Only Lovers Left Alive

The following review is one giant SPOILER.

There is a cryptic scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive where vampire lovers Adam and Eve notice a few small Amanita muscaria mushrooms growing in the back yard of Adam’s factory loft. They seem somewhat out of place and out of time; the fungi, they note, are out of season. Eve talks to them like they’re people. She and Adam share a knowing glance and leave them be. We don’t see them again.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a rock and roll movie that only Jarmusch could make. An atmosphere of cool apathy permeates this story about Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a depressed, nosferatic rock star genius living in the husk of Detroit city. He spends his days accumulating vintage instruments, avoiding impending fame like the plague, contemplating suicide, and drinking illicit blood bank donations with all the ceremony and satisfaction of a wealthy heroin addict.

His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier where her vampire friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) keeps her supplied with good blood. We wonder why Adam and Eve live on opposite sides of the world, and their unique situation dawns on us; being immortal, their concept of time might make years apart seem like a weekend separation.

Seeing Adam’s depression over Skype, Eve flies to Detroit to be with him. When she arrives there is some relief; the couple feed together, listening to records, catching up on each others’ age-old wisdom and isolation (Adam has remained off the grid with a Tesla-inspired generator he constructed piecemeal in his back yard).

Their relationship with humanity is strained. They refer to humans as “zombies,” implying unthinking consumers who lack the scope for real creativity. Eve is regarded with suspicion wherever she goes and the only human company Adam can stand is Ian, a fan of Adam’s music who tracks down vintage guitars and whatever else Adam needs no questions asked (i.e. a bullet made of the hardest wood available, with which Adam contemplates ending it all).

But their relationship with humanity seems to be necessary. Adam has been creating music for ages, but cannot own up to it. A life of fame would expose his immortality, so he’s been getting the work out via “zombies,” human conduits who take all the fame and the slack. We also learn that Christopher Marlowe was the creative force behind some of history’s great literature, including Shakespeare.

Enter Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s mischievous little sister who immediately gets on Adam’s nerves. They put her up, share their stash of blood, and even let her talk them into a night on the town. After a rock show, Adam, Eve, Ava and Ian travel back to the loft and you just know Ava wants to get into trouble. When Adam and Eve wake the next night, they find Ian’s corpse.

With his only human connection severed, Adam decides to leave his loft full of instruments to go to Tangier with Eve. They’re dangerously low on blood but counting on Marlowe to hook them up when they land. But they arrive to find him in a bad way; blood poisoning is common and a bad batch has made it past his safeguards. He’s had his last, leaving the Lovers to fend for themselves.

Withdrawal from feeding takes its toll, and the Lovers walk the streets, hoping they won’t have to hunt fresh prey. A compelling musical performance distracts Adam while Eve slinks into the night to find him a gift to buoy his spirits. She comes back with a lute, a completely atavistic instrument they both find beautiful and perfect.

Wasting away on the street, lute in hand, they happen upon two young lovers sharing an intimate moment. They watch the couple admiringly. And then, without any better options, they descend on them. In the closing moment of the film we see Adam and Eve approaching the young lovers, canines exposed.

The pace of the movie is somewhat languorous, and in the theater I felt the narrative was engaging but suffered from a lack of drive. There was, of course, no explosive climax. Each scene seemed to roll out from the last without much added momentum. When the credits rolled, my first thought was that this was a very cool movie with superb acting (Tilda Swinton is 100% compelling), but it’s probably not Jarmusch’s best.

About a day later, thinking about the themes that carry through the film, I started to glimpse a profundity behind the narrative, though even now it refuses to crystallize completely for me. The film wasn’t focused on dramatic thrill; Only Lovers Left Alive is a meditation on art and immortality.

In the world of the film, history’s great visionary artists have been the puppets of immortal vampires. These vampires (the serious ones, anyway) have no time for a society of zombies. But they remain attached to civilization so that they can giver their art an outlet in the world. The film’s vampires do what they can to enrich “zombie” society from afar.

Those Amanita mushrooms are emblematic of our heroes. These are the visionary, psychedelic mushrooms of legend, offering ancient Siberian shamans a glimpse into the transcendent world beyond. To eat them is to see the world and the self in ecstatic ways. Out of place and out of season, and bearing promises of vision, the Lovers left the mushrooms be. The vampires themselves have artistic, visionary work to do, work that will show the “zombies” new ways to perceive the world and themselves. And like these mushrooms, they just want to be left alone.

