Monster Mash: "Only Lovers Left Alive" and "Godzilla"

by Max Sparber in

Omaha is, just now, a bit of a monster mash. Vampires and giant monsters have converged on the town, and one supposes it is just a matter of time before they meet up to pony, boogaloo, and do the swim.

For the first group, the vampires, this would be entirely in character. They are the brooding bloodsuckers at the center of Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lover Left Alive,” currently playing at Film Streams. One of them is played by Tilda Swinton, or perhaps simply is Tilda Swinton – I have not been able to determine if this film is a documentary about the arch, pale English actress. It would be just like Tilda to lurk about in Tangier like some modern-day Paul Bowles. It would be very like her to pack for vacations simply by filling valises with beloved books. And it would be just like her to occasionally dine on human blood.

Her partner is Tom Hiddleston, an actor best-known for playing the petulant, frequently campy Loki from the “Thor” and “Avengers” movies. Here he tamps down his natural inclination to grin saucily and say something deliciously wicked, which is too bad, really, because how vampiric would that be? Instead, his version of the nosferatu is a brooding loner in a shabby chic mansion in a derelict part of Motor City – which, things being as they are, is the entirety of Detroit. He makes droning rock music, letting recordings of his stuff slip out thanks to his version of Renfield, a wide-eyed instrument dealer played by Anton Yelchin.

Hiddleston takes his friends on nighttime tours of his adopted city, both agonizing over and enjoying its decay, which is so severe that pools of toxic chemicals develop in underground parking garages; they are toxic enough to peel skin from bone. The vampires attend midnight rock concerts in forlorn clubs, wearing sunglasses, buried in a corner booth, sipping O-Negative blood from a flask, and nodding their heads appreciatively to the music.

The film’s primary conceit is that these vampires are the secret sources of our most valued art – they have slipped their works through to us through the centuries, penning Shakespeare’s plays and writing minuets for classical composers. It’s a fun idea, but also well-trod ground. Ever since the era of the Penny Dreadful, our vampires have been Byronic – mad, bad and dangerous to know, but also wells of romantic creativity. This film even name-checks Byron, who Hiddleston is supposed to have been friends with. Hiddleston has an entire wall of cultural greats, all of whom, one supposes, either were influenced by vampires or were, themselves, vampires. Endearingly, this wall seems to include Rodney Dangerfield.

As familiar as this story may be, though, Jarmusch offers a typically eccentric take on it. The vampiric addiction to blood has been treated as a metaphor for substance abuse before, and this film visits the same territory – especially in a long middle-section in which the vampire couple is visited by an especially troublesome relative whose vampirism is a mechanism for Courtney Love-styled misbehavior. But Jarmusch extends this, making culture itself the addiction, with Yelchin’s character acting as a hybrid rock and roll groupie/drug dealer. He displays guitars the way pot dealers do their wares, with a clandestine knowingness. In return, he slips Hiddleston’s music out to the public, unmarked, through back-channels and handshake deals. It is less the world of music promotion and more the world of contraband.

And so it must be. In the world of the vampire, the most dangerous thing is being public – Hiddleston is constantly hunted, not by Van Helsings with stakes, but by rock and roll kids who might dangerously shatter his anonymity. He really should stop making music, as sooner or later it will be the death of him. But he can’t, because culture is his drug. He’s the only cinematic vampire who, arriving in Tangier, hunts an oud rather than a human, and staggers away, near death from starvation, to a club to hear Lebanese vocalist Yasmine Hamdan. Blood is boring. Art is the pure stuff.

Speaking of boring, that brings us to our second monster, Godzilla. Oh, I’m just being catty for the sake of a transition. The new Godzilla film isn’t boring, precisely. There is a lot to like about it, including set design directly inspired by a 1960s Japanese palette and a suitably frantic performance by Brian Cranston, who seems to be the only person in the film surprised to discover there are giant monsters in the world.

Best still, the film gives us a world in which monstrous titans have their own agenda, unburdened by the concerns of humanity, which is mostly to smash each other to pieces, which is a pretty typical agenda in the animal kingdom. I mean, look at a cat – when they are not asleep, they are either plotting or rehearsing murder, and we only exist to open cans of tuna and scratch their itches when they let us.

Godzilla and his foes have even less use for humans than that. We’re orthogonal to their experience, but for the fact that we sometimes make things that are full of radioactivity, which is a bit like a tuna can to these behemoths. So they crash through our cities and eat our nuclear power plants and all we really get to do is run away from them. There is a plan to destroy them, but it fails so spectacular that the monsters probably never even noticed it occurred.

And so the people on the ground are to the monsters as ants are to us. And it often seems like the filmmakers feel the same way – characters are perfunctorily drawn in, and frantically go about their business, and their business is running and hiding.

But the film stays on the ground with these ciphers. We mostly see Godzilla at a distance or hidden, and if the film’s monsters are away from our ostensible heroes, we only find out about them from news reports. It isn’t until the film’s last scenes that we are given a few minutes of Godzilla duking it out with his foes in a San Francisco that they have managed to flatten and set fire to, and it isn’t enough. Godzilla isn’t a minor character in his own story – he’s the star.

The film needed a director who can choreograph giant monster action scenes, and doesn’t have it. They just sort of swat at each other, and Godzilla sometimes spits fire (once spectacularly), but otherwise seems to forget he has that ability. But film is the staging of action – character is revealed through action. A well-choreographed fight scene can tell you more about a character, more honestly, than hours of dialogue. All we learn about Godzilla is that he is big and he sometimes hits things, and that doesn’t make him Godzilla, that makes him any monster. Heck, that makes him Tommy Lee Jones in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” who, frankly, was more terrifying than anything shown in “Godzilla.”

Even cats are more terrifying, once you realize that, when they look at you, sometimes they are wondering to themselves. And what they are wondering is: What if humans were a little bit smaller, and cats were a little bit bigger?

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.

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