Adam, a vampire and underground rock musician, sneaks down the quiet corridors of a Detroit hospital, dressed in a physician’s scrubs with his face concealed by a surgical mask and sunglasses. He locates Dr. Watson (Jeremy Wright), the man who regularly supplies him with blood-bank donations in exchange for cash. During this exchange, Watson informs Adam that his stethoscope, part of his disguise as “Dr. Faust,” is outdated and that he may want update it to avoid suspicion. On the other side of the world, Adam’s wife, named Eve (naturally), wanders the streets of Tangier (fig. 1), her face also concealed, looking to purchase blood from a friend, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the alleged ghostwriter for William Shakespeare. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have been lovers for centuries, and after spending years, possibly a human lifetime, apart, they decide that the time has come for them to reunite.
Nearly all vampire stories rely on a relationship to the past – their vampire characters having outlived humans several times over – and some even engage with real history and historical figures. The fifteenth-century invasion of Eastern Europe by the Ottoman Empire is an essential component of the Dracula legend and features notably in Francis Ford Coppola’s film version (1992). Colonial French Louisiana provides the setting for much of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and the 1994 film. The HBO series True Blood contains a Viking, a Civil War veteran, and an ally of Adolf Hitler – the vampires serving as undead historians. Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), however, provides an interesting new turn on the vampire film. The film simultaneously relies on and subverts common vampire genre codes in order to perform cultural critiques that are commonly associated with the historical film.
Much scholarship is devoted to the historical film, not just in terms of how these films preserve a cultural memory of the past but also how they critique our relationship with the past. Jonathan Stubbs observes that a common feature of historical films is that they rely on narrative strategies and visual aesthetics that point to or rely upon a real past (Stubbs 2013, 28), an observation that calls into question films that we would not readily consider “historical films” but nevertheless point to a historical past. After all, the X-Men series, though featuring a Holocaust survivor as a central character, stands firmly in the fantasy genre; the republican uprisings in early Francoist Spain provide the backdrop for Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), forging an explicit relationship with history, though again, in what is clearly a fantasy film. Such questions help to broaden the discussion on how the historical film has informed the development of other genre codes and conventions. I argue that although Only Lovers Left Alive clearly belongs to the horror genre (in tone, story, characters, and visual design), Jarmusch’s film functions as a historical film; Only Lovers Left Alive refers to a real past and real people and uses vampire film conventions to perform the same critical assessment of the past and present commonly found in historical films, namely the biopic.
In this essay, I will examine the ways that Only Lovers Left Alive can be read as an alternative historical film: a non-historical film that critiques contemporary culture’s relationship with history. I will start by exploring how the film’s text provides an indexical relationship between the historical film and the vampire film, relying on an audience familiarity with both. Then I will examine the film in relation to the historical film subgenre the biopic, how Jarmusch’s film affirms a common biopic view of individuals as the agents of history; in Only Lovers Left Alive, the physical absence of these great men and women of history is used to highlight the qualities that set them apart from their contemporary descendants. Lastly, I will look at how the film’s settings and use of technology stress the cultural and intellectual differences between the past and present, one that emphasizes the otherness of the present, in contrast to historical films that embellish the otherness of the past.
Only Lovers Left Alive’s first act exhibits a clear revision of the vampire film, relying on a memory of previous genre codes and drawing on a memory of other films. The film’s opening credit sequence features red titles in Germanic fraktur font, recalling the Central and Eastern European origins of vampire mythology. The music playing over the titles is a slow, haunting piece of electronic rock music, suggesting a contemporary setting. Here we have the first clash of styles that seek to defamiliarize the traditional vampire film. The lettering and color of these credit titles may have been found in previous vampire films, but absent is the string section of an orchestra playing menacing low notes, such as can be found in Wojciech Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). The black background of this shot fades to a shot of stars in the night sky, the camera turning slowly as if the stars are spinning. The shot soon dissolves to a seven-inch vinyl record on a turntable. We cut to an overhead shot of Eve, lying on her bed in Tangier, the camera still turning like a record. There is a cross cut to Adam, sitting on a couch in his grotty Detroit apartment, holding on to a mandolin, the camera still slowly spinning (fig. 2). The soundtrack plays “Funnel of Love” by Jarmusch’s own band Sqürl (featuring Madeline Follin of the New York-based indie rock band Cults), a song that features the sounds of both Western electric guitars and Middle Eastern instruments. The reverb effects and unconventional tuning, produced through peddles and placing the guitar pickups close to the amplifier (as we see Adam do later in the film), creates a dizzying, disorientating feeling that mirrors Adam and Eve’s disillusionment. The music also has an eclectic, otherworldly feel that, like the film itself, is difficult to pin down, not readily categorized. This opening sequence contrasts the old world with the new world, signaling a vampire film where the characters are alienated from a historical past that was once rich and vibrant. The two lovers have come to what they consider to be the end of human history (and perhaps the end of the immortal as well).
