JIM JARMUSCH ON “ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE”
Note: This is the unedited and unabridged version of an article that appeared in The Guardian last week.
“I’ve seen my dog dreaming”, Jim Jarmusch tells me over lunch on a snowy December afternoon in Manhattan’s East Village, the iconoclastic filmmaker’s typically sedate voice betrayed by the excitement that pops in his eyes. “I suspect that other animals have imaginations”, he continues, “in fact, I know they do.” His answer is engaging enough for me to forget that my question had been about Tilda Swinton’s hands, and how the 3,000-year-old vampire she plays in Jarmusch’s opiate new film Only Lovers Left Alive can deduce the age of an object simply by touching it.
“Once I left a mop outside the window of my apartment, and I saw a sparrow examining the mop for several days”, Jarmusch continued. “It kept coming back, and then it started biting through to take away strands to build a nest. It was thinking, you know?” Jarmusch transitions into his sparrow voice, which sounds identical to his human voice: “Man, I think this might work…”
There are perhaps only two living directors who would so casually introduce an anthropomorphized bird into a conversation with a stranger, but Werner Herzog would never so transparently allow himself to wonder at his own story. If at first I’m not entirely sure how Jarmusch’s anecdote pertains to his new movie, our conversation becomes easier to navigate when I realize that speaking with the famously cool filmmaker isn’t all that different from watching one of his films, which don’t cohere into stories so much as they do constellations, networks of seemingly isolated ideas that achieve a greater meaning when arranged together just so. When I confess to Jarmusch that Only Lovers Left Alive had sent my mind reeling and that my questions would likely be all over the place as a result, his quick response comes with a grin: “I like that, I’m all over the place with the answers.”
It occurs to me that, while all of Jarmusch’s films are inimitably his own, Only Lovers Left Alive is the first to broach outright self-portraiture.
For all of the things that immediately identify Jim Jarmusch – his Lee Marvin face, that resilient shock of white hair that looks like Andy Warhol was touched up with a Tesla Coil – there are even more recurring elements that immediately identify Jarmusch’s work: a broadly minimalist aesthetic, laconic but lovable characters (often played by musicians), a cool compositional remove that invites humor without ever sacrificing sincerity. Yet, perhaps the thing that most naturally unites Jarmusch’s films is their shared belief that everything is connected, even if it’s not always plain to see how. His is a diachronic cinema of culture in conversation with itself. A young Japanese couple obsessed with Elvis. William Blake reborn into the American West. Instruments that resonate with every note that’s ever been played on them, the world bound together by cab rides and cups of coffee. As one character sums it up in Jarmusch’s instructive and unfairly maligned The Limits of Control: “Each one of us is a set of shifting molecules, spinning in ecstasy. In the future, worn out things will be made new again by reconfiguring their molecules.”
Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about the urgency of that recycling process, a sublime and snickering genre tale that shacks up with a pair of exhausted paramours who are desperate to become new but frustrated that they can’t grow old. Jarmusch has been trying to make the movie for seven years, and whenever a bump in the road had him ready abandon the project, Swinton would insist “That’s good news, it means that now is not the time. It will happen when it needs to happen.” Now that the vampire film has become petrified by its own popularity and conversations about the death of cinema seem more prevalent than those about its future, Only Lovers Left Alive may be arriving just in time. Every generation is convinced that they’re living at the end of the world, and not a single one of them has yet to be right.
Like a sparrow looking at a mop and seeing a new future for itself, Jarmusch has always perceived a tremendous potential in even the most destitute of cinematic forms. His manifesto about the rules of filmmaking, published nearly a decade ago in MovieMaker Magazine, famously insisted that “Nothing is original”, and instructed aspiring directors to “steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration.” For Jarmusch, well-worn genres don’t offer a crutch so much as they do a succinct mechanism for locating us in time, the cinema’s most lucid way of reconfiguring its molecules before our eyes.
"I’m a kind of film nerd", Jarmusch allows, carefully ordering his words. "Genres are beautiful and I love them but I don’t want to deliver their expectations." We don’t understand the idea of infinity, or of time not ending or of space not ending," Jarmusch says with the authority unique to inviolable claims. "I think cultural things, or maybe the advancement of humans’ imaginations, is the real way to tell time." 80 years is relative, but compare Vampyr to The Twilight Saga and it’s easy to see how far you’ve come, even if you’re not entirely sure in what direction.
While I’d happily argue that Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch’s best film, perhaps it would be more helpful to say that it’s his most fluent – if all of his work is intoxicated by ideas of recycling and transference, this is the first time that he’s repurposed his pet themes as his primary subjects, an evolution that’s clear as soon as the film opens with Jarmusch’s version of a bone becoming a monolith. Where Kubrick favored the cold bluntness of jump-cut juxtaposition as he cut from Earth to the heavens, Jarmusch prefers a smoother ride for the return trip, the infinite glint of the cosmos swirling into the grooves of a Wanda Jackson LP. As the action settles on terra firma, Jarmusch begins to pull the film together with centrifugal force, the camera rotating around two bedrooms that revolve at the same speed despite being worlds apart.
