Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

20 April 2014

Vampires of Detroit

Up until this afternoon, if you had asked me to name my favorite cinematic vampires, i would have probably rattled off a list: Nosferatu (both Max Schreck and Klaus Kinski), the classic Bela Lugosi, the oddly coiffed Gary Oldman. But at the top of that list would have been the poignant castrato child-vampire who befriends a pale and lonely little boy in that moody Swedish masterpiece,  Let the Right One In (2008). Today, after seeing Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, that list has to be redrawn. This is the vampire world i'd bare my neck to be a part of -- a world in which even the blood, sipped from delicate aperitif glasses, looks delicious. Imagine what it would be like to have such an existence, to survive long enough to learn dozens of languages, read thousands of books, master an orchestra's worth of musical instruments, and converse with a centuries-old Christopher Marlowe (still holding a grudge against Shakespeare though he's outlived him by 400 years); how it would feel to walk the sinuous, shadowy streets of Tangiers or the ominous wasteland of post-industrial, post-prosperity Detroit, at midnight without fear. 

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston)

Manic Pixie Dream Vampire Ava (Mia Wasikowska)

Only Lovers Left Alive does not depend on an intricate plot or an orgy of blood-sucking; in fact, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), the one exuberantly insatiable vampire in the film, is presented as a comic figure, a "vampire brat" as my companion and i dubbed her. Instead, the movie focuses on relationships and reflections on the state of the world as viewed through the eyes of those who have had a very long time to observe it. Central to the film is the relationship between the lovers of the title, Eve (Tilda Swinton), who somehow manages to simultaneously convey both serenity and ecstasy, and Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a melancholy musician/inventor depressed to the point of suicide at the mess the living ("zombies," as he refers to them) have made of the Earth. They live on opposite sides of the world: she in a sumptuous nest of tapestries and books in Tangiers and he, surrounded by rare musical instruments in what would seem to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but is in fact Detroit. Yet they are joined at the soul and deeply in love. When he needs her, she flies to his side (on the red-eye, for obvious reasons). Eve and Adam complement each other both in appearance and philosophy. Both are pale, elegant figures in their century-old dressing gowns and dark glasses, but where the dark-haired and black-clad Adam seems almost paralyzed by despair in his tinkerer's Paradise (i.e. junk heap) of a house, Eve spins in dervishly delight, her wild mane of blonde hair swirling about her. Through the window of Eve's Tangiers home she looks out on a small plaza crisscrossed by people and activity throughout the night. Adam is cocooned, cringing in horror when the doorbell rings, looking out on the street through a makeshift security camera set-up at the unwanted groups of teen admirers of his music who have somehow discovered where he lives. His walls are covered with old cardboard egg-crates for sound insulation, further cushioning him from the world outside. 

I wish that i knew Jim Jarmusch, that i could call him on the phone right now to tell him how much i loved this smart, funny, erotic, and thought-provoking movie. And then i'd ask him how he discovered that Detroit was not only an exquisite counterpoint to Tangiers, but also the ideal setting for the melancholy Adam to make his home. It is in many ways the perfect illustration of the themes of mortality, immortality, and ecological suicide that the film explores. When Eve arrives in Detroit, Adam takes her on a tour of the city in all its crumbling splendor (with one happy side-trip to the house where Jack White grew up); the most striking location on this tour is the Michigan Theatre building, one of those grand movie palaces of the 1920s, now used as a parking garage -- a beautiful ruin of cathedral-like dimensions, reduced to sheltering the product that was once the pride of Detroit, the cars that, for a while at least, made this city rich.  And while i had him on the phone, i would tell him how much Only Lovers reminded me of a very different movie, the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugarman, with which it shares many similarities in its Detroit settings -- from the lonely deteriorating house on an eerily empty street that the musician calls home, to the abandoned factories and seedy bars of this once-great city. Most of all, like Only Lovers Left Alive, Searching for Sugarman has at its heart the story of a musician's musician, a man who through his art has survived the rumors of his death. So call me, Jim Jarmusch, let's talk about it.

Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive here.

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