Twenty-five years ago, I saw a barefoot Tilda Swinton do a whirling dervish in front of a bonfire in The Last of England, and predicted she would one day win an Oscar.
Before we begin, herewith, a little music, filmed in vampire vision: Yasmine Hamdan performs "Hal", which she also sings in the film during a scene when two world-weary vampires begin to heal, and find a way to continue living, as they remember the power and mystery of creation itself.
Special thanks to Gary Springer, Tresa, and extra-special thanks to Deborah and John at ATP Records for getting me additional audio from the show, though I love the distortion in my recording, and kept some of it. You can find the limited edition LP from Only Lovers Left Alive HERE
Only Lovers Left Alive, or, Vampires vs. Zombies
At my first New York Film Festival, Tilda Swinton's aforementioned dervish in Derek Jarman's The Last of England made my hometown seem like the coolest place in the world to me, a twenty-two year-old, newly-self-minted writer.
And so it was simply dynamite to see her do a dervish again in the opening of Only Lovers Left Alive, a film-as-lovers'-quarrel-with-the-world, wherein the eternal schism between the aesthete's retreat from a very disappointing, indeed, horrifying world into an enclosure of Art and artifacts, versus the survivor's innate (?) will to join the fray in order to live, is posited in the relationship twixt two vampires-slash-lovers, Eve (Tilda Swinton) & Adam (Tom Hiddleston) living in Detroit and Tangier, circa now.
This theme of a hermetic retreat into a world of art (what's that quote about those happy enough to live alone in their rooms having figured out the secret to life?) versus being out in the world of others made Only Lovers Left Alive seem, at times, like a vampire-movie version of Narcissus and Goldmund.
Since everyone reads into vampire films a larger societal context, I'll note that to my feeble mind, seeing their -- particularly Adam's -- perception of history, and their referring to everyone else on Planet Earth as "zombies" (which is to say, a being whom is mindless in its cannibalism) it occurred to me that sadly, "Here dwelled half-alive beings who destroyed all in their path" could very well serve as an epithet of sorts for much for our species' time on Earth.
Speaking through Adam, his reclusive 500 year-old male vamp (his Eve is 3,000 years old), writer-director Jarmusch delivers a justifiably misanthropic view of history, informed by his characters' centuries of witnessing Humanity's consumptive ways of being: our greed, ravages and our own kind of large-scale vampirism (plus small scale vampirism, including, in one of the film's many fun references, the Shakespeare/Marlow debate, as well as a healthy diss of what is worst about human nature within the business of selling music).
In further consideration of what I saw as the film's angry view of humanity and our consumptive lifestyle, I'll note that at the press conference from the 2013 NYFF, the director recalled growing up in Cleveland during a time of promise, and looking at neighboring Detroit as "an almost mythological place, the Paris of the Midwest". He subsequently describes with bitterness the plight of The Motor City as "Tragic, sad, and unusual" -- adding, by way of noting a larger historical sweep -- "maybe not so unusual, I don't know."
In addition to reminding me of Michael Moore's classic Detroit doc Roger & Me (which I also saw at my first NYFF, and it was dynamite to see Moore speak at length at this year's First Time Fest) Jarmusch's earnest Detroit commentary recalled his similar remarks at the NYFF screening of Mystery Train in 1990, when he spoke about the death of Memphis. Given that film's sense of hauntedness and desolation and its depiction of outsiders living on the margins, one kens Tilda's noting in our interview that when he described the project to her, she told him: "I feel like you've been making vampire films for years. I mean they're all vampire films; Mystery Train feels like a vampire film to me."
Jarmusch also notes that he was drawn to Detroit for its musical culture -- which, by way of this music journo's needless two cents -- gives me pause to wonder why, particularly in view of his focus on what he notes as the city's "post-industrial visual feel", he didn't utilize some of the timeless Techno compositions from Detroit's holy trinity of Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, though I reckon this observation of mine can be classified as nothing more -- nor less -- than a fan's notes and projections onto the work of a director.
