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

Film

Hello dear readers! Welcome to the last instalment in my series of articles on Jim Jarmusch’s superb film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), focusing on Jarmusch’s use of the gothic in the urban ruins of the film’s setting, the city of Detroit. This is the fourth and final article of the series, 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!

The gothic revival of Detroit

The film’s biggest question is whether a new culture, and therefore a recovered, vibrant Detroit, is possible. The biggest problem with a new Detroit music is that it is so explicitly based, at least within the film, on sounds that have already been heard. Not only this, but these sounds don’t really originate within Detroit itself – the gothic rock of Bauhaus came from the UK, the rock n roll of Elvis and Eddie Cochran from Memphis and Los Angeles respectively. This carries over in to real life too – Detroit musician Jack White draws on the Mississippi Delta Blues, not original to Detroit in any means.

Ironically, the film 8 Mile (inspired by the life of Eminem) shows that any true Detroit artist simply has no room to be an artist in Detroit due to the mass economic failure. The film’s final scene shows Eminem’s character B-Rabbit walking off on his own, determined to forge his own path that will lead to an escape from Detroit, which is also the answer in Eminem’s own single “Lose Yourself” (recorded for the film), which features a much more biographical spin on the events of 8 Mile.

Even in his book The Last Days of Detroit, Mark Binelli recognises that any arts scene is in its infancy, and mostly filled with coastal artists who have gone to Detroit for it’s ruinous space as a place of inspiration. Even the sudden launch and craze for Detroit techno was soon forgotten and relegated back to an underground movement[1]. All of these case studies seem to show that a true Detroit music scene is hard to come by, and even when one is discovered there is inauthenticity about it or a desire to escape Detroit in the case of Eminem’s music.

However, while Adam and Eve may take issue with the inauthenticity of the music, that doesn’t make it invalid. Indeed, Binelli notes that whilst the arts scene may be fostered by foreigners, or Detroit artists like Eminem may see artistic success as a method to escape Detroit, much of this music would not have been made without the presence of a culturally post-apocalyptic Detroit. As with any post-apocalyptic narrative, much of this space is about redefining what came before the apocalyptic event. In the case of the Detroit music scene, the inspiration from classic American narratives such as the blues or rock n roll, re-invented through the gothic in the case of Only Lovers Left Alive or garage rock in the case of Jack White, is an effort to re-invent these classic narratives in an attempt to capture the fall of Detroit – and it’s bounce back, should that ever happen. Indeed, it is only through working within the narrative frame of classic American culture that this rebirth can take place. It is through familiar narratives that these ideas are allowed discussion.

Fig 2.09

The vampiric nature of Adam and Eve is what stops them from witnessing this; in a need for authenticity, for originality, due to their centuries-long lives, they cannot comprehend this re-tread as anything but a caricature of previous genius. Eminem is not the originator of hip-hop, but by using the hip-hop language he is able to craft a music that is emblematic of Detroit and it’s problems:

Another day of monotony
Has gotten to me to the point, I’m like a snail
I’ve got to formulate a plot or I end up in jail or shot
Success is my only motherfucking option, failure’s not
Mom I love you, but this trailer’s got to go
I cannot grow old in Salem’s lot
So here I go it’s my shot
Feet, fail me not, this may be the only opportunity that I got.[2]

The same can be said for Jack White, who is drawing on traditional American narratives of the blues to critique the economic fall from grace within Detroit, drawing a distinct line of reference between the classical emotional hardships of African Americans in the South to a new misery in Detroit:

The big three killed my baby
No money in my hand again
The big three killed my baby
Nobody’s coming home again
Well I’ve said it now, nothings changed
People are burning for pocket change
And creative minds are lazy
And the big three killed my baby.[3]

Jarmusch does point to eastern influences in Tangier as a true original music, one that obviously captivates Adam when he sees Yasmine Hamdan perform. This may be inspiring from a Western perspective but does contain a shade of orientalist attitudes, and whilst it could help construct a new Detroitian narrative, it would be detrimental to Detroit.

