By the late ’80s, Jim Jarmusch was a kind of lo-fi rock star of indie film. Films like Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and the marvelous Mystery Train were deadpan celebrations of idiosyncratic individuality: What happens when you take the prickly New York energy of musician John Lurie, add the drawling eccentricity of Californian Tom Waits, and throw in the almost surrealistic wackiness of Italian actor Roberto Benigni, to form a chain gang? What about sending a pair of teenaged Japanese Elvis fans to a Tennessee motel in which front-desk man Screamin’ Jay Hawkins quizzes a bellhop about Elvis’s theoretical weight on the moon?
Jarmusch, who was, himself, laconic and hip, specialized in constructing situation-comedy-like premises and populating them with characters and casts of sterling cred. Whom should we cast in this role? Sonic Youth’s first drummer? Maybe an early blues pioneer-slash-founding influence of rock & roll? Maybe Joe freaking Strummer? Jarmusch’s movies were kinda like scoring drugs from the wacky neighbor.
In the early ’90s, he made a couple of films in which that gang cool seemed constraining. But shortly thereafter he began allowing his characters solos, highlighting one—usually regretful and/or alienated male—against a backdrop of still-nutty characters. The results were perhaps the most affecting of his career: Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog and—my personal favorite—the stark, dreamlike and fatalistic Dead Man. Jarmusch seemed more invested in these characters. By allowing himself to see them as not just odd but flawed, damaged, even doomed, he tapped into a sympathy to replace the distanced amusement of his earlier work. His newest, Only Lovers Left Alive, represents yet another shift in the filmmaker’s regard for his characters—one incorporating both the recent heartfelt attachment and the wry irony of his early work.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are a married couple living apart—in Detroit and North Africa, respectively. Adam is a reclusive former rock star holed up in a decrepit Victorian building in the ruined edges of the economically gutted city. For her part, Eve is hiding out in a book-and-throw-pillow littered “Beat-Arabic” Tangiers apartment. They are highly literate and of enormous artistic sensitivity. We know this by the incredibly unsubtle way in which they—and Jarmusch—keep telling us they are: by name and image dropping at an absolutely furious pace. Adam’s early scenes are largely a recitation of a guitar collector’s wish list: Supro, Silvertone, Gretsch, Gibson. . . . We are introduced to Adam’s collection of classic, vintage instruments in tedious detail. Eve’s obsessions are similarly specific. When she packs to rejoin her husband stateside, we see her suitcases packed with novels: Beckett, Cervantes, David Foster Wallace, etc. When she arrives in the Motor City mansion, she gazes at length over Adam’s gathered portraits of artistic influences and inspirations: William Burroughs, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Iggy Pop, Buster Keaton, the aforementioned Strummer, and so on.
So, Adam and Eve—and by extension Jarmusch—have great taste. Oh, and they’re immortal vampires who have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, so they’ve totally been pals with many of these folks and so their taste is kinda unquestionable, OK? Did we mention that? Eve is even friends with Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), who totally wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays and if you believe otherwise you’re a rube and a square and probably subliterate, like the rest of modern human society.
Our—that is, human (or “zombies,” as Adam calls us)—taste and sophistication is so appalling that he wants to kill himself. That is the reason Eve rushes to his side. There is some discussion of how humans are destroying the environment, and poisoning ourselves, which is of understandable interest to the blood-dependent couple; but the truly wearying thing for Adam seems to be not how terrible but rather how tacky we are. The whole thing is a bit like listening to an older uncle lecturing you about the MC5, a band that really mattered, man.
There is, though, a possible loophole. Adam expresses an unquestionable weariness, a weariness unto death at the declining nature of human sophistication. (None too great to begin with if Adam’s or Marlowe’s irritability are to be given credence.) There is a small, snide, inside joke about Los Angeles being “zombie central” that strongly suggests Jarmusch’s own identification with Adam’s artistic alienation. It’s possible that Jarmusch has created Adam as the wounded midlife man of his later movies and viewed it through the ironic lens of his earlier, poking fun at the self-pitying artiste, misunderstood and miserable—but enduring.
As a vampire movie, Only Lovers is quite dull; as an industry parody, it may be quite droll. I don’t think I’m hip enough anymore to make the call.