It seems perfect coming from Jim Jarmusch. The drive to put art into the world and move on, to avoid getting caught up in fame, to disregard critics and commercial success, and to bring Vision into the world; these are virtues of real artists. The work will last forever, and by extension, the artist. Thinking about the immortal visionaries at the heart of Only Lovers Left Alive, I feel appropriately exhorted to “publish or perish.”

Digging Tunnels

Philosopher, writer, humorist, scholar and mystic Robert Anton Wilson used to say that we all see reality through our own “neurological reality tunnels.” What he meant was that we don’t see reality itself. All our perceptions are filtered through a very personal channel of assumptions, beliefs, and mental models. Compounding this problem is the fact that it’s so easy to mistake the model for the thing it represents. This, he claims, is the reason we misunderstand each other so profoundly.

Pay attention to the world and you’ll see people misunderstanding each other. Even when they understand each other, people have a hard time coming together to make decisions. Communicating with language (conversing or writing) seems like the most straightforward method of communication, but in many ways it’s an inferior mode of expression.

The medium of language is full of assumptions and abstractions that are easily confused. Language uses only one input—auditory for speech or visual for the written word—and it leaves many of our senses un-stimulated. Even when watching someone speak, the visual input may or may not be a part of the message.

This is why art will always win. Film, for example, uses light, colour, sound, music, action, and so forth and is a much more full-brained form of communication. If you disagree, try to describe a David Lynch film to someone and see if your words do the movie justice. Meanwhile, language is perfectly at home inside of film.

But sometimes a writer gets it so right, it’s like he or she comes and joins you in your own neurological reality tunnel. I had this experience recently while re-reading “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story by James Baldwin.

The main character, a Harlem schoolteacher, spends much of the story trying to understand his heroin-using, jazz-piano-playing brother. He simply cannot understand why anyone would throw his life away with heroin, and he just doesn’t “get” jazz. He and his brother are stuck, not quite connecting through their reality tunnels, until the story’s climax where he sees Sonny play.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

For me this is a great encapsulation of what makes music (or any art form) magical. When art connects, it connects more deeply than language alone. It can open the audience to unmapped territories, force them out of their preconceived notions and comfort zones. This form of communication cannot be translated into language; it has to be experienced. That terrible act of creativity might reshape your own reality tunnel. Then, maybe, you get a sense of someone else’s reality and approach understanding.

The Art of Belief

How does a man like Orson Scott Card, who writes Ender Wiggin so honestly and tenderly in Ender’s Game, speak out so vociferously against homosexuality? It seems strange that a smart, contemporary artist could be so opposed to the freedom of people to love whoever they love. I tend to think of artists as open-minded and liberal, favoring freedom of expression (in all its forms), and I tend to think of bigots as ignorant. It’s disarming to think that those traits can coexist within one person.

It’s hard to accept, but some people we want to despise have admirable talents. On the other hand, many people we respect probably have horrible beliefs or habits we choose to ignore. And while people with one set of priorities and beliefs might respect and admire Joey Artist, another group of people with differing beliefs and priorities will almost surely despise him.

Beliefs are very strange this way; a person can be seemingly rational and open-minded but hold an isolated belief makes them completely irrational in certain scenarios. If a fully conscious person takes on an ignorant belief system, we have a hard time separating them from those beliefs. But when a person is indoctrinated early, that judgment gets a little stickier.

Is it strange that an anti-Semite like Wagner can compose some heart wrenching operas and a passionate actor like Marlon Brando or Klaus Kinski can turn out to be an asshole in real life? Well, we do live in a world where a college-educated man can make himself into a bomb to kill people because they interpret a book differently. Take out one or two bad traits from any of these people and our opinions change radically. Beliefs are contagious like viruses and we sometimes don’t know how susceptible a person is until it’s too late.

The arts are especially strange in this way because fearful or hateful or awful people can leave behind great and beautiful works of art. We might hate the person and everything they stand for, but the work remains. There is no anti-gay message in Ender’s Game, yet people organized boycotts of the film because of Card’s beliefs. If we could surgically remove his offensive beliefs, the movie probably wouldn’t change but the public reaction to it would.

I somehow find it easy to love artists that I hate. Uncompromising auteurs that don’t care about being nice people are compelling. Sometimes I share so little emotional ground with an artist like that I find him repulsive, yet I need to see his art. Being creative, he tries to give us a piece of himself, something he values so much he devotes his life to its expression. This may or may not have anything to do with the one particular belief or habit we find so terrible.

