Monday, May 5, 2014


Adam is a centuries old vampire unliving in a gothic three-storey in the dying American city of Detroit. He's a musician, currently beloved of the hipster under-elite. He takes delighted delivery of various goods from a local music scene gopher. An early scene shows him sighing over a group of decidedly under-label electric guitars like an old Supro or Hagstrom. The biggest name axe of the bunch is a Gretsch. Later, we see him recording with a Fender Jaguar, playing an antique Gibson archtop acoustic, and there is a Tele conspicuously hanging on the wall. This is not just my guitar nerdery. There is a real point to this and it has to do with one's appreciation not of old obscure guitars but of the films of Jim Jarmusch.

I'm beginning there rather than sketch the plot as, more than most of Jarmusch films, this one casts shout-outs to every obscure or non-mainstream culture follower on the planet. The title is from a 1960s novel about a world ruled by teenagers. The Rolling Stones were up for starring in a movie based on the book. Nicholas Ray was mooted as director for a time. That's three whammies in one and we're just at the title. If you watch a Jarmusch movie for the scrapbook or post-midnight cafe rave then this is a feast.

If that annoys you you might miss out on the things that this piece does offer. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is married to Eve (Tilda Swinton) who resides in Tangier (I'm sure there were a few marginal literary geniuses who set up house there ... hmmmm). Tom is depressed by the state of the world and has gone as far as to commission the fashioning of a single 38 bullet with a wooden tip from his gopher in order to end it all. Eve, worried, literally flies by night to save him. When she turns up he pretty much improves straight away. They drive around the once central ex-industrial city by night and talk, partly about Eve's dark and terrifying sister Ava who turns up but is really just a dizzy teenager (a really enjoyably bubbly Mia Wasikowska) who does some bad stuff and compels the couple to leave and return to Tangier to seek comfort and high grade blood from their mentor, Christopher Marlowe (an typically welcome John Hurt) and so on.

It sounds slight and if left to those points it would be but Jarmusch has the state of the world on his own mind and what the vampires cleverly call zombies are doing to it. The vampires' lives are unsustainable without violence. For all the jaded decadence of their style, they hold civilisation's knowledge from personal experience but cannot communicate it to the rest of us wasteful wasting living dead. That, told through the device of outcast monsters does deliver impact even if it often feels like the before cool/still pre-cool listings of hipsters. The sense of waste or the industrial, consumerist world's borrowed time is well staged in Detroit, once so much identified with the auto industry that it's nickname Motown became a whole pop genre and bands like the MC5 named themselves after it. The Detroit here is an airless ancient ruin. The eternal Tangier retains its lo-tech life in its close alleys that murmur with the drug trade. It's an odd staging of the eco-gospel but a staging of the eco-gospel it is.

If anything, Only Lovers Left Alive reminds me less of True Blood than 1994's Nadja by Michael Almereyda. As hiply grainy and monochrome as Stranger in Paradise, the film told of a group of vampires as an aristocratic dysfunctional family, casting Hal Hartley alumni and featuring MBV tracks specially remixed by Kevin Shields and a cameo by David Lynch as a mortuary clerk. High on style gothic and urban it lost its way early and turned innoffensive rather than bland, having virtually nothing to say. A non vampiric character describes the telepathy they enjoy as psychic faxing. Later when the title character receives such a message she describes it, unsmiling, as a psychic fax. We're the ones who are meant to giggle at that one. It's throwaway, atmosphere tarnishing and never meant to be more than a giggle and that's what we end up with. However...

If you are the type who visits someone whose house groans with bookshelves and rooms filled with vinyl LPs and finds your sense of wonder wane on hearing the seventeenth story about the real, lost culture of the good old days then you will get nothing from this film. What I get is partly a welcome-enough plea for planetary care but delivered with some genuinely curated style. Hipster maybe but Jarmusch has earned his stripes here.

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