The common cliché is that all actors want to direct, and all directors want to act. But legendary indie director Jim Jarmusch doesn’t want to act –he wants to rock. For decades, Jarmusch’s uncompromisingly independent filmmaking philosophy has inspired generations of radicalized film students, but music seems to be the man’s true passion. He has said that he considers himself somewhat of a musician trapped in a filmmaker’s body, drawing heavily on music for inspiration and actively incorporating musicians into each of his films.
Earlier this week, Jarmusch and others arranged a two-part event in SoHo, featuring an advance screening of his new film Only Lovers Left Alive, followed by a concert spotlighting the film’s soundtrack artists. It was a truly fascinating night, providing an integrated experience that apportioned equal attention to both the visual and aural components of the film.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a gothic romance involving a millennia-old vampire couple wittingly named Adam and Eve, rendered brilliantly by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. The film’s plot is exceedingly minimalist, even for Jarmusch, focusing audiences instead on the empyreal love that exists between the two darkly beautiful lovers. In each scene together, Swinton and Hiddleston effuse a profound tenderness for each other spooky in its purity and simplicity.
Adam and Eve do not bicker and they don’t fight. They don’t get jealous and they don’t cheat on one another, nor are they selfish or troubled by commitment. Though sexual chemistry is a major component of Swinton and Hiddleston’s delivery, the film acknowledges the link between sex and death by never depicting, or even suggesting, engagement in sexual intercourse. The script’s source of conflict, vague but fully present, emerges not from internal oppositions but rather by virtue of the relationship’s fundamental incongruity with the tedium and futility of surrounding mortal humanity. Adam and Eve do not experience traditional romantic conflict, but rather appear condemned to endure what amounts to a nagging existential nuisance brought on by centuries of mordant contemplation.
Eschewing traditional plot mechanics, Jarmusch’s “suicidally romantic” vision is almost fully organic to the film’s use of aesthetics and atmospherics. The couple’s shared alienation from human beings (to whom they refer pejoratively as “zombies”) is brought to life through the film’s distinction between external and internal settings. Most of the film takes place in the abandoned and dilapidated outskirts of industrial Detroit, providing a quasi-post-apocalyptic landscape that mirrors the characters’ understanding of human endeavor as one of cyclical decay. Adam and Eve are noticeably uncomfortable outside the sanctum of their cluttered hovels, both of them donning sunglasses or other facial veils when venturing outside at night; Adam hides behind a surgical mask, and Eve a hijab.
Gorgeous and emaciated, Swinton and Hiddleston are painted as archtypically attracting opposites. Adam sports elegantly disheveled jet-black hair and garb, while Eve is cloaked in off-white from head to toe (down to a white iPhone, in fact). Although the motif is perhaps a bit literal in its aesthetic utility, the complementary costuming is never a distraction and aids greatly in some of the film’s most visually attractive shots. French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux excels at composition when depicting human embracement, as viewers are presented with moments of intimacy so vivid they seem to last forever. Saux’s camera further probes filmic intuitions associated with eternity and circularity, through use of rotating shots overlain with the spinning of antiquated recording equipment and vinyl records.
The picture suffers from some generally excusable intellectual conceits, including some stilted name-dropping of various figures of Romantic literature and the inclusion of Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe as one of the couple’s few undead acquaintances. As was the case in Dead Man (1995), these literary references probably mean more to Jarmusch personally than they do to the film’s internal framework.
Nonetheless, most viewers will agree that these missteps are not diminishing so much as they are unnecessary to establishing the characters’ agelessness and sophistication. The inimitable combination of Swinton and Hiddleston do that just fine on their own, as does the film’s delightful use of non-verbal signifiers. Jarmusch’s latest genre permutation is as thoughtful and humane as any of the director’s previous work, skillfully elegant in a way that will be solicitous of his hardcore fan base and refreshing to casual viewers.
