Only Lovers Left Alive is Jim Jarmusch’s reinvention of the vampire genre as a love story. The protagonists have been alive for centuries sustaining themselves on the rejuvenating blood of humans. But unlike the traditional vampire, Jarmusch’s vampires no longer seek out human victims to kill or ‘turn’ as in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula. They buy blood straight from the blood bank; like connoisseurs they savour many varieties of blood without ever having to get down and dirty by looking for human victims on the streets of the metropolis. Many reviews have so far focused on the aesthetics of Jarmusch’s film. This piece will instead look at what I believe lies at the heart of this film: the latent anxieties about fears centreing on American identity which have erupted in the US since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Jarmusch litters Only Lovers Left Alive (OLLA) with knowing nods to ideas and people which thrilled goths and reviewers alike who flocked to his latest offering and who have given it the most superficial reading. So, that’s my mission here – hence the title of my review. Be aware, you must have watched this film to make sense of what I am about to write.
The film moves between Tangier and Detroit’s darkened streets and back alleys. Jarmusch’s vampires cruise Detroit at night without seeing a single living soul. Entire blocks and factories built on the backs of the African American working class have been left to fall into deathly rot and decay. A once bustling Motor city is overrun by dogs that whoop and cackle in the distance like hyenas. Detroit used to be the fifth biggest metropolis in the US, its wealth resting on the big three automakers: Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler until the collapse of Fordism in the 70s. Today, Detroit appears deserted, millions of its Black workers exorcised following the outsourcing of jobs to places like China, the State withdrew its social support, leaving behind a public infrastructure to rot and fall into ruin. Marx attributed monstrosity to Capitalism stating it was that “which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” For Marx vampires represented the relations of production that kill the body and soul.
While the history of how Detroit fell into its present state is a political reality Jarmusch’s film evades – casting into darkness the cannibalising of Detroit’s public sector by city planning staff – its ghostly emanations are there for those with eyes to see. Instead Jarmusch has his protagonist, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), narrativise Oswald Spengler’s reactionary account of the rise and fall of civilisations. In The Decline of the West Spengler writes that ours is the “Faustian” epoch in which Europe has reached the overtaxed state, attained by the Apollonian and Magian ages of the Greek and medieval Arab worlds, its lifeblood exhausted. For Spengler, these cultures flourished to the extent that they allowed their innate genius to flower before falling into “decadence” and decay, or “modernism.” In Spengler’s account Living Time will sweep away this civilisation just as Nature exterminates species. For Jarmusch too, Nature now reclaims Detroit as it falls into urban decay. It’s a city where the streetlights never come on. A city without a history of the people who once lived there. Also, a bankrupt city without people, open for developers and the money men who crave opportunities for a fresh start, unhindered by rules and accountability. A new territory waiting to be colonised.
Jarmusch’s vampires personify an anti-bourgeois aesthetic like that of the earlier Romantics which today is embodied by a North American elite educated at its ivy league universities. They are polymaths. Men and women of letters. They are sophisticated and erudite snobs. When Eve, played by Tilda Swinton, packs her bags to fly from Tangiers to Detroit to console the reclusive Adam, she packs David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinity Jest. Her concern for Adam is roused after a conversation in which he decries the decay of society as he casts a proud and disdainful glance over the Zombies – workers – human machines who exist only to manufacture wealth, for their lack of appreciation of nature, culture and science. Like Foster Wallace, his artistic revolt against the social order never amounts to a political stance, it is a frame of mind that has degenerated into an aestheticising pose of “Art for Art’s Sake.” He rails against the Zombies for destroying the great men of history. Adam, like Tesla, is a man ahead of his time in the rust belt. He drives a slick machine powered by future clean tech. The thing is Tesla was also a eugenicist who wanted to purify the human race. Tesla wrote,
The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult.
