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Who Wants to Die for Art!?!: Reflections on a Meta-Film Sub-Genre: Part IV
𝘖𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘓𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘓𝘦𝘧𝘵 𝘈𝘭𝘪𝘷𝘦: The Rebel Artist in Self-Exile
Speaking of art and dying… A week after the publication of this series’ previous entry, which focused on Pierrot le fou (1965), that film’s director, the legendary and controversial Jean-Luc Godard, died at the age of 91. Hopefully the same won’t happen to Jim Jarmusch, whose Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is the subject of this fourth installment of the “Who Wants to Die For Art?!?” series.
I’m only half-joking. Of course I don’t believe that my writing possesses magical powers over life and death. But I frequently wonder whether even rationally motivated writing, filmmaking, etc. retains traces of “primitive” superstition — of an artist’s desire to alter society and/or guard oneself against its forces by constructing a substitute fictional world that he or she can control.
If so, then Godard and Jarmusch provide a contrasting study of approaches to a possible talismanic cinema. Starting from his very first feature, 1959’s Breathless, Godard’s primary artistic concern was the discovery of aesthetic forms that might effectively represent and reconfigure a complex, fragmented, heterogeneous, and constantly conflicted socio-political reality. These discoveries proved as complex, fragmented, heterogeneous, and constantly conflicted as reality itself, but they were nonetheless resolutely anti-realist in their ceaseless rupturing and questioning of the illusionistic “seamlessness” that dominates popular entertainment. As discussed in the prior entry of this series, a film like Pierrot exemplifies Godard’s anti-realist strategies by realizing not only an alternative cinematic practice but also an alternatively imperfect Real — as opposed to the transcendent Real of Western Christian societies — that might join disparate modes of art and life: introspection and action, fantasy and fact, destruction and creation.
Certain facets of Jarmusch’s cinema converge with those of Godard’s, but toward a decidedly different goal. Both directors explore anti-realistic cinematic possibilities by mixing seemingly incompatible generic elements, by imagining surreal intersections of history and modernity, by rendering violence as disturbingly deadpan, irreverent slapstick. But whereas Godard’s cinematic style invokes a sort of hyper-critical eight-dimensional chess (cubist montage sequences, multi-layered soundscapes, dense inter- and extra-textual allusions), Jarmusch’s films approach, yet never fully reach, a disillusioned minimalism, wry in tone and unfolding as a series of distanced, discrete observations. Godard reconfigured the world according to a frenzied intellectualism in order to intervene in it, but Jarmusch reduces the world according to a caustic hipsterism in order to resign from it. In the work of Godard the world is portrayed as dying but nonetheless capable of redemption through kinetic reconstruction; in the work of Jarmusch the world is portrayed as unredeemable and perhaps best left for dead by way of aloof renunciation.
For the purposes of this series, Only Lovers Left Alive most fits the bill of a meta-film in which “an artist gravitates toward madness and murder to break through the unsatisfying limits of representation so as to discover and work within the Real.” This is because Only Lovers is the kind of elegiac “dead world” narrative that Jarmusch has made throughout his career, the kind in which an alienated iconoclast upholds, though doesn’t quite fight for, the values of a vanished civilization that has lapsed into barbarity and ruin. But unlike the protagonists of Dead Man (1995), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), or The Limits of Control (2009) — and note, by the way, the scorched Earth evoked by all of these titles — the protagonist of Only Lovers is an artist. Not only that, he is a vampire. And beyond even that, he is symbolic of humankind’s beginning as well as its ending: his name is Adam. (Jarmusch has stated that he named the film’s central characters after those in Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve  rather than those from the Bible, but the symbolism of the latter nonetheless resonates throughout Only Lovers.) In the figure of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) Jarmusch thus melds the myths of the Visionary Creator, the Damned Monster, and the Original Man, and in so doing he offers a haunting self-portrait of the artist in exile within his own expired culture. Unsatisfied with the communicative properties of creativity, this isolated artist seeks the Real by insulating himself from his unreceptive, undeserving audience.
Before Only Lovers, Jarmusch had hinted at the artistic self-portrait: none of the anti-heroes of Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and The Limits of Control are artists, but they all evoke the artistic sensibility in name (Dead Man’s William Blake) or preoccupation (Ghost Dog’s and Control’s Zen-like esthetes). These characters are also killers, however, and so it’s interesting to note that the artist-protagonist of Only Lovers, though a vampire, does not — until film’s end, and then only by implication — kill anybody. Whereas the predecessors to Adam within Jarmusch’s oeuvre embody characteristics and interests that define the artist, they also directly engage with the world — even if in a murderous vein — rather than represent it through creative endeavor. Adam does the opposite: a virtual recluse living in a cluttered Victorian house in Detroit (a city whose post-industrial decline serves as a major visual and thematic motif), he monastically devotes himself to creation and only engages with the human world through Ian (Anton Yelchin), a contact in the record industry who procures for him vintage instruments and who leaks his music to media outlets. Like his longtime Tangier-based girlfriend, Eve (Tilda Swinton), Adam doesn’t even directly feast on human blood. Because humans have so polluted their bodies with sundry chemicals and diseases, Adam must obtain pure (or purified) blood through a plasma laboratory in a local hospital.
