Saturday, May 3, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

(Jim Jarmusch, UK/Germany, 2014)

A night-bound ramble in the Jarmuschian style, in which the dominant, elegiac mood - you could easily call it a funk -  is colored by bone-dry humor and some trenchant observations about the thorny criss-crossings of love, life, and Art.  It's also Jarmusch at his most classical, hewing to a straightforward story with contrasting characters.

The movie has several moments of loveliness, but there are moments in which the allergy to sunlight - to any adequate amount of illumination, really - felt oppressive.  It's possible that the projection, which was, of course, digital, was too dim.  I've encountered this problem before, and it's a major bug, giving obvious lie to the idea that DCP will usher in an era of easy, push-button standarization, free of the vagaries of individual theaters and projectionists.  If the damp, faded imagery was entirely intentional, than I have only Jarmusch to blame, but I suspect this isn't the case. 

Besides these external nuisances, there's a lot to dig into with Only Lovers.  Again, it's Jarmusch at his most formally classical, and his handling of the storytelling is masterful in its laconic, down-tempo precision.  Adam and Eve's romantic woes resonate, as does the sense of timeless familiarity that they embody, allowing Jarmusch to riff poignantly on the mysterious nature of all great romances.  Swinton and Hiddleston - what a name for a duo, by the way - play beautifully off each other, conveying the unfathomable depths of their centuries-long affair with simple glances and gestures.  It's a wonderfully understated co-performance. 

The film is haunted by history, and what's striking is that despite it's characters spiraling regard, even obsession, with the past (which, wisely, Jarmusch identifies as being a first-cousin of narcissism), what weighs most oppressively is the burden of the present historical moment.  The coming catastrophes (there are a few barely-oblique references to climate change, such as when Eve asks Adam if the "wars over water" have begun), the sense of human culture as having finally exhausted itself and hunkering down for the end, is present in almost every frame.  Adam is the chief voice for this largely defeatist (but entirely understandable) view, and Eve does a good job of pinpointing the ways that this is a selfish capitulation unworthy of him, but the overall tenor of the picture seems to side more with his male pessimism. 

Only Lovers's droll coda, however, also manages to bring these moony fancies down to Earth, as our vampiric heroes, guardians of culture and, to some extent, martyrs for all that is humanly beautiful, yield to their more basic appetites.  In their weakness, they also reflect our strength, and the possibility of rising to meet the needs of the moment.  Their fate and ours - the undead and the living - are, after all, inextricably intertwined.  

Jarmusch slyly punctures his own pretensions of preternatural hipness (which he amusingly casts as supernatural, even) by illustrating the hidden pitfalls of living such a fastidiously curated life.  Adam and Eve know all the best that culture has managed to create - in some cases, they knew the creators personally - which means they feel it the most painfully when all the rest of human activity bulldozes over the treasures.  To develop a taste for the best means daily countenancing all that doesn't measure up, and all the wonder that will never get its due.  On the other hand, such an attitude - the Smeagol-like preciousness about valuing beauty and "keeping" it - has a dark side as well: the hollowness of connoissuership.  To be present in the bounty of the moment, to truly be attuned to the beautiful in a constant, active sense - is to be committed to a kind of lightness, a willingness to let go and thus free up time and space for discovery.  Eve personifies this ideal, and it's easy to see how many times she must have saved Adam, and herself, from despair.  In the end, she's the true hero of the story, and she embodies the heroism that permits survival in the face of overwhelming circumstances.  In the world today, it's positively brazen to think this way, and it's an inspiration that Jarmusch is willing to. 

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