Monday, September 22, 2014
Only Lovers Left Alive did two things for me: it created three of my favorite vampires of the last few years, and it taught me how to listen to music again.
I've had a hard time connecting to music lately. I usually have to listen to a song a few times to know whether I like it or not. Plus in the age of Pandora, Spotify, and the taste-predicting algorithm, I'm usually either sticking to the stuff I've been listening to for twenty years or listening to new stuff that sounds the exact same.
Part of the problem is that music has always been in the background of whatever I'm already doing. I put it on when I'm writing or commuting or riding roller coasters (try playing Schubert's Ave Maria when you're just about to drop), but I never just sit down and listen to music. Music is meditative, and my brain hungers for activity and never shuts up. It's why mediation never works for me. My thoughts speed up when they're asked to slow down. The notion of simply listening to music as its own activity is alien to me. It's why I don't go to live shows. Just watching someone play music bores me.
Most of Only Lovers Left Alive is taken up by people listening to music.
There are a lot of shots filmed from overhead, looking down on the characters as they recline on antique furniture or pitch-black sheets as music washes over them. Adam in particular, the musician of the pair, has an infectious love for all things musical. The only time he ever shows excitement or affection for anything other than his wife is when he encounters a new performer or storied instrument. His dilapidated apartment (one of my favorite touches of the film. His shitty old Victorian in a dead stretch of Detroit is as much a crumbling Gothic refuge as any Transylvanian castle) is packed full of records, books, recording equipment, soundproof padding, and lovingly-tended musical instruments procured by an oblivious rocker boy.
It's the home of someone very much engaged in the world. The movie is about the longevity and restorative power of creative expression.
Both Adam and Kit, who turns out to be Christopher Marlowe, the actual writer of Shakespeare's work (at least according to the film) have released their work anonymously over the centuries, more for creative fulfillment than personal gain. It's a movie about the passion of creation, not the narcissistic need for fame. Vampires are often cast as charismatic rock stars, but watching a sad dude noodling around with lovingly-tended musical instruments creates an image of a creator that reverses the idea of vampire as glamorous parasite.
I love the way the movie deals with drinking blood.
Adam and Eve don't get their regular sustenance from biting randos. Regular blood often carries impurities that leads to the death of one of the secondary vampire characters. Instead, they get quality-controlled blood from human confederates working in the medical industry. There's a lot of familiar vampire-as-junkie imagery, but the feeding process works well for conveying Adam's depressed and desexualized vibe.
I've seen a lot of feeding scenes in movies and they're all pretty much the same. The camera positions itself behind the victim's bare neck and focuses on the vampire. The vampire hisses, bears it's fangs, and bites down on the joint between the neck and shoulder. The camera switches to a close-up on the victim, the victim looks pained and frightened, then they melt into orgasmic bliss. It's rare to find a movie where the vampire attack looks painful (Let The Right One In springs to mind) and it enforces the idea that you want to get bitten by a vampire because it will give you a mind-shattering orgasm.
The blood drinking in Only Lovers Left Alive is filmed the way drug use often is. The vampires drink from tidy crystal glasses, a throbbing down tempo guitar plays, and the camera follows the character's face as they recline backwards onto the furniture in ecstasy.
The experience looks sensuous.
Like most drug movies, there comes a scene later in the movie where they're cut off from their supply, and they roam an alien cityscape looking for a fix. By the time that happens, it's the first real crisis of the film. We feel their pain and hunger in a real and meaningful way. The choices they make ultimately bind them together, and provides the chilling meaning to the title.
The movie keeps threatening to have a plot, but I'm grateful that it never does. It starts with Adam contemplating his own suicide, arranging for his rocker buddy to get a bullet made with a hard wooden tip. As Eve rushes from Tangiers to be with him, following a particularly morose phone call, we get the sense that Adam has done this before. Her presence seems to reinvigorate him, and we see that Eve is the perfect respite from Adam's gloom. The bullet remains in the revolver, violating Chekov's rule about guns and third acts.
The hospital employee that Adam procures his blood from always seems to be on the verge of blackmailing the vampire, but that never comes to anything either.
The one moment of dangerous chaos comes midway through the movie when Ava, a hedonistic idiot vampire kin of Eve's, breezes into their lives like a junkie hurricane. She quickly throws their cozy nest into chaos and does real damage, but she's evacuated from the narrative a short time later by having her bags thrown out into the street and a door slammed in her face. What would have been a film-length conflict between the angsty humane vampire and the cheerful sociopath, is resolved like a surprise visit from a clueless relative.
The artificial structures of plot, which would have turned Only Lovers Left Alive into just another vampire genre flick, never take hold. Instead, we just get to hang out with these creatures and get to know what their unlives are like. Because of this, they're defined as characters first, vampires second.
Vampire angst is seldom handled well in vampire movies. It's usually someone brooding theatrically, with other people around them commenting on how much the vampire is brooding. Adam actually seems depressed. He mopes around, avoids company, speaks skittishly to people, and has to be physically dragged out his shell. He seems less effected by the Inherent Tragedy of Unlife. Instead, Adam comes off as a depressed musician who happens to be a vampire. That kind of unselfconsciousness, mixed with actual talent and class, make Adam and Eve the two coolest vampires I've seen in a long time.
Take the scene where Eve and Ava finally drag him out of his cave and to a concert in some shitty bar. They recline against the back wall, shades on to avoid the light, and simply take in the scene. I've seen so many movies where the vampires walk into the club all slow-mo, Chappelle-style, and glower at everyone. All the Kubrick stares and thudding background music might look sexy on film, but it comes off as an unbearably pretentious affectation in real life. Instead, Adam and Eve are just there, feeding off the passion of the music. It takes a lot of life experience and class to project that level of not-give-a-fuckitude, and the big laugh comes when Adam's rocker buddy puts on a pair of sunglasses in order to emulate them.
Plus, it's sweet to see Adam and Eve's love story. Most romances are told during the early infatuation stage, when people are love drunk and promising forever. Adam and Eve have been into each other forever, and it's the kind of well-worn, knowing affection of people who've been into each other long enough to know one another's quirks while still keeping the base passion lit. Eve starts the movie in Tangiers, and you get the sense that their affection works because of tremendous personal space. As a person who lived with a partner and didn't like it, the lifestyle seems appealing. Familiarity breeds contempt, after all.
I've had a real hard time pitching film to my friends.
Jim Jarmusch is usually the stopping point. Not a lot of stuff happens in his movies and, while most of my friends are as pretentious as I am, it's hard to sell them on "it's a vampire film where they just sort of hang out, reaffirm their love, and listen to music."
I doubt I'm going to get a lot of sales from the actual appeal of the movie to me: "these are the kinds of vampires I imagine myself being."
During barroom conversations about supernatural longevity, I say that I'd take them up on it because I can't wait to see what form of self-expression humanity comes up with next. My life is a sort of happy clutter of things I hold dear, and creativity invigorates me.
So it's nice to see a movie about love without all the hysterics and heavy breathing. It's nice to see a vampire film created by someone who isn't subconsciously emulating every other fucking vampire film. It's nice to see a laid-back film that makes darkness and mystery sexy again. And it's nice to see the work of someone who can make midnight cityscapes beautiful. I really loved Only Lovers Left Alive. I've already purchased the soundtrack and look forward to long evenings lounging on the couch and listening to it with my shirt open.