© 2016 by James Clark
When is a vampire movie not a vampire movie? When it’s a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie! You want to take the blood-drinking as part of an unearthly frenzy, and you’re dead on arrival.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is, in its very title, a megalomaniac declaration—the kind of stimulant-driven delusion stemming from the likes of rock and roll gods, self-styled inextinguishable heroes for the ages. “Our powers and influence will never die,” they desperately opine. And in that distemper they are a species (a metaphorical species) of the nonsense of undead vampires, a motif winched up by Bela the New American smart guy, in Stranger than Paradise; Roberto the fixer, in Down by Law; Elvis-mad Mitsuko, in Mystery Train; a platoon of soothsayers in Night on Earth; aboriginal mystic Nobody, in Dead Man; samurai-junkie Ghost Dog, in the film taking his name; Don, the spirit of the (flabby) times, in Broken Flowers; and the think-tank-assassins, in The Limits of Control.
Adam and Eve, our protagonists, mete out their days based on Adam’s having been, years ago, one of those rare pop musical hopefuls whose every hope for fame and fortune came to pass. Having, since Day One of their partnership, an eye, a nose, a touch and an ear (sort of like Don’s IT Midas Touch) for what the cravings of their scene would lavishly reward, the first residue we see of that long-ago coup is the city of choice of each of them—Eve’s powerhouse being the erstwhile hipster litmus test, Tangiers, Morocco; and Adam’s peerless realm of funkiness as to 21st century apocalypse being the uber slum of the solar system, Detroit. (After a decades-long romp around Cleveland, now the spotlight of biting irony touches down upon Motown, already a much-despised musical target in earlier works like Mystery Train and Broken Flowers.) That they no longer live together but instead occupy widely separated and significantly differing homelands, is one thing. That the exigencies of their rage to be all the rage (forever) devolve to a diet of blood supplements is something else—being another litmus test, more about basic sanity than cool. Here our helmsman has, as the ante of discovery gets more and more subtle and rough, embarked on a grown-up form of chicken as the heart of his communicative motives. And here I am accordingly compelled to blow that rather preciously hidden clan predilection for the sake of an understanding too important to be left underground. (And, however, on the other hand, this step might be the adjunct to his very expensive and therefore populist-seeming constructions.) As we go forward with this shell game, I’ll issue a little taunt to stand as a challenge: If you really think the central figures are hundreds of years old, and have a long record of sharp-toothed murder, I’ve got some Florida swampland I’d love to sell you at a decent price.
Let’s begin with the Cowboy in The Limits of Control, produced 4 years before Only Lovers Left Alive. Played by actress, Tilda Swinton (who plays the part of Eve in our knotty little puzzle at hand), she gives Lone Man an earful about filmic whimsy she can’t live without. One point particularly stands out. “The best films are like dreams… You never know what you really have…” After a prefatory introduction to the girl from Morocco at home and reclining on her sultan’s ottoman (the Samourai and Limits of Control factors coming up here later), we find her amidst some of those quaint and exotic stoneworks which only deserving visionaries like her realize being putting to shame occidental precincts. She turns into a place called “1001 Nights” (Eve and her coterie having nothing to do with tourist traps and those uncouth former neighbors). She’s welcomed and kissed by kindly, culturally-blessed, Bilal, the owner; and after a brief conversation in perfect Arabic she shows advanced humanitarian instincts in warmly praising his kind attentions to a mutual friend. “Tell me, how is he?”/ “Frail… But he has a strong spirit…” Remaining in the prescribed hushed tone, she adds, “He is in such good hands…”/ “He’s my family,” caps off the interview (with its coda, somehow fitting Bilal’s overweening reflex of decadence—careless Bela, in Stranger than Paradise being a minefield here: “His secrets…Yours too…”) Eve then vapidly puts her hand to her heart. Along with cuts to Adam being similarly on top of the world and similarly odious, there comes the entrance of the “strong spirit,” and we can really get cooking.