Eve (Swinton) is in Tangier, an ancient city always on the cusp of being reborn. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is in Detroit, contemporary America’s most famous icon of decay. Both are exotic in their own way. She Skypes him on an iPhone. He answers on a rotary relic that he’s rigged through a tube television. They’re vampires, and they’re in love.
They live apart because they can, because it doesn’t deprive them of time together. “If you live that long, separation for a year might feel like a weekend” Jarmusch explains, his famously spacey drawl belying how present he is in conversation, zen-like but generously engaged. “They love each other very deeply, but it’s not an obligation, it’s an emotional connection.” An emotional connection so strong that Adam, a natural romantic who sees poetry in science, intimates that his relationship with Eve is an example of Einstein’s Theory of Entanglement, or spooky action at a distance: “When you separate an entwined particle, and you move both parts away from the other, even on opposite ends of the universe if you alter or effect one, the other will be identically altered or affected.”
In Detroit, Adam grows despondent about the stale state of human culture. In Tangier, Eve packs her favorite books into a small metal suitcase and arranges a series of night flights to The Motor City in order to see her immortal beloved. She reserves her tickets under the name of Fibonacci, a nod to the influential mathematician that hardly feels out of place in a film where even the tossed off references spiral inward. “All of the entities in the universe are spherical, round, or spiral” Jarmusch explains, tracing the edges of his empty plate. “It’s a natural thing”. Circles are so crucial to the film that Jarmusch’s script was originally threaded with quotes from Rumi, a dervish dancer, about waterwheels and turning. “It seemed a bit pretentious”, he quickly admits, aware that his work is beloved for being inviting but seldom transparent.
I tell Jarmusch that his concentric vision of genre reminds me of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, a psychological text from 1973 founded upon the idea that the fundamental purpose of human civilization is to systematically deceive ourselves to the idea of our own mortality. I remember that I first encountered Becker’s work through reading about one of Jarmusch’s films, though I can’t recall which. He reliably smiles at my references, which range from Beethoven to Chris Marker, far more interested in where his movies had lead me than if I had enjoyed them. Rumi, Fibonacci, Einstein, Wanda Jackson… locating the beating heart of Only Lovers Left Alive would be as difficult as identifying the first patient of a plague.
I ask if vampires are the perfect subject for him, if not having a death to deny allows them a more lucid perspective of human culture. Jarmusch’s response is the only thing he says to me that feels pat and practiced, likely workshopped over a dozen festival Q&As: “Vampires aren’t really undead, you know? They’re transformed humans, which is different from zombies. Vampires’ consciousness is always intact, even Nosferatu is sophisticated in some way. He’s not a lumbering monster. In our film, if they’re metaphorical of anything it’s of humans. And they are humans, just transformed humans.” His unhelpful answer inspires me to jettison a volley of follow-up questions and instead pursue a percolating idea that vampirism has allowed Jarmusch a degree of candid self-reflection that his previous movies made impossible. Only Lovers Left Alive might as well have been born from the moment in The Limits of Control when a character remarks that “Among us, there are those who are not among us.” It’s the vampire mythos distilled into a single soundbite, and looking across the table at a filmmaker whose face may be more recognizable than any of his films, it feels applicable to celebrity as well.
The endlessly versatile Tom Hiddleston is reborn into the role as a lost goth god, an outcast cursed to an eternity of effortless beauty, but beneath the thick tresses of glam black hair and the disaffected gloom that clouds over him, it’s hard not to see the theatrically suicidal Adam as Jarmusch in disguise, the director’s neuroses in almost human form. For one thing, both of them love Tilda Swinton. “It’s everything about her”, Jarmusch explains, his eyes lost in nothing in particular over my shoulder. “It’s her physicality, the way that she moves… I love this thing where she’s walking in Tangiers in slow motion, she’s like a vestigial predator, like a wolf.”
There’s certainly a feral element to Eve’s appearance, Swinton’s piercing intelligence taming the wild mop of blonde yak hair she wears as a wig so that the character comes off as a Nobel laureate raised by wild animals. When I ask him to explain Swinton’s appeal as an actress, he ignores the craft and instead responds that “She has an ability to prioritize what’s really important in life. Once I was listening to her, I think we were at lunch with Patti Smith, and I thought ‘Oh boy, if all culture breaks down, I’m following them. They’re my leaders, the women are the way to go.’” It’s worth noting that Jim Jarmusch could casually mention having tea with God and it still wouldn’t sound like name-dropping.
