Jim Jarmusch: Only Indie Left Alive

jarmusch only lovers left aliveEarly on in Jim Jarmusch’s first feature film, Permanent Vacation (1980), its vagabond hero Allie reads aloud a passage from Les Chants de Maldoror, and quickly announces he is bored by the meandering surrealistic narrative. Toward the end of Jarmusch’s eleventh and latest feature, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), vampire hero Adam watches a talented young woman sing a song in a Tangiers club and proclaims her a genius. When Adam’s partner, Eve, says that the singer will probably become very famous, Adam grimaces, concluding that she is far too talented for such a terrible fate. Somewhere between those two poles – the distrust of both the bizarre and the popular, I suspect you can find Jarmusch’s restless artistic sensibilities. If you attempt such a quest, I wish you luck.

I’ll admit it up front. I am a Jarmusch guy. When we are choosing up our indie team captains, I’m picking Jarmusch over your Andersons and your Linklaters. I understand this doesn’t apply to everybody – maybe not even to most – but I am more touched by one slow traveling shot in any number of Jarmusch movies than I am by almost the entire Wes Anderson film canon. I have argued with friends over this, trying to rationalise that Anderson’s increased mannerism – his reliance on frames within frames within frames, both narratively and pictorially – leaves me feeling farther away from his subject. With Jarmusch, even when I am bewildered by the subject, which is not infrequent, I always feel like I am getting a very intimate picture of something.

Of course, it could just be that I’m an East Coast guy, and Jarmusch, the New Yorker, speaks to me more than those Houston boys, Anderson and Linklater.

In his latest film, which is arguably his most traditional, Jarmusch, as he often does, uses a popular genre as a jumping off point. Only Lovers Left Alive is an off-kilter take on the vampire film, just as Dead Man (1995) reinterpreted the Western, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) shook up the crime story (two other movies, Down by Law and The Limits of Control also played with the traditional crime story in even more extreme ways). It has other Jarmusch hallmarks such as a slow narrative pace and too-many-to-count references to art, philosophy, and especially, to music. It even indulges one of his pet theories; that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. But it is an outlier from much of his other work in several key ways.

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Tilda Swinton (Eve) and Tom Hiddleston (Adam) in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

For one thing, it’s a love story; in some ways, a very traditional heterosexual love story between a man and his wife. The only other developed romantic relationship in the entire Jarmsuch folio comes in the first section of his 1989 anthology film, Mystery Train. Young lovers and huge music fans, Jun and Mitsuko have travelled from their home in Yokohama to Memphis to pay tribute to Graceland and Sun Studios. They will have some adventures, and will leave no less in love with music or each other. That’s it for romance. There are hints in other movies – the closest one being the affair between happy-go-lucky Italians Roberto and Nicoletta that closes out Down by Law, or maybe the two young people screwing in the background all throughout Rome in the fourth section of Night on Earth – perhaps it is something about Italians – but Jarmusch seems to avoid traditional, or even non-traditional love stories at all costs. But Adam and Eve are very much devoted to each other, and even if it is a dark love, built on blood and duplicity, it is very real and very passionate.

Another difference: Only Lovers Left Alive is the closest Jarmusch has ever come to creating a lush look. The movie is extremely dark, with almost every scene taking place at night, but there is a sensual beauty in Yorick Le Saux’s imagery that feels very different from the earlier films. No one has ever used a camera moving through mostly empty city streets better than Jarmusch, but to this point, that imagery has been invariably stark and desolate. Jarmusch has almost always worked with three favourite cinematographers, Tom DiCillo, Robbie Muller, and Frederick Elmes. Only in his last two movies has he branched out with other collaborators. In The Limits of Control (2009), that stark look was still evident. But whereas the empty suburbia of Broken Flowers (2005) echoed the empty West of Dead Man, which echoed the empty city of Permanent Vacation (1980), Detroit and Tangiers seem to pulse with dark energy in Only Lovers Left Alive.

