Reading the gothic in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), Part I: The gothic ruins of Detroit

Film

Hello dear readers! Over the next few days I wanted to share with you a new series of articles on Jim Jarmusch’s superb film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), in an attempt to locate Jarmusch’s use of the gothic in the urban ruins of the film’s setting, the city of Detroit. This is the first of four such articles, all of which have been adapted from a piece of academic writing submitted for grading to my University. I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. And by all means, please comment if you wish to debate any points – I encourage discussion!

Introduction

In an interview concerning his film Mystery Train (1989), Jim Jarmusch muses on the central theme of the anthology film – foreigners in Memphis.

“What I like about the idea of Japanese kids in Memphis is, if you think about… the way the Romantic poets went to Italy to visit remnants of a past culture, and then if you imagine America in the future, when people from the East or wherever visit our culture after the decline of the American empire… all they’ll really have to visit will be the homes of rock ‘n’ roll stars and movie stars. That’s all our culture ultimately represents.”[1]

The theme of foreigners in a desolate cultural landscape of the Americas can be considered a major thematic touch point for all of Jarmusch’s films, and it certainly reaches its finest moment in his recent film Only Lovers Left Alive. The decline of the American empire has certainly continued since 1989, and no city represents this fall more completely than modern Detroit.

In many ways, Detroit has become a post-apocalyptic landscape (ironically, it is the shooting locale for many such Hollywood films). There has been a great cultural response to this decline. Innovative installation projects by young artists have been transforming abandoned buildings and spaces in an attempt to gentrify Detroit.

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is an evaluation of the state of American culture, as symbolised by the apparent fallen Detroit, framing it as a gothic rebirth through its use of vampire mythology. Jarmusch places all hope for a rebirth of American culture in its music scene, one that is shown to be gothic, dark, and deathly. However, Jarmusch questions whether this artistic resurgence is valid as it is based so explicitly on the musical culture that preceded it. The film provides no definitive answer to this query, just like many of Jarmusch’s other films. Instead, it is an exploration of the many possible responses, using his omnipotent vampires Adam and Eve as guides.

Jarmusch’s exploration essentially manifests itself in four different ways. The first is to frame the urban decay and squalor of Detroit as classically gothic. Jarmusch then modernizes the vampire mythology, stripping it of its horror genre trappings and returning it to the gothic genre. Finally, he concludes by evaluating whether this “new culture”, and with it a recovered Detroit, is possible or valid.

It is important to reiterate that Jarmusch is not looking for a definitive answer, and it would be detrimental to any reading of the film to take definitive stances on it; rather, the film is a careful deliberation and analysis on the topic.

The gothic ruins of Detroit

Jarmusch frames the city of Detroit as a Gothic graveyard, an apocalyptic space. Not in the sense of an actual apocalypse, such as the television remake of 12 Monkeys (ironically filmed in Detroit too) but in a cultural space. The primary way Jarmusch does this is by shooting exclusively at night. Part of this reasoning has to do with the two lead characters being vampires; but if you look at the rest of Jarmusch’s filmography, particularly the films Night on Earth and Mystery Train, you would also find the filmmaker’s preference for shooting at night. By setting the film exclusively at night, the film deprives you of seeing the streets busy and awake. What the viewer gets instead is a sleepy, silent, and ghostly city.

Night time is used to great effect specifically in the scenes where Adam and Eve drive around Detroit at midnight – the chosen settings are desolate, and framed by the night one cannot help but also think of the classical gothic imagery of painters such as Caspar David Friedrich.

Fig 3.04

Jarmusch also films at night when the narrative moves to Tangier, but whereas Adam finds the music scene of Detroit to be stiff and uninspired, he is transfixed by the performance of Yasmine Hamdan in a club in Tangier. These live performances are the two cultural touch points Jarmusch places for Detroit and Tangier. One, whilst enjoyable, recycles older American musical narratives. The other is hypnotic and awe-inspiring.

And when Adam does take the time to comment upon humanity as a whole, he doesn’t seem to be our most avid fan – he consistently refers to humans as “zombies”. In one scene in the film, when he is talking with Eve over a television screen, he laments: “I’m sick of it, these zombies, what they’ve done to the world, their fear of their own imaginations.” Adam locates the fall of Detroit in the fear of one’s own ability to create art, and therefore being driven to careers outside of the arts. This can be seen as emblematic of Detroit’s fall and it’s ties to the motor industry, something Detroit musician Jack White also laments in his song, “The Big Three Killed My Baby”.