Following this scene, Ian (Anton Yelchin), a human who acquires for Adam difficult-to-obtain items, brings to Adam’s house an array of electric guitars that he had ordered (a 1959 Supro, a Swedish-made 1960 Hagstrom, a Silvertone from the early ’60s, and a Chet Atkins Gretsch with a 61-20, double cutaway). Adam, dressed all in black, barefoot, examines the guitars, strumming and plucking each one with a different chord, as if he instinctively knows which one will sound the best on each instrument. Ian, with the stereotypical look of an early 1990s Seattle grunge rocker (black Converse shoes, striped t-shirt, long hair, and a Van Dyke beard), watches in awe at Adam’s knowledge and advises him to consider coming out of anonymity and performing live, as being reclusive has only made his cult fans even more curious. Adam declines and requests that Ian procure a wooden bullet, preferably made of dense wood (“ironwood, lignum vitae, maybe snakewood, piratinera guianensis, or possibly African blackwood, dalbergia melanoxlon”). This request plays on audience familiarity with vampire lore, an indication that Adam, feeling that his potential has come to an end, will take his own life with a bullet-stake through the heart (like his music, a convergence of the old world ways and contemporary technology).
We first see blood consumed in the film about twenty minutes in, a scene that cuts between Adam, Eve, and Marlowe ritually preparing their dosage, eerily reminiscent of heroin film scenes. The blood, clandestinely procured from pharmacies, is poured into small dessert wine glasses, then held up to the light to be admired, and then drunk in one gulp. After each vampire drinks, they smile to reveal their fangs and then slowly fall backwards in a euphoric state (fig. 3). As they fall, the camera moves with them, still fixed on their face, in a technique similar to the drug scenes from Trainspotting (1996) and Requiem for a Dream (2001), achieved through a bodymount camera attached to the actor. It’s as if the three characters have reached a point where blood-drinking has become a clinical and medicinal practice, similar to a severe opiate addiction, fueling the film’s presentation of vampires arriving at the end of both human history and their own. This blending of vampire film codes with elements from other films is a process described by Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as “genre memory”: genres are constantly revised through a simultaneous remembrance of past usage and an incorporation of present-day resources, or other genre codes, in order to say something wholly new.1
On the one hand, Jarmusch acknowledges a more diverse horror subgenre, beyond the gothic touchstone Dracula and other popular vampire films and novels. In an interview with The Playlist, Jarmusch credits a lifelong interest with vampire films in contributing to the screenplay, in particular “marginal” and “less conventional” films such as Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1982; starring David Bowie), and recent films like Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008) (Perez 2014). On the other hand, Jarmusch’s film serves as a continuation of contemporary vampire narratives. Adam and Eve embody the figure of the sympathetic vampire, for example, a character type that gained traction toward the end of the twentieth century and populates much of twenty-first-century vampire stories, such as the Twilight novels. Milly Williamson notes that the sympathetic vampire, despite actually having nineteenth-century roots alongside Bram Stoker’s Dracula and John Polidori’s The Vampyre,2 was the product of audiences identifying their own feelings of otherness and alienation in vampire characters (Williamson 2014, 71). It is this identification, perhaps, that enables the film to effectively critique contemporary culture’s relationship with the past and perform the tasks associated with the historical film.