Spengler also fretted about the future of the race. His race. His anxieties about the mixing of races and cultural traditions, cosmopolitanism and the dehumanising effects of technology heralding the end of the Occident become OLLA’s themes. This piece will address miscegenation and the one-drop rule which is key to understanding this film, reflecting tensions which have been exacerbated since Obama’s 2008 election.
The insistence on absolute white racial purity is the brightest of bright-line rules, writes Daniel J. Sharfstein, “synonymous with racism and central to the evolution of racial identity and resistance in the United States.” Ideologies of racial purity and pollution are the fundamental principles on which American identity rests, as is interracial mixing. Yet, the one-drop rule did not make all mixed-race people Black as African Americans could be assimilated into white communities. Becoming white did not require the deception normally associated with “passing.” Even though whites in the South could be as committed to white supremacy, slavery and segregation as anywhere else they often allowed the colour line to be crossed anyway. In fact, it was these attitudes which made whites and their newest members white (See Gary Younge on Lawrence Dennis).
Although marriage between interracial couples was prohibited, some confusion about the law existed due to a statute passed in 1836 which had forbidden interracial weddings but not marriages. A later law passed in 1838 declared, “it shall not be lawful for any free negro or person of color to marry a white person; and any marriage hereafter solemnized or contracted between a free negro or free person of color and a white person, shall be null and void. All persons living together under such circumstances, as man and wife, are guilty of fornication and adultery” (Sweet 2005:355). Yet the one-drop rule could be bypassed literally. When a Black man and a white woman attempted to marry before a magistrate in North Carolina in 1838, permission was initially refused unless the woman was willing to swear that there was black blood in her. Immediately, blood was taken from a lancing of the Black man’s arm which his bride then drank. This act of drinking Black blood was enough to satisfy all parties that the white bride was now legally Black and the marriage was allowed to proceed. (Sharfstein 2007:2). In fact, drinking drops of Black blood to legally cross the colour line was a common practice.
The one-drop rule requires that anyone with a trace of African ancestry label themselves Black, no matter how distant or invisible the trace is. Yet there are over twice as many White Americans (74 million) as there are Black (36 million) with a recent African genetic admixture (Sweet 2005:6). It is this 1836 statute allowing marriages but not weddings and the vampire’s invisible Blackness that Jarmusch alludes to when we learn Adam and Eve’s wedding took place in the same year. OLLA’s blood-drinking vampires, like the vampires that have traditionally populated the genre, masquerade as a multitude of personalities, while “passing” always as white aristocrats. They possess passports that allow them to freely cross national boundaries, like capital, without impedance. Tilda Swinton, as Eve, so ethereal with her pallid complexion, bleached hair & finely honed English diction is an international vampire with no native stamping ground. She’s as much at home walking through the back streets of Tangier at night as she has been in plague-ridden London or Surrealist Paris of the 1920s. She’s a speed-reading sampler of literary classics in a number of languages. But she is not really “passing” for she has successfully made the racial migration from black to white, disproving scientific theories and popular belief that bodies will always be marked by African ancestry and proof the one-drop rule never kept whites racially pure, rather, it allowed them to believe that they were.
Adam also assumes a false identity when – masked as Dr Faust – he buys his blood straight from Dr Watson (Jeffrey Wright). Watson’s job is to monitor Detroit’s medical blood stocks for contamination as the Zombies are not only destroying Nature but have also allowed their own blood to become polluted, making the procurement of blood for the vampires fraught with the danger of contagion. Buying blood from Dr Watson enables Adam to safeguard his pure blood from contamination. He is also spared the messy inconvenience of having to search for victims to kill and dispose off among Detroit’s invisible poor. Unlike earlier vampires, he can go straight to the blood bank. On one level the exchange of money for pure blood can be read as indictment of financial capitalism but it also works on a much deeper level, expressing the anxieties and tensions US society harbours about racial mixing and multiculturalism.
