Suckers for love

- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - April 23, 2014 - 12:00am

The vampires in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ are seasoned hipsters, living in curated digs with turntables and guitars strewn about and framed portraits of life pegs on the wall — everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to Neil Young.

Say you’ve got these two modern-day vampires, but they don’t “glimmer” each other or wear hair product or hang out with beefcake werewolves. They sit around and play chess mostly, or drink blood from sherry glasses or discuss Romantic poetry. One of them’s a guitar aficionado, so he sits around in his bathrobe and plugs in vintage Gretsches and Les Pauls and stokes up dirge-like maelstroms of guitar noise in his spare time (of which he has an endless supply); the other has weird, wiry hair and hangs out in Tangier with Christopher Marlowe (who, it turns out, is also a vampire and wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays).

These vampires are hipsters, more or less, but they’re miles away from the teen vamps of Twilight or the white trash undead of True Blood.

Played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Adam and Eve are cooler-than-thou vampires, proving there’s still some, er, blood left in the genre, though perhaps lacking a few platelets.

Jarmusch struggled to fund his $7 million vampire movie for years, and now it’s out, though don’t expect it to pass by local cinemas anytime soon. It’s an arty little film, with quiet, typical Jarmusch touches that show whatever genre he takes on bears his imprint. The opening shot sets the tone: a crackly 45 rpm single begins revolving on a turntable, emitting some Velvet Underground dirge played by Sqürl (Jarmusch’s band); it fades into a spinning overhead camera shot of Adam, Eve and Marlowe, blissfully nodding out from their nightly blood intake.

Hiddleston and Swinton are centuries-old married vamps, living across the globe from one another — she in Morocco and he in rundown Detroit, though their separation is never adequately explained — when Adam’s bummed-out mood (he’s contemplating firing a wooden bullet at himself) draws them together once again.

Whereas the vampires in Twilight were young and cocky, yet possessed no actual wisdom about the world, the couple in Only Lovers Left Alive are older and wiser; they live in curated digs with turntables and vinyl everywhere, not to mention guitars strewn about on century-old furniture and a “hipster” wall of fame — framed portraits of everyone from Edgar Allen Poe and Billy Holliday to Thelonious Monk and Neil Young. Adam in particular fancies old things: old stethoscopes, old cordless phones, old tube amps.

Eve, too, is into retro. When she travels across the world to be with Adam, she doesn’t pack an iPad — she brings suitcases full of actual books to read, mostly Romantic poetry. She books red-eye flights to Detroit to avoid sunlight. And she knows things: she can tell an object’s age just by touching it, and she recites the Latin name of every plant and mushroom growing in Adam’s weedy backyard. The world’s collective knowledge is part of these vamps’ basic makeup, something the “zombies” of the world — humans — seem uninterested in exploring. Adam, meanwhile, is a disciple of science — Nikola Tesla, in particular, who taught him how to rewire his home to receive energy straight from the universe; Adam has also taught everybody from Samuel Barber to Stravinsky a thing or two about music. He’s apt to sit around strumming doom chords in his goth attire, recording it onto reel-to-reel analog tape. One wonders how Adam and Eve manage to come by their endless supply of money, since they’re not the blood-sucking/robbing type: rather, they get their blood from hospital blood labs, forking over handfuls of cash on a regular basis to a snarky Jeffrey Wright. But they seem to know all the angles.

The conceit here is that Tilda and Tom are carry-overs from the Romantic era, the early to mid-1800s that bore Shelley and Byron and Keats and Coleridge. They’re a little anachronistic, wearing their evening gloves and reciting poetry by candlelight. But that’s what makes them cool. They still believe in “love that crosses oceans of time.” They’re the last true romantics, enjoying the good things the world has to offer, and shaking their heads ruefully at the way “zombies” have fracked things up on earth.

They’re, in fact, the “creatives” behind every great moment in human artistic achievement, in Jarmusch’s conception. They don’t brag about it though, because, well, they value their privacy. That privacy is threatened when Eve’s sister, Eva (Mia Wasikowska), shows up from L.A. and wants to crash with them for a while. You know she’s trouble when she wants to know where Adam stashes his blood supply.

The “zombies” in their midst, like Adam’s Renfield-like assistant Ian (played by Anton Yelchin), are in thrall of vampire hipsterism, even shyly donning sunglasses in a nightclub to look as cool as Adam and Eve. But Ian ends up drained of Type O by Eve’s millennial sister. “You drank Ian!” Adam gasps when he discovers his lifeless assistant lying on a couch under Eva’s satiated fangs.

Sadly, the movie ends up being almost as anemic as Ian’s drained corpse, or Hiddleston’s attempt at Romantic-poet pallor. Not much happens; like a lot of Jarmusch films, this is an exercise in style and minimal cool over plot and substance. To be fair, that’s long been Jarmusch’s approach, from the rockabilly vignettes of Mystery Train to the Western psychedelia of Dead Man. Deadpan humor goes a long way in his films, but in this one, even the deadpan humor is a bit lifeless.

A shame, because hipsters and art film fans have been waiting a long time for this New York indie filmmaker to finish his take on vampirism. They will perhaps have to content themselves with the little things: the doomy, seductive music; yet another intriguing turn by Tilda Swinton; John Hurt’s dessicated Chris Marlowe; and Hiddleston’s increasingly put-upon rock god. A vampire film about eternal youth that dwells on growing old? What else do you expect from the white-haired master of downtown minimalism?

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