On another musical, uhm, note, I was uh, stoked to see the video for Hot Blood's "Soul Dracula" (a record I've owned and deeply loved since I was eleven) in the film, and my deep empathy for the justifiably misanthropic male lead was dashed when he turned off the TV monitor on which it was playing ("Hater", I mumbled during the screening to a fellow bleacher-creature, after noting the year and make of this stone-cold classic album).
Nonetheless, to harp, it is in the character of Adam that I find in this film a new expression of wizened anger from Jarmusch, over how we "zombies" have killed each other over everything, with, as Eve notes, the global water wars just beginning. Which begs the question -- which Adam, having ordered from his mortal concierge a single custom-made wooden bullet -- is wrestling with: why bother to continue living, if one must consent to, well, such a world, and such a way of being?
And here is where Tilda and I quite amicably and interstingly disagree about whether there is more anger or optimism in the film, as I note in this interview that our vampire couple (by way of onomatopoeia) succumb to the kind of violence that Adam loathed, in order to survive. Of course, in a work-or-starve world, what's a vampire to do? Kill one's self? Soldier on with gratitude for love, should one be lucky enough to have found it? Continue seeking peace and love, undaunted, with faith in tomorrow?
These are elemental question, for which there are no easy answers, and we agree to disagree about what I encapsulate as the dilemma of "romantic self-sacrifice of talent to hermetic asceticism versus survival, and what we seem pre-destined to do."
Ultimately, I found Tilda's in-interview comment about the need to "re-route and re-boot your enthusiasm for living while we're here, which, frankly, is never gonna be that long anyway" to be the most, perhaps the only, genuine option. One really must, as good ole' Camus told us, imagine Sisyphus happy, for -- in appreciable collateral with our hero of the underworld -- vampires are also mortal beings who have cheated death, and are thus condemned to eternal repetition. And because after all, for the rest of us, living in a horrifying world not of one's choosing -- though potentially of one's re-making -- is only consenting to horror if one lives as a mindless zombie.
Michael Vazquez: Twenty-five years ago at my first New York Film Festival, I saw you do a whirling dervish in Derek Jarman's The Last of England, and I predicted that in a just world, you'd one day win an Oscar; I don't know how much more just this world is and I don't want to get too political, but you recently took on and defeated Donald Trump over the battle over a golf course in Scotland; can you tell me a little but about that community and your role in it?
Tilda Swinton: Well, the thing you need to know about that is that the New York Film Festival, in their great wisdom have housed me for the duration of my stay here in the Trump Hotel, and I've been thinking, as I brushed my teeth, as I ordered my breakfast this morning, about my gratitude to mine host, Sir Donald Trump, given that recently we locked horns over the, building, if that's the right word, of a golf course and general pleasure place on some protected land in Scotland that I passed comment on. But it's a nice hotel, and the breakfast was really ace, thank you very much.
MV: Well done, you largely kept out of the limelight and didn't exploit it [the re-zoning battle] for your celebrity, and it was nice to see that happen.
Returning to the film, Amy Taubin the [NYFF pres screening] moderator described it as a comedy, and Jim described it as a character study. I was thinking of his film Mystery Train, in which he bemoans the sort of ghostly, slow death of Memphis, and how important that city was to American music. I thought this film [Only Lovers Left Alive] looking at Detroit was far angrier, and I think that it wasn't just a comedy and a character study; I think the third character in the film was humanity au general and [the film was] an indictment of same and our self-consumption; does this seem in any way to you an angrier film? Am I reading that into the film? Because it seems more than just a love story or a character study, it seemed a really seething indictment of humanity, on the part of these persons who'd seen us play out our sort of tragcicomedic existence.
TS: That's very interesting. No, I don't see it as more angry; if anything, I see it as more hopeful, I mean the first thing to say is that it is a proper vampire film. Having said that, when Jim first told me he wanted to make a vampire film, I said to him 'But I feel like you've been making vampire films for years'; I mean they're all vampire films; Mystery Train feels like a vampire film to me. It's [Only Lovers Left Alive] also a love story, so it's not just about one person who is truly, not even angry, but depressed and disillusioned and alienated and truly lonely, but [it's also about] somebody else who's none of these things, who actually has the perspective of having lived for three thousand years -- I'm sure that does help -- but has the perspective, for whatever reason, to see beyond that disillusionment, and picks him up, picks up his spirits, in terms of keeping him company and encouraging him to change his focus. So I wouldn't say it's angry; I would say if anything, it's more hopeful, because Jim tells a love story about how, even, however depressed you get, if you are in commune with someone who truly, truly is there for you, then they might be able to re-route you and re-boot your enthusiasm for living while we're here, which, frankly, is never gonna be that long anyway.