And it might give us a glimpse into that person’s internal conflicts and enable us to empathize. There is a reasonable argument to be made that it’s more important for us to regard art made by people with beliefs other than our own. What better way to try to understand those beliefs? It probably doesn’t work very often, to be fair, but you see my point.

A genius might become hateful if his subscribed beliefs tell him to be hateful. It’s hard to imagine that Orson Scott Card has analyzed his own bigotry in any rational, ethical light. More likely he was taken in by certain congenial beliefs within a larger framework, a belief structure, and then he allowed the rest of that belief structure to warp some of his views of reality. What makes someone susceptible to these distortions is the whole je ne sais quoi of human psychology.

Beliefs shouldn’t come sold as a package deal (as in religion); they should be purchased individually by experience and good evidence. Any ready-made belief system can tell us what to think for better or for worse. Without the belief system, we’re free to have no opinion. This is truly a good thing because it means that in theory we can look at new evidence impartially.

I want an artist to create for art’s sake. I don’t want a polemic disguised as art. If the artist creates a work of depth and originality, I will appreciate that work for what it is, regardless of who created it. On the other hand, I might buy a nice guy a beer, but I won’t lie about liking his crappy art. My opinions about a person don’t come as a package deal either. I may have several opinions about one person, each based on some kind of evidence. For example, Orson Scott Card is a great writer, but a terrible human rights advocate. Also, there is a chance he’s the second most talented “Orson” in history.

Journals, Art, Journeys

When I was young my oldest brother Jeff showed me what an amusing pastime it was to keep a journal. I’ve found this essential. Without keeping a record of the day’s events, we forget most of the coincidences, oddities, and revelations of our lives. Even when we remember the facts of our experience, it’s impossible to recapture the exact feel of events. Most of my life I’ve kept some kind of book on the go, whether it’s just funny lines or ideas or scenes from movies I’d like to see.

It seems important because of this main fact: memories are not real. When you think about an event in your past, (spoiler alert) your brain does not magically go into the past. Our brains attempt to reconstruct our reactions to that experience, but our brains are different now, so the reconstruction is imperfect. Plus, memories can be bent and changed.

Regular journal entries give us a window into our state of mind at the time. This is crucial if you want to understand your life as a journey or narrative, or if you want some sort of proof that you’re getting closer to your goals or developing intellectually.

The same can be said, on the macroscopic scale, of art and science in culture. Art expresses the zeitgeist while science improves our understanding of each moment. We could never have had The Wire without ancient Greek literature, and we could never have invented smartphones without first understanding how radio waves work. This only works when people write it down.

Occasionally an artist makes a conscious effort to draw our attention to cultural development by retelling ancient, fundamentally human stories with current language and culture. The best example is Ulysses by James Joyce. The story is not about a guy named Ulysses in ancient Ithaca, but a man named Leopold Bloom in 20th century Dublin. The title and structure of the novel showcase thousands of years of human values in flux.

“This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It can be great to read old, embarrassing journal entries because it means you’ve grown. Without writing it down we have no proof. And without a record it’s sometimes impossible to understand how we could have believed the crazy notions we’ve outgrown. This blog is likely full of ideas I’ve outgrown. I’m fine with that. Years from now I’ll be glad I was observant, honest in my assessments, and most importantly, that I wrote it down.

 

P.S. There will be no blog post next week because I will be busy eating food. Happy Holidays everyone.

Wordfail

Most of my favorite works of art deal with psychological, internal, and (if I may) spiritual problems. I might be in the minority on that, but it’s hard to tell. Most pop cinema and music seem to actively avoid these issues in any serious or thoughtful way, but my view may be skewed by massive PR budgets, while many profound works count on niche marketing and word of mouth.

Two nights ago I was working through an internal process during my meditation, essentially allowing my sensory inputs to drain out and empty, and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that many of these internal obstacles literally defy rational language. The scientific method is a beautiful tool for explaining and enhancing our understanding of our world, but when it comes to internal experiences, scientific language fails to capture the experience in any way I can relate to.

I can talk about the cessation of dialectical thinking, stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system or increasing respiration for lowering systolic blood pressure, but these descriptions are cold and say nothing about the end-user experience, despite their medical accuracy.

