Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Lovers posterIf I could have more of any one commodity it would be time. If I could have a superpower it would be to only need one hour of sleep each night to wake up feeling rested. I feel keenly the scarcity of time in my life: time to read more books and acquire more knowledge; time to go back to school and become competent and qualified in areas of interest; time to start a business venture I can believe in; time to listen to all the music I want to know better and feel it in my bones; time to watch the films I haven’t yet seen, and watch them again; time to travel; time to sit with my partner and soak up her presence and talk all night; time to bury my nose in my daughter’s hair and breathe deeply, to listen to her breathing as she sleeps; time to write well; time to learn an instrument, and learn another; a language, and another. I need more time, and I don’t have it.

What the characters of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive have is time, and they’ve used it. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are vampires. They don’t sparkle in the sun like the ridiculous cast of Twilight, they don’t prey on innocent humans, they don’t sleep in coffins; they don’t generally behave at all like the vampires we are used to in books and movies, beyond their need for blood, which they get by paying off doctors who provide them with blood samples, and their inability to be in the sun at all (I can sympathize). They have a few vampire-specific quirks (a preference for being invited to enter homes before crossing the threshold, an unexplained need to wear gloves most of the time), but for the most part the story uses the vampiric immortality of its characters to explore how human beings would respond and live if the press of time was removed. The result is a picture of life that resonates with me deeply.

Adam and Eve have put their time to good use, albeit hedonistically rather than philanthropically. They have seen the world, studied the sciences seemingly to exhaustion, and formed friendships with prominent artists from history (Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft, Christopher Marlowe, etc). Adam has become a masterful musician across a variety of instruments and forms. He once gave a string quartet adagio to Schubert. His decrepit gothic home in the wasteland outskirts of Detroit serves as a recording studio and a reliquary for his numerous classic guitars and other instruments, including a presumably priceless violin. His work is adored in the circles to which it gets leaked, a fact for which he has nothing but disdain. They have amassed enough money not to have to worry about it.

Their immortality has removed the pressures of time and money from their minds; what it has not removed are the same existential questions that haunt us as mortal human beings. Are we producing art that matters? Is companionship enough against the loneliness of existence? Is the world going to hell in a handbasket? Is there any point to living at all? Adam and Eve are bored, and maybe a little tired of being immortal. Adam acquires a wooden bullet to kill himself, though he never does. Eve finds it in a revolver under his bed. It isn’t mentioned again in the film, and rather than a plot hole the omission seems somewhat intentional. His suicide would have been as casual and bored as the rest of his current life. It would have been something new to try.

Only Lovers Left Alive is somewhat directionless and lacking in action, but I don’t say this as a knock against it. The friend I saw the film with found it somewhat boring. There is little action. There is no grand conflict. The film, like the characters, languishes a bit across its run time, soaking in its own indulgently cool style and eschewing anything so bothersome as an inciting incident. The few that occur are minor; when you’ve lived through plagues, the middle ages,  countless wars, centuries of nations rising and falling and friends dying while you stay as young as you were the day they were born you don’t tend to get your feathers ruffled easily. For my friend, this made the film pointless and dragging. I found it to be the perfect match for the characters being presented. The pacing here is intentional. Adam and Eve exist while things around them come into being and then cease to exist. They languish. They wallow. They lie on the couch staring at the ceiling while vinyl records blast their ageless melodies through the house. To throw a major conflict into the lives of these characters would be untrue. In watching them in this way we feel some part of the listlessness that marks their days and nights.

What Adam and Eve never tire of is each other, and this is where the film finds its second major theme. Adam and Eve are not codependent, but they are certainly dependent. They live separate lives as fully formed individuals, even living much of the time in separate cities (Eve lives primarily in Tangier, Morocco), but they do so as individuals who form a single whole, indivisible. If Adam had pulled the trigger on his revolver, we suspect Eve would have gone about acquiring a wooden bullet of her own. There is discussion in the film of Einstein’s theory of Quantum Entanglement, which deals with the phenomenon of particles interacting in such a way that they begin reflecting and maintaining each other’s properties, even when separated by large distances. It’s a scientific occurrence that seems to make no sense, which leads to its fantastic slang designation—“Spooky actions at a distance.” The film doesn’t bother to put so fine a point on it, but Adam and Eve are like these particles. They are so in and around and entangled with each other that what affects one necessarily affects the other. They are inseparable, even when separated.

Only Lovers Left AliveI’ve lived a hell of a last few years, and I’ve done so with my best friend, and now partner and love, two states away. It’s been brutal to be so far apart, stealing weekends when we can, living off email and phone calls and text messages. We’ve developed a sort of communication I can’t always explain. Out of the blue one day I texted to ask why she was crying, which she was. I don’t know how I knew that, but I did. I realize this makes us sound like sixteen-year-olds in study hall making moony eyes at each other, but I don’t very much care. We’ve largely lost the ability as adults nowadays to speak about our romances and friendships in anything but the most simplistic and appropriate terms. There is nothing simple or appropriate about human love. It is devastating and complicated and makes your chest burn and forces you to ask how deep into your mind you will let this other person go who knows so much but hasn’t touched the bottom yet. It can ruin lives, and it can also make them bearable. I need a simple, respectable relationship like I need a wooden bullet through the heart. What I want is a good one, one that I struggle to adequately explain to my friends. I want one with spooky actions at a distance. When I watched Adam and Eve on screen, communicating without speaking, sensing each other’s social pressure points before the other does, comfortably lying on the couch with limbs tangled, lost in their own ruminations but sharing them in silence, I recognized what I saw.

Only Lovers Left Alive is not perfect. There is an argument to be made about its lack of pacing and action, though as I said I found those appropriate to the characters. The screenplay occasionally telegraphs its humor to the audience a bit too cutely, though at other times the jokes are spot on. The references made throughout are sometimes clever, as with a nod to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or the recurring sound of coyotes howling in the abandoned lots of Detroit, a clear reference to Bela Lugosi’s “children of the night” in the 1931 Dracula, but other references at times feel clumsy and too easy. These issues aside though, I found it moving and cool as hell.

In an essay from early 2000 (I can’t find a copy of it right now), songwriter Linford Detweiler wrote about turning 35 and realizing his life, statistically speaking, was now exactly half over. He had read half the book, drunk half the wine. He felt on days like he was “wallowing around in the mud like a hog on valium.” But he also saw the press of time, the constant shoving forward toward the cliff of mortality, as a gift. He had half of a life remaining. Half of the book yet to read, the bottle of wine half full and waiting to be drunk. As he had stated elsewhere, “It’s our last night on earth. Again.” I don’t know if I’ve reached that level of peace with the time disappearing from in front of me. There is too much I want to do. I haven’t written anything that matters yet. I haven’t consumed the books and music and films I wish to take in. I want time I won’t be given. I have a partner with whom to live what time remains, and that is no small thing. But I want more hours in the day, hours in the night, hours across the years that I will not get to live when this life comes to an end. If Only Lovers Left Alive is any indication, maybe I wouldn’t escape my own existential dread even if I had those hours. It would still be nice to find out.

This essay was originally published in 2014 on the now defunct web journal The Samizdat.


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