Early 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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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.
There’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.