Of course, no discussion of a Jarmusch film is complete without considering the music. The film won the 2013 Cannes Soundtrack Award, and the show following the film’s screening was a remarkable enhancement to digesting the project’s broad aesthetic statement. Most of the score was done by minimalist lute player Jozef van Wissem, as well as Jarmusch’s drone rock band SQÜRL. Additionally, the film featured spacerock trio White Hills and Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan. All of these artists performed, creating an eclectic and exciting musical experience that only someone like Jim Jarmusch could have brought together.
Indeed, music and scoring has been a central component of Jarmusch’s approach to filmmaking since very early in his career. His oeuvre reflects a keen understanding of the role of music in cinematic experience, as he skillfully utilizes sonic grammar to set thematic tone and build aesthetic cohesion. In the first phase of Jarmusch’s career, we see the jazz and folk being used as a key element setting the films’ often cynical, glum and contemplative tone, a naturally harmonious blend that set the standard for what we now consider the quintessentially “indie” film aesthetic.
Jarmusch wrote the music to his lesser-known debut Permanent Vacation (1980), and quickly prioritized music and musicians as part of his artistic method. His first major film, the breakthrough indie classic Stranger Than Paradise (1984), starred jazz musician John Lurie and former Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson. Lurie composed the film’s score, and went on to both star in and score Jarmusch’s masterful Down by Law (1986), a gorgeously shot meditation on incarceration, friendship, and human fate. Tom Waits co-starred (as did Roberto Benigni) and contributed several songs to the soundtrack as well. A few years later, Waits returned to write the music for Night on Earth (1991), Jarmusch’s episodic profiling of cabdrivers that emphasized the often sweet and fleeting nature of most human contact.
In the mid-1990s, Jarmusch’s work moved away from pithy realism and began experimenting with genre, subverting the narrative conventions and stereotypes of popular fictive structures as much as he embraced them. But as always, his emphasis on music remained as pronounced as ever.
In the surrealist western picture Dead Man (1995), starring Johnny Depp and hailed by many as Jarmusch’s singular masterpiece, he recruited Neil Young to do the score. Young’s “damaged” (to use Jarmusch’s term) chords tie the entire morbid voyage together, with the ominous twangs seemingly sinking into the celluloid itself and haunting the journey with a profound sense of dreamlike melancholy. Young’s guitar strings serve the film’s final sequence beyond measure, working hand in hand with Jarmusch’s use of disorienting dissolve techniques to deliver a breathtaking filmic statement on the horror and ecstasy of death.
Next, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) gave the RZA his first film cameo and his first film scoring gig, two things that’d go on to characterize the Abbot’s broad pop-cultural persona for years to come. Ghost Dog may be Jarmusch’s most stylish and violent film, and its mob-hitman-turned-mob-hit plot leaves something to be desired, but its true strengths lie elsewhere. Title cards punctuate chapters of the film with excerpts from the samurai text Hagakure, and Jarmusch is charmingly concerned with communicating a beautiful marriage between Eastern spiritual philosophy and American urban culture.
Of course, this is a lifestyle directly inspired by the work of the RZA and his Wu Tang brethren, so employing the RZA directly to set the film’s aural flavor lent a real sense of legitimacy to the project. The film’s main theme song is the kind of grimy low-fi beat that distinguished the Abbot’s production from the beginning, and the film’s respectful approach to cultural atmosphere wouldn’t have been half as successful without his input.
In a broad sense, Jarmusch’s involvement in music and his understanding of its relation to cinema is characteristic of his attitude toward filmmaking as a whole. As one of the few famous directors out there humble enough to remain skeptical of so-called “auteur theory,” he has consistently described filmmaking as an inherently collaborative process.
When he addressed the crowd during SQÜRL’s set, he proudly referred to Only Lovers Left Alive as “our movie” –not his. Jarmusch conceives of the process of filmmaking as a profoundly interactive process, and has likened it to the act of sexual reproduction. This philosophy, and the extent to which his work faithfully adheres to it, is what makes Jim Jarmusch more than just a filmmaker –it’s what makes him a real artist.