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Rediscovering Jim Jarmusch

April 20, 2014

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Perhaps it’s no surprise that Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, is about vampires. With his shock of white hair and all-black wardrobe, he’s a bit of a vampire himself, not seeming to have aged a day in the 30 years since his breakout feature, the deadpan black-and-white comedy Stranger Than Paradise. But he has grown as an artist, as I can testify having attended several screenings in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s complete Jarmusch retrospective, Permanent Vacation, named after his 1980 debut, a fascinatingly primitive and nearly formless depiction of life in the downtown New York art scene before Manhattan began its transformation into the world’s biggest shopping mall.

In order to find an equally scary and uncivilized place, Jarmusch travelled to Detroit to film much of Only Lovers Left Alive, which can only be described as an undeadpan comedy. Convincingly debauched Brits Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as Adam and Eve — yes, that Adam and Eve — vampires who’ve kept their love (and themselves) alive for all these years by feasting on blood provided by such sources as 16th century playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), who takes some hilariously pointed shots at his contemporary, Shakespeare, and a research-lab worker known only as Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright, who steals both of his scenes).

Adam is a reclusive musical genius haunted by “zombies,” his derisive term for brainless human beings who won’t leave him alone (Los Angeles is termed “zombie central”). Jarmusch’s films have always been fueled by music — and the Film Society of Lincoln Center series smartly paired each of his films with a music video he directed for such artists as Talking Heads and Tom Waits — and Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception. Just as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put A Spell On You” perfectly set the mood for Stranger Than Paradise, tracks by Wanda Jackson, Charlie Feathers and Jarmusch’s own band, SQÜRL help maintain the spooky mood. Among the film’s hilarious throwaway jokes, Jack White (who recruited Jarmusch to direct the video for his band the Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes”), is implied to be a vampire as Adam and Eve pass his childhood home in one of their after-dark drives around the Motor City. Eve declines the opportunity to visit the Motown Museum, however, explaining, “I’m more of a Stax girl.” (She’s a vamp after my own heart.)

the_limits_of_control10In Swinton, Jarmusch has found an ideal muse: She also appeared, again with white blonde hair, in his underrated 2009 anti-thriller The Limits of Control, as did Bill Murray, a frequent Jarmusch crony, who delivers a chilling turn as a Dick Cheney-esque pol. It’s no coincidence that Swinton and Murray as are also kindred spirits with Wes Anderson. Jarmusch and the Grand Budapest Hotel auteur share a passion for carefully composed shots and bone-dry humor. (The Limits of Control is also notable for the appearance of Boardwalk Empire‘s frequently naked Paz de la Huerta, or as I call her, “Pants de la Where-ta?” since she’s bottomless through the entire film.)

Whether or not you enjoy Jarmusch’s films—and I’ve loved some (the martial-arts masterpiece Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) more than others (the muddy dramedy Broken Flowers), you’ve got to give the guy credit for never selling out. Even when he does genre pieces, he subverts the conventions; witness the abstruse Western Dead Man, or Only Lovers Left Alive‘s final scene, which I won’t spoil. To invoke the title of one of his best films, he boarded the Mystery Train long ago, and he’s not about to hop off now.

 

 

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