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Tilda Swinton (Eve) and in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

In its thematic concerns, Jarmusch’s eleventh movie is not all that different from any of the linear stories that have preceded it (I am referring to linear stories as the movies that were not anthologies. Mystery Train, Night on Earth, and Coffee and Cigarettes, his anthology features, share many of those thematic concerns, but in an arguably less coherent manner). Jarmusch always seems concerned with connection, and how true connection between people borders on the impossible. Adam is the first Jarmusch hero to be an artist, and with the inclusion of John Hurt’s Christopher Marlowe (the real Shakespeare), the director seems to be directly confronting something that has always been just under the surface in his work. He has dealt with the idea of celebrity on several occasions – most openly in several chapters of the very funny Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) – but the closest he has ever come to creating an “artist” on screen had been Tom Waits’ deejay Zach in Down by Law (1986). And let’s be honest, Zach is basically an idiot. In fact, the persona he adopts when he turns on his radio voice is just as silly as the patter of his friendly rival Jack (John Lurie) when Jack slips into his role as a pimp. In Down by Law, the artist doesn’t seem all that far removed from the pimp.

But Adam is a very different artist. For one thing, he has been around for hundreds of years and has seen much more of the world. He is far wiser. In that regard, he is closer to Jarmusch’s offshoot artist characters, the hit men from Ghost Dog and The Limits of Control. And in that world-weary wisdom, Adam may be closest to Jarmsuch’s most tragic creation, Matti Pellonpaa’s Helsinki cab driver in the final section of Night on Earth. These are men who have seen the futility of passion, and yet still find a reason to go on.

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Tom Hiddleston (Adam) in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

At the beginning of Only Lovers Left Alive, Adam seems to have lost that will. He commissions a hard-wood bullet from his supplier and is clearly moving close to a decision about suicide. The character Adam, played with marvellously sexy ennui by Tom Hiddleston, has his reasons for disenchantment with the increasingly intolerable world of “zombies” (his term for humans), but it is not much of a reach to see the filmmaker in the character. Jarmusch’s previous film, The Limits of Control, was mostly a disaster. It is almost certainly his least accessible and least successful film to date, and when we meet Adam at the beginning of the new story, is he feeling the same disenchantment Jarmusch may have felt after thirty plus years of battling the Harvey Weinsteins of the world? But the pull to create remains strong. It is crucial, I think, that Adam is introduced savouring the paraphernalia of his art – vintage guitars brought to him by his supplier Ian (Anton Yelchin). When we meet Tilda Swinton’s Eve, she is engaged in a more prosaic pursuit; procuring the blood she needs for sustenance. Adam will also go out to get his required blood, but it is not the first thing on his mind, and it is not the first thing we learn about him. His art gets primacy.

Like John Hurt’s Marlowe, who has allowed credit for his creations to go to Shakespeare, Adam has given away much of his musical output. Both men speak of the necessity of “getting the work out there” but are very suspicious, either for practical or personal reasons, of taking credit for that work. It is important to remember Jarmusch’s skirmishes over control of Dead Man which led to a perceived falling out between the director and Miramax. If ever Jarmusch was going to drift mainstream, Dead Man was the time. That experience seemed to push Jarmusch back toward the indie fringes, and even though he has worked with mainstream actors like Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, even though he has continued to get the work out there, he has never had a mainstream hit. It’s easy to see how his second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, (1984) got investors salivating. It returned several million dollars on a $100,000 production budget. But the big bucks would never follow.

Jarmusch Stranger than paradiseIn some ways, I think The Limits of Control served as a catharsis for a director still bothered by the Dead Man experience. Consider that at the conclusion of Dead Man, everyone ends up dead. The mild mannered accountant hero. His Native American spirit guide. The brutal hit man. Countless others either deserving or not. But there’s one exception. The man who set all this destruction in motion, the ultra-evil business tycoon John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). He loses a son, but otherwise, neither he nor his business is touched by the violence. The only measure of victory the lowly accountant can claim is that his death will remain a mystery to the tycoon, and so he will not get total satisfaction. Now consider the end of The Limits of Control. Isaach De Bankole’s nameless hit man sneaks into the stronghold of corporate bigwig Bill Murray in order to strangle him with a guitar string. When the incredulous Murray asks how he was able to break in, De Bankole deadpans, “I used my imagination.” Is this the director exorcizing past demons? I think that’s possible.

