referring to the idea that vampires “exist” in fact:
“What! Vampires in our Eighteenth Century? Yes … in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia … in London, even in Paris. I admit that in these two cities there were speculators, tax officials and businessmen who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight, but they were not dead (although they were corrupted enough). These true bloodsuckers did not live in cemeteries: they preferred beautiful places … Kings are not, properly speaking, vampires. The true vampires are the churchmen who eat at the expense of both the king and the people” (p. 56).
And there you have it: The real bloodsuckers are those in positions of power who abuse their office by depriving others of their means and livelihood.
When one is afflicted with the disease of vampirism (either a curse or a blessing, depending on your point of view), it is our reaction to the affliction that predetermines our path. Some, such as the ennobled Eve, look at it as an advantage, an opportunity to better oneself, to perfect one’s understanding of language, art, music, and the like; and of what can be consumed over the course of many centuries. Others, such as Adam, fret over the unnatural extension of their lives and such trivial matters as the true purpose of life versus the bleakness of death.
Knowing they can never age, all vampires must deal with the fact that boredom will inevitably set in. This situation tends to deprive them of motivation and ambition. To strive for personal betterment is a good thing, true enough, but to what purpose? If longevity is the vampire’s lot, how are they to be judged by its length? And how does one retain that spark of inspiration over the course of those hundreds of years of living? Sooner or later, an existential crisis will occur.
Still others, such as Ava, use their time carelessly and in pursuit of carnal desires, of lust and indolent behavior, yet again to what end? Towards enlightenment (small “e”) or plain old self-satisfaction? In Kit Marlowe’s situation, weathered and relegated to hobbling about on crutches, what does permanence mean? Is he to accept the hand that fate has dealt him? That Marlowe “accidentally” swallowed a glass of bad blood? Or, like Hamlet, did he reach a point in life when instead of suffering those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he decided to oppose them by ending his sea of troubles in blissful repose? That, indeed, is the question!
You will note that, earlier, Adam had contemplated just such an end to his existence. It was Eve who, upon sensing that her mate was about to terminate his life (and upon her being asked), took it upon herself to rescue him from oblivion. Such is the vampire’s lot in a prolonged lifetime of suffering. This noble act came naturally to Eve, a most sympathetic and loving one, to be clear. It accomplished the intended result: to gain the audience’s sympathy for the vampire’s lot. After an absence of many years, Eve has reasserted herself into Adam’s life by giving him a reason for living; what’s more, her presence has forced him to reinvest himself with renewed vigor toward a life of purpose and meaning.
As David Thomson recounted above, in this, Jim Jarmusch’s so-called “mission accomplished” moment, the self-described “night owl” director-screenwriter has put into cinematic terms the essence of his core beliefs, along with his own peculiar tastes and eclectic personality.
What a Drag It is Getting Old
Having drained Ian’s essence, Ava gets sick to her stomach (again, the disease of bad blood that infects the vampire’s system, as much as it destroys their helpless victims). Consequently, she is banished from the household. How dare she defile the roost with this manifestly selfish act? But what to do with the body? We have no compulsion to reveal to readers what became of Ian’s corpse. Only, that evidence of Adam and Eve’s disposal of it will inevitably bring about the local authorities to snoop at the pair’s expense. Already, Adam has had to put up with curious onlookers, convinced he’s some famous-name rock-n-roller in disguise.
When, concurrently, the couple’s blood supply has dwindled to a few precious gulps, they flee to Tangier in Morocco with whatever is left of their resources — to a foreign, less developed region (a Middle-Eastern Detroit, if you will) where they can feel at home and their hold on the populace is secure and readily accepted. (This, too, is mildly reminiscent of the former British Raj in India.) Sticking out like sore thumbs, Adam and Eve are the essence of cool in a world too sour to accept them as they are — and too undeserving of their gifts.
Their reunion with the sickly Kit Marlowe (the result, as indicated above, of his accidently imbibing some bad blood) is cut short by the playwright’s unfortunate demise. His death sends the pair into a funk. Let’s end it all now, they consider, one last hurrah before the fall. Lucifer and his bride will take a final leap into the abyss. Oh, it’s not as bad as all that. What the heck, the world is doomed anyway. Go ahead, give it a shot!
But before they can breathe their last, Adam and Eve are drawn to a fabulous Lebanese singer, Yasmine Hamdan, and her band performing at a local café establishment. Adam hopes like hell that Yasmine does not become famous. She’s “too good” for that, he muses — and he should know. “Fame,” he gives notice, should not be what artists of talent should strive for.
For a fitting conclusion, Eve spends the remainder of their fortune on an ancient oud, a lute-like instrument that becomes a parting gift from her to Adam. It’s at this point that they spot a young couple smooching on a bench. They suddenly decide to turn the lovers into one of their own, a sensible solution to their predicament and similar, in its way, to what the detestable Lestat did to Louis de Pointe du Lac from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (very much to Louis’s regret, unfortunately).
To preserve what is left of their dying universe, Adam and Eve will give birth to a new generation of “upper-class” folks who will lord it over the rest (the “new” Adam and Eve, their Biblical namesakes). Make the world English, ay wot? Since vampires are incapable of reproducing in the, er, usual manner, their decision to turn the native couple is clearly the logical one.
Alluding to the film’s title, if and when Eve and Adam eventually “die” of whatever causes overcome them, only the Moroccan lovers will be left alive.
As far as we know, the cinema world’s last romantic couple, Gomez and Morticia Addams, from the tongue-in-cheek pen of American cartoonist Charles Addams, was made manifest and turned, in 1993, into an adorably macabre, dark-humored film feature (with American actors Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston in the leads) by director and ex-cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld.
In Jarmusch’s picture, however, the couple in question happens to be British — hundreds-of-years-old Brits at that, with several lifetimes of baggage to their sum and credit. Sophistication with pointy teeth. And how they love to talk, one of the few film couples in recent years who actually enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company. Their highly elevated conversation encompasses just about everything under the sun (or moon, as the case may be), the hope of a civilization bled dry of life-affirming culture.
As they say in Merry Olde England, may their suns never set on the empire of their making. And may they never experience a cinematic death. We’ll “stake” our life on that. (Ouch!)
Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes
[Trivia Note: Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston were reunited two years later in Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015), a mildly curious ode to those gory Hammer Horror flicks of the late 1950s to 1960s. Alas, Crimson Peak is more moody than shocking, and ergo less impressive than the British studio’s classic output. Interesting, too, in that Del Toro’s film re-purposes Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in surprisingly obvious ways.]