The last few weeks of my 2014 spring quarter at Savannah College of Art and Design, all of my friends could attest that the vast majority of my conversation was restricted to how much I wanted to see Only Lovers Left Alive. Whenever anyone would ask me my big plans for the end of the quarter, my response was consistently: I am going to go see Only Lovers Left Alive. Well, I saw Only Lovers Left Alive, at the Bijou Metro in little ‘ol Eugene, OR, and all I can say about my experience is that I wish I could immediately have seen it all over again. From the opening shot, you drew me in; how often has a film begun like that? A frame spinning slowly in a hypnotic circle, with music circulating round and round in the speakers, flowing smoothly from left, to center, to right, to right surround, then left surround, and back again– enveloping the audience member in a blanket of music, as though he or she was sitting on top of a record rotating slowly on a turntable. It was absolutely wonderful. It was awe-inspiring. It was brilliant. I’ve discussed Only Lovers Left Alive in a previous post (What is Art?), so I will refrain from retreading old ground, instead elaborating upon your other works. However, I’d like it to be known that I could muse on your vampire film till world’s end and never grow weary of the experience.
That film was not my first exposure to your work; prior to that particular theatrical excursion I had seen Dead Man, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, and Stranger than Paradise each once before. However, after watching Only Lovers, I was determined to fill the existing holes in my viewing. Over the course of the weeks directly following my viewing of the film, I went on a Jim Jarmusch marathon, and I can now say, with great pride, that I have seen all but one of your films (the documentary on Neil Young). I love them all: they are brilliant. The visual aesthetic is appealing to me, the characters, the story, the music selection… The types of films that you make resonate with me on a profound level, and I can say, with the utmost confidence, that you are one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.
To refrain from composing a dissertation-length letter, I will restrict myself to some specific talking points that I am particularly passionate about. First, I’d like to discuss your visual aesthetics as manifested in your frequent use of post-industrial decaying scenery. I too share a fascination with this aesthetic. One always views ruins as the remains of a more ancient society, one that is long dead, and firmly shrouded in the mystique afforded by presence in a high school history textbook. Yet, when looking around the United States, one witnesses a neglect for the preservation of our material cultural heritage, and the all too present physical manifestations of the decay of modern society. The tableaux over which the drama of your films takes place lend an air of otherworldliness to your works, but one need only go on a walk down a less manicured path to witness first-hand the existence of these places rendered forgotten and invisible to the masses by cultural and political forces. The privileging of these locations in your stories keeps them in the collective conscience of the film-going population, so that their legacy is neither lost nor forgotten.
Next, there is the decidedly international character to your films- why should filmmakers from the United States be constrained to the English language? Our society can be notoriously xenophobic and closed to cultural exchange, hesitant to embrace divergent points of view and the multilingualism achieved by many other parts of the world. Personally, I find myself filled with sadness and disappointment that I have not yet achieved mastery of at least one other language besides English in my 24th year of existence on this planet. As this applies to films, I find myself continually yearning for increased exposure to foreign films and their filmmakers. That you would seek to tell a story in a foreign tongue demonstrates, not only a highly developed knowledge of the global film canon, but also an appreciation for the universal elements of story which transcend language and culture. One could cite as clear examples of this both Night on Earth and Mystery Train. I hesitate to apply a label, which has the potential to constrict experience, to any of your works, but the Jun and Mitsuko segment of Mystery Train does have elements of a “fish out of water” scenario. The character’s interest in and exploration of Memphis creates an interesting juxtaposition of cultures and cultural understanding. Now, whether or not it was your intent to ruminate upon this, or that this juxtaposition was merely the result of a desire to showcase the talents of these two wonderful actors in a location of great history and interest, I do not actually know… I think you’d probably be open to my interpretation though.
And finally, but certainly of great importance, is your detailed attention to sound. I studied sound design for visual media, and try to be attuned to the sonic elements of any film. The film that made me realize your attention to sound was Permanent Vacation. For a first film–essentially a student film– it demonstrates absolutely PHENOMENAL sound design. The added value created by the planes overhead as Allie explores the abandoned building was immense, and nothing like I have experienced in my own (admittedly limited) interactions with student filmmakers. Your sound has only improved since the release of that film. One of my favorite aspects of Night on Earth is each unique taxi engine. Those could’ve easily been written off as average sounding cars, but instead each was imbued with such character. I believe Eugene Gearty is credited as sound effects editor on that film, and I would expect no less nuance from his work– such exquisite editing! All of the sounds present in your films, culminating in Only Lovers Left Alive, are just right. There seems to have been no need for unnecessary layering; instead the sounds seem to have been selected because they fit. The sound design is subtle, and not particularly flashy, but it works so successfully to sell the story world and lend the atmosphere necessary to complete the visual aesthetics. Those are my favorite types of sound jobs.
I fear that I am rapidly approaching dissertation length already, so I must begin to conclude… But before I go, I would like to address one more aspect of your filmmaking process that I respect above all else… your acknowledgement of the spontaneous, the unknown, and the unplanned in the filmmaking process.
Your films that have been released on the Criterion Collection have had some wonderful bonus materials including great Q&As, and general commentary. Listening to you speak about your filmmaking process vindicates so many feelings that I have had about filmmaking, seemingly in isolation. I’ve often been in academic scenarios where I find myself the lone voice postulating that, perhaps that shot was not imbued with deep meaning from its inception, but rather, the shot, which fits in very nicely to whatever overall thematic arc the viewer wishes to see in it, is the result of pure chance. It is so inspiring to hear you respond to these questions, very respectfully and earnestly, in a way that totally undermines grand academic notions like the auteur theory. Those interviews should be required listening for every film student. The body of work that you have created is art, but you did not go into the production with the explicit intention of creating Art. Instead, you had a concept, character, location, feeling, mood, scenario, etc. to explore. You figured out what the story would be, the best way to bring that story to life, and then you made it. End of story. The work is open to interpretation, but the interpretation is not the work. Thank you for serving as living proof that the ridiculous notion many seem to hold, namely that a film is solely the brainchild of a director that was created in isolation, is false.
Dissertation complete. Thank you for reading, and please keep making movies. Your films inspire me to create.