Horror stories, according to Stephen King, can be divided into two different categories: stories in which “the horror results from an act of free and conscious will” and those where “the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning” (King 1981, 70). Novels such as Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (and their countless film adaptations) fall into the former category, whereas vampire stories belong to the latter. Although Jarmusch’s film does not explicitly aim to frighten (casting some doubt on its horror film status), Only Lovers Left Alive touches on both horror story categories. Adam, Eve, and the other vampire characters represent the horror “coming from outside,” whereas the humans, whom Adam derisively refers to as “zombies,” represent a horror resulting from “free and conscious will”; a decaying and dangerous human world is portrayed as a self-generated horror threatening both mortals and immortals – the result of greed, an abandonment of principles, and a denial of the forward thinking embodied in the great scientists, artists, and philosophers of the past (some of whom Adam, Eve, and Marlowe have had the pleasure of meeting and even inspiring). It is on this basis that Jarmusch builds his historical critique and combines the elements of the vampire film with the historical film.
Films that engage with the historical past, whether recent or distant, provide interesting case studies for how successive generations renegotiate cultural memory and their understanding of how the past shapes the present. Historical films can also bring into relief hidden or competing histories that either challenge or compliment prevailing narratives and authoritative accounts of the past, asking the viewer to consider the present as being shaped by histories rather than one history; many of these films demonstrate that no two stories of nationhood are alike – some overlap and some are radically different. Lastly, historical films can perform thought experiments about the past, deliberately departing from the historical print record in order to pose a different set of questions about our relationship with history. Reading Only Lovers Left Alive in relation to the historical film can be used to further highlight how historical films accomplish these aims and how the narrative strategies of historical films have been repurposed in other films to assist their genre revision and to sharpen their social, cultural, or historical critique.
Robert Rosenstone, one of the key voices in historical film scholarship, lists six critical elements found in mainstream historical films. In short, they are:
- The film tells the story of the past with a beginning, middle, and end.
- The film insists on history as the story of individuals.
- The film offers us a history as the story of a unitary, closed, and completed past.
- The film personalizes, dramatizes, and emotionalizes the past.
- Historical films obviously give us the look of the past, of buildings, landscapes, costumes, and artifacts.
- Film shows history as process. The world onscreen brings together things that, for analytic purposes, written history often splits apart. (Rosenstone 2006, 47-48)
Only Lovers Left Alive simultaneously meets and subverts Rosenstone’s six elements of the historical film. On the one hand, the film points toward a real past populated by real historical individuals, whom Adam and Eve find more remarkable than their shallow and insipid contemporaries. The present is shown as a culmination of history as a process, the culmination being the breakdown of human society as a result of this process, a crucial component in the film’s appraisal of recent history. Additionally, though the past is not explicitly dramatized, it is romanticized in stark contrast to the present. On the other hand, Adam, Eve, and Christopher Marlowe’s account of the past can be viewed as an alternative history, contesting the idea of a unitary past; by positioning vampires as the alternative historians, history is left open to a retelling, offered with a convincing, authoritarian (and cynical) tone. Lastly, the film’s historical past, only pointed at rather than shown, is one with no clear beginning, middle, and end, surviving only through artifacts (old musical instruments and recording technology).
In The Hollywood Historical Film, Robert Burgoyne identifies five historical film subgenres: the epic, the war film, the biopic, the meta-historical film, and the topical film (2008). As a thought experiment, let’s consider Only Lover Left Alive to be a historical film. In that case, it could be categorized as a biopic. The biopic starts with the assumption that history is made by individuals and that their qualities, good and bad, are worthy of a cinematic examination (Rosenstone 2007, 12). Jarmusch’s film explicitly affirms, through Adam and Eve’s relationship with the past, that individuals are the agents of history, and through the physical absence of these great men and women of history onscreen, critiques their qualities that set them apart from their contemporary descendants.