Purity is a significant theme in Only Lovers. Historically, the vampire myth has trafficked in the concept of purity, though usually of the sexual or racial kind — in Dracula (1897), for instance, Bram Stoker strongly implies that the titular villain must travel to Britain to drink the blood of a “pure race” now that his Eastern European homeland has been defiled by mixed “stock.” Jarmusch isn’t interested in racial or sexual purity but instead artistic purity, and so the biological toxicity of 21st Century human blood metaphorically represents the toxicity of a flat-lined American and global culture. (In Hebrew “Adam” contains the word “dam,” which means “blood.” In Only Lovers, Adam remains one of the few beings on the planet composed of pure blood, à la his biblical namesake prior to the Fall.) Just as Adam must avoid direct contact with tainted humans (whom he and Eve derisively deem “zombies”), so does he live as a shut-in to minimize contact with a declining human civilization. “I’m sick of it,” he tells Eve when explaining his suicidal ideation. “These zombies, what they’ve done to the world, their fear of their own imaginations.” Since humans have corrupted their imaginative and creative abilities, Adam chooses to work as an artist in anonymity — he retains an interest in “getting the work out there” (as he says of the trick fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe [John Hurt] played on the world by crediting his work to Shakespeare), but only on the condition that his creativity avoid compromise through treacherous dealings with the culture industry, the vampiric institution man has erected to place art under capitalist control.
Remaining aloof from a civilization of philistines, Adam fashions an artistic sanctuary within his Detroit home. He surrounds himself with his own instruments and other technological devices for the creating, recording, and playing of music, he keeps books in his refrigerator, and he cordons off a section of his house as a shrine to his (and presumably Jarmusch’s) favorite artists (Franz Kafka, Iggy Pop, Michel Basquiat, etc). Here the myth of the vampire as a doomed, solitary romantic fuses with the myth of the overly sensitive artist who can exist only in an insulated environment that mirrors his own exalted sense of creativity. Such an environment helps retain the artist’s purity even as it prevents him from directly communicating through his art — Adam has been able to “get the work out there,” but his societal role as an artist has become almost completely abstracted.
Adam’s nullification of a public persona through anonymity and seclusion is reflected in the nature of his music (mostly created by Jarmusch’s real-life musical project, SQÜRL): lyric-less, repetitious, and droning, the ouroboros-like sonic quality of these compositions is visually echoed in the film's opening scene, which matches rotating overhead shots of Adam and Eve as they bliss out to his recordings. It is art in its purest but also its least signifying form, hypnotic art that refers to little beyond itself and that refuses to reflect or comment on present socio-political conditions and realities. Once more, Jarmusch inverts the vampire myth through bittersweet irony: Adam’s disengagement from his social responsibilities as an artist mirrors his disengagement from his symbolic purpose as a vampire. Since vampiric attacks famously symbolize uninhibited lust, a vampire’s rejection of “the thrill of the hunt” functions as the ultimate expression of disdain for mankind. Adam and Eve, the latter a muse and art connoisseur, are the “only lovers left alive” and thus cannot condescend to “make love” to humans who are barely deserving of their artistic gifts, let alone their erotic ones.
One can argue that Jarmusch offers hope by ending Only Lovers with a restoration of the vampire’s mythic/symbolic role as well as the artist’s societal role, yet one must also observe that this restoration is depicted as only being made possible through violence. Forced to leave Detroit when Eve’s intrusive and gregarious younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) feasts on Ian, Adam and Eve escape to Tangier and find themselves without their regular supply of pure (or purified) blood. While starving in the streets of the city, Eve asks Adam about Einstein’s discovery of “spooky action at a distance.” Adam explains: “When you separate an entwined particle and you move both parts away from the other, even at opposite ends of the universe, if you alter or affect one, the other will be identically altered or affected.” They then spot a pair of young lovers and — more out of a renewed sense of purpose than desperation — decide to suck their blood and turn them into vampires. The last shot of the film depicts Adam and Eve baring their fangs as they approach the couple, the camera, and, by proxy, the viewer.
