Upon first seeing the word “vampire” in the description of ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, the latest Jim Jarmusch film, which was screened this year at the Toronto Film Festival, I thought to myself, “Oh, no. Not another vampire film.” And furthermore, is Jarmusch just being trendy here? Is he looking to latch onto the coattails of the TWILIGHT franchise by making a film about creatures who subsist by sucking the blood of living beings?
Well, I should have known better. That is because Jim Jarmusch is such an idiosyncratic cinematic voice. That is his reputation, and it is well-earned. And when I overheard someone who already had seen the film observe that ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE may feature characters who are vampires, but the film really is not a vampire film, well, that was enough to convince me to rush off to a screening. Not only was I not disappointed, but ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE rates as instant classic Jarmusch, as well as one of the very best films of the year.
Sure, the central characters in the film are vampires. They are the appropriately-named Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, and Eve, played by Tilda Swinton. While they are lovers, they reside in isolation in different cities that seem to be relics of long-lost civilizations. Adam lives in Detroit, which is portrayed as a city whose glories date from another era. It now is a dreary, burnt-out town of dimly-lit streets and decaying houses. Meanwhile, Eve’s home base is Tangier, which is presented as a city of dark alleys, a city out of another age.
Because these characters have been around for centuries, their cultural references date back to the 1700s or early 1900s or 1950s. For example, near the beginning of the film, the name Eddie Cochran is cited. Cochran, an early, iconic rock ‘n roller, died in a road accident in 1960 at the age of 21. If you are of a younger generation, you may not recognize the name Eddie Cochran but, if you are older, you likely will be familiar with the sound and lyrics of “Summertime Blues,” Cochran’s classic ode to late 1950s adolescent angst.
Also, once upon a time, Adam was pals with the likes of Lord Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft. Plus, he still listens to music on vinyl. And his and Eve’s best friend is none other than a still-living Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt, who oh so casually observes that he is the true creator of HAMLET.
There is a point to all this. Jarmusch was born in 1953, which qualifies him as a baby-boomer. And in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, he is offering some very personal insight into what it means to be a child of an earlier time. What he is saying, I think, is that we live in an age in which history is quickly forgotten. If it happened last week, let alone decades or centuries ago, it is irrelevant in our contemporary “all-that-matters-is-now” culture. So if you have been around for a while-- in other words, if you no longer are young-- your cultural references will not just be dated but will be meaningless within contemporary culture and to the younger generations.
We do live in a youth-oriented society. These days, so much of mainstream popular culture is pitched to the younger demographic, and your culture will be viewed as dated, perhaps even eccentric, and decidedly not a part of the modern world.
So the question here becomes: If you are older, what are you supposed to do? How do you go about your life and not feel as if you are drowning in a culture that isolates you, that trivializes your very-real life experience? This is an issue that Jarmusch ponders in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE with much cleverness and wit.
The film also is crammed with Jarmusch’s signature off-the-cuff dialogue and hip references. One example: At one point, Eve flies to Detroit to visit Adam. The name of the airline that transports her is “Air Lumière”-- named for the Lumière brothers, the pioneering French filmmakers.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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