According to Adam, William Hawes (seventeenth-century English musician) was “casually” shot dead by a parliamentarian, and later Adam admits that he wrote a string quartet for Schubert, asking the composer to present the piece as his own. The car that Adam drives is fueled by the technology developed by Nikola Tesla. Eve blames Adam’s wild, wayward streak on the time he spent with Shelley and Byron and “some of those French arseholes he used to hang out with.” Christopher Marlowe ghost-wrote for William Shakespeare (in particular, admitting to having written Hamlet and lamenting that he did not meet Adam beforehand), a secret that Eve thinks should be revealed, as “it would cause such chaos.” The film also “outs” Marlowe as a homosexual through Eve’s friendly banter with him at a Tangier harbor (fig. 4). In these moments, the vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive perform one of the primary tasks of the biopic: providing a critique on real historical figures and their place in history. Consider a scene where Adam and Eve, after reuniting at the end of the film’s first act, lie on Adam’s couch reminiscing about the past: Adam states that he has no heroes. Eve, with her head on his lap, looking into his eyes, counters by asking “what about your blessed scientists?” Adam responds that humans have attacked and degraded the work and memory of scientists throughout history (“Pythagoras, slaughtered. Galileo, imprisoned. Copernicus, ridiculed. Poor old Newton pushed into secrecy and alchemy. Tesla, destroyed; his beautiful possibilities completely ignored. And they’re still bitching about Darwin.”). Here, Adam makes both an explicit reference to the debate between creationism and the theory of evolution, still having an impact on the American social-political landscape, and a persistent human trend to destroy people and creations that could advance the species in positive ways. These observations leave the audience with the question of whether this is merely Adam’s point of view or if it is also Jarmusch interjecting his own analysis of history.
Eve: “Can you tell your wife what your problem is?”
Adam: “It’s these zombies and the way they treat the world. I just feel like all of the sand is at the bottom of the hourglass or something.”
Eve: “Time to turn it over then.”
Jarmusch’s historical critique, embedded in the film, points to a generational disconnect from cultural memory: the contemporary generation, composed of what is commonly known as “generation y” (those born during the 1980s and 1990s), has cloaked itself in an insular environment, in which cultural artifacts and history from before their time holds little value for them. It is clear early on that the zombies epitomize this generational attitude, but this cultural outlook is also embodied in Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a vampire in the guise of an irresponsible teenager. Ava has assimilated into the “zombie” world and contemptuously has little interest in the past, in particular a (vaguely hinted at) falling-out between her and Adam and Eve that took place in Paris circa the 1930s. Halfway into the film, Ava surprises Adam and Eve in Detroit, having just flown in from Los Angeles (“zombie central,” according to Adam). She ignores long-held vampire traditions (entering a home without invitation) and finds Adam and Eve dull and snobbish. She claims that she has heard Adam’s music, only available on vinyl, in an L.A. club and asks if she could “get a download.” Even more striking, Ava has orange hair and wears brightly colored clothing with flashy patterns, in stark contrast to the solid black-and-white tones of Adam and Eve. Jarmusch places Ava in contradiction to both Adam and Eve’s view of the present – through composition, costume, and mannerism, a strategy that highlights the importance of the film’s mise-en-scene in its historical critique and revision of vampire genre codes.
The dark and light contrast between Adam and Eve (and the mise-en-scene Jarmusch crafts around the two) aid in presenting conflicting views of history in the film: a view of history as cyclical (embodied by Eve) and a view of progressive history, rooted in the Enlightenment (embodied by Adam). After dark, Adam’s Detroit bears a striking resemblance to the landscape of apocalyptic zombie films: dilapidated houses, overgrown front lawns dominated by weeds, abandoned vehicles left by the side of the road, and the howl of coyotes in the distance. Adam wanders through this wilderness either dressed in black or wearing black sunglasses. The fabric of his furniture and carpets inside his apartment are dark colors, emphasizing his broodiness and apathy. Eve, by contrast, with her light-colored clothing and almost white hair, wanders through Tangier’s old medina, a labyrinth of tea cafes and Moroccan dar housing bathed in yellow and orange tones. The city has a long history of espionage (Pennell 1999, 257), and for Eve and Marlowe, it acts as the last civilized refuge from a world at its end. She lies on her light blue bed, as she calls Adam, wearing a yellow silk kimono. Later when Adam greets Eve on his doorstep, after two night flights from Tangier to Paris to Detroit, one half of his face is shadowed, a near-perfect symmetrical line emphasizing the chiaroscuro (fig.5). For the remainder of the film, Adam and Eve maintain this dark/light contrast, through clothing, lighting, and even through the chess pieces they use during a late-night game. The moment in the film where the Adam sheds his cloak of darkness is after lovemaking with Eve, the paleness of his body nearly equal with Eve, accentuated by the black fabric on which they sleep (fig. 6). Although one can suspect that Adam’s views on history and the present may be Jarmusch’s, this chiaroscuro is used to present Eve’s contrasting take on the present generation.