The ending depicts Adam and Eve recognizing that to exist in the world — even as creatures of superior artistic talent and temperament — is to exist in relation to others, or what Martin Buber describes as an “I-Thou” partnership. Even if morally, intellectually, and creatively remote from a civilization that has headed toward oblivion, Adam and Eve are nonetheless “identically altered or affected” by that civilization, and so in choosing existence (albeit as the undead) over nonexistence they also accept that society will impinge upon their lives in ways from which no form of seclusion can offer protection. The best they can do is to avoid self-obsession and self-pity, two modes that Eve accuses Adam of wallowing in and that she believes he can extricate himself from through the joys of life: “appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship, and dancing.” In turn they can also conscientiously participate with others — that is, they can conscientiously decide on the manner in which they “identically alter or affect” the world.
But as indicated by the “in-your-face” menace of the final shot, Only Lovers insists that any reciprocal transformation on the part of artists and their audience can only be achieved through a Faustian bargain. Adam and Eve recognize that as artists or esthetes who wish to break through the unsatisfying limits of representation, but also as artists or esthetes who can no longer seek the Real in and through isolation, they must change the perception of others via non-consenting transformation. Jarmusch’s ending is thus simultaneously rejuvenating and despairing: the artist-in-exile can only reconnect with his public through transgressive force. The artist-audience relationship, as Jarmusch envisions it, must involve the imposition of one upon the other, with the audience corrupting the artist’s purity and the artist manipulating, and perhaps even overriding, his audience’s senses. Instead of a creative partnership that is founded on communication, on the making and receiving of meaning through art, Jarmusch sees the artist and audience as coexisting through mutual antagonism and within a potentially self-defeating battle of wills.
Which returns us to Godard, a filmmaker who repeatedly accepted and even celebrated the antagonist tendencies of art. What made Godard a visionary rather than a mere provocateur, however, was his insistence on respecting an audience’s ability to interpret challenging work, a respect founded on his own sense of responsibility in foregrounding any biases, limitations, and manipulations that might color his representations and reconfigurations of reality. Such an approach emerged from the distinct time and place in which Godard was formed, his calling as a director influenced not only by the cinephiliac wave that swept Europe after the Second World War, but also by the moral reckoning that attended his generation’s drive to understand the rise of fascism and the horrors of the Holocaust. For Godard and so many of his peers, filmmaking could never, and should never, transcend reality in favor of the Real — rather, the cinema could, and should, create conceptual frameworks for imagining an entirely new relationship between the two.
The time and place that informs Jarmusch is of a wholly different order. His formative years occurred during the Vietnam/Watergate era, a period in which numb disillusionment gradually replaced righteous political outrage. Godard’s characters often attempt estrangement but are always roped back into social engagement, and when they’re not they’re punished for it — see Jean-Pierre Léaud’s protagonist in Masculine Feminine (1966), who falls to his death when seeking an impossible “objective distance” from the subject he wishes to film. The reverse could be said of Jarmusch’s characters, who in one way or another are depicted as marooned — in prisons, taxis, and de-peopled landscapes and cities — from the rest of the human race, or whatever remains of it. To live through such isolation these characters adopt the hipster “cool” with which Jarmusch has become so strongly associated. But that cool is a cover, a permutation of masks that hide the faces of people so overwhelmed by brutal socio-political realities that they cannot relate to them except as dead men, as ghosts, as vampires. Whatever energy these individuals possess to intervene in the world can only be channeled through violence, a violence enacted not in the service of social change — an attitude with which Godard sometimes flirted — but rather a violence in the service of leveling the cultural playing field, of making the living a little more dead and the dead a little more alive.
And so in our journey through films in which “artists gravitate toward madness and murder…” we encounter in Jarmusch an entirely new mode. Previously we saw how in different ways — and toward different moral and philosophical ends — films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Michael Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn (1950), and Godard’s Pierrot offer portraits of artist-protagonists desiring destructive transformations in themselves and the world in pursuit of the Real. In contrast, Only Lovers offers a portrait in which destructive transformation isn’t desired at all by the artist-protagonist except as a last resort. As conceived by Jarmusch, the Real is ideally founded on (self-)preservation, not (self-)transformation, with the function of art aimed toward achieving the Real through insulated purity, not metamorphic sublimity. And just as Godard’s artistic project epitomized the two or three decades after World War II in which cinema was thought of — and often passionately argued over — as the preeminent medium by which the world could be remade in the image of the Real (or as a radically Real image), Jarmusch’s project epitomizes its changed role within an image-saturated mediascape. Adam’s music and Jarmusch’s cinema must now serve as personal safeguards, as art forms that, having been at this point more corrupted than honored, now function as aesthetic hermitages in which artists can take refuge to shield themselves from a world beyond saving.
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