Only Lovers Left Alive 5

Detroit is still in the age of post-apocalypse; however, there are efforts everywhere to gentrify the city through artistic projects and urban gardening[4]. A new culture for a resurgent Detroit is not what is needed right now; instead, the disassociated must be unified, and culturally this means bringing the threads of American culture together into a new tapestry – the blues, classic rock n’ roll, Motown, the gothic; by bringing these together, Detroit is affirming an new identity that both recognises the ruins of Detroit and rejects it. Adam and Eve (particularly Adam) refuse to see that. Adam as a Byronic hero is attracted to Detroit because of the ruins and the darkness inherent in the city. He is attracted to the beauty of these ruins. His destructive side, particularly notable due to his thoughts of suicide, cannot get enough of these ruins. He fails to see any life beyond them. Writer Geoff Dyer also shares this opinion:

Ruins don’t encourage you to dwell on what they were like in their heyday, before they were ruins. The Coliseum in Rome or the amphitheatre at Leptis Magna has never been anything but ruins. They’re eternal ruins. It’s the same here. This building could never have looked more magnificent than it does now, surrounded by its own silence. Ruins don’t make you think of the past, they direct you towards the future. The effect is almost prophetic. This is what the future will end up like. This is what the future has always ended up looking like.[5]

Adam’s perspective makes him think that these ruins too are eternal, that nothing can save Detroit – this is what attracts him to the city, as an inspirational source for his own frankly morbid music. However, there are mountains of evidence that contradict his opinion. The government will not save Detroit due to lack of funding. Yet a citywide initiative, spurred by select members of the public, is doing its best to gentrify and look after Detroit[6]. Whilst the city may be ruins, there is life in these ruins, life that wants to recapture and reignite the spark of society.

Fig 3.03

Conclusion

Jarmusch’s film provides no certain conclusion to the question of a resurgent Detroit and an accompanying arts scene. The film does not have the historical distance from the time to be able to draw any stiff conclusions, and this isn’t what Jarmusch is interested in anyway. Only Lovers Left Alive seeks to document life in the ruins of Detroit, to question it, and to question the appeal of these ruins. Doing so through the use of the gothic and the vampire allows Jarmusch to use genre conventions to mediate this discussion. By setting up the city of Detroit as a gothic one allows him to frame the rebirth of the American music scene via the gothic. Furthermore his reinvention of the vampire and his / her relationship to the humans of Detroit allows him to comment on the state of Detroit. This allows for the final discussion of whether a new culture – and a new Detroit – is possible. Jarmusch doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer to this in Only Lovers Left Alive – he is more interested in day-to-day life than the more philosophical questions it poses. However, the hipster, snobbish side of Adam and Eve do fail to see the value in the re-interpretation of classic American narratives as a way to reclaim a sense of Detroit identity. Only by doing this can the people of Detroit forge ahead and rebuild their city.


[1] Binelli, Mark. The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant. London: Vintage, 2014. Print. Pages 265-266.

[2] Eminem. “Lose Yourself.” Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture 8 Mile. Shady Records, 2002. CD.

[3] The White Stripes. “The Big Three Killed My Baby.” The White Stripes. Sympathy, 1999. CD.

[4] Binelli, Mark. The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant. London: Vintage, 2014. Print. Page 56.

[5] Dyer, Geoff. “How Detroit Became the World Capital of Staring at Abandoned Old Buildings.” The New York Times Magazine. The New York Times Company, 9 Nov. 2012. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.

[6] Binelli, Mark. The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant. London: Vintage, 2014. Print. Page 54.


I’d like to say thank you to the readers for taking time to read these past four posts – they’ve had some positive reception (I’m looking at you Matt Frazer!) and I couldn’t be happier about it. I’m hoping to make these “Reading…” articles a permanent part of Tales on the Border, so it was a thrill writing and preparing this first edition of it for you. I expect we’ll be seeing the next edition of “Reading…” in a couple of months. Until then I’ve got some articles and a new column starting soon. Once more, thank you for taking the time to read this far – I hope you’ll enjoy what I have planned for you!

Reading the gothic in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), Part III: The gothic vampires 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 third 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!

If you wish to look at the introduction to this series, please look at Part I.

The gothic vampires of Detroit

Jim Jarmusch redefines the vampire cultural mythology throughout Only Lovers Left Alive in order to engage with human ideas rather than the concept of the other. His conception of the vampire reclaims the figure from the pages of horror novels and cinema and re-establishes the vampire as a gothic, Byronic hero.

This can be seen in the vast differences between Adam and Eve and the demonic Count Dracula, or the popular zombified vampires of novels such as I Am Legend by Richard Matheson or Jim Mickle’s film Stake Land. Whereas these vampires are repellent, evil, and vicious, Adam and Eve are the exact opposite. They are suave, kind, and creatures of culture. Jarmusch specifically adopts the figure of the vampire within his film as whilst he makes these vampires human in appearance, their status as vampires and the cultural conception of the vampire offers Adam and Eve enough distance from humans to be able to comment sufficiently on the nature of the human, without appearing like whingey teenagers.

Fig 5.01

Indeed, it is their vampiric nature that gives Adam and Eve cultural authority; Adam has seen Eddie Cochran live and met Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. By being able to live eternally, Adam has been able to witness and meet those who create artwork that would enter the commonly accepted canon of greatness. This is seen clearly in the shots panning over Adam’s wall, full of portraits and photographs of a myriad of famous artists, everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Buster Keaton to Iggy Pop, as well as the scene in which Eve packs books in a suitcase in Tangier, pouring over volumes of famous works in their original languages.

