Infinite Thirst: Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive”

By Wai Chee DimockMay 13, 2014

Infinite Thirst: Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive”

“I DO WISH I’d met Adam before I wrote Hamlet,” Kit says. “He would have made a marvelous model.” It’s one of his many missed opportunities, although, as far as that goes, relatively minor. The glaring one, big enough to go down in history, is his unclaimed authorship of all those plays, including Hamlet. Attributed to Shakespeare, they are in fact the work of Kit, otherwise known as Christopher Marlowe in Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive.

Jarmusch, a self-declared “anti-Stratfordian,” is having some fun here with what he calls “one of the greatest conspiracies ever perpetrated on humans.” And he’s not alone: “I’m with Mark Twain and Henry and William James and Sigmund Freud and Orson Welles, Emerson — a lot of people don’t buy the Shakespeare thing,” he explains, because there’s “not a single manuscript in his hand that has anything to do with literature.” All that can be traced directly back to Shakespeare is “four pages of text.” Anything longer than that has got to be by someone else, most probably “a combination of Marlowe and others — especially William de Vere.” So much for the sacred fount from which all lovers of literature drink. No wonder this Marlowe (John Hurt) is still sweating away, writing on any available piece of paper, even though he’s been dead for 400 years. It doesn’t do any good, but he can’t help it. It’s a compulsion, a physical necessity. He’s still trying to catch up with Shakespeare, still thirsting for the blood of his rival.

It goes without saying that he’s a vampire. What else could he be? What else would describe that peculiar condition of being biologically limited and emotionally interminable, all too perishable in one sense, and not perishable enough in another? Unlike most other vampire movies, with their focus on sex and violence, Only Lovers Left Alive is about elemental processes: deep time, the longue durée (the film opens with stars and galaxies billions of light years away), and the dubious privilege of mapping biology onto the coordinates of physics. Jarmusch has always been interested in Einstein, relativity, and quantum mechanics — the weird duality of being both particle and wave, or, in the case of Schrödinger’s cat, being both dead and alive. It is fitting that all of these should come together to make this vampire flick something like an Einsteinian reanimation: an all-out stretching of the lifespan through the gravitational pull of massive obsessions. What cosmic joke — what infinite jest, if you like — is foisted upon us, when eerily long-lived dreams are lodged in short-lived bodies?

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s novel, is very much in the spotlight in this film. When vampires travel, or at least when Eve (Tilda Swinton) does, flying from Tangier to Detroit to reunite with her lover, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), it’s books rather than clothes that go into her sleek suitcase. The titles on the spines of some of these books are clearly legible; Infinite Jest most of all. Wallace takes his title from Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1, an ubi sunt outburst prompted by the sight of a human skull: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy [...] Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. — Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?”

Yorick’s “infinite jest” turns out not to be infinite at all. It ends at exactly the point when the body does. This is lamentable enough, although for Jarmusch — and, for that matter, Wallace — probably not so gripping as to warrant extended treatment. What interests these two instead is the obverse of that phenomenon: not the brevity of biological life, but the incalculable length of the over-the-top cravings routinely vested in them. Wallace’s novel, after all, is about addiction: it features the Ennet House for Drug and Alcohol Recovery, not to mention the eponymous “Infinite Jest,” James Incandenza’s last film, so addictive that viewers literally die sucked into it and consumed by it.

It’s probably no accident then that, inside Eve’s suitcase, Infinite Jest keeps company with Don Quixote, another novel about compulsions, larger-than-life and more vital than anything real. And no accident, either, that when Adam and Eve flee from the vampiric crime committed by Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), they travel under the names Daisy Buchanan and Stephen Daedalus, bringing in two other novels dedicated to outsized longings. Nothing that the real Daisy does can match the “colossal vitality” of what Gatsby has concocted, Fitzgerald says, for it “had gone beyond her, beyond everything.” Nothing can deal a deathblow to “what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

