By Tom Nixon
It takes an old soul to truly understand the melancholy and, yes, humour inherent to vampire lore, and both Jim Jarmusch and Amy Heckerling have been around the block a few times. They’re still doing the same thing of course — Heckerling her tacky, squealing romcoms with an undercurrent of whipcrack smarts and heartfelt poignance, Jarmusch his go-nowhere culturally fluid existential slacker comedies — only they’re a little more jaded now, resigned to their fates, perhaps more grateful for the simpler things in life. These filmmakers were always gonna end up here, because if we’re around long enough, we all do.
The plotting of Vamps is delightfully ludicrous and doesn’t warrant close attention in a film so focused on subtext, but there are cute boys, a suspicious father-in-law-to-be cum vampire-slayer, an accidental pregnancy and, needless to say, Sigourney Weaver hamming it up as a bloodthirsty vampire queen. Tonally speaking, Heckerling is reprising much of what made Clueless a hit, including a refreshingly giddy, engaged performance from Alicia Silverstone, still beautiful but a little rough around the edges. Naturally, her character, Goody, is lying about her age (by, oh, only a century or so); her sprightly younger roommate and BFF Stacy (Krysten Ritter, who alludes to her drug-addicted past in a probable Breaking Bad reference, because that’s the kind of film this is), though also a vampire and child of the eighties, has no idea she’s living with a woman who got turned way back in 1841. Not that Goody is particularly subtle, regularly forgetting herself and digging deep into a well of history no youngster would know or care about, or going off on grandmotherly rants about the obnoxiousness of the modern technology and pop culture to which Stacy has more easily adapted. But Stacy is too busy being young to examine Goody’s oddball qualities, and as becomes apparent later, Goody keeps her oblivious for her sake as well as her own.
What makes this film special isn’t that it avoids being a Clueless revamp, but that it is, knows it is, and intimately understands the tragedy of its own aspirations. Goody’s perspective is filtered through a bizarre, often subtly referenced concoction of cultural and cinematic touchstones spanning across decades and demographics, and she’s more than a little out of touch with the modern world as it inexorably speeds up into the technological era; her vampirism is an embodiment of the nostalgia most of us experience as we grow older. Certainly, she’s a quite personal surrogate for both Heckerling and Silverstone, neither of whom have retained their relevance into the new millennium, but there’s no bitterness here. There’s resignation and a little sadness, sure, but Vamps is a sweetly, heartbreakingly amiable passing of the torch, which ironically happens to be the most youthful, exuberant thing either of them have done in years. The penultimate scene packs a bigger emotional punch than a bygone vampire chick-flick littered with bad jokes has any right to, poetically visualising the way the present is both coloured by the past and defined in contrast with it. The sweep of history, the fleeting nature of time, laid bare before our eyes.
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is even more weighed down by perspective. The aimless idiots of Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law had little in the way of inner lives, but this immortal couple are wholly internalised, centuries of shared knowledge hanging in the air between them unspoken, emotions conveyed in long-rehearsed gestures, futility and a lack of looming mortality slowing everything to a narcotic crawl even by Jarmusch’s standards. This comes with age, of course, and although it isn’t the most challenging premise he’s ever worked with, the film stands among Jarmusch’s most mature existential texts, understanding implicitly the ways things change and the ways they don’t. In the very opening shot the camera circles his characters as though they’re spinning on a record player, going nowhere in particular but always subject to time’s passage.
Tom Hiddleston’s Adam is your classic pale brooding sort, sitting reclusively in his darkened, cluttered Detroit mansion, admiring his guitar collection and penning depressing post-punk for the “zombies” he claims not to care about. This is the vampires’ nickname for the mortals, and Adam’s hostility in their direction arises from his perception of how bankrupt their culture is getting these days. He’s a bit of a disillusioned hipster, in other words, in a huff about a pop culture zeitgeist in step with neither his favourite works (many of which he or his old friends, such as John Hurt’s slightly generic Christopher Marlowe, had a hand in) nor his recent musical dirges. Fortunately for Adam, his beloved Eve is only a FaceTime-call away, and soon she’s travelling back to try and lift him out of what has become a suicidal malaise (she blames his time lounging around with the Romantics). Tilda Swinton does something quite magical in this role, not oscillating between ethereal timelessness and childlike joy but conveying both at once, her movements dignified but spontaneous, the light of her eyes glimmering through the tiredness of her thin-lipped smile.
The pair shake up their mutual, swooning ennui by exploring the city together at night, taking in music, discussing their past through a hodgepodge of cultural reference points, dealing with Eve’s insufferable philistine niece Ava (Mia Wasikowska), and one senses they’ve been here before, time and time again. Theirs is a love so deep-rooted that nothing between them is new, and indeed nothing needs to be; they’ve lived long enough to understand that most pleasures are novelty and novelty is fleeting, yet everything becomes a little less meaningless when shared with a loved one. The pair’s constant namedropping has been criticised by many, but they serve a purpose here beyond the obvious; namely, to emphasise that art culture is the primary way we’ve always connected to the world and one another, and then to provide a humbling wide-lens view of our evolution in time. Each reference point is a microscopically tiny, disposable element in the grand tapestry of history, and yet one can also intimate from these characters that when one has seen and done everything, it’s the arts that continue to linger in the memory and provide the most fulfillment. This ties in with Jarmusch’s sensual, decadent images which, flickering neon in a burnt-out early hours Detroit seemingly on the verge of apocalypse, could only be created by someone in love with movies, desperate to see them survive in a world that increasingly has no use for the arts.
Jarmusch’s determination to invest the lovers with such history, personality and chemistry (their interactions are always infused with convincing tenderness even when something else is happening on the surface, as though Swinton and Hiddleston have lived in these roles forever) in such a short time is a testament to his passion for what many are calling a minor trifle (a penny for all the times Jarmusch has heard that would make him a damn sight richer), but also inevitable when you realise how age-old his langourous rhythms have always seemed. These characters were made for him, but he was also made for them, and he treats them as kindred spirits. Only Lovers Left Alive takes a surprising left-turn with a final act transition to the narrow, winding cobbles of Tangiers, and the pair discover there are still new and wonderful things to be found, inspired to begin an unlikely new chapter in a life without new chapters. As in Vamps, the climactic scene has its characters arrive at a decision sad, pragmatic and romantic in equal measure. In rummaging through a shared landscape of personal and cultural memories, both films tap into acute feelings of loss and yearning, but they also affirm life’s beautiful absurdity and capacity for joyful surprise, insisting that time’s cruel clutches will never destroy all of the reasons for humankind, and especially the movies, to go on existing.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.