Fig 5.02

It is rare that Adam and Eve make any references to present day artists – they are suffused with many different types of culture that put it all on a level playing field. Adam equates the genius of classical composer William Lawes with Eddie Cochran, the gothic stylings of Edgar Allan Poe with Iggy Pop. The range of influences displayed on his wall show a great cultural sensitivity to changing artistic tastes. Similarly, Eve’s collection of books, some in first editions, most in their original languages, shows a need and experience of authenticity. This authenticity is only possible because of Adam and Eve’s eternal nature- because they live long lives, Eve has the chance to learn all these different languages (Arabic, Japanese, Spanish) and thus read these texts in both their original contexts and in their original language. Adam is able to listen to and meet all of the great composers, musicians, novelists, and filmmakers that he wants to, in their original contexts.

Adam and Eve thus relegate the human condition to the rise of modernity; humans, or “zombies”, can read as much world literature as they want, and see as many live recordings of Eddie Cochran as they want, but they will never be able to live the moment that these artists were in, nor read these texts in their original language, as they do not have the time to become fluent in such a variety of languages, and as such they are void of any inclination.

Only Lovers Left Alive 4

This presents the essential dichotomy of the vampires in this film; Adam and Eve cannot stop interacting and admiring the creativity of humans, but they also (Adam particularly) cannot stand their vices and their laziness that end up destroying themselves and others. This also expands into a modern Detroit context: Adam chooses to show a very humanising icon of Jack White in his childhood home, where he grew up, to Eve. This clearly demonstrates Adam and Eve’s approval and adoration of White and his music; and yet, when they go to the gothic rock club later on with Eve’s sister, Adam and Eve (especially Adam) seem to be steeped in a deep malaise. When Ian asks if he liked the band, White Hills, Adam responds curtly “yes”; and yet when Ian asks if he’d like to meet them, Adam responds (even more curtly) “no”. This is because while the band’s performance is enjoyable, it lacks any authenticity. Whilst they share influences with Adam, the music rings hollow. There is no true artistic voice.

Yasmine Hamdan’s performance in Tangier can be considered a response to this; by stripping the music of all formulated American style, Adam becomes obsessed with the hypnotism of her performance. Jarmusch is pointing towards the East as a place of true authenticity, to counter the tired and formulated American art. However, one must be weary of orientalist attitudes in this direction; whilst Adam is an eternal figure and has spent some time in the East, surely it is because this music is foreign and alien, and thus unknown that makes it hypnotic and enchanting?

Regardless, it is not because humans, or “zombies”, are lowlifes and have a low culture that Adam despises them. His views are not even based on a prejudice of the human species, but on their artistic authenticity. This separation, while supported by Adam and Eve’s immortality, is not due to them being vampires and the rest human; it is because they are creatures of culture, and comparatively the rest of Detroit is not, as they do not fulfil this question of artistic authenticity.


Thank you for reading! Come back tomorrow for the fourth and final instalment, “The gothic revival of Detroit.”

Reading the gothic in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), Part II: The gothic music scene 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 second 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!

If you wish to look at the introduction to this series, please look at Part I.

The gothic music scene of Detroit

Jarmusch’s gothic Detroit goes hand-in-hand with the film’s gothic rebirth of classic American music. Detroit culturally might be in a post-apocalypse, but there is proven to be in both Mark Binelli’s book The Last Days of Detroit and Jarmusch’s film a thriving music scene. This scene heralds back to the days of Motown and classic American rock n roll, and the opening of Only Lovers Left Alive captures this brilliantly with no dialogue whatsoever.

The opening shot is that of stars in the night sky. The camera begins to rotate hypnotically in a cyclical fashion, and the feedback driven score composed by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL and Jozef Van Wissem plays in the background. The sound then shifts to a record being placed on a record player – and SQÜRL’s cover of Wanda Jackson’s classic “Funnel of Love” begins to reverberate. The screen shifts to the record playing (the actual single from Wanda Jackson) in a top down fashion, with the record rotating (mirroring the rotation of the stars). Then there are crosscuts of Adam, in his house in Detroit, clasping a mandolin across his bare chest, and Eve, in Tangier, wearing a flowing gown and surrounded by heaps of books. The camera continues to rotate, mimicking the rotation of the record, as the camera zooms in on Adam and Eve. The rotating single is also cross cut in this hypnotic montage.