MV: Dynamite; I'm still gonna harp for half a second: I love the battle between the two of you; Adam said [in regards to whether to carry on living, as he contemplated suicide] "just let the grains of sand fall to the bottom of the hour glass" and Eve says -- you say -- "No, that's the point at which you turn the hourglass over" and that is a beautiful line. I was mildly reminded [by his attitude, and his not sharing his art with the world] of a line in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis: "Talent is more erotic when it's wasted"; Adam was someone who opted to be the sort of Narcissus, while your character was Goldmund, who kept [going] out there [into the world outside]. At the end of the film, they resorted to a means of survival [vampirism] that heretofore, we'd not seen. [Earlier in the film] the blood was delivered through hospital workers [from whom they purchased it]. So I'm wondering: you may have buoyed him, and those were great lines, and I understand that, but you ultimately succumbed to cannibalism in a world which is rife with same; was that a lapse towards nihilism? Or was that an understanding that we are all carnivores and we need to survive? Because I do understand your point about how you did buoy his spirits and I loved your lines about that, but in the end it seemed like he succumbed to the very things that he loathed.
TS: No, we don't eat the lovers -- spoiler alert -- at the end.
MV: Yeah, you turn them.
TS: We turn them; uhm, we, we suck them, and we move on, and they become vampires too, and that's what happened to us years ago so, no, we don't eat them. [Editor's note: I equate vampirism with cannibalism insofar as it is the consumptive subjugation of another's will, and the ending of that person's life for one's own survival, not unlike the behavior and survival modality of the humans which the male lead loathed, referring to them as zombies] I mean the film is about surviving: how do you survive not only death -- but how do you survive, uhm, depression? How do you survive loneliness and boredom and self-loathing? She has some perspective which gives her life purpose, which she shares with him; you know, she is someone who is somehow tuned to nature and finds that genuinely nurturing, and it's a dialogue; she's in dialogue with the universe in a way that he's let himself not be; he's kind of drawn the blinds and shut himself in, and she lives in Tangier, which is hotching with people, and --"hotching" a Scottish word, I suddenly realize -- uhm, full of people, I should say, and he lives in Detroit, which is, at night, when he's roaming about, virtually a wilderness with no humans at all. So she's found these things work for her, keep her connected to some kind of enthusiasm for life; it does work for a bit, but then they run out of blood, because, as Jim says, they're not not human; they need blood, and they will die if they don't get it, and they don't eat those people they just suck them and move on.
MV: So we have [a battle between] romantic self-sacrifice of talent to hermetic asceticism versus survival and what we seem pre-destined to do, so, understood entirely.
Hearing Tilda at the New York Film Festival press conference speaking in such detail about the film and also hearing Jim speak of her championing of the film through its nearly decade-long quest for funding, re-aligning his desire to quit, makes me think that she would be a very good director, and I put to her the same question about transitioning from acting to directing films, that I'd asked Cate Blanchett a few months ago. Interestingly Blanchett, who flatly denied any interest in directing (see interview HERE) announced a few weeks later that she would be directing her first film.
MV: You seem like someone who would make a dynamite director...have you thought that you might want to direct someday?
TS: I know that I don't.
MV: The reason being?
TS: I'm too lazy. I'm not wired that way; certainly not at this moment in my life. Never say never, but I don't, it's like something I keep picking up and putting it down because I don't want it. I'm living a very interesting life doing all sorts of other things. But by the way, in terms of theater and film, to quote Bergman, [Editor's note: earlier in conversation with Tilda, I referenced Bergman's comment about theater being his wife and film his mistress] I've never been married; I've always been interested in my mistress, the cinema, so I'm not interested in the theater in that way.
