The Vampire Hit the Street Junksick:
Some thoughts on Only Lovers Left Alive
For some reason the need to watch a movie about people blowing up aliens has gone right out of me.
Instead, I want to see a movie about people. I want to see a movie that somebody actually wanted to make. What I don't want to see is something that was made to pad out a conglomerate's figures on the tertiary market. Over the past few years I have made great strides to avoid being a snob. I have no problem with popular cinema. I'm just tired of it. I want to see movies about emotions and things that I haven't felt or seen before.
So I went and saw a vampire movie.
As far as genres go, it'd be hard to think of a more dessicated one than the vampire movie.
Jim Jarmusch, as you might recall, is a great filmmaker and side steps all of the typical pitfalls of the vampire legend by instead re-framing it within the context of music legend. Instead of Bram Stoker and Anne Rice, we get Link Wray and Iggy Pop. There is a club scene in the film, but it's about as far away from The Hunger or Blade as you could imagine. It looks like a real place inhabited by real people who have real emotions, but a few of them just happen to be vampires.
As much as the movie is a reflection of other works of art (it name checks Byron and Mary Shelly to name but a few), it stands on its own. It's a kind of film that, like Le Samourai, a movie he paid homage to in Ghost Dog, doesn't emulate any sort of scene. It is the invention of a scene. To say that it is a "cool" movie makes it slightly trite. It makes it sound as though it's the kind of movie that people in their early 20's enjoy and no one else. As it is more than a vampire movie, it is more than a cool movie. It's a literate movie about people trying to make sense of their lives. They just happen to be really cool. And vampires.
One of the other aspects that makes Only Lovers Left Alive stand apart from the other genres in its bloodline is that it is proper art. And not because it's good or because it's slow and has some subtitles or that a movie with a flaming crossbow can't be art. This movie is art because it's thoughtful in both an emotional and intellectual sense. It has something to say about human (or vampire) relationships and how they change over time. It has something to say about the state of the world and about the many things we fill our minds with to keep from thinking about death. It's about more than that, as well. It's the kind of movie that you talk to your friend at a party after you've had too much red wine.
Only Lovers Left Alive is, like The Limits of Control and Broken Flowers, a movie for the patient. It takes its sweet time and it doesn't particularly care whether or not you're following along. Like everything that is truly cool (and I think that we can all accept the premise that Jim Jarmusch is a cool man, I mean, just look at him), it doesn't feel the need to help you along. It doesn't need to rush anything. Instead it convinces you that you're right there with it, that you're hip enough to know what's going on at all times. It's a trick of cinema and a testament to Jarmusch's skill that you are convinced right up until the last frame.
More than skill, though, one of the admirable aspects on display in Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch's love of making movies. Another line of his that I cary around with me is that he doesn't see himself as a professional, but as a amateur. He doesn't make movies to make money. He makes movies becuase he loves them. Even in his worst film you can see this drive at work. In Only Lovers Left Alive, you not only see it, you feel it. This movie comes from a place of love as much as it is about love.
Towards the end of the film John Hurt, playing the long-since-thought-dead Christopher Marlow, says to his adopted family that "Humility will get you nowhere." It's clearly posed as an ironic statement (and not a spoiler, incidentally). There's a smile at the edges of John Hurt's mouth in a way that only he can that tells you that there is something more to his words. It's a line that encapsulates the depths that the movie possesses. It's melancholy, yet slightly funny. It speaks to a larger world, yet is also about a few people having a moment. It also sums up the man who wrote it.
Unlike the Marlow of this film Jim Jarmusch is in no danger of suffering the same fate. While many other indie directors have changed course or become massive stars or simply faded away, Jarmusch is still there, quietly being the artist that we would all like to be. Humility, it seems, has gotten him somewhere.
This is the coolest vampire movie I've seen since Near Dark. It defines itself in a different manner. Near Dark is about violence and family. Only Lovers Left Alive is about guitars. And it's also about books. And all of the albums you talked about with your first girlfriend. It's about all of the emotions you invest in these things criss-crossing with one another. Most of all, though, it's about love and what that does to people over the long term. It's a movie that you're surprised that no one has made before. It seems to fully formed, so fully thought out, that it seems like it's always been there. It's the kind of movie that only Jim Jarmusch could make.
(Because, at a certain point in this movie, Adam and Eve have a full-blown junkie lean going on. You'll know it when you see it.)
James Kislingbury writes comics and podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter @kislingtwits.