There’s still plenty of life left in the undead….
by Philip Matthews
Detroit looks beautiful at night. The abandoned industrial ruins are viewed from car windows, lit by orange streetlights. Streets are empty and the night is black. Post-2008, Detroit is perhaps the most photographed city in America, as interesting and photogenic in its decay and collapse as it was in its prime. In other words, it risks becoming a visual cliche for urban blight or white flight or the general decline of US economic power or whatever historical trend you want to drape across its grand ruins, while its historic greatness is forgotten. One of the many lovely things about Jim Jarmusch’s marvellous new film, Only Lovers Left Alive — his best since Dead Man (1995) — is that it turns Detroit into a different kind of museum to itself.
In the movie, Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, takes Eve, played by Tilda Swinton, for a spin in the Detroit muscle car his roadie scored for him. These two are vampires so they take a long, historic view. They think in geologic time. Surveying the ruins, including the grand Michigan Theater now repurposed as a car park, Swinton promises that Detroit will be great again. Have the water wars started yet? Oh, the humans are still thinking about oil? Wait until they’re squabbling over water, they’ll be back here. Only they don’t say humans, they say zombies. All of the non-vampire population — that’s you and me — are the zombies. We’re narrow-minded, short-sighted, condemned to mindless and repetitive action. Hiddleston talks about zombies in much the same way that the Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer) talked about ‘‘stupid white men’’ back in Dead Man.
Has there ever been such a nocturnal movie? Hiddleston’s moody Adam gets up in the evening and goes to bed at dawn. The curtains are pulled, rooms are underlit. Nothing unusual about that in a vampire film, but the general effect is less vampiric than reclusive rock star biopic. Adam is surrounded by rare and arcane musical instruments, valuable guitars, stacks of equipment. It’s like a teenage fantasy of how someone like Jimmy Page might have lived, with day and night reversed (that Lou Reed lyric: ‘‘Wine in the morning / and some breakfast at night’’). Or like Turner in Performance, with his drugs and exotic rugs. And that’s fitting because it isn’t really a movie about vampires, but a movie about music and addiction. It’s more like the unofficial sequel to Almost Famous than an arthouse Twilight.
Addiction is the central story — who do you hit up to get that really good blood? Doctors are good sources of the pure stuff, and stay away from those with contaminated product. The drug connection is made explicit in one beautiful sequence that has vampire sister Ava, played by Mia Wasikowska, taking a sip from Adam’s stash. Her eyes roll back, she looks blissful, there is the sensation of falling and being caught. Along these lines, the other key setting is Tangier, forever identified as the base of William Burroughs, where an elderly junkie — sorry, vampire — played by John Hurt even has a touch of Burroughs about him. You may also notice a framed photo of Burroughs on the wall of Adam’s bedroom, set within a large gallery of his ‘‘heroes’’. These are Jarmusch heroes too: Iggy Pop and Joe Strummer, Oscar Wilde and Franz Kafka among them. The first two of those acted in Jarmusch movies. Is William Blake up there? He should be. Like Patti Smith, but in a more subtle and less gushing way, Jarmusch is a curator of bohemian heroes or classic bohemian values.
This kind of reverence towards the bohemian past has been a Jarmusch theme throughout. In the last of the 11 short films that made up the 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes (also featuring Iggy Pop, Tom Waits and Jack and Meg White), since-deceased avant-gardists Bill Rice and Taylor Mead make a toast.
‘‘Here’s to Paris in the 20s.’’
‘‘New York in the 70s!’’
Sometimes Jarmusch has been a curator in a more literal way. In 2010, he curated an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in New York. Besides the music – Boris, Sonic Youth, White Hills, Black Angels, and so on – there was a film room and a books room. He even offered gig-goers a reading list (William Burroughs, Nick Tosches, Luc Sante). You could probably do worse than have Jarmusch guide your taste and choices in life. At the same time, he was formulating Only Lovers Left Alive, which looked at that point like it would star Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton. Fassbender didn’t happen but Hiddleston was up to it.
The word ‘‘poetic’’ is being thrown about. It fits. So do words like tender, funny, affectionate and romantic. Some have cited Wings of Desire, and there are similarities, with our vampires standing outside humanity, observing and sometimes intervening, as well as some lasting affection for a troubled city (wall-era Berlin that time) but Jarmusch is much less solemn or portentous. The film is ridiculously cool — Bill Gosden’s exact words when he launched it at the film festival in Christchurch, after it reached New Zealand almost in a straight line from Cannes — but also goofy and playful at times and typically idiosyncratic. Jarmusch has always been the kind of director who will stop the action (such as it is) so that we can listen to one of his favourite songs. Didn’t he more or less revive Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in the 80s? Here, the song you will remember for a long time afterwards is “I Can’t Hardly Stand It” by Charlie Feathers, which might be better known from the Cramps’ cover. We also get a good chunk of psych-rock band White Hills in action, while Jarmusch’s own noise band Squrl is on the soundtrack, with a sound not a million miles away from the drone stuff (Earth, Boris, etc) that so memorably appeared on The Limits of Control.