On the one hand, Adam, according to Jarmusch, “is hurt by the things he sees,” and sees humans as having reached the end of their potential, reduced to a state of being nothing more than zombies (Perez 2014). This view seems to confirm that Adam subscribes to a progressive (or regressive) view of history. Eve, on the other hand, is slightly more positive in her view of history as cyclical, though this may be due to her living away from modern Europe and North America. She judiciously packs a selection of old books for her travel to the U.S.A., an eclectic assortment of languages and topics. Upon reaching Adam’s home, a striped skunk crosses her path, to which she, with great fondness, responds with the animal’s scientific name “mephitis mephitis,” as if she has not seen one in centuries. As she travels through Detroit’s abandoned neighborhoods with Adam, she claims that the city will someday rise again, as “there’s water here.”
“That’s the Packard Plant, where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world … finished.”
Detroit, a city severely damaged by the 2008 financial crises and previous downsizing of industry, provides both a reference point for the film’s historical critique and Eve’s counterbalance to Adam’s take on the human condition. As Stacey Abbot notes, vampire stories often center on releasing the vampire character from the rural and the premodern to the modern and cosmopolitan (Abbot 2014, 38). Dracula leaves his remote Transylvanian castle to “wander the crowded streets of … mighty London”; Anne Rice’s Lestat de Lioncourt leaves his ancestral home of Auvergne, France, and the world becomes his oyster; George Romero’s Martin is a drifter who makes Pittsburg his home. Adam and Eve appear to follow this pattern in Only Lovers Left Alive, and if both have slightly conflicting views about where they are in human history, then their new life in the Motor City serves as a unique site to see this discourse played out.
“I once saw Eddie Cochran play one of these …. on YouTube.”
Technology and science are used in the service of both a social critique and a repurposing of vampire conventions. Eve’s book-covered apartment indicates that she is clearly not a user of e-readers. Adam records his music on equipment outdated to anyone but him, and he does not listen to this music on computers or mp3 players. When Eve contacts Adam, however, she uses an Apple iPhone (fig. 7), and the two speak face-to-face, Eve using the Facetime function and Adam through a USB connection to his 1970s (possibly 1960s) era television set (ironically Eve calls Adam a “pack rat”). This seems to suggest a contemporary relationship with consumerism as well as Jarmusch’s critical stance; one cannot function in the 2010s without certain corporate products, even if you are a being who has survived for centuries without them. The creatures of the night, thought only to be killed in specific and spectacular ways, are rendered vulnerable to the technology and science that physically and intellectually enfeeble mortals as well (further affirming Adam’s belief in the greatness of the scientists of the past in contrast to the intellectually devoid culture of the present). Furthermore, Adam’s role as a rock musician offers some interesting points on the connection between cultural history and technological history, and as Eric Hobsbawn points out, rock music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is undeniably tied to technological revolution (Hobsbawn 2013, 9). Jarmusch’s vampires have lived through several technological revolutions, but their relationship to technology is tied to their beliefs about the progression of human culture up to the present – the “zombies,” as Adam bemoans, are afraid “of their own imaginations.”
