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Entries in Only Lovers Left Alive [2014] (1)

Friday
Apr182014

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

"You get what anyone gets--you get a lifetime."

--Death, The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

Eternity, and What to Do with It

For decades, comic book fans have clamored for a big-screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. I'm happy to announce that they can focus their energies elsewhere: Jim Jarmusch has delivered the best possible (yet unofficial) Morpheus tale in his new film, Only Lovers Left Alive. Packed with literary references; offbeat historical figures popping up in supporting roles; and protagonists whose nigh invulnerability makes them tragic, keen observers of the human condition, the movie perfectly encapsulates the cerebral, spiritual, and visual splendor that makes Gaiman's world so special.

Tom Hiddleston stars as Adam, a vampire who's been kicking around for at least four hundred years. Currently, he lives on the outskirts of a devastated Detroit, where he spends his nights leaking cutting-edge music to the local scene via clueless agent Ian (Anton Yelchin). Adam frequently talks to his wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), through a video chat that plays on an ancient television. He's a tinkerer, you see, and his lavish apartment is a mishmash of technology old, new, and wholly invented by himself--during a power outage, he heads to the back yard to fix an underground dynamo that generates free, green energy.

Meanwhile, in Tangiers, Eve kills time reading every book (in every language) that she can get her hands on, and chatting with her oldest vampire friend, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).* When she sees that Adam is even more bummed out than usual, she rushes to the States on a mission to cheer him up. This entails lovemaking, listening to great music, and drinking purified hospital blood that Adam scammed off an easily hypnotized technician (Jeffrey Wright).

Only Lovers Left Alive may be utterly plot-free, but that doesn't make it devoid of meaning. Jarmusch teases us with non-starter clichés from other vampire movies, which he abruptly turns on their heads by simply not following through:

When Eve's rowdy "little sister", Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up, it's impossible not to recall Kirsten Dunst's character from Interview with the Vampire. We assume she's arrived to kick the lax film into high gear with wicked deeds that must be stopped by her disinterested elders. That doesn't happen.

When another character is attacked later on, we horror-movie connoisseurs assume they will be resurrected as a bloodsucker and draw unwanted attention to the reclusive vamps. Nope.

Okay, then--what about the hospital technician? He's bound to get wise to the fact that he's been supplying expensive stuff to "vegan"** vampires, and enlist a modern-day Van Helsing-type to root out his sleepy town's nest, right? Wrong.

As in real life, sometimes drama hits hard, and sometimes it merely flashes on the horizon. Jarmusch captures this beautifully here, by showing us the un-glamorous side of living forever. Long ago, Adam and Eve may have relished the power that comes with enhanced strength, speed, and the ability to recall a hard drive's worth of trivia in the blink of an eye. But they've been around for centuries, and have now succumbed to billionaire syndrome: the malaise that sets in when there's nothing left to achieve and no one left to impress.

This existential boredom leads Adam to contemplate the unthinkable (and maybe the impossible). Early on, he pays Ian to commission a single wooden bullet--made from the strongest tree on Earth. In what might be called desperation, if there were any passion behind it, Adam decides that not even his wife's love is enough to make him stick around. He's gone full-on somber, and it's here that Only Lovers Left Alive most closely recalls The Sandman--specifically, the wildly popular story, "The Sound of Her Wings" from issue eight.

Recently freed from centuries of imprisonment, the eternal god of dreams, Morpheus, has exacted revenge on those that wronged him. He is now purposeless, and winds up feeding pigeons on a park bench, wondering why he should bother going on. His sister, the Goth-by-way-of-sprite, Death, pops up to talk some sense into him. In the end, their undying love for one another, which they see reflected back in the goofy, fragile mortality of the people around them, rekindles their appreciation for the inherent potential of mere existence.

I don't mean to imply that  you need to have read a comic book in order to understand or appreciate Only Lovers Left Alive; as creators, Jarmusch and Gaiman surf wavelengths with messages both consistent and, I believe, coincidental. But in its lofty ideas, stunningly immersive and imaginative set design, costumes, and framing, Jarmusch's film reminded me of the best that graphic literature has to offer.

The movie won't be for everyone. Even my mind wandered a bit during the frequent musical interludes--but I consider that a deliberate meta effect than a sign of poor filmmaking: given the time prison that Adam and Eve find themselves locked in to varying degrees, music is often their portal to timelessness. The reprieve from routine opens up the subconscious and brings the characters (and the audience) into harmony with loftier concerns than whatever the clock dictates they should be focused on.

For that matter, Jarmusch challenges us with the film's biggest question: What do we do with the time that we have? Sure, the life of an immortal is loaded with potential--but so is ours, should we choose to harness it. Neither Adam nor Eve have time (figuratively) for television, fast food, or the other myriad distractions that both consume and shorten the lives of us mere mortals. So what would happen if we acted like beings of infinite curiosity and ability? What if we could shape our relatively limited years on this planet to be whatever we wanted them to be? What if the big secret to life was the fact that there's nothing stopping us?

Only Lovers Left Alive is one of my favorite films of the year. If there's any justice in the universe, Hiddleston and Swinton will be remembered as one of cinema's great romantic couples. Their chemistry, comedy, and heart are truly special, and they sell these mythical creatures as relatable ids that live deep within us all. Just when you thought there was nothing left to say in the vampire genre, Jim Jarmusch drops this deeply personal fantasy bomb in our laps and dares us to embrace the explosion.

*And, yes, it's that Christopher Marlowe--the contemporary of William Shakespeare who some believe may have been the Bard himself.

**Regular human blood has been so contaminated by disease, drugs--pharmaceutical and not--and toxins from processed food, that only high-end stuff will suffice.