London: An Ephemeral City at the Heart of ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Only Lovers Left Alive is not a vampire movie. It’s not even a zombie movie in which the human race is reduced to a mass of contaminated flesh and blood, as Tom Hiddleston’s character, the languid, blood-sucking musician Adam, might have us believe. For me it’s not even an epic love story. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about cities. The real protagonists here are not Adam and Eve, the vampirical couple, but Tangier and Detroit: two settlements, anthropomorphised, connected in time and existing in different stages of urban deterioration. One is (to utilise the film’s own visual vocabulary) a broken down grid, a circuit with a hole in it: Detroit. The other (Tangier) is textured, like organic matter, a dustbowl at night:

They are real spaces. We travel through them, by car or on foot. These living cities are visual places, defined by light. We can see it clearly in the sequence below, in which the city twinkles in the distance, a light-source, disappearing behind the natural shadow of some trees:

The notion of the living city as a source of light (or perhaps more accurately as light itself,) is also eloquently evoked in visual markers. In Detroit we are taken on a tour of a dilapidated theatre, once used for projecting film. In Tangier, we drive past other decrepit projection houses: the ‘Cine Alcazar’ and the Mauritanian Cinema’.
And then there are the dead cities, like the third city, the city that seems to be at the core of the film’s diegetic universe.
The ghostly presence of London hangs over Only Lovers Left Alive: it is a shadow, a city that exists within the text of the film only as a non-place, a memory, but one that is made real and palpable by its very absence. In what is arguably the film’s pivotal moment – when Eve’s sister Eva ‘drinks’ Ian, Adam’s pet zombie, his human protégé and procurer – the lovers drive through Detroit, with Ian in the trunk, wondering how to dispose of the body. Eve says: ‘I mean it’s not like in the old days when we could just chuck them in the Thames alongside all the other tubercular floaters.’
London is alluded to. Quoted. A city entombed in literature. We suspect the central characters shared a history there, but the details remain elusively out of sight, endlessly evocative yet frustratingly just out of reach. It is embodied in the ailing figure of Marlowe, whose historical namesake (the Elizabethan playwright) died in Deptford; in the accents of the actors; in the inter-text. Jarmusch makes persistent references to Shakespeare and, as we watch Marlowe dying, we can’t help but recall John Hurt, in his role as a similarly misunderstood, bedridden man, another mislabelled monster, not unlike this Marlowe: John Merrick in Lynch’s black and white evocation of Victorian London. London, therefore, is a palimpsest of histories, one layer partially concealing the next. It exists only in the interstices, in texts and fictions, in Marlowe’s ‘scribblings’ (quoting the film) and the artefacts around his bed:

And, much like the vampires of the diegesis, the city is itself an ailing fiction. London is a paper city, no longer capable of emitting light. When arranging their flight to Tangier from Detroit, Eve says: ‘No No I’m sorry. London’s no good.’ In the film’s present then, the city is not even a point on a map. It cannot be part of an itinerary. It exists only in the past, merely quotable in the present. Here, London is history – in every sense of the word.
Yet, it might also be the future: a prolepsis of what is to become of Detroit and Tangier. Jarmusch’s characters are endlessly referring to the theory of ‘Entanglement’ in quantum physics. Through Entanglement, Detroit, Tangier, and London (in all its past incarnations) can be theorised as one and the same place: the cities are separated parts of an ‘entwined particle’.
London (in the world of the film) has already succumbed to urban decay and deterioration. It has oxidised. We recall the circling starry sky of the film’s opening titles. London is a receding point of light in an expanding universe. Only Lovers Left Alive seems to theorize London (and by extension the City) as a nucleus, a cosmic body, that emits culture like light, first a living star, then a red dwarf, then a supernova and finally a black hole: anti-matter. And these disappearing cities leave traces, anecdotes, quotations, ephemera: flashes of brilliant light in the darkness, like the cinema itself.

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