Recent technological revolutions have been linked to an advance of a security state, according to some social critiques,3 and in Only Lovers Left Alive, and other contemporary vampire stories, vampires are affected by the security state in unique ways. Feasting on pre-sourced blood rather than living victims suggests that forensic science, security surveillance, and law enforcement assault tactics have rendered the traditional vampiric procurement of human blood unfeasible, placing limitations on them as well as humans. Angry mobs and steak-wielding vampire hunters have been replaced by SWAT teams, police helicopters, and national security agencies, making murder out of the question and increasing the vampire’s need to maintain a low profile. Later in the film, when Ian is killed by Ava, Adam and Eve are forced to dispose of the body in a pool of acid in an abandoned factory, suggested as the final resting place of several of Detroit’s missing persons. The two lovers soon decide to flee to Tangier, as they determine that their capture will be inevitable, no matter how diligent they are in covering up Ava’s actions. The result is a modern vampire code, present in other contemporary vampire stories (such as True Blood): assimilation into the human world that strives toward as little disruption and attention as possible.
This modern vampire code is finally broken at the end of the film. After Adam and Eve return to Tangier, they find themselves starving, with no safe blood source available, and decide to feast on a young couple necking in the moonlight. This finale is presented as a return to both an idealized past and the conventional vampire film. It is left slightly ambiguous, however, whether or not this return affirms Eve’s view of a cyclical history. Both Adam and Eve’s views on human prospects appear to converge in this scene and provide a punctuation mark to Jarmusch’s own critical assessment of history. On reflection, the film suggests that this critique may be achieved as a biopic of any of Adam and Eve’s historical acquaintances – a film about the life of Nikola Tesla, for example, directed by Jarmusch or not, could plausibly impart these criticisms. The film’s simultaneous reliance on and subversion of vampire genre codes, however, suggests an influence of historical film codes and modes of looking at the past that are not strictly resigned to filmic treatments of actual history. Narrative and aesthetic strategies, used by historical films to create a dialogue with the past, are present in Only Lovers Left Alive, providing a unique assessment of our present in relation to our past.
Abbott, Stacey. “Taking Back the Night: Dracula’s Daughter in New York”. Screening the Undead: Vampires and Zombies in Film and Television. London: IB Tauris, 2014.
Burgoyne, Robert. The Hollywood Historical Film. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
Hobsbawm, Eric. Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century. London: Little, Brown, 2013.
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Everest House, 1981
Pennell, C.R. “Wars: The Second World War in Morocco.” Morocco Since 1830: A History. New York: New York UP, 1999.
Perez, Rodrigo. “Interview: Jim Jarmusch talks the vampiric charms of Only Lovers Left Alive and proposing to muse Tilda Swinton.” The Playlist. April 10, 2014. Web URL: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/interview-jim-jarmusch-talks-the-vampiric-charms-of-only-lovers-left-alive-proposing-to-muse-tilda-swinton-20140409
Petkovic, John. “Director Jim Jarmusch, long known for his use of music, delivers stellar soundtrack with his band Squrl.” Cleveland. March 2, 2014. Web URL: http://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2014/05/director_jim_jarmusch_long_kno.html
Rosenstone, Robert. History on Film/Film on History. London: Pearson, 2006.
Rosenstone, Robert. “In Praise of the Biopic.” Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film. Edited by Richard Francavaiglia and Jerry Rodnitzky. Arlington: U of Texas P, 2007
Stubbs, Jonathan. Historical Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Bloomsbury, 2013
Williamson, Milly. “Let Them All In: The Evolution of the ‘Sympathetic’ Vampire.” Screening the Undead: Vampires and Zombies in Film and Television. London: IB Tauris, 2014.
- For further reading on Bakhtin, see Gary Morson and Caryl Emerson’s Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of Prosaics (Stanford UP, 1990). [↩]
- Williamson offers the English serial Varney the Vampire (1845-1847) as an example of a tortured, sympathetic vampire character; this is fascinating when one considers that the character appeared nearly five decades before Dracula. [↩]
- For further reading, I recommend the work of Mark Davis, in particular City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Vintage, 1990). It is also worth considering recent scholarship on the militarization of U.S. law enforcement (Radley Balko’s work, as well as my own publication in Bright Lights Cinema Journal, Fall 2013). [↩]