Real-to-Reel: Only Lovers Left Alive

In 2001, avant-garde composer William Basinski attempted to transfer his archive of tapes to digital. In the process of spooling through these long-shelved ambient loops, recorded some two decades prior, the tapes ate themselves. The magnetic strips, the ferrite layers of material holding the contours of the sound, gradually peeled away. Through this deterioration, his epochal The Disintegration Loops were born. To listen to these tapes is to experience gradual material decay. What starts out as a placid, if haunting, repeated signature, eventually jaunts, stutters, and glitches away until, at the end, there is only silence, the physical recording of the music forever erased. Part of the beauty of the music is that it opens up issues surrounding the inevitability of transition—decay and death are straight-forwardly presented as inexorable, essential parts of life. But, The Disintegration Loops are not mandalas, created then destroyed, never to exist again; they are works that can be returned to because they have undergone a metamorphosis. They have become something less tangible in their digitization, but they continue on in a crystallized new form. Equally, these loops explore ongoing technological transitions in art and culture and navigate our changing relations resultant from our collective digitization.

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive follows a similar track. Ostensibly a vampire flick, the film is an episodic journey into the lives of a few night walkers. Adam wiles away in Detroit collecting assorted vintage instruments and recording equipment in his remote home, delivered by a human helper. His wife of several centuries, Eve, dwells in Tangiers, reads voraciously, and frequently visits with Christopher Marlowe, ghost author of many of history’s canonical texts. It’s a languid sojourn of a film befitting characters unencumbered by time and sensitive to the ebb and flow of long-term history. The undead are fertile conduits for explorations of liminal zones as their presence between life and death, and outside linear time, places them at a perpetual point of transition. Jarmusch latches onto this, using this well-worn genre and these characters as vessels for exploring ongoing contemporary cultural, technological, and artistic fluctuations.

Detroit, once at the pinnacle of innovation and production, is depicted as a crumbling ghost town, where only the relics of great cultural and technological achievements remain. It’s a modern correlative to Tangiers, a preserved depiction of centuries old architecture still active and alive. This comingling of object and memory envelops the narrative and the tone of the film as a whole—the ethereal and the physical are intertwined. Preservation of memory and history are forefront—a wall of icons (Adam’s “heroes,” as Eve describes them) represents a compendium of people whom Adam admires, a house represents the humble beginnings, family lineage, and possible explanation for the genius of Jack White, a trunk of books signals a thirst for knowledge and accumulated perspectives spanning centuries. These physical objects are situated as necessary placeholders, fetishized objects necessary for reminding, concentrating, and preserving. This pursuit has an air of desperation contributing to the weariness and inertia at the heart of the film. Myth and reality coalesce, as is often the case in vampire narratives, but the tone and the specificity is much deeper in Jarmusch’s film, and much more connected with a conception of a chapter in human history coming to a close.

Crucially, Jarmusch spends exhaustive time exploring and caressing the media surrounding Adam and Eve, and documenting the rituals and emotions channeled through the physical objects. Modern technology is hooked to antiquated technology, creating a fitting juxtaposition that is at once comic and pointed—computers are hooked to mid-century televisions, modern electric conduits are dismantled in favor of homemade, DIY Tesla-inspired rigs. As Adam plays his instruments, looping layer upon layer, the reels continually spin and document his process in physical form. Eve, packing for her trip to Detroit, pours over stacks of books, touching the pages as if she can feel the words. Later, Eve also strokes a vintage guitar and is able to discern its year simply from this touch. These instruments, these volumes, they are living organisms in the film—mystic communicative conduits of history, time, and change. This, naturally, connects with their blood consumption, and the ritual and the process of imbibing is connected across time and space. The physical experience, the process, the rapturous feeling is felt in unison by Adam, Eve, and Christopher. In the process, creativity and culture is counterbalanced with primality, correlating both sides of the equation and rooting abstract concepts with base physicality and survival.

