The thing about Jim Jarmusch is…. He’s a vampire. Let me explain.
The white-haired hipster’s latest movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, in the words of our review, “dissects the vampire genre into a playfully postmodern romance about two lovers disenfranchised and in hiding from the modern world … [the film is] an ode to hipsterism and the artistic underground through the centuries”. Disenfranchised? Outsiders? Emerging from the dark depths of the artistic underground? Sound like anyone we know?
I had a sneaking suspicion the pale-complexioned, Wayfarer-sporting director lacked a reflection ever since 1991's Night on Earth, which features bleary-eyed cabbies and daylight-averse nighthawks prowling the streets at unholy hours. But now I’m certain. It was even confirmed by the great man himself when, at his band SQURL's recent London gig, he covered Neil Young’s “Vampire Blues”, in which he repeatedly croons: “I’m a vampire, babe, suckin' blood from the earth”. And so I took the hint, swiftly clinched my neck and retreated to the bar.
As he emerged from a shroud of smoke on an atmospherically lit stage, I wondered whether this ‘hip’ enigma oozed effortlessly from Jarmusch or whether it was something he had carefully cultivated over the years, much like the world-wise vamps Adam and Eve in Only Lovers. As I mulled this over and swayed to the band’s thematically on-point cover, one thing did become abundantly clear: Jim is the sum of all his characters, with the vampire in particular playfully encapsulating his indisputable outsider persona.
Vampin' it up: Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Jim Jarmusch.
JARMUSCH: AN EXEMPLARY OUTSIDER…
The director's movies are sparsely populated with laconic hitmen (The Limits of Control), lone drifters (Dead Man), somber assassins (Ghost Dog) and – more pertinently – vampires in the throes of existential crisis. All are essentially outsiders. And they’ve all emerged from the womb of the mother of all outsiders: Jim Jarmusch.
In Permanent Vacation, a Charlie Parker-adoring hipster ambles the streets of New York City where, at night, he stumbles upon a lone saxophonist (played by John Lurie, another real-life denizen of NYC’s artistic underground). “What do you wanna hear, kid?” says Lurie. “I don’t care as long as it’s vibrating, bugged-out sound,” the kid replies. Then, while Lurie’s still spitting into his horn, the kid disappears into the night in the hope – you suspect – of meeting some similarly pale-skinned, unhealthy-looking characters. The point is, all these misfits slot comfortably into Jarmusch’s vision of the world (or at least NYC here) as a hotbed of creativity among night-prowling weirdos; a world bereft of reality TV and Kindles.
AN UNDERWORLD FANTASY…
From the deserted New York streets of 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise to the markedly empty cafes of Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), it’s clear that the director’s onscreen universe is worlds (or centuries?) apart from today’s modern planet, littered with Starbucks and fast-talking suits as it is. Behind Jarmusch's cloak is a slow-paced world which, for the most part, effaces these painfully dull and exhausted characters in favour of a colourful ensemble of “bugged out” artists, musicians and drifters. In their world, things move at a slug’s pace and the director willingly and uncompromisingly strolls alongside them in long-take.
If you’re anything like Jarmusch, you can’t help but empathise with the misfits in his dimly lit underworld. They’re endearingly melancholic and down on their luck (think of Down By Law’s Zack, dumped by his girlfriend and framed for murder), and completely out of synch with the modern world (Only Lovers’ Adam is surely the director’s most anachronistic character yet with his penchant for vinyl and nostalgia for bygone eras). All serve Jarmusch’s own fantasy of how planet Earth exists in his mind. It's a misleading view of the world (where's Paris Hilton?! Where's McDonalds?!) that’s nonetheless one we can’t wait to escape to.
So, to recap: He’s a nighthawk. He likes slow, languid, atmospheric music and paced scenes that test your patience. He has no time for TV. He smokes a lot. He drifts from one continent to the next. He’s a coffee-slurper who exists in the dark shadows of the night; a disenfranchised outsider who’ll forever live in the artistic underground. He’s Jim Jarmusch and, above all, he’s a vampire. And I hope he sinks his fangs into every other director he meets to engender a renaissance of nighthawk characters on our screens, at the risk of a bloodbath. So in the words of the Wu-Tang Clan, PROTECT YA NECK.
And here's Nic Cage screaming. You know, just because...
‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ is released in UK cinemas on 21 February.
All images courtesy of Soda Pictures.