And so we find Jarmusch somewhat reborn in the undead world of the vampire. It certainly isn’t a traditional happy ending, and yet there is more hope in its ending than there is in many of Jarmusch’s films. That seems appropriate, because he is nothing if not a director of contradictions. Few directors have seemed to lament the impossibility of true human connection as much as Jarmusch. What are his anthologies and his reliance on blackouts if not overt statements that we all live in isolation? And yet, few directors have included more internal rhymes within and across his movies. So we are often left grasping at those seemingly impossible connections which exist just below the surface, in a downtrodden hotel in Memphis, in a dark cab in Paris, or in shady alley in Tangiers. It’s worth looking for, even if we’ll never find it.

jarmusch dead manThere’s one other thing to say about Jarmusch before I conclude. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that his movies are, overall, extremely funny. The humour is rarely overt – Coffee and Cigarettes is the only film that has multiple laugh out loud moments. But it is almost always there: in the absurdity of Permanent Vacation, the mismatched trio of Stranger Than Paradise (still many people’s favourite of his movies), the madcap discovery of Roberto Benigni in Down by Law…you’ll just have to take my word for the rest. Even the supremely somber The Limits of Control features at least one great comic moment. De Bankole is watching the fortress he must infiltrate from above. The music builds and the tension mounts, and then, in the space of a cut, he is sitting in his target’s office. This cut recalls the off-screen escape from Down by Law as well as Monty Python’s rule-breaking skit “The Cycling Tour,” intentionally withholding what we all came to see. Only Lovers Left Alive manages to give us a little bit more of what we want, without sacrificing the feeling of longing and hunger that pervades all of his work. I would place it in the high middle, maybe fourth or fifth, in my rankings of his work. And given that I am a Jarmusch guy, that makes it well worth watching.


Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

17 thoughts on “Jim Jarmusch: Only Indie Left Alive

  1. Pingback: Ana Lily Amirpour's "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" - CURNBLOG

  2. Hey Jon. Thanks for directing me to this post. It eloquently illustrates that American cinema is alive. We have auteurs, like them or lump them and they are not afraid to take chances. I am an unabashed Jarmusch fan. I enjoy his work and have great respect for his overall artistic sensibility. I appreciate your insights in this post.

    Interesting to note that I also have a huge affinity for the work of Anderson and Linklater. There are few greater pleasures for me than rewatching The Royal Tennenbaums and / or Dazed & Confused. I have “Boyhood” and “Grand Budapest Hotel” on my calendar. Very excited to see both, and I am also now a regular reader of Curnblog! Boom.

    • Thanks for your comments, Ben. I suppose there is room in this world for Jarmusch, Linklater, and Anderson. I will always have a soft spot for Dazed and Confused, which I consider to be my generation’s American Graffiti. And Boyhood looks like it could be something special.

      Good luck with your projects. I can’t speak for James, but I know I would love to read something about the current state of American film written by an indie filmmaker. Just in case you had any thoughts on the subject…

  3. Excellent review! I am an Anderson fan and would take montage over realism any day of the week, yet I completely agree that Jarmusch’s tracking shots, no matter what they’re capturing, are almost always mesmerising. Great to hear from someone who loves the guy as much as I do.

  4. I was interested to read this, as I have only seen three of his films. I liked ‘Down By Law’ and ‘Broken Flowers’, but I loved ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’. I always considered that film to be inspired by the Dennis Potter BBC dramas, ‘Pennies From heaven’ and ‘The Singing Detective’. They feature the same style, of characters singing in the middle of dramatic scenes, and were much earlier. On reflection, it is unlikely that Jarmusch has seen these, so maybe it’s because I’m English!
    From the clips and reviews I have seen, this most recent film reminds me of Tony Scott’s 1983 dreamy vampire film, ‘The Hunger’. Either way, it looks worth the watch, as anything with Tilda Swinton is rarely disappointing. Thanks for a great article as always Jon.
    Regards from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. Given what a fanatic Jarmusch is, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he was familiar with Potter from early in his career, though I’ve never heard him say so. Potter is still largely invisible in the States, where we are only recently beginning to see television as artistically comparable to film. I only came across Singing Detective in the past few years, and I suspect I have no concept of how it was received in the UK in 1986.