Choosing to open the film with a shot of the stars evokes the idea of the eternal. Linking this shot through the use of rotation with Adam, Eve, and the record, suggests an intimate link between this classic American song, the love that Adam and Eve share, and this concept of eternity. Furthermore, by surrounding Adam with records and his mandolin, and Eve with stacks of old books, Jarmusch defines the two as creatures of culture, in stark contrast with the gothic crypts and blood-soaked ruins of Dracula. Their surroundings are warm and comfortable; these are not vampires as we have seen them before, and this links in perfectly with the cover of “Funnel of Love”.

The film is prefaced with this classic American song, which is a unique mix of blues, country, and rock and roll. In many ways it can be considered representative of early 1960s classic American rock music. However, by slowing down the song to double it’s original length, adding lots of feedback guitars that clash and groan, and the almost oriental sound of the lead guitar (not to mention Madeline Vollin’s piercing vocals), Jarmusch lends the song a new gothic atmosphere. It is a redefinition of this classic American music, remaking and shifting it into the post-apocalypse. It is Jarmusch’s thesis in many ways, if the film could be considered an essay; the song is at once both modern and ancient, a thing of the past and a thing of the future.

This strain of reinvention carries throughout the film; particularly in Adam’s own musical experimentation, which actually provides the soundtrack of the film as performed by SQÜRL and Jozef Van Wissem. Indeed, his first interactions with Ian whilst Ian shows off loads of guitars is especially prescient, as it states the essential problems with using an older set of music for this rebirth of Detroit:

ADAM: Oh, that’s a lovely Gretsch Chet Atkins. 61-20. Double cutaway. I once saw Eddie Cochran play one of these. He had the front pickup modified to the Gibson P-90.

IAN: Wait, you actually saw Eddie Cochran play?

ADAM: Yeah, on YouTube.

IAN: Oh, right, course man!

Only Lovers Left Alive 1

It can be assumed that Adam did actually see Eddie Cochran play live, as you can assume from his inflection in his second line above that he’s covering up the mortal impossibility. However, Jarmusch also draws a line between seeing these American icons live and seeing them perform on YouTube- watching them on YouTube is appropriately modern gothic, in that you’re literally seeing someone who is dead perform their song – ghosts, if you will. The energy contained in these live performances cannot be captured by video. This thus requires a more modern spin on these classic songs and patterns to update them for this artistic rebirth, and Adam and Eve both point towards the gothic as this re-invention.

Only Lovers Left Alive 2

Re-invent the music by recognising its ancientness. Adam literalises this when he names one of his new guitars William Lawes, after the composer whom he claims wrote some great funeral music. However, this itself presents a new distinct problem, which is highlighted when Adam, Eve, Eve’s sister Ava, and Ian go to the gothic rock club. They watch the band White Hills perform their gothic rock music – lots of feedback, lots of chaos – but when framing this with Adam and Eve watching, who look effortlessly cool with their sunglasses and Adam’s black, Eve’s white contrast, they look like pretenders. The band look like a cheap knockoff of Alice Cooper meets Bauhaus. Because the gothic is so much more than a literature or a music movement, because it is a style that everyone is familiar with, when presenting a faux-gothic rock band next to the actual gothic of the vampire, it falls incredibly flat.

Only Lovers Left Alive 3

This also presents the issue of authenticity with this new boom. Adam, whilst basing himself in Detroit and surrounding himself with Detroit’s musical culture (visiting the house of Jack White at night, discussing the Motown Museum, and the visit to the Michigan Theatre), Adam is not actually from Detroit; he’s a foreigner in a strange land. Binelli also picks up on this nuance that the artistic boom is happening because of artists visiting Detroit rather than Detroit artists doing it themselves:

Any potential Detroit arts renaissance remains in its earliest phase of development, more about insane real estate opportunities and the romantic vision of a crumbling heartland Berlin – basically, vicarious wish fulfilment by coastal arts types living in long-gentrified cities – than an overarching home-grown aesthetic. The rise of a new infrastructure catering to the incoming ‘creatives’ in neighborhoods like Midtown and Corktown, such as the planned Whole Foods, had an undeniable tangibility.[1]

Whilst Adam and the other rockers shown in the film may be making enjoyable experimental music, what exactly makes it original to Detroit? “Funnel of Love” was recorded in Nashville, with the gothic rock influence noticeable from UK bands such as Bauhaus. Is the music original to Detroit because of the collapse of Detroit? Or is it not because the two primary influences on this music are not from Detroit? Once Jarmusch shifts the narrative of Tangier, these answers will be provided to an extent.


[1] Binelli, Mark. The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant. London: Vintage, 2014. Print. Page 265.


Thank you for reading! Come back tomorrow for the third instalment, “The gothic vampires of Detroit.”

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.”