Like Ghost Dog and Broken Flowers before it, The Limits of Control had a lonesome male protagonist. They were melancholic, introverted films. Only Lovers Left Alive has a similar kind of torpor but the mood is sweeter. It’s a reminder that the best Jarmusch films have been buddy movies: Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer in Dead Man, all the conversationalists in Coffee and Cigarettes, and John Lurie and Richard Edson (musos as actors again) back in Stranger than Paradise. Incidentally, the more time that passes, the more Stranger than Paradise looks like one of those out-of-nowhere films that can never be improved upon, only remade.
A couple of years ago, thinking about The Tree of Life and Melancholia, I had a theory that the film festival’s opening and closing night films are sometimes programmed to match or rhyme in some way, or shed some light on each other. This year, Only Lovers Left Alive closed while Steven Soderbergh’s entertaining and unreliable (but who cares?) Liberace-in-love biopic Behind the Candelabra opened. Are there correspondences? Maybe.
If all musicians are in some sense vampires, then the Liberace that Michael Douglas showed us — in his wig, addicted to plastic surgery, at war with old age — is a fine example. As he grooms and manufactures a younger version of himself (Matt Damon as Scott Thorson), he is as nocturnal as the undead. But the hostile-couple vibe was closer to Interview with the Vampire, where Tom Cruise’s Lestat and Brad Pitt’s Louis were like lovers condemned to an eternity of not getting on with each other. Lestat “made” Louis too, remember?
Vampires and cinema go together and always have done. At its most basic, there is the shared experience of hiding in the dark, dodging sunlight and avoiding or disturbing the normal run of time. Both are late 19th century inventions: Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, just two years after the first Lumiere screenings. Twenty years ago, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula made that link clear when Gary Oldman’s vampire dandy in London appeared in scenes designed to suggest and imitate early cinema. Equally, the filmed vampire – Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Dracula more than Murnau’s Nosferatu or Dreyer’s Vampyr, among other early versions — replaced vampire images formed over centuries of European folklore, in much the same way that Disney images and stories usurped existing fairy tales. Vampires and cinema are not just contemporaries, they are now almost inseparable.
There is a lot of it about. You might have blinked and missed Byzantium, Neil Jordan’s first vampire movie since everyone hated Interview With A Vampire. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is pitched as a young adult take on the eternal supernatural wars of the Underworld and Night Watch series. Like film itself, the vampire genre has become an international language, not limited by local taste or conditions. Forget Twilight, Blade and Underworld, the best vampire reinventions of recent times — Thirst, Let The Right One In and Cronos — have come out of non-English speaking countries.
Park Chan-wook’s follow-up to Thirst is his first English-language film. While the title Stoker suggests a vampire film of some kind, this isn’t one, although it is shot, edited and designed with a horror sensibility. Fans of Thirst and earlier Park (Oldboy is recommended) will recognise Park’s taste for very red blood and slow, eroticised, elegant Gothic. If you come to Stoker after rare exposure to big-screen Hitchcocks at the film festival, you will be aware of Hitchcock’s visual influence on Park. Look for the fetishised object — here, a very yellow umbrella — and other obvious tributes in the production design. Don’t the sickly green walls of the Stoker residence give you Vertigo flashbacks? (The big empty house also reminded critic Kim Newman of Psycho; I was thinking of Rebecca.)
You may recognise the rough plot outline from when you saw it as Shadow of a Doubt. After the sudden death of her husband, a widowed Nicole Kidman welcomes her husband’s mysterious brother into her home. As in a vampire film, you wonder: who is the predator and who is the prey? The teenage India Stoker is played by Mia Wasikowska, who is much less expressive here than in Only Lovers Left Alive. Then again, the entire film is less expressive: Kidman’s range of facial expressions now seems so reduced that she could just as easily have done the part in the mask from Eyes without a Face (blame that vampiric fountain of youth again). This icy mother is the Hitchcock blonde without even the remotest trace of warmth — less Grace Kelly than Joan Crawford. As the dubious Uncle Charlie, Matthew Goode seems more bland than sinister. There seems to be a tin ear for casting and directing of actors all round, other than Wasikowska.
Chalk it up as a misstep. The Park high style seems oddly effete here, even decadent. Early on, the film feels over-designed and over-planned, with unusual camera angles devised for their own sake rather than any greater purpose or scheme. Hitchcockian suspense is largely missing in action and the thing only truly comes alive in the last third as it races through a back story. All in all, Stoker’s morose humans seem less human than the non-humans in Only Lovers Left Alive.