Eve has a (circuitous) history of overloading dreams with far more credence than they deserve. And the soulmate putting in an appearance at the “1001 Nights”—being addressed as Christopher Marlowe, no less—brings to her (too) brightly articulate presencea deranged illogic we haven’t seen since Nobody, that wishful thinker, in Dead Man, quickly assumed that a new acquaintance named, William Blake, had to be a still clicking along poet from 200 years ago, Here it’s the more than 500 years old playwright of that name who entails dramatic dreams that certain desperate sensibilities might occupy to exorcize a phenomenal life too troubling to endure. (In the slide that this relationship brings to us we can’t even be sure that the long-in-the-tooth aesthete-looking long-term junkie so much as carries a coincidental name tinged with accomplishment. He’s very much in the mold of countless beach bums infesting Mediterranean locales, but perhaps sitting on family wealth.) The venue of 1001 Nights brings to bear the literary scene of staving off death by witty diversions. Marlowe comes in, supported by crutches at each arm, and addresses Eve, the exotica-fan, in suitably ancient English terminology and accent, “Mistress, mine!” (The role is embodied by actor, John Hurt, whose work for Jarmusch, in Dead Man and The Limits of Control, was all about Victorian spite that he was old, put to shame by the aspirations of the young and absolutely irrelevant.) Here, though, in the orbit of Eve’s goofy upbeat, he has joined a secret society with its blood rituals and overheated lore as to fantastical longevity—and he’s as chipper as he no doubt was as a non-stop addict in his youth, at this place to be. Along with his always precious locks he totes a vial of plasma. As he dramatically places it on her table, she blurts out, with that same daffy enthusiasm defining the core of the Cowboy’s energy, “Is that the really good stuff? From the French doctor?” Moving smartly along she broaches her soother, the mutual illusory séance whereby the year 1600 and its resentments are a vivid memory, to confirm that they could be sitting on many centuries more of being superior and overseeing the timelessness of their brief but lucrative moment in the sun. “So, how is the fabulous Christopher Marlowe, tonight?” He, forever crusty, conspiratorial, it seems, reaches back to a register of overblown subversion. “I told you a thousand times! Never call me that name in public!” She retorts, frustrated that complication has arisen, “You nut case! I can keep a secret… So, are you saying you’re never going to let the cat out of the bag? [regarding Marlowe’s [supposed] authorship of Shakespeare’s plays]. Can’t we drop the hint about the most delicious literary scandal in history?” He feels compelled to say, “Dearie, that was four centuries ago!” And then, in response to her, “It would cause such thrilling chaos,” he levels, for a bit, “I think the world’s in enough chaos to keep it going…” The thread of mutual levitation unravels to the point of her disparaging his jacket. “I was given this in 1586. It’s one of my favorite articles of clothing…” This failing conversation is capped with an arresting roundelay in the form of Eve, Marlowe and Adam, shown at disparate locations gulping down their “really good stuff” and blissing out, with a closing little whiplash of rictus. The Jarmusch mainstay-notion of “jerking off” has to be brought into play here, in spades. Rich folks going far astray and giving us a tip-off that here the sense of advantage has crossed a singular line.
That much said, we know that it would not be a Jarmusch film if there were not coming to light intimations of greatness and grace. Adam, the only source of wealth to be seen as stemming from invention, has, while Eve was hogging the spotlight, dressed up as a surgeon and thereby making his way to the blood lab of a Detroit hospital where he has found a compliant supplier. He is also shown taking possession of a number of vintage electric guitars (quite different from those acoustic instruments Lone Man ponders at length, in The Limits of Control). No doubt an impressive instrumentalist in the days when he was the darling of arena and stadium sensations, there is an opening scene which serves to widen our take on Adam’s being not simply out of favor but being intrinsically incapable of effectively superseding obsolete, ludicrously Old School teachings. Adam’s hands are seen putting on a turntable the 45-rpm recording of Wanda Jackson’s 1961 Rockabilly tune, “Funnel of Love.” The rotation of the turntable cuts to Eve, seen from above to be reclining languidly (like go-to-guy, Jef, as Le Samourai ) and then riding on the ottoman as it slowly spins—her function being passive in strong contrast to the performance of an artist (Jackson) Adam would not have invited onstage to any of his concerts (this being, however, a first taste, while going nowhere, of the dawning of a rally). Where have we seen a film commencing even more closely to this than Le Samourai? Why, of course, in Lone Man, seen from above, slowly rotating his limbs and body in starting his day with the motions and stillness of tai chi, in The Limits of Control!(Our present film could well be called, The Limits of Control 2.) Here’s good old Wanda’s inadvertently skewering our precious escapists (Adam seen, in multiple cut-backs from Morocco, to be caressing a lute!). “I tried and I tried to run and hide/ I even tried to run away/ You just can’t run from the funnel of love/ It’s gonna get you some day…” Jarmusch (also a major soundtrack factor in this film, with his band, Squrl) tweaks the laconic, twangy thrust of that song to the point where you feel it’s coming from an inhabitant of an asteroid.
