October 24th, 2014


On the Periphery, Seeking the Centre

Some people survived the beat generation, some people survived 1960s counter culture, and some vampires survived centuries. According to Jim Jarmusch's 2014 film Only Lovers Left Alive, that last group has a lot in common with the first two. It's a film a with a perfect cast, gorgeous production design and costumes, and is overall a dreamy ramble through yet another permutation of vampire fiction.

Vampires Adam and Eve (probably not the biblical characters) are a married couple played incomparably by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. According to Wikipedia, Michael Fassbender was originally cast as Adam but I'd say Hiddleston works equally well and maybe it's not a bad idea to ease off on the Fassbender saturation a little, as good as he is.

The two live separately, Adam in Detroit, Eve in Tangiers.

The film opens with slowly spiralling, slowly pulling in shots from the ceilings of each vampire's apartment, dissolving back and forth with a spinning record in between.

The dissolves, along with highly amplified electric guitar distortion, become the aesthetic bedrock of the film, the softly rippling surface on which everything else floats. As usual, the vampires are unfathomably wealthy and like artists of the counter-cultural movements seem to feel a mixture of profound empathy for and alienation from society.

Swinton's reunited with her Snowpiercer co-star John Hurt who plays Christopher Marlowe, also living in Tangiers. We learn he secretly authored most of Shakespeare's plays and seems to be the movie's analogue for William S. Burroughs who also lived in Tangiers and was a sort of high priest in the beat generation, being the oldest, the most self possessed, and having had perhaps the most profoundly painful experiences. He's able to acquire the "good stuff"--blood, in this world, apparently being threatened world wide by contamination, reminiscent of sexually transmitted diseases that checked 1960s free love culture.

Mia Wasikowska shows up at Adam's place as Ava, Eve's sister, though not "by blood". Despite the fact that Eve shares Adam's misgivings about Ava's destructive behaviour, Eve is still motivated by an ideal of faith in love that had initially compelled her to adopt Ava has a sister in some bygone, more hedonistic time. It's not hard to guess what happens when Adam and Eve go to bed and Adam sternly tells Ava to let his friend Ian (Anton Yelchin) go home in just a little while, in this case the movie almost works as a parody of typical movies about drug fuelled artistic subculture.

The argument the movie seems to be making with its allegory is that drugs, for all their drawbacks, are necessary. Adam scores blood from a nearby hospital but in one way or another, even he and Eve are forced to prey on others for what they need, though not as luridly as Ava. The trade-off is centuries of artistic achievement Adam has secretly contributed to the world.

But the argument's not as simplistic as that--Eve apparently is more muse than artist herself. She comes to Detroit to chide Adam out of a depression though, in the very contemporary, realistic portrayal of Detroit, Adam has plenty of reasons to be depressed. He shows Eve a car factory that has long ago shut down and a gorgeous theatre that has now become a parking lot.

It's a contradiction that Anne Rice first explored in her books, the vampire as both the bottom feeder and the extraordinarily illuminating lens for humanity's higher sensibilities.

And they play chess. This morning I analysed the game Adam and Eve play in one scene and I was delighted to see they were playing from a legitimate position that reflected the interaction between the two characters. I had a hard time transposing the position because the pieces they use look rather similar to one another but I finally managed it and reconstructed it:

It's such a perfect reflection of the characters--Adam, playing black, has essentially sacrificed most of his pieces in favour of one powerful piece, his queen. Just as he believes in larger gestures and has a more dramatic and final impression of the world while Eve sees value in taking in a variety of media without making huge strides herself. So at the beginning of the scene, she takes his queen with her bishop at b6. She maintains calm while he agonises and finally moves his rook in an attempt to trade with her rook at d7--but she's able to take his rook with her bishop without losing any pieces herself. She's lain a groundwork with her bishops, knight, and rook and Adam's fate is inevitable. It's a good thing she's on his side.