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#NYFF REVIEW: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

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#NYFF REVIEW: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

TEXT NATASHA STAGG

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Jim Jarmusch has a tendency in his films to romanticize the underrepresented and the overrepresented. In such classics as Ghost Dog and Night On Earth, we see heroic loners, the rooftop pigeon trainers and the taxi drivers of cities everywhere become the narrators of life lessons, while in Dead Man and Coffee and Cigarettes, the cowboys and rock stars of basically everyone’s dreams come to life, newly humbled by the director and writer’s sensitive touch and careful conversations. The castaway homeless and the super-celebrated famous are Jarmusch’s favorite subjects, and so it makes perfect sense that he has for years now wanted to direct a vampire movie, finally realized in Only Lovers Left Alive (due out in April of 2014). And it makes perfect sense, also, that he wanted to film exclusively in the forgotten cities of Detroit and Tangier.
 
As Jarmusch himself mentioned it in a press conference after the New York Film Festival’s screening of Only Lovers Left Alive last week, “vampires are humans because they start as humans—and not just metaphorically. They are humans that have been transformed.”
 
“All spoken as scientific fact, here,” added Tilda Swinton, who plays vampire Eve, and who also came to the screening.
 
The film, like all good accounts in the genre, gleans analogy after analogy out of the immortal yet fragile vampire. The creature is at once a rock star and a recluse, and in the case of Jarmusch’s Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, he is a 500-year-old underground musical genius, recording with the best instruments from the past hundred centuries, up in his rotting Detroit mini-mansion, only once in a while hassled by “rock and roll kids” trying to get a peek.
 
OLLA begins and ends in Tangier, 3,000-year-old Eve’s current home, but this is clearly Jarmusch’s love letter to Detroit, and to America. And unlike Woody Allan’s to Manhattan, OLLA is from the perspective of a night-dwelling tourist. Everyone, including Eve’s visiting sister, Ava (played by Mia Wasikowska)—who lives in bustling L.A. but wants to see a real rock show with her famous brother-in-law—is white, and in love with the black history of the Motor City. Adam’s house is decorated with portraits of his heroes, who range from Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde to Fats Domino and Iggy Pop. Eve asks Adam to tell her about his old friends, Mary Wollstonecraft and Lord Byron, and he tells her instead about the relatively recent disintegration of a relatively newly developed city, pointing out the house in which Jack White grew up. “Oh, I love Jack White,” Eve purrs, ridiculously. Earlier in the film, back in Tangier, she packs all of her favorite books to go on a trip to America, including ancient myths in Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets, Don Quixote (1605) and a fat copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996). In more ways than one, OLLA is a deliciously wry fan letter to all the writer’s inspirations.
 
In slow, dimly lit drives around the city we see the majestic ruins that make up the old “Paris of the Midwest,” as Jarmusch described it after the film. “I’m from the Midwest, I’m from Ohio, but when I was a child [Detroit] was almost mythological… And now what’s happened to Detroit is very tragic and very unusual. Or maybe it’s not so unusual, I don’t know. I was drawn to it for its musical culture and its industrial culture and its kind of post-industrial visual feeling there.” And, possibly for the vampire-like existence the city now inspires? Although OLLA is a romantic comedy, and not a horror film at all, there is a danger present in every scene (probably—just a guess—because vampires by definition drink human blood, and because Detroit is up there on the murder capital list pretty consistently).
 
There is an obvious correlation between the frightening yet crumbling characteristics of both Detroit and vampires, but the focus of this film, interestingly, is on timelessness, and everlasting love. Swinton noted at the press conference that the film is at least rare in that it portrays an old relationship that isn’t stale. “We talked about the texture of a long friendship, and how we hadn’t really seen that in a film: a couple who obviously fancied each other still, but really, really loved talking to each other as well. You cut that off by the yard and lay it down.”
 
Like all vampire movies—and especially like 2012’s Kiss of the Damned, directed by Xan Cassavetes and filmed in New York City and Fairfield Connecticut—a suspension of disbelief is fueled by humor. Adam and Eve (…yeah) are overjoyed by a record of Charlie Feathers’s “Can’t Hardly Stand It,” which is not a mainstream hit by any means, but not so rare that only a vampire could find it, either. With the introduction of younger-acting Ava (an eerily similar character to Kiss of the Damned’s Mimi, as Adam and Eve are to Paolo and Djuna), we are reminded that this is the present, and everything mentioned so far can be found online. In this sense, the vampires of today are hopelessly romantic in that they can’t grasp how retro their connection to historicizing is; how silly that we are living in a new society of timelessness, and yet we still section things off into eras.
 
And as in all of Jarmusch’s movies, timelessness is created by his own brand of beauty. Interiors spin and collect a collage of the director’s favorite things, the soundtrack is mostly made up of Jarmusch’s own new band, Squirrel’s recent recordings, and wigs worn by the vampires are made up of human, yak, and goat hair (actually, Swinton’s suggestion). Another important addition: gloves. “Mythology in vampire films is a cumulative thing,” said Jarmusch. “For example, having fangs only appeared in a Mexican vampire film in the 1950s, or something. Nosferatu I don’t recall having fangs. All of these things get added in, like garlic, or that you must be invited over the threshold, or the cross, or the holy water. So, we wanted to add something in and we chose these leather gloves that they would wear once they left their habitat. Why? Because we wanted to have something that was ours, that would look really cool.”
 
Of course the film’s range is unrealistic, and the attention span counterintuitive, which is necessary to relay a sense of wonderment in immortality and undying devotion to an audience stuck in the present. As Swinton eloquently put it, preparing for the film took a “leap of imagination. [In] trying to grasp what it would be like to have lived for that length of time and to have access to that catalogue of music… it made us question how hidebound we all are encouraged to be in terms of ‘our generation’ and ‘our decade.’ And once you imaginatively release yourself from that, it’s more or less a freefall. To imagine what it is to be 3,000 years old, and in Adam’s case 500, where Shubert is that guy I talked to the other day. That whole feeling of span: It’s a heady feeling. It gives you this amazing feeling, to sample not only decades but centuries, and I think that we don’t encourage ourselves to do that, when, you know what? We can, and something that’s really helping us to do that is YouTube, of course. We can really forget that we’re living now, or what the latest supplement says is the in thing this week.”
 
Back in Tangier, Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan reminds Adam (and us) that the old world’s history is still informing the new world’s trends, and while women are newly important to that conversation, other races have had a longer-standing relationship with cultural impact than white ones. The story turns towards romance again in a sexy, indulgent ending only fitting for a film that stays in true keeping with its notorious genre.
 
John Hurt, Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright also star. 

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