Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

21 August 2014

Tilda Swinton Is a Vampire

I found Jim Jarmusch's new film Only Lovers Left Alive rather painful. It is in fact excruciatingly boring.

Which is sort of weird, because it involves Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and John Hurt as vampires. And I love vampires – not as much as I love dragons, but vampires are one of my favorite mythical creatures (perhaps it is the long association in literature of vampirism with lesbianism). Also, it should be noted that the once-famous twitter handle @NotTildaSwinton, which created a sensation in the summer of 2012 (and then again in the summer of 2013), imagined the entirety of this film in a much cooler way than its actual execution, with tweets such as:
  • I once waded the entire length of the Nile. I lost an arm to a hippo, but won it back in a game of Charades. I am stronger for it.
  • Uncoil from a tree branch and silently lower yourself on a creature of prey. Instead of attacking, whisper "You are safe" in its ear.
  • I am, have always been, and will forever be, negative 1 years old.
  • I spent a decade with my mouth agape–birds tucked away by my gums; mating, birthing, dying. This was back when I only had three mouths.
  • Of course I have received splinters. I do not remove them. Small branches emerge from me and bear fruit in the shape of my face.
  • A tingle in your scalp. Do you feel it!? It crawls down your neck, along your extremities and back to the base of your skull. Bless.
You get the idea. Utter genius, in truth. And, of course, almost totally believable when you think about how Tilda probably understands her own ontology.

Tom/Adam and Tilda/Eve
Tilda is awesome/crazy. But Only Lovers Left Alive is not. In fact, it's kitschy nonsense – trying way too hard to be cool, and way more earnest than it ever ought to have been. Jarmusch's film takes its time, and takes that time doing, well, next to nothing. This is supposed to be a character study, but we learn little about the characters or their feelings, or their ways of being in the world. Jarmusch is content, instead, to make little jokes about the couple's third wedding, back in the 19th century, or about how old Tom Hiddleston's dressing gown is. Zzzzz.

Oh, hang on. I forgot to tell you that their names are Adam and Eve. No joke. And we find out in the film's first ten minutes that Eve's BFF in Tangier is none other than Christopher Marlowe, who, apparently, wrote the entirety of William Shakespeare's oeuvre after he faked his own death. (You will be relieved, perhaps or perhaps not, to find out that Only Lovers believes Kit Marlowe was a homosexual.) And so the film is peppered with little lines about how Shakespeare was a "zombie philistine" or how Adam used to play chess with Lord Byron or have sex with (of all people) the eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. I read all of these little allusions as heavy-handed in-jokes for history buffs. It is possible that their purpose was more by way of character study, but they are so numerous and always so silly – Adam apparently once composed an adagio and asked Franz Schubert to pass it off as his own – that I couldn't really understand them  functioning as anything other than humorous little colorations. There are, in fact, so many references to Shakespeare's writing actually being Marlowe's that one might mistake this for a film like Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, with its absurd theories about the "real" Shakespeare.

In truth, this kind of thing happens a lot in Only Lovers, so if you're into that...

The film is otherwise plotless, although it spends a great deal of time musing about what a waste humans are, what a mess humankind has made of the world, how little we understand about true wisdom, forgiveness, pleasure, etc. I don't disagree with any of this necessarily – we do tend to make a mess of things – but all of these platitudes are delivered with relentless smugness, and an exhaustion with the world that comes from having lived, oh, you know, four centuries. I have a feeling I'd know a lot more about wisdom, forgiveness, and generosity if I were 500 years old, as well. And anyway neither Jarmusch nor Tilda herself is actually that old, and so perhaps they ought to give the rest of us a bit of a break.

I will say one good thing about Only Lovers Left Alive, there is a great deal of footage of the city of Detroit at night. Adam and Eve drive around the semi-abandoned city and think about abandonment and loneliness and such things – not that they have anything to say about it. The images in these sections of the movie are just gorgeous – eerie and beautiful and mysterious. I felt almost like I was trespassing. Further, these night treks into Detroit provided what was for me the only exciting moment in the film. This place will rise again; there's water here, Eve says. When the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom. It might be literally the only thing of interest in the film's entirety.