Only Lovers Left Alive Program Notes

by Dzmitry Tsapkou (UMN, MIMSGG) and Joel Burges (University of Rochester, NY)

Two art-loving vampires, torn between dilapidated Detroit and as just as dilapidated, but socially vibrant Tangier, fret over the fate of the planet, drink blood, and obsess about vintage musical instruments.

dir Jim Jarmusch w/Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi and John Hurt

Jim Jarmusch’s eleventh feature film, Only Lovers Left Alive, is a meditative drive through the obsolete streets of Detroit, seen through the eyes of two centuries-old vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). While not lacking in vampiric tropes, the film delivers much more. Indeed, Adam and Eve drink O-negative from their classy chalices, come out exclusively at night, and avoid entering houses without invitation. On top of it all, the married couple boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of arts and sciences—as those with nothing but time on their hands presumably would. And yet, if Only Lovers Left Alive had to be compared to anything at all, one would do well to skip the various iterations of Dracula or, God forbid, the Twilight Saga franchise, and go straight to Jarmusch’s fellow genre-bender Danny Boyle. In 28 Days Later (2002), Boyle suggested that if there is anything more chilling than zombies, then it is certainly people. Jarmusch sympathizes with his vampires. They are not there to instill fear and even prefer hospital-sourced blood to the good old bite on the neck. Instead, it is Adam and Eve who are unnerved. By what? “Zombies”—the vampires’ preferred nomenclature for the mortals.

 “It’s the zombies I’m sick of. And their fear of their own fucking imaginations,” bemoans Adam in what could pass for a Situationists International slogan. Beyond all its vampiric flair, Only Lovers Left Alive, set about 70/30 between Detroit and Tangier, reads as a stylish, sexy, moody lamentation for a world that might have been wrecked beyond repair. On their night drive through the ruins of the Motor City, Eve alludes to an impending ecological disaster: “This place will rise again. … There’s water here. When the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom.” A peculiar, fatalistic sort of optimism. This sense of looming inevitability is complemented by a certain ambiguity at the heart of the film. On the one hand, we meet the Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), another vampire who, it transpires, did write all those Shakespeare plays after all. On the other, we have Adam and Eve who, despite all their knowledge and talent, mainly act as resigned observers of history as it unfolds. This play between explosive creative potentiality and total resignation is perhaps what makes Jarmusch’s vampires his own. The point is illustrated by Adam’s vehicle of choice. His vintage Jaguar XJS, a British luxury car originally equipped with a V12 engine, runs what appears to be a custom-Adam-made electric motor producing that characteristic hum which sounds so out of place on the dilapidated streets of Detroit. The car, like the vampires themselves, is a strange relic stuck between the always-already vintage and the future to come. It is powered, moreover, by another novel invention: a generator that harnesses electricity out of thin air. Adam literally lives off the grid, having cut the power lines coming to his little chateau, completely disconnected from the reality of the city. And then, with all this know-how kept only to himself, he has the audacity to scoff at the zombies: “Has the water war started yet? Or is it still about the oil?” 

Only Lovers Left Alive both gives and withholds. On the surface, Adam and Eve’s characters satisfy that superhero itch by letting us witness in action a couple of all-knowing and nearly invincible creatures à la Jason Bourne. But they are also total pretentious asses, packing The Infinite Jest on a transatlantic flight and abnegating any responsibility for the world history, despite having lived longer than anyone else. Much can and has been said about the figure of the vampire as a ruthless bourgeois exploiter: leeching off people’s blood without giving anything in return. We will never know where all those wads of cash Adam so casually hands out come from. Eve’s own sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), calls the couple “snobs” on her way to LA, the “zombie central.” At least she is not afraid to meddle with the worldly affairs and get her fangs dirty. It is this interplay of information given and withheld, of the said and not said, of presences and absences that makes Only Lovers Left Alive a film not only wonderfully executed and scored, but also a fertile ground for the meditation on the current state of affairs and human “progress”—or lack thereof. 

In a talk that will accompany the screening, Professor Joel Burges (U of Rochester, NY) will investigate one particularly important set of presences/absences that recurs through the film. Set in an economically devastated and technologically superseded Detroit, Only Lovers Left Alive is filled with images of streets emptied as the result of the offshoring of jobs and the obsolescence of labor over the course of the late twentieth century. What’s missing from those streets, in other words, are the workers who used to need them to get to their jobs at the abandoned theaters and plants we see during montages of the nighttime drives of the vampires. Even more strikingly, the African Americans who constitute an overwhelming majority of the population of Detroit are also absent, as if the obsolescence of labor turns upon the absence of blackness in this film. That “turning,” so to speak, is only further emphasized by the striking whiteness of the vampires, who reside in spaces filled with the technological and cultural detritus of the past, where they hoard a history into which they have fallen. Building on work in Burges’s Out of Sync & Out Work: History and the Obsolescence of Labor in Contemporary Culture (Rutgers UP, 2018), this talk explores how Only Lovers Left Alive figures a relationship between the obsolescence of labor and the absence of blackness that can be found in other contemporary films as well, from the Hollywood production Hidden Figures to the experimental films of Kevin Jerome Everson. In many ways, this talk contends, these films make culturally legible a material fact that remains discursively illegible all too often in our time: the traffic between African Americans and automation, between blackness and obsolescence, and between race and class.

October 13th, Trylon Cinema

The screening of Only Lovers Left Alive is made possible with support from the University of Minnesota’s Cinema in the Cities and the Institute for Advanced Study, and is part of the two-day conference at the University of Minnesota titled “Politics & Aesthetics of Obsolescence,” Oct. 12-13, accompanied by a keynote talk by Prof. Joel Burges (University of Rochester, NY).