Monday, April 28, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Alternate Title:  Clan Toreador:  A Film

One sentence synopsis:  A vampire-musician and his wife re-unite in Detroit while dealing with the wife's sister, and difficulties in obtaining a reliable blood supply.

Things Havoc liked:  Jim Jarmusch is insane. I know this isn't a terribly unique spin on things, but it's true. Like many of the other Indie filmmakers I've run into over the course of this experiment (Anderson the Whimsical, Aronofsky the Deranged, Mallick the Pretentious), Jarmusch has his own style, save that his particular style is semi-dazed, plodding insanity, films which not only make no sense, but seem to take perverse pleasure in willfully abolishing sense from their presence. His films always appear simultaneously to be made by someone who was perfectly lucid and edited by someone under the influence of powerful sedatives, with shots constructed in an interesting, professional fashion, which are then allowed to simply sit there on screen until the audience begins to suspect equipment failure. This technique generally does not impress me, particularly in such horrific miscarriages of boredom as Dead Man, but Jarmusch is not some affected poseur like Mallick, and can still occasionally surprise you with flashes of sanity peering through the fog of madness.

In this spirit, I decided to go see a Vampire Movie.

Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch's attempt at a vampire film, and strange though it is, there's a fascinating undercurrent to it, a brooding, trance-like quality that permeates the film's structure and leaves you unsure of just what it is you're seeing. Set mostly in the abandoned parts of Detroit (and exclusively at night, of course), it stars Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, alongside Tilda Swinton, one of the strangest actresses alive, as a pair of centuries-old vampires who have the misfortune of residing within a Jim Jarmusch film. Hiddleston is Adam, a musician and scientist who has become a recluse, producing music he does not want traced to him while brooding on the dark and diseased nature of the world from his warren-like house on the outskirts of Detroit, while Swinton's Eve (subtle!) is his wife, residing in Tangier, and sustaining herself on blood acquired from Vampire-Christopher-Marlowe (John Hurt). Consumed with his brooding pessimism, Adam convinces Eve to come to Detroit to see him and...

... well not much, to be honest, and yes, there'll be more on that front later, but let us first speak of good things. Though the film is as slow as any Jarmusch production, this time the movie at least gestures towards earning it with mood and imagery and score. If you're going to force the audience to stare at a single image for over a minute, for instance, it helps if the image is well crafted, if good, trippy music is playing underneath it, or if the underlying tension and theme of the sequence is worthwhile. It also helps if the audience has some idea of what your movie is actually about, which is an issue Jarmusch has had in the past, though not here. That said, the overall point of the film is plainly not the plot, but the overall feel of these two characters, characters who seem less like Twilight-inspired hipster-douches and more like people who have simply run out of reasons to be interested in the wider world. There is a strong sense of age behind Hiddleston and Swinton's performances, every line weighted down by centuries of disappointment and discontent. Some artistic or scientific pursuits still spark a flicker of interest (Adam apparently has built a perpetual motion machine out of one of Tesla's old designs), but only occasionally. And yet the theme is not overly funereal either. The characters may not be interested in the rest of the world, but they are still, at least, interested in one another. And perhaps that is enough.

Still, not everything in this movie is long, dark brooding. Midway through the film, Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) appears to inject some energy into the film, if only by annoying the other characters into taking some action against her. Of all the characters in the film, Ava seems to be the only one who embodies some of what we classically imagine from Vampires, specifically the predatory, dangerous nature of them. While Adam and Eve get their blood from blood banks and never go beyond appearing a bit spooky, Ava's policies are considerably more "traditional", with results that can be predicted. Other side characters, from Hurt's Marlowe (who claims to have written Shakespeare's plays and describes the bard as an "illiterate zombie") to Jeffrey Wright and Anton Yelchin as two of the only mortals that Adam ever interacts with, the former a ghoulish hospital attendant with a penchant for nicknames, the latter a procurer of rare instruments and musical equipment, who seems to take the antics of a cloistered vampire in the wilderness of suburban Detroit as just another normal facet of reality. Yelchin in particular is as good as I've ever seen him, playing well off of Hiddleston's wooden reserve as just another musical groupie dealing with just another eccentric artist.

Things Havoc disliked: A good Jim Jarmusch film is still a Jim Jarmusch film, and lest we forget what that means, this is a man who managed to make a slow, leaden, plodding movie about a Samurai Mafia-assassin. Only Lovers Left Alive certainly isn't the worst offense against narrative timekeeping that Jarmusch has ever committed, but it's still a movie fully in his style, with slow trance-beats (from his own band, SQÜRL) over near-motionless shots of characters taking lengthy, pregnant pauses between each line of whispered dialogue. At this point, I know what to expect from Jarmusch, but that doesn't make it any easier to bear when you start to get the undeniable urge to check your watch every fifteen minutes.

But it's not just the pace of this film that messes about. Far from having a weak plot, the film barely has a plot at all. It is the experiences of two vampires in the world, which would be fine if those experiences were in any way indicative of the world Jarmusch is trying to create, or for that matter, of anything else. I get that the characters are bored, I get that they have lived forever and I get that they are sick of humans screwing everything up (impending vaguely-implied apocalypses, ecological or war-related, are suffused throughout the characters' dialogue). But once we've established all that, which takes barely half an hour, it would be nice if our characters went on some form of journey, as with most of the other films in the world. I don't demand that they change, they are vampires after all, and some of the best stories are about characters who attempt to change and cannot, but if the author won't let the characters even consider change, then all we're doing is watching an over-long vignette, leaving me, at least, with the question of what the point of everything is. Yes, I know Jarmusch is notorious for his rejection of common screenwriting conceits (he actually goes so far as to drop a literal inversion of Chekov's Gun into this one), but it is not good filmmaking to simply not do a thing. You also need to convince me that there's a good reason for you to not do it, and Jarmusch, for all the prettiness of some of his shots, never goes that far.

Final thoughts:   It's possible I'm not making a lot of sense, but then neither was the film, and I can only work with what I'm given. Based on other reviews I've seen from people struggling to find some meaning in this odd picture (I've seen interpretations that range from the Decline of the United States to a study of incest-taboos), I don't seem to be the only one left a bit mystified as to how I'm supposed to react to this picture. To sum up then in a manner hopefully a bit more helpful than the previous meanderings, I found in retrospect that Only Lovers Left Alive was a better film than I expected, but not different than I expected. It was, upon reflection, exactly the sort of Vampire movie that Jim Jarmusch would make, a slow, brooding movie filled with literary allusions and flirting with the edge of becoming downright boring, not because of its subject matter, so much as because Jarmusch is a director who seems to be incapable of producing any other sort of film. Indeed, at this point, the only thing Jarmusch could likely do to surprise me would be to make an action-comedy in the style of Michael Bay.

Is it possible to get too repetitive in your rejection of convention? Because if so, then perhaps it's not coincidence that Jarmusch decided, at this point in his career, that his next film should be about unchanging vampires, vaguely disgusted with the state of society around them, and yet completely unable to channel that frustration in anything but the same old way.

But then perhaps we shouldn't over-think this.  After all, sometimes a vampire is just a vampire...

Final Score:  6/10

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