To speak about “turning the light around” captures more of the mysterious essence of the experience, even though this phrase provably does not describe what’s going on in my body. All language is in a sense arbitrary. If we can find language that more closely captures the experience, we should use it.

Scientists have been encroaching on this field for a while now, and with good reason. Some organizations like The David Lynch Foundation try to analyze meditation from a scientific perspective so they may explain it to rational people. This is totally laudable and seemingly essential these days. But I was always more affected by artistic interpretations of internal experiences, art forms that somehow poetically capture the ineffable nature of what’s happening, what it feels like to have internal revelations.

This is where I find uncompromising value in art. Art is the best conveyor of human experience, and exposure to it seems essential to me if we want to mature as human beings.

All communication is symbolic. The word “kite” is not the physical object called a kite. If the best we can do to symbolize an actual kite is to come up with a verbal grunt with sharp sounds on each end—a sound that is intrinsically meaningless—then we are at least slightly lame as a species. The word itself seems complete gibberish to someone without experience of an actual kite. But to watch a film of some kite-flying enthusiasts, or read about a child’s wonder as the wind pulls the kite down a sunny beach, is to learn on more than merely verbal levels.

This is where I cut a lot of slack for religious literature. There are a lot of religious books which, if taken literally, are absurd and stupid. But those books tend to elicit analogical and mystical interpretations that resonate with people in deep ways. Reading The Bhagavad Gita, I never once expected that the events depicted in it really happened. But I was moved by it, and I continue to find it beautiful.

This might be why I value “saying something” over simply making art for money. I am glad to fork over my hard-earned cash for a meaningful experience, and usually annoyed when I walk away from a movie or book thinking, “so what?”

I have written on this previously, if anyone is interested.

Imagine THAT

I tend to think of Art abstractly, as an idealized magical process. New things are created where before there was nothing. It generally starts with an idea or intuition out of which grows the impetus to create. Usually that first idea or an intertwining between two ideas comes with a great spark of enthusiasm that represents some sort of ecstatic truth. People would ‘get it’ perfectly if they could only feel exactly THAT.

But at the end of the day, art is something we perceive. I play a linguistic joke on myself when I talk about art without relating it to something in the world that someone is looking at, listening to, contemplating, or experiencing in some fashion. Creating something real that can bring others to that same ecstatic truth is Art. Artists attempt to elicit an experience or a process in their audience. But creating a worldly artifact that can be used by someone to achieve THAT is a process of its own.

Different art forms work differently this way. Some forms of art translate well into our everyday reality. For instance, if I think of a great idea for a book all I have to do is write the book (put words on page), publish the book (print/digital), and I’m done. On the other hand, if I come up with a great idea for a movie, I’ve got a lot more work cut out for me.

Literature, music, painting, and maybe dance are some of the most direct translations of an ecstatic idea, or THAT. In these art forms there is less process or activity for the idea to be lost or degraded. Each activity an artist takes to realize their ecstatic vision of truth takes the artist further from the world of ideas and closer to something that can be perceived by an observer. Even writing can dull the creative spark. Putting an idea into words is a challenge. A greater challenge is finding the right words and putting them into the right structure to guide a reader to a specific intuition.

This is the reason many serious artists don’t like to speak about their work. The ecstatic vision of truth doesn’t come neatly packaged in a few words, an image, or a soundbite. Usually it’s something numinous and mysterious, and the act of creating is the artist’s attempt to make that idea into something intelligible.

When a filmmaker is asked “What is your film about?” they better not have a snappy answer ready. If David Lynch could tell us what Lost Highway is about in one sentence, he shouldn’t have made it. Also, if it was that simple, we shouldn’t have spent 2 hours 25 minutes ingesting it. Fortunately the film exists as a process and a complete whole apart from any explanation. It opens up worlds of intuition for each observer to explore.

With film there are many distinct stages of creation, so the idea can get very far from THAT, the original creative spark. This can be a good thing because each stage demands its own creative treatment and different artists contribute their vision and talent to the final product. At the same time this can be a terrible thing because the successive stages of creation can dilute the power of the original idea. By the time the script is written, the crew and cast hired, the film shot, edited, blended with sound that’s been recorded, foleyed and mixed, and finally presented, the director might look at the screen and think, “This has absolutely nothing to do with my original idea.” The movie Bad Timing by Nicholas Roeg began with a straightforward script and was shot in a straightforward manner. Fortunately in the editing process they discovered a strange take on the material and the film became a beautiful example of non-linear storytelling. The finished product was surely closer to the original creative spark than Roeg expected from his linear script.