Adam the vampire calls living humans “zombies” because they seem dead to him. He himself, on the other hand, is undead in the same way that Gatsby is, kept going by subjunctives and conditionals rather than by the simple present tense. So of course he lives in Detroit, a “ghost-town” not in the sense that it is a mere relic of what it once was, but in the sense that it is still the living headquarters of what could have been, and what still refuses to breathe its last. In the stunning visuals supplied by Jarmusch’s cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, shooting in digital but with the feel of analog, the nocturnal drive of Adam and Eve in their vintage white Jaguar shows us long vistas of abandoned auto plants with socket-like windows. The camera sweeps over the inside of the Michigan Building, its magnificent Renaissance Revival roof now hovering over a parking lot, itself built on the site of Henry Ford’s first garage. And it takes in the beat-up childhood home of one of their heroes, the Detroit–born-and-raised guitarist, vocalist, and keyboardist of the White Stripes.

“Oh, I love Jack White!” Eve gushes. It’s a moment when she actually sounds like one of the zombies. Vampires don’t use the word “love” so casually: not Kit, not Adam, and, except for this little fan-girl routine, not Eve. Being undead takes stamina, a heavy-duty devotion outlasting many human life spans. After all, how many times has she read those books that she packs into her suitcase? Since she speed-reads (the movie is careful to include that detail), she must have gone through the entire lot hundreds if not thousands of times in the eons she’s been alive. And she’s still not done with them. They go wherever she goes.

Eve’s momentary lapse raises a question about the title of the film itself. In what sense are Adam and Eve “lovers”? As a romantic duo, they are cool, languid, stylized; their lovemaking is entirely off screen. They’ve been together for a long time; there’s something almost sibling-like about their ease with each other. Unlike the many writers and musicians mentioned in passing, and unlike Kit, these two have no last names, nothing to deflect or dilute their descent from the Bible. Maybe they’re meant to be more generic than individualized, primordially male and female, having been there from the very first, and through that ancient genesis, giving primordial definition to the word “love.”

That word defines the two, in fact, not in their arching romance but in their throbbing addiction. It’s entirely at odds with their cool, world-weary exterior, and maybe that’s the point. These two might sip their O negative elegantly, in crystal stemware like a fine liqueur, but there’s nothing elegant about the sudden thirst that overcomes them when they are presented with the sight of blood, as Adam is when he goes to the hospital to get his contraband supply, and Eve is when a neighboring passenger on the plane cuts his finger. This thirst is raw, visceral, irresistible.

To be a “lover” is to know this thirst, to be possessed by it, and to last for an eternity because it does. The title of the film might in fact refer not to Adam and Eve alone, but to a legion of persons just like them, in the grips of an ancient urging and kept forever alive by it. Is this a metaphor for something else — a love of literature, perhaps, or a love of music? It could be. The latter is especially plausible, given the film’s own addiction to its nonstop musical numbers; given the dominant visual conceit of the spinning vinyl record doubling as the rotation of the heavens; and, most of all, given the primordial, show-stopping sounds of the Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, a fusion of electronica and Arabic that brings the film to its vampiric end.

That very literal ending, though, suggests that thirst as an elemental force probably doesn’t need to be a metaphor of anything else. It is what it is. As a physiological baseline — the lowest possible threshold of what it means to be alive, no matter how dead one is supposed to be — it connects the human species to all other thirst-driven species. And, in its longitudinal form — as an ever-active compulsion running through the entire length of history and approaching the condition of infinitude itself — it forces us to think twice about just how adequate a measure of time the biological lifespan is. At a moment when the long-term consequences of our present-day actions are forcing us to do just that, Only Lovers Left Alive gives us an unexpected push in the right direction.


Wai Chee Dimock is the William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.

LARB Contributor

Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University. She has published widely on American literature of every period, and is best known for Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2007). Editor of PMLA, her essays have also appeared in Critical Inquiry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Yorker, and The New York TimesHer team-edited American Literature in the World: An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler (2017) was published by Columbia University Press in January.


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