MV: Flashing back again twenty-five years, can you tell me about your first New York Film festival, The Last of England, the late Derek Jarman and working with him and what that meant to you, and I guess, to put it in a rather corny way, there are pivotal moments where but for this or that twist of fate, you might be the person behind the camera and I might be out there in the lobby. In those twenty-five years, can you speak of certain moments, highs and lows in your career, where things were absolutely pivotal, where you were absolutely disgusted? So, to re-cap: your first NYFF, the late, great Derek Jarman and the pivotal moments between then and now where you can say, 'Wow, I'm glad I soldiered on'?
TS: I feel that I can talk about one thing which answers, or speaks to all of those things: Derek Jarman; I wouldn't be working in front of the camera were it not for Derek Jarman. He was the first filmmaker I ever met and I met him at the point when I didn't want to be an actor for sure, and he opened the door and said 'Okay, so come and play with me then, in my kindergarten full of experimental misfits.
And I stayed in the playpen for nine years, and we made seven films together, one of which was The Last of England, which is possibly my favorite film in fact, that I've ever been involved in, and I remember very well bringing it here to New York and somebody coming up to me afterwards and telling me the story of this non-narrative film, and me saying 'Yes, absolutely, absolutely', and him saying 'Is that right?', and I said 'Yeah, yeah absolutely', and someone else afterwards saying: 'But that's not right!', and I said 'Well, who are we to say? You know, you make a non-narrative film and it's for someone else to tell you what it's about.
But that atmosphere of freedom gave me the possibility to become this weird sort of half-model, half-clown that I am, that doesn't really feel like the kind of actor I thought that one might have to be. I can't imagine ever having been able to develop that sot of hybrid with anybody but Derek Jarman; that kindergarten and the way in which he encouraged us to involve our own lives in the films -- the films were often very autobiographical, as I say, non-narrative documentaries about family life, with the Jarmans. That was heady meat for me, and when he died, very sadly in 1994, I was up a gum tree. You know, I was never gonna be a proper professional. So, from that moment on I've just been living on the fumes of my enthusiasm, which was sown by him in those first nine years of me working with him.
So really, there's been nothing since then and now except for the delight of finding other people to work with. I mean, it would have been possible to imagine there was only one, and I lucked out, I worked with him for nine years and then he died. But the real miracle of my life is that people keep coming out the woodwork and wanting to play with me and I am having more and more long-term working relationships with people like Jim Jarmusch, this is the third film I've made with Jim; Luca Guadagnino, Sally Potter, Lynn Hershman, people I've worked with time and time again, and feel like family. So that early injection of Benzine, that's seeing me right the way through, and I'm very grateful for it.
Tilda Swinton on working with Derek Jarman, plus, a scene from The Last of England, which she describes as "possibly my favorite film in fact, that I've ever been involved in."
MV: "There's a line in the film where Adam expresses his contempt for humans and 'their fear of their imagination', and I daresay you're career heretofore has encouraged folks to have the guts to act on same, and it's been interesting to see you do that, so well done, and thanks again. Oh, Anything coming up?
TS: I had another adventure with Wes Anderson which we're all looking forward to seeing, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I think I'm gonna get a sneak look at it next week and I'm very excited about that, but apart from that, watch this space."
Only Lovers Left Alive is screening at The Elinor Bunin Munro Film Center, info can be found HERE
During a deathbed scene in Only Lovers Left Alive when Christopher Marlowe ( John Hurt) dies, I was painfully reminded of Derek Jarman, the director with whom Swinton had worked early in her career, who died in 1994 of AIDS-related complications. His film The Last of England was my first film review, and I've mentioned his name in these pages more than any other director.
Jarman was a brilliant set decorator, working with Ken Russell, and subsequently directing his own films in his grand style, which often utilized stage lighting and production design.