Dr Watson is the only Black person we see Adam come directly into contact with. Adam pays him handsomely for the city blood stocks he peddles illegally. Jarmusch contrasts Black Dr Watson’s grasping materialism with Ian (Anton Yelchin), his personal Man Friday who is tasked with finding Adam whatever he desires; from vintage guitars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a specially built bullet designed to kill vampires. “You’re not bad for a Zombie,” says Adam when Ian is too embarrassed to take Adam’s money. Being labelled a Zombie invests Ian with a little humanity yet in the transactions between Adam and Dr Watson something completely different transpires. In this transaction Jarmusch shows the colour line cannot be crossed by Dr Watson whose body, unlike Adam and Ian’s, is indelibly marked by Blackness and thus by the state of eternal slavery in the eyes of Adam and the observer.
Recovering from the shock caused by Adam’s phantom appearance in his laboratory, a jittery Dr Watson assumes the mask of complete servility adopted by the cinematic representation of the slave in the presence of the white Master. Dr Watson plays one of the most offensive caricatures of the Black man to have come out of America’s antebellum south: that of the coon. The coon is portrayed as lazy, slow talking, inarticulate and easily frightened. Watson is all of this. You hear it in his voice and see it as his hunched body limps slowly, defensively and obsequiously to the cabinet where Adam’s blood fix is stored. The money that Adam pays Dr Watson for the blood can never buy white respectability or genteelness – irrespective of the good doctor’s professional qualifications – which Adam so effortlessly cultivates. In contrast to Adam whose impersonation of a doctor convinces staff in the Detroit hospital, the reading of Dr Watson’s Black body is placed before his status as a doctor. This is seen when Dr Watson, dropping the mask of servility, snatches a wad of dollar notes out of Adam’s hands and pockets it, oblivious to the niceties commonly observed in business transactions which Jarmusch has previously shown taking place between Adam and Ian, the sweet Zombie.
I come close to accusing Jarmusch of racism for this portrayal but cinema goers know that Jarmusch is well aware of the respresentation of Blackness on screen, its cinematic language, visual cues and so on. So why is this dehumanising and demeaning caricature here when such images have allowed people to accept them as justifications for Black slavery, segregation and inequality? What does Jarmusch intend by it when he has abdicated representing Blackness throughout the film until now? A generous intrepretation would argue that Jarmusch is familiar with Afro-Pessimism’s claim that the Black body can not be represented on screen because Blackness is social death, an absence. Black absence in OLLA represents this social death. Unlike the Zombie who figuratively stands in for the worker, on screen the Black Slave has no value other than as an anti-Human subject against which whites and non-whites in the symbolic field of racial hierarchy can measure their own liberty. There is no distinction between Slaveness and Dr Watson’s Blackness; as Fanon wrote, “I am a slave not of an idea others have of me, but my own appearance.” (Fanon 1967: 116). Frank Wildersen III argues
the position of the Black is a paradigmatic impossibility in the Western Hemisphere, indeed, in the world, in other words, if a Black is the very antithesis of a Human subject, as imagined by Marxism and psychoanalysis, then his or her pardigmatic exile is not simply a function of repressive practices on the part of institutions (as political science and sociology would have it). This banishment from the Human fold is to be found most profoundly in the emancipatory meditations of Black people’s staunchest “allies,” and in some of the most “radical” films. Here – not in restrictive policy, unjust legislation, police brutality, or conservative scholarship – is where the Settler/Master’s sinews are most resilient (Wildersen III 2010:9).
If, as Wildersen says, Black representation is an impossibility because the Master and Slave are locked into an inescapable antagonism structured by the absence of the Black human subject from the human field in relation to white freedom, then maybe – just maybe – this is what Jarmusch intended. When Dr Watson is reduced to a caricature of the coon before our eyes, we are really seeing him captured by the “white gaze” which Fanon found paralysing. When Dr Faust enters Dr Watson’s lab, history walks in with him. Dionne Brand writes of this moment of passing through the open door for people in the disapora:
One enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives. Where one stands in a society seems always related to this historical experience. Where one can be observed is relative to that history. All human effort seems to emanate from this door (2001 24-25).
