Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Hipster Vampires of Detroit

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Loki, Jadis the White Witch, Jane Eyre, Chekov, and Mr. Ollivander

This movie was not what I expected. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. Still not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

The plot runs something like this: Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musician and aesthete living a solitary existence in an old house in Detroit that he got on the cheap, supporting his art and music habits by composing indie rock records and selling them to record companies through a human middleman named Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is unaware that his sort-of-mentor, sort-of-friend is really a vampire. Bored to undeath with the endless stupidity of "the zombies" (mortals) and a general crushing sense of ennui, Adam considers killing himself with a specially-made .38 caliber bullet made from ultra-dense cocobolo wood. But before he can muster the will to end his undeath, he gets a video call from his vampire "wife", Eve, who's been unliving it up in Tangiers with her old friend and mentor Christopher Marlowe (played delightfully by John Hurt), who as it turns out really did write all of Shakespeare's plays.

Eve, fearing that her semi-estranged husband needs some cheering-up, catches a redeye to Detroit, and Adam gives her a grand tour of the ruins of Detroit: lots of weed-choked fields, coyote-haunted ruins, empty streets and houses, and of course the Michigan Theatre (a movie-palace-turned-parking-garage), the old Packard Plant, and all the favored haunts of urbexers and ruin-pornographers alike. Maybe this stuff is still news to people outside the Midwest, but for me, living so close to Detroit, it just comes off as trite. News flash: Detroit isn't a ghost town there are still 700,000 people living in there right now. It's easy and terribly romantic to write it off as a lost cause, but that's pretty demeaning to the people who actually live there. It's like unironically posting "RIP Native Americans" in your tumblr feed: they're still very much alive, thank you very much, and they resent the assumption that their struggle to survive is over.

Which brings me to another problem I had with this movie: like Gran Torino before it, Lovers is yet another movie set in Detroit (a city where 80% of residents are black) which features virtually no black people. The one black man in this movie is a medical technologist, so the film gets points for not giving in to easy stereotypes. But besides that guy, I think there's one black extra in the whole movie; that is the full extent of their representation onscreen. Clearly, since the director must have been to Detroit in order to film this thing, the only explanation is that he (or the studio) isn't interested in portraying Detroit accurately.

Anyway, getting back to the summary: Eve shows up and Adam shows her around, and they talk and philosophize and opine about just how tragic it is that the zombies can't be as wise and good and refined and civilized as they are. Adam seems to cheer up for a while under Eve's influence, but their reverie is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Ava, Eve's "teenage" sister from LA, who shows up uninvited in their house one night, asking if she can crash on their couch and eat their "food".

Mia Wasikowska is spot-on with her portrayal of Ava as a bratty, self-absorbed teenie-bopper who either can't read anger in other people's voices and faces, or else has complete faith that pouting and begging will get her out of trouble when said people inevitably explode at her. The character is grating, but that's definitely intentional here, since she's practically the only character who induces change at all: without her, Adam and Eve would probably spend the whole movie lounging around, listening to indie music on vinyl, and drinking type O negative out of crystal absinthe-glasses. Their existence is stable and comfortable, if a bit dull: Ava throws a wrench into all that.

The main reason I tuned in was for the promise of a vampire movie set in Detroit. With its wide-open spaces, appalling murder rate, spotty law enforcement, and large numbers of streetlights that just don't work, Detroit seemed like the kind of place where vampires would run wild.

But Hiddleston's Adam and Swinton's Eve are anything but wild: they're refined, elegant creatures who've had centuries to cultivate perfect taste in music, literature, and even science. They're epicures and philosophers who, instead of spending their (un)lives on the Eternal Hunt, drink sparingly and spend most of their free time creating art. Definitely an interesting take on the standard vampire, a creature ruled by its passions, but I was kinda hoping to see the undead going completely apeshit in the D.

This movie is definitely not for everyone; I don't think it was for me, personally. At least, not more than once. But it was certainly interesting to see vampires as something other than villains or protagonists in an action, horror, or action/horror movie. It was interesting to think of them as people with houses, careers, long-distance relationships, and in-laws they can't stand. But that's part of why I watch movies about vampires in the first place: I want to be entertained with tales of Gothic horror and gratuitous bloodletting.

If you're into indie music and sadness and being too tragically hip for this world, these are definitely your vampires. But I think my palette has been thoroughly cleansed, and I'm ready to get back on the vampire-as-monster bandwagon, thanks.