Film may be the most challenging art form because it contains so many types of art. Cinematography, production design, costume and make-up, sound recording, acting and more contribute to the overall essence put forth by the script, and this all must be wrangled by a director (who may or may not have written the script, and may or may not get it). The director ultimately, often unfortunately, answers to the producer. The producer is a business man who may or may not have any artistic talent whatsoever.

But film can be one of the most rewarding art forms because it is so absorbing. Film uses our aesthetic eye (like painting), our aesthetic ear and sense of rhythm (like music), our thinking mind (like writing), and our intuition (our own feelings), concerted to give us a two-hour experience, a process which hopefully will enrich us.

Of course, masterpieces in any art form stay with us forever. Good art shows us a vision of life we couldn’t seen without it. And whether we ever make it to exactly THAT, the process of discovery is the important thing.

 

P.S. Follow me on Twitter @EricRSchiller for my micro-blog book report on each chapter of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It’s possibly the craziest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of crazy books.

 

 

Interiority Complex

I grew up Roman Catholic but never felt anything “holy” when I went to church. It was something like school – something that had to be done. Maybe this is my own personality, or maybe it’s the religion itself. It was the Romans who killed Jesus, after all.

Watching Twin Peaks in high school I realized something mysterious existed just below the surface. That feeling of mystery eventually spread from the television to all parts of my life, but it wasn’t until late university that I took an interest in other religions and philosophies and became preoccupied with getting to know the unknown.

Middle Eastern and Asian religions appealed to me aesthetically. Spires and colourful mosaics, sitars and multi-armed deities seemed more appropriate to worship, but this is likely because those schema were culturally alien to me and therefore had a stronger connection to the unknown.

Discovering yoga, meditation, shamanism and other techniques in my spare time helped me augment my nervous system and take an active role in the development of my consciousness. Those self-disciplines used to seem socially unacceptable somehow, probably a result of the anhedonic attitude of Roman Catholicism. Oddly enough, now I can find that “holy” feeling just about anywhere quiet.

When I read The Varieties of Religious Experience by the American philosopher William James, I was impressed with how clearly he laid out my some of my convictions. Why should anyone be able to call into question the authenticity of my interior reality? Experience shows me what is true and false, especially in those tricky interior realms where language breaks down. The value of those experiences is personal, but it infuses everything I do.

At one point in my life I would have called myself an atheist. Fortunately, having had my mind blown by interior experiences, I realized that “God” was just a word, a tool used to describe the unification of everything, and I didn’t have to worry about believing or not believing because the name is not the thing named. What matters is cause and effect. If I can sit still and see the universe as a unified whole, it doesn’t matter to me what path brought me there. The personal sacred experience is what matters. I’ve been meditating twice every day without fail for many years because it’s worth it.

One of my favorite words is psychedelic, from the Greek psyche, as in “mind”, and delos, “manifesting”. Psychedelic = Mind Manifesting. Unfortunately the word psychedelic is all caught up with drugs, hippies, trippy colours, and other bullshit that take away from what the word could mean. I find the definition of this word in dictionaries to be lazy.

Psychedelia should be synonymous with art. I believe all art to be psychedelic. What you are reading right now is a written manifestation of my mind. I had an idea, I thought about it, and made it manifest. Tattoos are psychedelic too; a person finds meaning in a symbol and they alter their physical body to represent that idea. Music works similarly.

Art is a sensory creation that adds something unique, meaningful, and valuable to the mental landscape. That’s what real art is to me, anyway. The rest is just filler. Industries apply the word “artist” to anybody who writes a book, acts in a movie, plays a song, without questioning the value of what is made. An unfortunate amount of movies, music, and books are either meaningless, or their meaning has no value. Fortunately for the world some people take art seriously and give out in love what is taken in by contemplation.

Literature is telepathy. Music is empathy. Film is orchestrated hallucination. These are powerful tools we’ve developed. If you can find transcendent meaning in a piece of art, let that be an acceptable road to the sacred. Incidentally, Catholic and Jewish religions are already based on a book, aren’t they? Sometimes I get a kick imagining that the authors of the Bible were intentionally trying to write the weirdest novel ever.

What I’m trying to say is that you should all pay close attention to “In Your Mind” by Built to Spill.