For Brand the door is both a mythic and real door of no return. An optic in which the body of the African American is constructed as the signifier of Blackness and enslavement. Shortly after having left the laboratory Adam passes through an emergency ward. He slows down to watch a nurse dressing the wound of an African American woman who appears to have been shot. Red blood seeps through her white bandages. Concern registers in Adam’s eyes as if discomforted by this moment of recognition in which his act of exploitation becomes transparent; the blood stocks he drinks are not only meant for injured victims such as this woman but are also drawn from members of Detroit’s African American community who have nothing else to sell. Not only this, Adam is forced to confront the inescapable fact of the one-drop rule which shapes American identity; drinking this blood contaminates his blood with Blackness, albeit invisible Blackness.
Like Fanon and Dr Watson, Barrack Obama is a slave to his appearance and the seemingly inflexible racial regime marked by the colour line yet his presence in the White House destabilises bichromatic (black/white) American identity. His election was heralded as presaging a post-racial world, instead it has reified the operation of a racial discourse in which new racial categories push to situate themselves as intermediaries between whiteness and the African American in a reordered racialised social system. This in a nation predicated on white supremacy hinged on the oppression of African Americans. Within this new racial hierarchy different groups lay claim to “honorary whiteness” for themselves, enjoying privileges and access to centres of power on the path to citizenship (Makalani 2009) that earlier hyphenated American identities have journeyed. A door that is still closed to African Americans, despite having a Black man in the White House.
As Hortense Spillers (2012) notes, “Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans of varied European origin have all spawned political figures who have more or less husbanded the loyalties and commitments of the social formations that they are perceived to represent.” Yet now that Black Americans have a political leader in the White House, how is that Obama has not been able to muster the same level of loyalty? Even though Obama only checks the ‘black’ box on his census form – and despite the one-drop rule – his identity is generally understood as biracial, not Black, by people on both sides of the colour line. During his presidency his origins as a second generation immigrant and the son of an interracial marriage have been used by Tea Partiers and birthers (who demand to see Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate) in order to delegitimise his American identity while bi-racial and multcultural interest groups have capitalised on it to cross the colour line.
In conversation with Spillers, R.A.T. Judy observes how Obama positions himself as the apotheosis of Black radical history in his memoirs – paraphrasing Obama, Judy says: “I embody the long history of black radicalism. There’s no longer any need for it with me.” His posture ends up being cold, mechanical, neutral and imperial. Obama’s comportment as the cool, unflappable president is a learned posture embodied by blacks in elitist stratas of the Atlantic states – to get along- “there is a way that one cannot identify explicitly as black, but rather that one has to be broad and ecumenical,” explains Tony Bogues. This broadness then negates the black poor underclass which Bogues argues is how – in an antiblack racist society – the ambitious black individual is able to ascend to its upper echelons (Spillers 2012:18-20).
Unlike Latino and Asian groups, Makalani notes that the “biracial project” underway in the US quite literally attempts to stake its claim to citizenship on the possession of whiteness without examining how this supports the existent racial hierarchy and perpetuates anti-Blackness; where for instance, “the position of African Americans in the political economy has served as the basis for developing a racialized social system.” Advocates of the project claim the biracial identity undermines and hastens the end of racial categories by challenging popular notions of race. They argue that forcing people with one white parent and one black parent to identify as black is oppressive and prevents them from identifying with their white racial heritage. Surprisingly, what they do not challenge is the idea of white racial purity. Without proof or recourse to history, Naomi Zack states, biracial identity will act to “ultimately disabuse Americans of their false beliefs in the biological reality of race.” Makalani responds,
The presence of a biracial race would certainly disrupt popular ideas about race, but as scholars supporting biracial identity root it in biological notions of race “mixture,” it seems unlikely that such a disruption would result in the end of racial classifications. Work on race in the Caribbean and Latin America shows that a racially mixed identity is entirely consistent with a racialized social system. Moreover, recent work interrogating-color blindness has shown that this is the current dominant racial ideology, suggesting that a color-blind society as a goal is more likely to ensure the persistence of racism than its decline.
