The Casual Elitism of Only Lovers Left Alive

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Eve: “Yasmine. She’s Lebanese. I’m sure she’ll be very famous.”

Adam: “God, I hope not. She’s way too good for that.”

An elite indifference lurks at the heart of Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), Jim Jarmusch’s anti-love story between an unlikely pair of ancient vampires Adam and Eve, played by a criminally underfed Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton.

Don’t get me wrong—I love this movie. And I get that Adam’s inverted vanity is designed to amplify Eve’s dewy-eyed love of the dark world around her. I mean, he shrouds himself exclusively in black while she sports creams and yellows. Their names are Adam and Eve, for God’s sake. Jarmusch seems to go out of his way to drive home the yin-yang nature of their relationship as the film’s central metaphor.

So Adam wallows in circular alleys of dark ennui while Eve sparkles with joy and optimism. Obvious, right? It seems like an easy rhythm to learn and follow, and later even dance to, but Adam twists his hatred of humanity into an odd elitism that seems super out of touch with whatever one imagines an immortal creature’s world views might be.

For example Adam adores the scientists of the world and gnashes his teeth at civilization’s laissez-faire reception of them, transactional to a fault. “They’re still bitching about Darwin,” he gripes at one point, and later we see him implementing (presumably) some of Tesla’s hidden electrical treasures in an underground backyard experiment. This makes plain his disgust of the vast swaths of humanity, a character default he no doubt shares with the director. But something still throbs like an ingrown hair on a part of your back that you can’t quite reach:

Why does Adam come across as such an elitist? I mean, other than it makes him look so goddamn fucking cool?

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Consider the way-too-good quote about the Lebanese singer. What is Adam implying? Yes, the woman is a fantastic performer, a talent to be treasured, but only by a few? How is the audience supposed to not think of billionaire art collectors hoarding priceless treasures in their Singapore penthouses, otherworldly delights that could otherwise dot museums and public collections?

Even more staggering, Adam even says something along the same lines about his own music while chatting with his familiar:

Ian: “I know you don’t wanna play live, I know you wanna remain anonymous, but you being so reclusive and everything is probably only gonna make people more interested in your music.”

Adam: “Yeah. What a drag.”

Seriously. What a drag? What does he care about anonymity? Why is he bothering to recording his music in the first place? Why is he even creating it? Is his only intended audience himself? Or perhaps it’s only meant to be heard by worthy ears (whatever that means)?

I’ve been turning this over in my head for a few days now, and I can’t figure it out. Even more vexing is that bar scene when Ian appears to be selling Adam’s music on the vinyl black market to other “zombies” (Adam’s apparent name for non-vampires). Is Ian stealing Adam’s music? Is he single-handedly responsible for Adam’s accidental fame? I have so many questions.

Elitism isn’t the only thing Adam wears on his sleeve. Yeah, he’s depressed at how awful the world is—how fourteen year-old goth of him—but he’s also a chickenshit. He worries about leaving his musical instruments behind as Eve whisks him off to another part of the world.

Adam: “What about all my instruments?”

Eve: “My darling, the world is full of beautiful instruments.”

So Adam is the child in the relationship, stubborn and afraid of the world, and Eve is the adult. She’s nobody’s fool, but she’s not a jaded fuck like her husband. This fear rings true in Adam’s character, and feels every bit an extension or function of his elitism—he can’t see something as obvious as buying new instruments on the other side of their trip because he’s not used to seeing past the nose on his own face. Come on, Eve tells Adam. Trust me. It’s going to be fine.

It’s a beautiful story, and again, I can’t recommend the movie enough. I suppose if nothing else Adam’s odd elitism is a creative spin on the jaded / optimistic dichotomy we’ve all seen done to absolute death in Hollywood. And we all have an Adam and Eve inside of us, half horrified at the raging forest fire of the world, half in love with the cosmos come what may. It’s hard to be hard on Only Lovers—its flaws don’t seem like flaws, and its humanity comes at us from immortals. It’s full of weird contradictions and impossibilities, but it absolutely works. And I will always adore it.

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