Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)

From the first frames, Jim Jarmusch’s 2014 film, Only Lovers Left Alive, juxtaposes the cycle of the eternal with the ephemeral. Night-sky stars transition into an endlessly rotating vinyl record. Bird’s-eye views of the eternal lovers Adam and Eve spin into and out of each other. The desolate, decaying Detroit is contrasted with the physically deteriorating yet vibrant Tangier. New and old technology, rock and classical music, vampires and humans: all represent past and present; life and death – two seemingly opposed yet entangled sides of one element. The lovers are exuberant and restrained – Eve displays childlike fascination with everything and Adam gloomy rejection of life itself. In a sequence that takes place before Eve travels to Detroit, she sensually dances to Adam’s music. He is recording in his house studio as his song transitions from diegetic to extra-diegetic music, and image and sound melt into each other to transcend space and time, connecting the lovers. As the paradigmatic elements of Einstein’s entanglement theory, which is a recurrent theme in the film, Adam and Eve are intertwined even when continents apart. Their eternal love defies ephemeral humanity and corrosion, and triumphs in the cycle of life and death.

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Detroit’s architectural decay is a physical expression of Adam’s apathy and his disdain for humanity’s destructive tendencies. Humans, whom he calls zombies, have not only managed to contaminate their water but also their own blood. Lingering in the past, Adam can only admire what has been lost, refusing Eve’s continuous turn of the hourglass and embrace of the present. His passion solely awakens as he talks of forgotten centuries or vanished beauty. When he takes Eve to the now derelict and sadly re-appropriated “famous Michigan Theater”, they marvel at its lost splendor. Low-angle shots of the faded luxurious ceiling are accompanied by Adam’s sorrowful recounting of the theater’s history. Built in the 1920s it stands on the exact same spot where Henry Ford first built automobiles. In its prime, the theater could seat over 4,000 people for concerts and movie showings. Adam states that “mirrors used to reflect the chandeliers” and as the camera perpetually caresses the remains of the theater’s walls the audience is transported to the bright lights, ordained mirrors, elegant guests and splendid entertainment of the past. When the camera slowly pans down to reveal Adam and Eve in the center of the dark and desolate building, it leaves this past to descend into the present: now the former theater is merely a car park. This architectural decline not only illustrates Adam’s longing for bygone elegance but also demonstrates Detroit’s economic bankruptcy.

Only Eve recognizes the city’s ambivalent landscape. Its desolate streets are seemingly devoid of all life. Yet, as she joyfully discovers throughout her stay, it is filled with wild animals and plants that should not be there. Just like Adam and Eve’s lives are intertwined – his apathy and her fascination forever connected – so too are industrial ruin and thriving nature. Eve’s driving force throughout the film finds beauty in destruction and recognizes that one has to adapt to the eternal cycle of life and death. Broken records that will never spin again and contaminated waters are a part of the city. For Eve, a smashed guitar reveals its inner beauty and the Spanish Inquisition was fun – and Detroit will rise again.

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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.

Detroit: “This Place Will Bloom”

When vampire Adam leaves his house in an abandoned Detroit neighbourhood in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), the front-yard abounds with rampant grass. This grass is nature, is life. In the media perception of the last years, however, the bankrupt city in southeast Michigan evokes the rhetoric of death, from Bloomberg’s “Detroit Is Dead” to the Guardian’s “death of a great American city.” The conceptual contradiction is rooted in the present-day understanding of a living city as an economically functional organism. Urban researchers such as Richard Hornsey and David Harvey have suggested that socio-economic power is connected to spatial control of the city.[1] Henry Ford’s spatiotemporally coordinated labour processes at the Highland Park plant neighbouring Detroit were an example in the work space;[2] the restriction of nature to a groomed rectangular front-garden lawn an example in residential space. The wild grass demarcates the present loss of economic and spatial power exercised in the past. At the same time, the flourishing residential wilderness relates to the future. Detroit, at the Detroit River, “will rise again. […] There’s water here,” says Adam’s vampire wife Eve. “[W]hen the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom.” Note the double connotation of the term “bloom” that is economic and natural. In this logic, the natural resources will tempt humans’ economic resources back to this urban area. The forlorn fire hydrant on the sidewalk will operate because Detroit will have both the money and the water for it. A single Detroit front-yard collapses not only the past, present, and future but also the cause and consequence of the conditions of Western living. The cause is the nineteenth-to-twentieth-century machine age; the consequence is global warming for which the industrial craze is widely blamed. The film casts Detroit as a microcosm of space and time. Yet, some questions remain unanswered: If Detroit transforms again into a “great American city,” will it again control its people and spaces? Will the grass be “put in its place”? What new and old prices will its population and the environment have to pay? While Ford has begun to turn to “greener” production in Michigan, Only Lovers Left Alive never mentions the Garden of Eden that the protagonists’ names Adam and Eve evoke.[3]

Elisa Jochum

[1] David Harvey, The Urban Experience (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989); Richard Hornsey, The Spiv and the Architect: Unruly Life in Postwar London (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
[2] Richard Hornsey, “‘He Who Thinks, in Modern Traffic, Is Lost’: Automation and the Pedestrian Rhythms of Interwar London,” in Geographies of Rhythm: Nature, Place, Mobilities and Bodies, ed. Tim Edensor (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 101; Bill Vlasic, “Detroit Is Now a Charity Case for Carmakers,” NYTimes.com, September 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/business/detroit-is-now-a-charity-case-for-carmakers.html?adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1417615611-d8SuMd/7Ie0bjyCG6HHKNw.
[3] Bill Vlasic, “Ford and Detroit Rivals Make Strides in Fuel Economy,” The New York Times, January 6, 2011, sec. Business Day, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/business/07green.html.

Tangier: The Hidden and The Intimate

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Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) juxtaposes the wide, industrialised cityscape of Detroit with the narrow, winding roads of Tangier. This covered alleyway gives a sense of intimacy and privacy, which is at odds with ideas about the city as a lonely, alienating place. In Tangier the material reality of the city intimately surrounds the lovers as they go on their way. At the same time, the highly structured nature of the city dictates their available routes. They cannot go in direct lines, but instead are forced to take detours, which lead them to both pleasant and unpleasant unexpected encounters. This old Moroccan town is full of hidden corners and doors behind which treasures hide. The staircases and passageways force characters Adam and Eve to explore the city by foot, even when they are exhausted. The city is demanding, but also rewarding, for example by allowing Adam to witness a performance by singer Yasmine Hamdan, whom he finds ‘too good to become famous.’
The walls of the town are crumbling, yet in the graffiti and the hand-made electrical wiring there are also markers of modern living, however haphazardly they are implemented. The name of the café in which Eve’s friend Marlowe stays references the mystical stories of the 1001 Arabian nights, but it is a modern coffee house.  The layers of history show in Tangier, in a way that is denied by modern industrial cities with their constant renewal and re-construction. In all these ways Tangier is opposed to Detroit, with its open spaces and wide motorways, which make it almost necessary to navigate the city by car. It is a lonely place, but also one full of freedom and possibility. In these ways, the cities both reflect the different histories of North Africa and the US, and the different internal lives of Eve and Adam respectively. Eve is warm and full of love, whereas Adam is desolate and solitary. The movement of the action in the film from Detroit to Tangier mirrors the movement of the balance of their relationship. Adam’s depression initially defines the relationship, but staying in Tangier lifts his misanthropic attitude, as the lovers decide to continue ‘living’. The cities are thus both reflections of the characters, and characters in their own right. They define what Adam and Eve can do, but also how their inner selves operate.