However, the two most strikingly gothic moments of Only Lovers Left Alive also have bizarre real-life parallels too, as recorded in Mark Binelli’s book The Last Days of Detroit, and both moments also exemplify how Jarmusch casts the city of Detroit in the gothic mould. When Adam and Eve go to dump Ian’s body in a pool of toxic waste in an abandoned car park, Eve comments on the Canis latrans, or Coyotes, that have been following them. Jarmusch frames the scene by having the pillars of the car park in the foreground, lit up; and then behind in the desolate shadow, the pinprick light of the coyotes’ eyes.

It is a classic gothic image. It would be easy to say that this is Jarmusch imprinting the gothic language onto Only Lovers Left Alive without basis, yet bizarrely there are real life parallels too:

A friend’s mother said she now carried pepper spray on her daily walks – not for protection from potential muggers, but from packs of wild dogs she’d been seeing in the neighbourhood. A coyote had just been spotted near downtown.[2]

The abandonment of Detroit is literalized in this gothic image. As no major renovation efforts are able to come from government due to bankruptcy, the city is enshrouded in a wilderness.

This too is mimicked in this next scene. Adam and Eve visit the former site of the Michigan Theatre, and circle around with their backs to each other looking up at the beautifully eroded ceiling:

ADAM: And this is the famous Michigan Theatre. They built it back in the 1920s, with huge sums of money. It’s built, ironically, on the exact same site as Henry Ford made his very first prototype. They used to be able to seat over 4,000 people in here.

EVE: It’s fantastic! For what, for concerts?

ADAM: Concerts, and as a movie house, can you imagine? Mirrors used to reflect the chandeliers. And now… a car park. (Only Lovers Left Alive).

Binelli describes the aura of Detroit ruins:

“If you manage to slip inside certain Detroit ruins, you are sometimes struck by their sacred aura; like cathedrals, they can feel beautiful and tragic at the same time, monuments to flawed human aspiration that, in an unintentional way, begin to approach the holy”.[3]

Jarmusch’s camera continually fades and pans over the ceiling, with the dialogue serving as exposition, narration, and commentary all at once. Jarmusch gives us a microcosm of the rapid rise and fall of Detroit in this scene. Binelli is completely correct when he talks about these ruins having a “sacred aura”; for the scene in the former Michigan theatre has that precise atmosphere.

This atmosphere at large is what represents Detroit throughout the film. It is a place of extreme beauty and tragedy. It is a place where there was once creative enterprise, but this has given way to failed capitalism and has thus plunged the city into squalor. This squalor, however, provides a second layer that provides the gothic beauty Jarmusch defines Detroit with: the fact that these places are so decayed and abandoned, and therefore private, creates a small world for these two people to exist in. This private world is what Jarmusch believes is magic and beautiful.

Both the scene with the coyote and the scene in the former Michigan Theatre share one major similarity: they portray the arrival of the gothic as a process of time, abandonment, and nature. Jarmusch reframes the decline of Detroit aesthetically as a return of the wilderness. This is literalized with packs of coyotes haunting the streets, and the raggedness and disrepair of the Michigan Theatre speaks to this too. By framing these broken sites as gothic, Jarmusch transposes the traditional gothic of films like Dracula (1931), immortalized in it’s opening line delivered by Carla Laemmle: “Among the rugged peaks that frown down on the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age”.

However, it also modernizes the gothic of these films and books and architectures: by placing the traditional gothic in modern spaces such as theatres and highways, Jarmusch is balancing the dichotomy of the ancient and the modern.


[1] Jarmusch, Jim. “Mystery Man.” Jim Jarmusch Interviews. By Luc Sante. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Print. 87-98. Page 93.

[2] Binelli, Mark. The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant. London: Vintage, 2014. Print. Page 9.

[3] Binelli, Mark. The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant. London: Vintage, 2014. Print. Page 276.


Thank you for reading! Come back tomorrow for the second instalment, “The gothic music scene of Detroit.”

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