I sometimes wonder what Jarman's films might look like now, and where his career would be. It's interesting to meditate on what Jarman might do both in the theatre, and what he would do with some of the new digi-film tech, and also what his literary bent might bring to the screen. While I wasn't a huge fan of his outré gay work -- The Last of England is my favorite of his films -- he was a bold director, helming videos for The Smiths' "The Queen Is Dead", and directing an all-Latin film, Sebastianne. His final film Blue, written as he was losing his sight, is a monochromatic work inspired by Yves Klein's paintings. It is essentially a blue screen, over which we hear audio memoirs, and I always thought Blue would make a great double-bill with Longtime Companion.
File under: 50 percent of the audience who stayed in the theater can't be wrong: Last Autumn, after conducting this interview with Tilda (which I promised to keep under embargo until Only Lovers Left Alive came out) I emailed NYFF Director Emeritus Richard Peña, asking him to share recollections about working with Derek Jarman, and he gave me another classic NYFF story: "I was delighted to include The Last of England, still my favorite Jarman film in the 1988 NYFF. I can't say it was terribly well received by the audience -- 50 percent of which walked out. But I think we helped establish him as a serious director, and I was pleased that his work went into more general distribution after that."
I followed up with another email, noting that I thought his selection of Blue was an even bolder choice than The Last of England, and that someone should screen it soon, and he responded with a poignant anecdote, about seeing Jarman in the year before he died:
"I'm very proud that we include it [Blue] as well. When Derek came back in '93, he told me that it meant the world to him to have the Last of England included in the NYFF. That made me feel great!"
Blue will be screened at FSLC's annual Art of The Real series, more info can be found HERE
Kudos to this year's Berlinale for their support of Jarman throughout his career, and their 2014 retrospective of his work. For more New York film stories, you can read my on-camera interview with Mr. Peña HERE:
Further on the subject of differing world-views, Criterion have just released a DVD of Persona, which for this writer at the age of 19 was -- and remains -- the single most personally impactful film I've ever seen. While a lot has been written about this film, for me it has always been, at its simple best, about two very different understandings of human existence: one rooted in what Heidegger called "the forgetfulness of being' which can take life at face value, is distrustful of introspection and follows systems and modalities for survival, the other haunted by a world too far gone, distrustful of happiness and accepting of the mysterious range of human nature.
Persona's "story" is simple: two women, one a young nurse engaged to be married (representing the former mindset), the other, her patient (representing the latter mindset) an actress unwilling to speak after an onstage disconnect, are sent to a rocky, barely inhabited island where the actress is to convalesce. Soon the actress's silence, (which was initially therapeutic for the nurse who, normally unable to speak about her emotions with her fiancée, shares her stories with the actress), becomes, like the silent universe they both inhabit (but the nurse has heretofore not pondered) a diabolical, existential un-nerver of the nurse, shattering her sense of identity, which she'd taken for granted, and is desperate to reclaim. Sounds simple enough and it is. And it's beautifully shot, and it's a bloody masterpiece, well worth checking out. I have never tired of this film. Special thanks to Liv Ullmann for joining me in one of the more interesting interviews I've done.
In referencing these differing world views found in Narcissus and Goldmund in-interview, I started flashing back to my love of Hesse, which I've never outgrown. By way of yet another digression -- and some worthwhile extra-credit reading -- I've just re-read Steppenwolfe, and it is a different, even more beloved book now, and as I read his preface about how he was dealing with the problems of his age (and of course, His Age), I laughed when I realized that I'm now the same age Hesse was when he wrote it. Such are the glass bead game meditations during the experience of the cinema.
During the press screening for Mystery Train at the 1989 NYFF, I asked Jarmusch the obvious question: why had he decided to make a color film, his first since his amazing debut Permanent Vacation which was followed by his classics Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. His answer? "I knew somebody was gonna ask this; I don't know, it's like asking why you had a dream in black and white or in color." Good answer.
Kudos to the Film Society of Lincoln Center for their recent Jarmusch retrospective though it would have been great if they could have screened the full version of Dead Man, which has never been screened in America. Perhaps next year's First Time Fest -- to which I am pleased to have suggested that Michael Moore's debut be screened this year, might screen the full version of Dead Man, and also show his debut, Permanent Vacation, which is for this writer, a stone cold New York classic, right up there with No Picnic and Fear, Anxiety And Depression.
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