Only Lovers Left Alive, like some other of Jim Jarmusch’s films, seems to borrow a great deal from the visual language of comics. With an emphasis on posing, stillness, punctuated by sudden movement, a visual sensibility that invites the viewer to linger on rich background details and contemplate long periods of no “activity”, it’s “on paper” the opposite of what Hollywood considers to be a comic book movie. But in fact it’s closer to the spirit of the medium than any Marvel action-fest in 3D with millions of high-priced special effects. And about ten times more effective.
Of course, Jarmusch’s entire filmography, with a few exceptions, is heavily comic book-oriented. Consider how effective Down By Law would be as an underground comic. Or Dead Man as one of the modern revisionist western comics. And what’s Coffee and Cigarettes but a cinematic Harvey Pekar comic? Jarmusch loves using camera movement sparingly, and very effectively, framing shots for the most part in medium or long composition, often the classic Hollywood “two shot” of two people conversing.
Characters spend time looking and thinking in Jarmusch films. (Johnny Depp spends about 2/3 of Dead Man lying back and letting Gary Farmer talk.) This gives the films the rhythm of a comic in the reading, when you ideally savour each sequence several times before moving on to the next one, chewing on the imagery and the dialogue. Film has the capacity to place all the emphasis on movement (this is what Delueze would call the “movement-image”), and comics are also capable of this. It’s very much a question of genre in the end: by prioritizing movement, you encourage the reader (or viewer) to slip pages (or eat popcorn while waiting for the next whiz-bang, which will come in about 5 minutes). By taking what Deleuze would call the European approach, and instead consider the “time-image”, emphasis is placed on subtlety, of tensions built on withholding, of observing how scenes change in time, with contemplation, rather than just getting the plot information out as quickly as possible. Jarmusch is very much a filmmaker of the “time-image”, and this allies him with a key aspect of the comics storytelling vocabulary.
It would be easy to criticize Only Lovers Left Alive as an empty study in ennui, consisting of pretentious thin people with sunglasses standing (or lying) around being oh-so-bored. That’s probably how the movie would look to someone expecting an action film, or some big twist ending, or things to get “all orgied up and True Blood-y”, in Whedon-speak. It’s nothing of the sort. Rather, the film spends time with (“tells the story of” doesn’t apply) a vampire couple, named “Adam” and “Eve”, played by the impossibly thin duo of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. They are joined by the grand old man of gaunt himself, John Hurt, playing a vampiric version of Christopher Marlowe (still wearing a waistcoat he got in the 1560s).
Adam, a legendary musician and composer, now lives among the urban decay and decline of Detroit, which offers, besides cheap rent, privacy. He lives in an apartment littered with vintage music gear and electronics that would make any gearhead weep, recording music no one will likely ever hear.
Eve, on the other hand, chooses bright, Arabic colours and fashions and lives in Tangier, hanging out with Marlowe. The two (Adam and Eve) have been married for centuries, and they seem to be taking a decade off, just to keep things fresh.
These Vampires don’t follow “Buffy rules”, but rather have the usual sensitivity to light and immortality combined with the need to ingest very small amounts of blood at regular intervals. A thermos that holds what looks to be about a liter, or less, is enough to hold them for some time. Rather than killing and sucking blood (when Swinton sees another character doing so she says, aghast, “What century is this?!”), they acquire their supply through various semi-legal sources. (Okay, so it’s a little like Angel.) Adam’s scheme is particularly witty and ironic, posing in very outdated surgical scrubs at the local hospital, wearing a name tag that says, “Dr Faust”, and buying blood, in cash, from someone who works at the hospital, equally ironically named “Dr Watson”. Watson, by the way, is played by Jeffery Wright in what must be considered a glorified cameo for an actor of his stature. But he’s great nevertheless. Later, Adam, Eve and Marlowe are shown ingesting their blood in a small Port glass, and enjoying something akin to a heroin euphoria.
Other great vampiric touches are all over the film, and supply most of the wit. Adam refers to humans as “zombies”, and never fails to criticize human technology. He himself developed more advanced machines years ago by following the work of Tesla, and others. In fact, the vampires all around look at humanity as dull, lost, silly morons who scurry about anxiously, while they recline and calmly watch. At one point, Adam asks Eve, “Have they started fighting over water yet? Or are they still fighting over the oil?” Even replies, “No, they’re dragging it out.” While they may not kill humans anymore (at least, not habitually), they are extremely weary of living among them.
The story, such as it is, follows Adam and Eve through some episodic adventures, ultimately culminating in them moving to Tangier and starting a new chapter there. And that’s exactly what it feels like, and one of the reasons why the film seems so powerful: we’re only hopping into and hopping out of a much larger and longer story involving these characters. But unlike the Twilight series (to cite a childish example), this is entirely satisfying in its narrative restraint and adult approach. The people know each other, and speak as if they do. They’re grown-ups, and they act like it. It’s incredibly refreshing to see that in a supposedly “genre” film.
On top of everything else, it speaks the language of comics. Many films can be reduced to a few still images and poses that retain power – this isn’t remarkable. What’s remarkable here is how Jarmusch uses the stillness to encourage contemplation. It’s like a vampire film by Antonioni. (Who probably loved comics.) Punctuating the stillness is the fast, almost action-lined movement found in comics, such as scene in a bar in which Adam grabs a flask out of a human character’s hand with lightning-fast reflexes. Coppola used this trick too much in his Dracula (he used lot “too much” in that movie), but Jarmusch mines similar silent-movie territory much more effectively here.
The difference between this and a comic, for all its poetic stillness, is the music, and Jarmusch always makes very effective use of music in his films. Neil Young’s solo guitar, but somehow gigantic, soundtrack to Dead Man is probably the best-known example, but here he employs a whole raft of retro-modern rock sounds to emphasize the crumbling decadence. Much of this music seems evocative of the never-heard masterpieces that Adam is writing in his Detroit apartment. We do hear a little of his music during one late-night recording session, and a band covers one of his tunes in a club the characters visit, but suggesting, rather than outright hearing, legendary music is the safer bet. (In this sense, the story takes on shades of Paul Quarrington’s great novel Whale Music.) Music is not unheard-of in comics as well, we should note. Pekar’s stories sometimes dealt entirely with music, and we all know how well Alan Moore “soundtracked” Watchmen. So, even here, Jarmusch doesn’t really violate any comics boundaries.
I know it’s a film from 2013, but it’s going straight to the top of my list of films I saw in 2014 (and I did see some great ones this year). For lovers of comics, of Jarmusch, or simply of great European-style cinema, this one is a keeper.