I try to ask about Swinton’s wardrobe in the film, a Pangea of fashion that assimilates Ray-Bans and renaissance flair into a mid-60s rock foundation, but Jarmusch isn’t ready to move on. “One of the great moments in my life”, he says, his eyes narrowing on me as if hoping to see his favorite memory reflected on my face and enjoy it again, “was when we were shooting The Limits of Control, and we finished a take and I said ‘Oh Tilda, that was so beautiful, will you marry me?” And she replied ‘Oh darling, we already are.’ I could have died.”
Adam’s problem, on the contrary, is that he can’t. Of course, he doesn’t really want to. Like his creator (Jarmusch, not God – the character names aren’t Biblical, they’re Twain), he’s not suicidal, he’s simply tormented by the nauseating sense that culture has run its course. Convinced that humans, whom he refers to as zombies, are rotting the world, he’s the Platonic Ideal of a hipster – how can you think anything is cool when you’ve lived for enough centuries to know that coolness isn’t real? There’s jaded, and then there’s flippantly dismissing your old friends as “Shelley, Byron, and those French assholes I used to hang around with”. As they have for Jarmusch, icons of civilization have become so accessible for Adam that culture seems to stand still – how can you appreciate the cycle of culture when everything is so personal, when your wife’s best friend is Christopher Marlowe? “I don’t have any heroes,” Adam scoffs. “I’m sick of it – these zombies, what they’ve done to the world, their fear of their own imaginations.”
Rather than engaging with the world, Adam lives like a hermit, creating ambient drone music in his decrepit house on the edge of town (naturally, the music belongs to Jarmusch himself, the songs performed by his band SQURL).Adam vehemently insists that the music never leaves his house, and is livid to learn that Eve’s younger sister Eva (Mia Wasikowska) anonymously played one of his tracks in a Los Angeles club. Like so many hipsters, Adam hardly understands his favorite credo: he can recite the Theory of Entanglement verbatim, but he struggles to embrace it. He thinks he can go it alone, but through Eve he’s inextricably tied up in all things.
What Adam learns, and what Jarmusch understands, is that there’s no upside to stepping out of the circle. Survival is an instinct, and for some it’s the only option. Artists need to steal, and vampires need to feed. What Adam perceives as entropy, Eve recognizes as hunger. Inevitably, she leads the way forward. This seems like the right time to ask Jarmusch an inevitable question: Would want to live forever? “I wouldn’t mind living to be maybe 300 years old, but eternally? Oh man, there’s something about the cycle of life that’s very important, and to have that removed would be a burden.”
Adam, it seems, isn’t Jarmusch’s proxy so much as he’s the filmmaker’s pale shadow, lacking only the most essential things that prevent Jarmusch from succumbing to his own intractable sense of cool. Adam may not have any heroes but Jarmusch never stops looking for new ones. His movies are so different because they treat everything the same. Everything is bursting with the potential to become a part of something else. It might seem like a throwaway gag when Eve drives by the childhood home of a local Detroit legend and exclaims, without a hint of sarcasm, “I love Jack White!” In fact, the praise of a 3,000-year-old vampire is the ultimate artistic validation. “I believe her when she says she loves Jack White”, Jarmusch confirms. “I despise hierarchical evaluation of culture. I go nuts when you say ‘crime fiction is not an academically valid literature, or pop music vs. classical music or whatever.’”
Unsurprisingly, Jarmusch has a problem with auteur theory and the idea that his films begin and end in his own head. “I put ‘A film by’ as a protection of my rights, but I don’t really believe it. It’s important for me to have final cut, and I do for every film. So I’m in the editing room every day, I’m the navigator of the ship, but I’m not the captain, I can’t do it without everyone’s equally valuable input. For me it’s phases where I’m very solitary writing, and then I’m preparing and getting the money and all that, and then I’m with the crew and on a ship and it’s amazing and exhausting and exhilarating, and then I’m alone with the editor again… I’ve said it before, it’s like seduction, wild sex, and then pregnancy in the editing room. That’s how it feels for me.”
I tell Jarmusch that I always likened the process to preparing a meal, instead. I see pre-production as listing the required ingredients, production as shopping for them, and the pivotal step of post-production as the actual cooking. Jarmusch thinks this over for a moment, his eyes falling back to his empty plate and his fingers absently running along the black leather of his iPhone case. A moment of silence quickly blossoms into an eternity of my own, in which I have thousands of years to be become mortified at the thought of insisting that an icon of independent cinema listen to my baseless (and pathetically prude) analogy for the process that has defined the better part of his working life.
Jarmusch abruptly ambles to his feed and extends a big hand beneath a bigger smile: “Cooking is good too, but I prefer sex.”