So, there it is, as far as the front-side personnel is concerned—not just slim pickings but protracted deadness, a funnel of love the likes of which swallow up Adam’s scientistic pretense of being abreast quantum physics, much as they embarrass Lone Man’s bosses in the instalment right before this one. Adam, therefore, ostentatiously orders a bullet like no other with a view to suicide. Eve returns States-side on intuiting via Skype that her fellow-fantasist (and you know that her Cowboy package has been the driving force of all this skittish posing) is blue again. Eve thinking to inject some dash into the couple’s binary stardom, she pulls out a couple of blood popsicles as resulting in another of his visits to the readily bribed blood technician. His histrionic return is covered by the utterly ill-advised, “Fresh blood, Baby!” No wonder, then, Adam admits he has had a dream of Eve’s erratic but disturbingly potent younger sister, Ava; (that not only Eve but even Marlowe had also admitted to feeling something resembling a moment of truth about Ava’s apparition sets the stage for a figure directly despised but nebulously necessary). In the midst of the inflatedly ageing “lovers” (of what?) batting around reflections which have not been accorded appropriate effort, there she is, having made her way to an upstairs lair of the inner sanctum. This situation finds itself stalked by many cinematic audacious and unacknowledged geniuses eclipsing anything that could come out of the smug jet-setters. Most recently, there is the all-nude hooker suddenly materializing and charming Lone Man, in The Limits of Control. But don’t forget Elvis-haunted Memphis haunting Jun in Mystery Train; and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-haunted Eva (coinciding with Ava), in Stranger than Paradise. And especially don’t forget the sprite in Antonioni’s Red Desert (ravaged Ravenna being a kissing cousin of saturation-bombed Detroit; and Adam’s pock-marked walls being a witty reprise of the shack where Giuliana nearly succumbs to oligarch vanity—a draft, with a difference, of the pronouncedly unlikeable figures [Don, in Broken Flowers, being noteworthy] Jarmusch dares to annoy us with).
On a drive before stepping into the “chaotic” [Marlowe’s word] world of Ava, Adam was so bold (or just old) to suggest taking a look at the Motown Museum, a place Wanda Jackson (or the band White Hills, which Ava is about to drag them to) would not have on their bucket list. The man of the house, on beholding the AIRBNB nuisance, assumes the pose of someone’s aggrieved (rock-hating) daddy. “You can’t stay here!” Adam had recited to Eve his long-standing abhorrence of “zombies,” non-fans of his in eschewing predictable, conventional “cool” for the sake of anarchic serendipity. During their first night back together in Motown, she—like a stay-at-home charades enthusiast—eggs him on to dramatize the boundless control apparently lurking in his, and her, “dream.” Byron was “a pompous ass” [“I’m not surprised,” she sneers conspiratorially]; “I only gave him [Schubert] the adagio… I had to put something out there” (Lone Man and the welcome intruder listen respectfully to a Schubert composition before heading out on their separate and death-immersed ways.) Though somehow enlisted in the catchment of her persuasive sister, Ava, like Eva under the by no means fanatical influence of Screamin’ Jay, is an undemonstrative fun seeker, precisely the kind of off-the-wall sensualist that reminds her elders that they are sub-human ascetics. (Included on Eve’s ottoman back home is an avalanche of rare and ancient books, with which she gives a show of speed reading—precisely her speed as turning denotations into those “little details” the Cowboy loved about movies. She also proudly identifies guitars by touch; but she is utterly unmusical.)
