By Alan Scherstuhl
By Charles Taylor
By Melissa Anderson
By Inkoo Kang
By Amy Nicholson
By Sam Weisberg
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Chuck Wilson
Adam and Eve have been married for centuries. Over time, though, this pair of British vampires has drifted apart. Now she wanders Tangier by night while her musician husband mopes, inspiration-starved, inside a dark Detroit room. As they talk by Skype one evening, she says she'll return to him. He tells her he loves her so much, and she answers, "I'll take that for the journey."
These eternal lovers, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, are the focus of writer-director Jim Jarmusch's 11th feature, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). The film opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on April 11 following the eight-day retrospective "Permanent Vacation: The Films of Jim Jarmusch," which began Wednesday and features the filmmaker and other guests in attendance at several screenings.
Throughout Jarmusch's films, characters build relationships as a way to fill time in tales that he told a New York Times reporter over 20 years ago are about "things that we take for granted that may be what life really is." His focus has stayed consistent since then, leading up to an idiosyncratic vampire film; the survival high that Adam and Eve get from drinking from strangers pales next to the sustenance they draw from journeying toward one another.
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Like them, several of Jarmusch's other heroes travel with death, such as the terse Lone Man played by Isaach de Bankolé in The Limits of Control (2009), who focuses on his mission of carrying out an assassination in Madrid. They do so because, whether outlandishly or tenderly, looking to death helps drive them through life. The outlaw accountant William Blake (played by Johnny Depp) in the black-and-white Western Dead Man (1995) rides toward the sea with a bullet lodged in his heart, building his courage by making poetry out of killing bounty hunters. The Italian woman Luisa played by Nicoletta Braschi in Mystery Train (1989), stranded in Memphis with her recently deceased husband's coffin, wanders, adrift, until the ghost of Elvis appears in her hotel room to give guidance and solace.
The people in those films revive themselves among the dead. So do Adam and Eve, who drive through Detroit shortly after her arrival to survey its desolate landscapes. The lovers visit the sites of former concert halls and movie theaters, recalling the Motor City of popular imagination, and soon go home to dance to the throwback sound of Denise LaSalle's "Trapped by a Thing Called Love."
"I've always been interested in the ruins, or the artifacts, of previous civilizations, whether they be from 2,000 years ago or 50 years ago," Jarmusch told Inkoo Kang in a Village Voice feature piece published in March. This is clear from how he films people and traditions -- for instance, the equal weight given to ancient Japanese and modern-day mafioso lifestyles in the philosophical hit man film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). It applies to his locations, too. The 61-year-old Ohio native and longtime New Yorker was inspired to film Detroit largely because of its musical history and what that suggested of its cultural history, just as he was drawn to a tourist-driven Memphis for Mystery TrainM and to a downbeat New Orleans for the misfit prison comedy Down by Law (1986).
These last two films came so vividly into his mind that he wrote their screenplays before ever visiting their cities. They treat music as a spiritual wind blowing from the past into a present-day place to carry people forward. It propels character movement in other Jarmusch films as well, even if the songs aren't particular to the city being shown. In Night on Earth (1991), a portmanteau film that takes place during five different taxi rides across five different cities, a Tom Waits score transports the viewer from Paris to Rome to Helsinki. At the beginning of Jarmusch's breakout, Stranger Than Paradise (1984), a young, recently landed Hungarian immigrant, Eva (played by Eszter Balint), walks Lower East Side streets with Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You" animating her and the camera's travels through a new world -- until she reaches her joyless American cousin Willie's apartment, that is, at which point the music cuts out and the frame stays fixed.
Willie initially acts unhappy to host Eva, then eventually gets so used to her that he follows her out of New York. This grump (played by Lounge Lizards frontman John Lurie, who scored several of Jarmusch's early films) is the first in a long line of one of the director's signature types: the icemen for warmer characters to thaw out. Willie's transition is echoed by Only Lovers' Adam, whom Eve sometimes succeeds in coaxing out of himself. In between these men stand stiff figures such as Bill Murray's Don Johnson in Broken Flowers (2005), an initially inert former lothario who springs to life to visit several old flames after learning that one might have borne him a son.
Don sees pieces of himself in each of their homes, but he's always only a visitor, traveling to discover where he feels least out of place. Allie Parker (Christopher Parker), the young Charlie Parker- and Lautréamont-obsessed protagonist of Jarmusch's debut feature, Permanent Vacation (1980), takes a similar journey as he leaves his apartment and slowly traverses a wiped-out city, finally buying a boat ticket to Paris with the hope that he can find comfort abroad.
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