We watched Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, a little while ago, and like most of Jarmusch’s films, it didn’t disappoint me. Jim Jarmusch makes films with a kind of loping pace, lingering over images and ideas in a way that most North American films haven’t really been comfortable with since the 1970s, a period of social realist cinema that I dearly love. And in many ways, it’s the closest a vampire film can come to genuine social realism. I’ll explain.
This is the story of an immensely old vampire couple who at first seem notoriously pretentious with the way they name-drop countless references to the famous artists and scientists they hung out with and inspired. One of their vampiric friends, played by John Hurt, is actually Christopher Marlowe, yet another science-fictional take on the mysterious fate of William Shakespeare’s rival. And of course, the dialogue implies that he actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Tom Hiddleston plays the male vampiric lead, a reclusive musician who records brilliant art on analog equipment which he smuggles out to the world through his intermediary, Anton Yelchin, under the presumption that the records are sent to artists to be inspired by the sounds. This is my least favourite aspect of the film, because of its implication that all the great artistic and scientific breakthroughs and innovations of humanity are actually the work of a physically superior species, vampires, who prey on us. In comparison, humans are mere zombies, as Hiddleston contemptuously calls us.
But even the vampires are all too human. When they drink blood, they do so from a small aperitif glass, and it knocks them back in their chairs with the vacant bliss of a heroin high. It’s implied in a later that drinking an entire human worth of blood at once would send them into a frenzy. Yet they have to contend with the fact that it’s impossible to cover up a murder anymore. Police actually have the wherewithal today to perform detailed scientific autopsies on murder victims, and a vampire can’t just get away with throwing a victim in the local river to mingle with the other anonymous floaters. As well, because almost everyone today has a video camera in their pocket, it’s incredibly difficult to do anything vampiric in public without someone capturing enough evidence to lead police straight to you.
As well, contemporary levels of pollution and disease in the human population constitutes a genuine health hazard to vampires. This is part of the core drama of the film — hunting has become riskier than any reward. So the vampires employ a series of corrupt doctors to skim a little of the blood supplies off the top for them. It actually makes them remarkably vulnerable, as the creatures that they hunt can now effectively hunt and control them.
|Few loves grow as deeply as the (practically) immortal.|
This is the setting, but the story and the characters (aside from their supernatural elements) could have come from a Mike Leigh or Hal Ashby film. The cinematography and storyline is clear about the nature of vampires: they’re addicts to human blood. Hiddleston and his eternal life partner Tilda Swinton are essentially bourgeois, respectable drug addicts. They get their stuff from clean, respectable sources, pay well for it, use it in moderation, and live in idyllic, reclusive bliss together. But Swinton, Hiddleston, and Hurt have all been having eerily prophetic dreams about her sister, Mia Wasikowska, and they speak of her with the hushed tones that a lesser vampire film would use to introduce an epic villain filled with plans of world conquest and human enslavement. Think Queen of the Damned, only worse.
Then Wasikowska shows up, and she’s basically an immature party girl. She loves to go out and hunt people, no matter the risk of potentially fatal contaminated blood. She has no sense of moderation, drinks their supplies dry within days, and still has that sisterly influence on Swinton to get dangerous again. Basically, this is the story of an upper-class drug addicted couple having to deal with an uncontrollable relative. Of course, Wasikowska ruins everything, because her type of impulsive character always messes everything up in these movies.
So there’s a beautiful social realist heart to this arty vampire film. Wonderful. But there’s even more to it. Hiddleston has, over the last few centuries, become remarkably depressed about humanity. They seem to have lost a skill that only he remembers, and the science they developed after forgetting it seems effective, but is only the self-destructive stumbling of people who can’t understand the universe’s more fundamental laws. It all becomes clear in a scene where Hiddleston reveals the actual means by which he powers his apartment without being connected to an electrical grid.
He’s built a working Tesla generator out of spare parts. But he explains the principle by which it works very curiously. The generator has a pair of antenna that download electrical information from the Earth’s electromagnetic field, and this information is itself the replication of that energy. From manipulating information, the symbol, of electricity, he can manipulate electricity, the thing itself. In other words, he’s the last remaining alchemist. And in the world of this film, alchemy is real.
This knowledge of how to manipulate the world by manipulating its information used to be common among humanity, but it had been forgotten through generational change. Hiddleston is the only one who remembers this true highest science because he’s the only person from the alchemical era who hasn’t died. This is why he’s so particularly depressed about humanity; they were always his prey, but they also had this incredible potential. But it’s all been squandered as they forgot the true principles of reality. Our environmental and health problems today are a by-product of this profound lack of memory.
In a narrative whose structure is socially realist, this literal resurrection of magic provides its emotional core, the one drive other than pure hedonism (whether in the responsible mode of Swinton or Wasikowska’s self-centred wildness) that keeps an immortal going through this terrible, shuddering world we’ve made. Well, that and love.