In college, my roommate Bill and I would frequently perform a sort of cultural exchange, in which he and I would share films, music, or television that the other had not seen. While Bill would catch me up on his underground favorites — Jodorowsky and Shaw Brothers films, The Soft Boys, “Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place” — I would catch him up with more canon-friendly fare: Hitchcock, Woody Allen, the Replacements, “30 Rock,” “Community.” Part of the obvious fun was seeing where our tastes didn’t align. I’m a big fan of Jim Jarmusch, but Bill, though he appreciated the craft, was deeply skeptical of his films. He said something once that always stuck with me (I’m paraphrasing here): “Every Jim Jarmusch movie is him screaming at the audience, ‘Look how fucking cool I am.’ The only problem is that he is that fucking cool.”
Though I like Jarmusch much more than Bill, I understand where he’s coming from. With his impeccable music taste, his detached style, and his hip friends that he casts in his movies (Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, Bill Murray, RZA and GZA), Jarmusch is easy to dismiss as the embodiment of a certain kind of “New York cool” that many outside of the five boroughs find exhausting and unimpressive. But Jarmusch never uses taste to condescend or to show off. His films are mostly unassuming minimalist mood pieces that depict distinctly American loners trying to find peace; they all feature unhurried, jazz-like rhythms that revel in beautiful digressions and lengthy, passionate discussions of art. Putting aside those who reflexively dismiss his films as “pretentious,” whatever that means, Jarmusch’s work has always attracted a self-selecting crowd of fans, but I’ve always read him as much more inclusive than people ever give him credit for. Born in Ohio with a voracious cultural appetite that the Midwest simply couldn’t satisfy, Jarmusch comes by his taste and style organically like the outsider he’s always been. (As many have noted throughout his career, there’s no American director who approaches America from an “immigrant’s” perspective like Jarmusch.) If anything, he uses his films as a way to share his passions with his audience, as if to say, “Hey, come here and check this out. It’s pretty cool.”
Depending on whom you ask, Jarmusch’s latest film “Only Lovers Left Alive” is either a celebration of all the beautiful art that makes life worth living or a snobbish meditation on Kids Today and how they don’t appreciate anything. Set in the present day, the film follows two vampires named Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, in my personal favorite performance of hers) who have been married for centuries but currently live apart (him in Detroit, she in Tangiers). Adam is a musician and a professional appreciator who has seen the world throughout time, influencing generations of artists and scientists, but has now become despondent and filled with contempt for the “zombies” (read: humans) who contaminate the planet and ignore beauty. Eve, on the other hand, has adjusted well to the changing times and flies to see Adam in order to break him out of his funk. But when they’re interrupted by Eve’s impulsive, destructive sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who “drinks” Adam’s friend and all-purpose assistant Ian (Anton Yelchin), the two are forced to flee and find sustenance (blood) elsewhere. Part of the beauty of “Only Lovers Left Alive” lies in Jarmusch’s ability to organically integrate elements of the traditional vampire story into the film without it dominating the proceedings. Adam, Eve, and their friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) (yes, the real Christopher Marlowe, who, in the film’s reality, wrote all of Shakespeare’s work and got it out through his name) are certainly a unique, dying breed, but other than depending on local suppliers for uncontaminated blood, they live comfortably among other humans, albeit in the shadows.
But Jarmusch uses established vampire tropes as a way of exploring more universal ideas that have existed in the margins of his other work, mainly the importance of artistic taste and how it can serve as an identity that bridges cultures and nations. In many ways, Adam is a quintessential Jarmusch protagonist, a proud aesthete who cherishes vintage instruments and curates his own Wall of Fame, but the only difference is that he has seen centuries of history unfold and has bore witness to the rise and fall of geniuses throughout time. It’s his immortality that has provided him with the curse of perspective as he’s filled with loathing at how the world throws its beauty away as often as it produces it. Those who find “Only Lovers Left Alive” to be a patronizing affair probably believe the film aligns with Adam’s worldview, that the world is filled with zombies who don’t seek out culture but just watch it on YouTube. But while Jarmusch does present a sort of Millennial nightmare example in Ava, focusing less on her crimes of taste and more her unexamined hunger and entitlement, the film aligns more or less with Eve, a person who recognizes the importance of remembering the past, but understands that no matter how much the world changes, it will always produce things that make life worth living. “How can you live so long and still not get it?” she says in exasperation after discovering Adam’s newly made wooden bullet. “This self-obsession is a waste of living. It could be spent in surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship, and dancing.” It’s as close to a thesis statement the film has.
There’s so much pure celebration in “Only Lovers Left Alive” that it’s hard for me to read the supposed sneer in the text. It’s a film that takes pleasure in a long drive that Adam and Eve take through downtown Detroit where he shows her Jack White’s house and the glorious Michigan Theater (now a parking lot), or an utterly beautiful scene where the two dance to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped By a Thing Called Love.” The first hour of the film is effectively an extended appreciation of literature, science, and music cheekily filtered through the perspectives of those old enough to have seen their developments in the first place, but Jarmusch makes room for some optimism even in the second half. When Adam and Eve are walking around Tangiers, Adam catches a short set by a Lebanese singer named Yasmine (a cameo by Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan) and is blown away. Even though he still hopes she doesn’t become famous, he recognizes that the “zombies” can still make things worthwhile. Only Jarmusch can make his “old man” movie, supposedly about how things were better Back in the Day, and make it arguably the most emotive, optimistic film of his career. That’s why he’s such a cool guy.