      • Strange I should write about ‘Pennies From Heaven’ as it gave Bob Hoskins his first major part, and he died today. Sad.
        Both that, and ‘The Singing Detective’ were highly regarded when shown in the UK, and are often lauded as landmark drama. They are both well-worth getting on DVD if available over there. (I should hurriedly add that this is no reference to the awful film remake from 2003, starring Robert Downey Jnr,)
        My recommendations would also include ‘Blue Remembered Hills’, where adults play children’s’ roles, and ‘Lipstick On Your Collar’, a Rock and Roll era series, starring Ewan McGregor.
        I kind of hope that Jarmusch did get the idea from those earlier productions. Best wishes from England, Pete.

  5. Jon, You present enough of an argument in favor of Jarmusch that I am inclined to review his work before making any judgment, but I can say that several of his pictures have been memorable (Dead Man, Night on Earth, Mystery Train, Stranger than Paradise) and several more forgettable (ghost dog, coffee and cigarettes, broken blossoms). I think Down By law is his best picture, but so much of it was ripped off from Renoir’s Grand Illusion that I hardly think of it as Jarmusch picture. I started watching the new one, but lost interest before the first reel was finished. i do look forward to giving it another go. Im with you on Anderson and Linklater,two directors who are of little interest to me, and I see admire jarmusch for his longevity, as well as accomplishment of completing an impressive bundle of films. But, for me, he is to much of a self-conscious hipster to break through to me. For the last independant standing, I choose spike lee, a maligned genius who has made the most challenging movies about blackness,as well as some damn good faux-Italian pictures, including the remarkable tribute to Rossellini, Miracle at St.anna. Then there all of the stunning documentaries, and the best stateside remake of an Asian classic ever..Oldboy. Unlike jarmusch, Lee has never let a self-consious sense of cultural identity restrict his interests or capabilities in reachong put into worldsnot his own.It is for these reasons that I feel he has been rejected by the establishment, and continues to grow asan independant. No offense to Jarmusch, who outshines both his peers and his descendants. but Im a Spike Lee man.

    • All right, Bill. You give Only Lovers another chance and I’ll give Oldboy a shot. I didn’t see it, not b/c of Spike Lee, but because I swore off American remakes of non-American films, provided the original was very good and less than two generations removed. The original Oldboy was as good a revenge thriller as I’ve seen so I had no interest in seeing the remake. I’m not as big a fan of the post Malcolm X movies as you are, but I agree Lee is way too maligned these days, probably unavoidable for a vanguard filmmaker.

  6. Though I’m in the opposite camp (more enamored of Anderson and esp. Linklater) I’ve always valued Jarmusch for his iconoclastic muse even if it’s a bit hard to warm up to. I know a lot of people say the same of Wes. “Only Lovers” looks like a great one to go see in the theater, even though I’ve had it up to my neck with vampire films recently. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    • Thanks Rick. I’ve heard Jarmusch and Linklater speak, and one thing I know that unites them is that they are freaking brilliant, highly educated guys. I suspect the same is true of Anderson. Being that smart doesn’t necessarily translate into making good movies, but I am glad all of them, even the guys from Houston, have chosen to continue to tell their stories on film.

  7. You make, as usual Jon, some important observations in this article about filmmaking and a director who, in my opinion (and I’m sure yours too!) should be better known. I totally agree with you about the humor as well…I recall a very funny joke pertaining to cannibalism (!) in the very good film Dead Man, so it seems to appear where you least expect it. I haven’t seen Only Lovers Left Alive yet, but if there was ever a recent vampire movie I’d be interested in seeing, that would be it.

    • Thanks Simon. As you’d probably expect, the new movie is to the vampire genre what Dead Man was to the western. It uses the trappings, but is far more concerned with personal statements about art, connection, and love than your run of the mill Twilight.

  8. Great review, Jon! And I tend to agree with you, I’ve always had difficulty engaging with Anderson, and Jarmusch has rarely let me down (‘The Limits of Control’ is the only exception that comes to mind).

    • Thanks James. I’ve decided to view Limits of Control as necessary catharsis. Throughout the movie, De Bankole rejects sex (De La Huerta), film (Swinton), and music (Bernal), to achieve his goal of killing the industrialist. Reading it that way doesn’t make it good, but it at least gives me a means of accepting it, because otherwise it is as you say a rather big letdown.

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