by Lavelle Porter
Sofia Samatar, Keguro Macharia, Aaron Bady in conversation
Matt Zoller Seitz on Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive" and "literary films"
Like all of Jarmusch's movies, this one is truly and deeply cinematic—articulating its characters' feelings, and its feelings toward its characters, in almost entirely visual and musical and rhythmic terms—and yet at the same time it deserves an adjective recently used by fellow RogerEbert.com contributor Godfrey Cheshire in a talk about where cinema has been, and where it's going: "literary."
I don't mean that the movie appreciates literature and literacy, though that's definitely the case. "Only Lovers" is shot through with references to a shared Western culture that no longer as widely shared, in America anyway, as it used to be, for a variety of reasons (mainly a widespread qualitative decline in the entire educational system, although a mostly laudable multicultural strain is also part of it). You sometimes get the sense that the characters use literary pseudonyms (such as Dr. Faust and Daisy Buchanan) as sort of an exhaustedly contemptuous joke on mortals, whom they've labeled "zombies" because they have so little appreciation for the quivering essence of life that they might as well be dead. They put the names of canonical novel characters on their fake passports and ID badges because they know nobody reads anymore.
No, "Only Lovers Left Alive" is literary in a deeper sense, the sense that I think Godfrey meant: you have to "read" its images to appreciate them. The movie requires active emotional and intellectual engagement. It doesn't tell you why it's showing you things. Sometimes there is no obvious plot-related reason why it's showing you things, other than because the filmmaker thought they were beautiful or haunting or strange, or because he liked the way the shot was playing out and felt like sticking with it for a while instead of cutting away.
The movie's unabashed, un-ironic, and often deeply erotic belief in love-as-nourishment makes it an ecstatic viewing experience instead of a depressing one. Right after I left the theater I called the movie a lament for literacy, for shared culture, for historical memory, at times a deeply sad one, but now I'm not so sure that's true. Remembering the movie makes me smile, because for all its violence it's life-affirming. It revels in pleasures of all sorts: visual, sexual, tactile, intoxicating. Adam and Eve's naked, intertwined bodies on a bed; a beautiful young couple kissing in the same frame with a buzzing neon moon; a long lateral tracking shot of Adam walking from his house down to the end of the block and then turning the corner, his 18th century waistcoat drawn snugly around him: these and other fleeting tableaus are all of a piece. In an extraordinary moment, Eve tells Adam about a planet-sized diamond on the other side of the galaxy, a compact dwarf star that emits a noise like a gong. Adam repeats the details with a faraway look, as if calculating how long it would take to travel there.
by Aaron Bady
Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.
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