The film itself, both inside and out, signals a teetering balance between physical and immaterial. This is true foremost in its format—it is the first film of Jarmusch’s three-decade long career shot digitally. He, one of the preeminent figures in the mid-’80s low-budget, indie film surge, finally transitioned, and there is a deep, end-of-an-era-type message to be gleaned from this moment. Film stock increasingly is a dated throwback medium and Jarmusch’s decision to go digital reinforces this in a profound way. The style of the film also walks a line, finding a difficult balance between fantastic and mundane—it is a vampire film where the mythology and mysticism is muted in routine and inactivity, a vampire hang-out film you might say. Finally, structurally, the film is crafted in such a way that it crosses into other artistic media while also striking a unique hybrid rhythm. Music is a very important component here as in much of Jarmusch’s oeuvre, but in Only Lovers Left Alive the film and the music combine and replicate a format—the vinyl record. The opening image of the film sets this up: a spinning night sky dissolves into a 45 rpm record spinning on a turntable, followed by images of Eve and Adam, respectively, shot from above, lying still and sprawled, rotating similarly in the frame. In this sequence, the movement of the universe, the revolutions of the record, the spinning of the camera, and the routine of the characters are overlaid. From here, the episodes that comprise the narrative tick like tracks in the grooves of a flat circle.

As digital has ascended, the form holding the work, the specific medium on which it is inscribed, has changed markedly. No longer are these discreet objects, rather, whole libraries of films and music are contained on a single hard drive. Film has been reduced to a stream of information—a unique pattern of 1s and 0s. Our relation to the specifics of the information is more abstract—we no longer scan a reel of negatives, observing the tiny variations that create motion when the frames run past the light of a projector. The end product is nearly indistinguishable, but the process of achieving it has been streamlined from an arduous threading of components to a cursor click. Similarly, the manipulation of the medium has been simplified as innumerable software programs can easily achieve edits and post-production techniques that were daunting or impossible in eras past.

Adam and Eve hold on to difficult processes and formats in Only Lovers Left Alive, relishing the cumbersome and laborious as essential components in creativity, craft, and experience. Adam’s meticulous recording of layered drone and carefully stacked loops tracked on tapes through analog mechanical processes, his scrupulous inspection of his equipment, his intricate web of antiquated technology rigged to accommodate modern capabilities, and Eve’s many suitcases full of heavy volumes, display a desire for difficulty and exertion. Pro Tools and tablets don’t fit the bill for them, and water down the experience in this vision. Jarmusch’s film replicates this care and deliberateness with its pacing, intricate mise-en-scène, and emphasis on heavily layered, neo-gothic atmosphere. The rotating record reminds us not only of the material necessity that used to be the norm but also the physical motion that used to be necessary to create the ephemerality that we experienced. It was physical product plus momentum that drove these projections and these sounds; but this is not typically the case anymore. Eras change, our relation to media change, our conception of what these media products and experiences are changes, often drastically. Even given the privilege of being perpetually young, the rapidity and the contours of the change can be difficult to keep up with and reconcile.

What does this tipped balance mean for our future understanding of art and culture? Are we likely to abstract further or have we reached a crucial postmodern phase where dissolution and reversion are inevitable? Or, is it a constant back and forth, a cyclical tide repeated in perpetuity? Film, for its part, hastened the abstracting and ephemerality of art well over a century ago. Jarmusch references no less than the beginnings of the form with some sly allusions to film progenitors and luminaries ranging from the Lumière brothers to Buster Keaton to Luis Buñuel. In Only Lovers Left Alive, as in film, art and science are entangled. The “spooky action at a distance” Adam and Eve discuss—talking about particle entanglement—relates well to the experience of film—the emotional and psychological intertwining that magically occurs between viewer and text. In film, the light of the projector against the screen creates the illusion of physical form and physical space. Like the works of Nikola Tesla (whom Jarmusch has continually referenced and praised, most notably in Coffee and Cigarettes, through Jack White no less), complex mechanics elicit and evoke baffling phenomena. Even in the seemingly intangible—the light projected on a flat screen—material elements exist—photon particles spinning forth, refracted and reflected in the retina of each onlooker.

The vinyl resurgence that has occurred over the last decade has been no accident or inexplicable occurrence; it is a direct result of the breakdown of the long-held, ingrained, balanced dichotomies in art. As Walter Benjamin predicted, our relation to the physicality, the aura, the singularity of the artistic experience, threatens to topple with the loss of a firm, physical tether to ground our experience. When the process is fully consumed in digitization and intangible illusion, how can we intuit an organic, human process of creation? Such is the era and mindset we find ourselves in at present, and in response we end up reaching back, trying to get a handle on the ever more rapidly progressing technological and experiential present. The Disintegration Loops too were reissued on vinyl recently. Over time, the pops and hisses of scratches, scores, and degradations in the grooves of these LPs will add individual flavor to these recordings, reminding crate diggers of the future anew that time takes its toll even on the immortal.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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