As Makalani says, the biracial project is not so much concerned with ending racism but responding to the classification of all people of African descent in the United States as black, believing that as long as one can distance oneself from Blackness, then one has the chance of integrating into civil society. Instead of basing identity on a shared experience of discrimination and oppressions, these struggles by various interest groups invariably rest on the further subjection of the Black in order to position themselves in a more privileged echelon of society. It is a racial politics offering a vision of global integration through a “people of colour-blindness” sexual love and procreation as a corrective to the Aryan ideal.
After centuries of “aesthetic eugenics” Jarmusch’s Adam and Eve are the antidote to Anglo-Saxon racial ideology. They are the end result of a pathos of love in which the Black gives way to more “handsome stocks” which, according to Vasconcelos, operates far less brutally than Darwinist selection (cited in Sexton 2008: 207) or Tesla’s forced sterilisations of unfit humans to protect the (white) race. Commenting on Vacsconcelos fantasy, a scathing Jared Sexton writes
The black’s redemption is found only in disappearance, a redemptive self-annihilation enjoyed in absentia, which is to say it is impossible. The sterilization of the black population, barring the reproduction of its ugliness and inferiority, is engineered for Vasconcelos through an aesthetic pedagogy promoting the dazzle of loving human beautification. The black simply has to be educated as to her unsightliness, an unambiguous point with which she will eventually agree, for her to refrain and “give way to the more handsome” (2008: 207).
This aesthetic eugenics is what Luis Bonilla-Silva refers to as “the Latin Americanization of U.S race relations” now writ large across the planet as a new global racial hierarchy comes into view. The old black/white race binary gives way, with the growing acceptance of interracial intimacy, to a multiracial people of colour whose ideal is something like whiteness, but not quite white. Sexton writes: “the enlargement of multiracialism can be more fully appreciated as an element of the regional integration of the Americas” and I would add the Atlantic African diaspora in “what we might call ‘the cultural politics of free trade agreement” in which the U.S. attempts to win for itself hegemony while retaining political, economic and military dominance, by utilising for its own ends multiculturalism or mestizaje beneath the shadow of “global white supremacy (Sexton 2010:3-5). As Sexton and Malakani have argued, freedom from the one-drop rule is construed as the freedom from being identified, or identitfying oneself with racial Blackness in the new global racial formation under Yankee imperialism headed by America’s first black President.
In effect Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is an allegory about the one-drop rule and how it has shaped American identity. Jarmusch’s abdication of direct representation of the violent Slave estate which shape Jared Leto’s 12 Years A Slave or Quentin Tarantino’s Django is an attempt to find new cinematic language order to talk about the estrangement, alienation and exploitation of African Americans and the collective Black, in what largely remains a white supremacist cinema.
Butler, Erik (2013-04-18). Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film: Cultural Transformations in Europe, 1732-1933 (Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture) (Kindle Locations 1708-1709). Boydell & Brewer Group Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Fanon F. (1967) Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, New York
Obama B. (2006) Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance New York, Random House, 2006
Sexton J. (2008) Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
Sharfstein D.J., (2007) Crossing the Color Line: Racial Migration and the One-Drop rule, 1600 – 1860, Online Url: http://www.minnesotalawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Sharfstein_Final.pdf
Spillers H. (2012) Destiny’s Child: Obama and Election ’08, Duke Journals, Online Url: http://boundary2.dukejournals.org/content/39/2/3.full.pdf
Sweet F. W. (2005) The Notion of Invisible Blackness: The Legal History of The Color Line, Backintyme Publishing, Palm Coast Fl.
Wildersen III F., (2010) Red, White and Black: Cinema and Structure of US Antagonisms, Duke University Press, Durham NC