Adam may make some noise— “What the fuck are you doing here?”—but it is Eve who sets the pace of that household, tolerating her kin in the short run, while looking to send her back to LA, in his words, “the great Zombie Central!” The zombie is grudgingly given a cordial glass of blood, whereby they reprove her for chugging it down. “This is pure shit,” Adam informs with his standard Papal solemnity. But Ava is far from settling for the statistics of remote ideation. During their drive, Eve had entranced Adam with the spectre of a white dwarf star (sort of a description of herself) not merely radiant but also emitting music in the form of a gigantic gong, and the unwelcome visitor lets them know she wants gonging from the city’s club life. “You’re such fucking bores!” is her response to their maintaining that they are too sacrosanct to mess around with infidels. Somehow that turns a no into a yes; and there they are—cool as ice, beholding a band that actually (at that moment, anyway) does not countenance becoming a (“pure-shit”) religion. Ian, Adam’s hardware source and fervent fan and all-round enthusiast (as including the players of the gig at hand [“Wanna meet them?” he asks; Adam, of course, delivers a self-impressed, “Noooo…”] is hustling some “180 grade vinyl” and, in the course of this carousing, he finally settles down at the Royal Box, the table of the immortals, where the self-styled aristocracy have provided themselves with a micky of the staff of life. Ava and him immediately form a constellation transcending the Motowners. (A day or so before Ava’s arrival, Eve actually takes off the Wanda Jackson 45 and puts on Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” labelled by the music industry as R&B, but Motown schmaltz to the core. “Then I cry all night if he doesn’t call again…” The exponent shadowed by sentimental movies dances to this lament with very limp feeling. Then she manages to get Adam up on the floor, and it might as well have been a Glenn Miller movie.) Back at the cordon sanitaire that Adam calls home, the old folks hit the sack and the live wires hit a speed bump. Ava (equipped with two pairs of fangs on the order of the carriage-trade bullet [Ian having assured Adam about the latter, “No questions asked”]) rips open her new friend’s throat in her adulterated enthusiasm. This last straw (with an allusion to a similar mishap some time ago in Paris) sees them totally indifferent to Ian (impassively throwing the body into the river, after a drive with the corpse in the trunk bearing comparison with Zack in Down by Law). They had despatched Ava, hurling her and her suitcase into the yard to deal with Detroit alone, the wasteland, that is, that rust belt desert, which has fully penetrated the supposedly cool address and cool addressees. Her last words to them are: “You’re condescending snobs! You have no idea!” They are the picture of jet-set cool—he in black, she in white—and reaching Tangiers they find Marlowe at death’s door (due to contaminated blood); and they polish off his “very last [inadequate amount] of the good stuff,” along a trek of showing impatience about the supply crisis and the increasing experience of their having “no idea.” (At the imagined literary giant’s, there is a page—perhaps a grocery list—bombed out with scribble marks. Adam chirps, “You’re still scratching away, Kit.” Writer’s block since birth. Nothing—but always there for the party.) Adam asks her, “We’re finished, aren’t we?” They attack a couple of young lovers (“I get the girl!” / “No!”) deploying their expensive chops.
They do indeed have no idea. (Eve thinks to rally Adam beyond spleen about zombies and their off-putting “fear” by going through a litany of pat pick-me-ups which she has never made the effort to absorb—appreciating nature; nurturing kindness; friendship; and dancing.) But the far from perfect LA Siren/ dare-devil issuing that reproof brings along a filmic network whereby the maddening pretense of the principals has been outflanked by a course of sensibility never dominant and yet thrillingly ascendant along the limits of control. Not only the copious figures cited from Jarmusch’s previous films (along with gems like Wanda Jackson) maintain that it’s a big world out there and big hearts have not become totally extinct. But there are also the always fascinating importations from the depths of other filmmakers—and never more resilient than at this decade of our author’s endeavors. This being for him the time when rampant “jerking off” has to be exposed as beatable within appropriate problematicness, a jaw-dropping moment—near the end of The Limits of Control when Lone Man’s woman driver brings to life that moment, in 1997, in the David Lynch film, Lost Highway, when the gangster’s mistress, Alice, enters in slow motion his big black Cadillac and a young man (a machine specialist, sort of like Ian) hears the song, “This Magic Moment” (a far cry from Marlowe’s greeting Eve, “Mistress, Mine!”)—is a beacon not to be missed.
Ava is played by the actress, Mia Wasikowska, who played the part of Alice, in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). Lost Highway begins with a self-impressed jazz saxophonist and his rather precious wife who reside in a Bauhaus-cool architectural marvel. They are harassed by zombie-like enemies and comes to an end that would be totally dark were it not for the agency of that moment of quantum physics whereby activating an instance of electrodynamic radiance induces in an instance deeply linked with the initiator an impetus to come into play, regardless of the distance. This sense of apparitions sharing the same existence constitutes the framework for the shifting protagonists in the Lynch shocker. There the extrapolation of infinitesimally tiny factors to human beings carries the witty barb that such determinist schematization poses an all-important transcending human presence by which to battle through (or synthesize) the paradox which science does not know the half of. Albert Einstein detested such a current of research, and thought to prove, by designing a thought-experiment on that basis showing that ridiculous self-contradiction were in play, that such (as he called it) “spooky action at a distance” is clearly erroneous. Jack-of-all-trades, Adam, frequently poses this theory of entanglement in order to seem to himself to be up-to-date, while in fact subscribing to a travesty committed by a big and seriously impertinent name. (He would, like the boss in The Limits of Control, mouthing the vastness of the universe without having taken it to heart, jump at the riff but stay with Motown.) Thereby Jarmusch joins Lynch in striving for the surreal, avant-garde discoveries to be made (but not by a rock mogul too old for his fleeting victories).
Only Lovers Left Alive turns out to have many lovers left alive, most of them badly organized, perhaps, but some of them, Jarmusch included, setting off real, not infantile, “gongs.”