The business of nostalgia

‘Nostalgia’, both as a word and a concept, originated in the seventeenth century to describe a condition afflicting Swiss mercenaries on long tours of military duty. According to UK cultural critic Simon Reynold’s 2011 book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past, it ‘was literally homesickness, a debilitating craving to return to the native land. The symptoms included melancholy, anorexia, even suicide.’

Reynold’s book traces the gradual development of nostalgia, amongst other things, from its origins to the mid-twentieth century, by which time it had began to morph into a human emotion, used effectively by both reactionary and progressive movements. This shift also arguably coincided with capitalism’s discovery of the term and the realisation that nostalgia, (particularly our desire for retro culture, which Reynold’s argues has become so insatiable it threatens to calcify contemporary culture) could make money.

The media is full of examples of the emotional and financial power of the nostalgia industry. On the morning I write this, the newspaper carries a report that seventies stadium rock phenomena Queen have announced they are touring Australia, after years trying to find a replacement for Freddie Mercury, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. But you can tell nostalgia and its consumerist manifestations are becoming an all-powerful cultural force, when even centuries-old vampires are infected with it. And the vampires in director Jim Jarmusch’s latest effort, Only Lovers Left Alive, have got it bad.

Nostalgia for real and imagined pasts, layered with a cool or retro aesthete, are a key theme in the much of Jarmusch’s work, from Bill Murray’s search for the son he might have had with an old lover in Broken Flowers (2005), to the idolisation of Elvis Presley in Mystery Train (1989). But Only Lovers Left Alive elevates this to new heights by taking one of cultures most universal and fearsome creatures, vampires, and turning them into nostalgic hipsters (and I mean ‘hipster’ in the original sense of being fashionable or cool, not as the pejorative age- dependent term used today).

Only Lovers Left Alive opens with the two main characters, the vampire lovers Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), taking some time out from their centuries old love affair. Eve is in Tangiers, Morocco. Adam is in Detroit. Both locations are portrayed as crumbling shadows of their former glory – Detroit particularly so. The former Motor City feels derelict and semi-abandoned, so much so wolves now freely roam parts of the landscape

Eve spends her time in Tangiers reading and hanging out in cafes with an even older vampire, Marlowe (John Hurt), who supplies her with intellectual company and blood sourced from a local hospital.

Adam is some sort of ancient musical genius whose contemporary work is highly sought after on the underground music scene. He has a particularly bad case of the nostalgia disease. He shuns recognition and fame in favour of spending time in his house in an abandoned section of the Detroit suburbs, tinkering with old electronic gadgets and his collection of new and antique musical instruments. His only contact with the outside world is Ian, a ‘zombie’ (the term Adam uses for humans), who procures Adam’s instruments, and the corrupt lab technician in one of Detroit’s hospitals, from whom Adam buys blood.

Adam seems so immersed in ennui that Eve becomes worried and flies to Detroit to be with him. No sooner have they resumed their meandering, a-sexual relationship, however, than they are visited by Eve’s younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Much like another infamous ‘young’ vampire, the child Claudia in Neil Jordan’s 1994 Interview With a Vampire, Ava doesn’t share Adam and Eve’s desire to rein in their more obvious vampiric impulses. This casts Eve in particular, in the role of aging permissive hippy parent, at a loss for how to discipline a precocious misbehaving child.

When things come to a head with Ava, Adam and Eve throw her out of the house and leave for Tangiers. But Marlowe, Eve’s only source of food, is seriously sick from drinking infected blood plasma and unable to supply her. What are two hungry vampires to do?

For obvious reasons, cinematic vampires have always mirrored the periods their movie are made in, from the haunting post-First World War classic Nosferatu in 1922; Todd Brown’s 1931 pre-depression masterpiece, Dracula; the erotic – and, at times, counter-culturally charged – vampire films made by Hammer Studio films in the sixties and early seventies; to the Euro-trash vibe of David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve in Tony Scott’s riveting 1983 effort, The Hunger, just to name a few.

As such, Jarmusch’s take on the vampire theme is hardly surprising. Like many of the humans they despise, Adam and Eve fetishise the past because they are bored and exhausted from the demands of present and the constant re-inventions that come with being ageless.

This obsession with the old and retro is also made possible because they live in the age of abundance brought about by almost limitless markets and technologies such as the Internet, which allows even the most obscure object, piece of music or book to be rediscovered and celebrated.

Eve is a bookworm with a distinctly capital ‘L’ taste in literature. Among the books she packs for the flight to Detroit are Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s satiric take on North America. The only driving force in Adam’s life, aside from his relationship with Eve, is the pursuit of incredibly rare musical instruments, especially guitars. In one of the film’s few overtly humorous scenes, Adam and Eve wake one morning to find Ava watching kitsch French Youtube clips from the seventies, with one of the dancers dressed as Dracula. The film positively oozes musical and literary one-liners and in-jokes, including an ongoing riff about Marlowe being the author of Shakespeare’s plays.

If you like hunting for old vinyl or searching musty second hand bookshops, you’ll probably like Only Lovers Left Alive. But if it’s a film about vampires you’re after – what they have to do in the modern world to survive – this film, like its subjects (who are never once referred to as vampires) feels like an artifice with little behind it.

There is no sense of risk or danger in Adam and Eve’s existence. The only exception is Ava’s rebellious ways and they are easily dealt with. They have survived not through cunning or intelligence, but because no one really notices them or can be bothered finding them. Humans are now too busy trying to save money for the latest five CD box set of remastered seventies Thai disco music to hunt for the undead.

Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.

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  1. Awesome article from Andrew. Really made me want to read Reynold’s book, see the film and purchase the new edition of Overland. Good Job. Looking forward to getting the Autumn edition in the post.

  2. Great article, Andrew. I can’t say I’m a fan of vampire movies but the nostalgia industry is fascinating. Reynolds’ book sounds like it’s worth hunting down.

  3. Your review eloquently summed up my feelings about Only Lovers Left Alive. I saw it at the Polish premier and came away thinking the same thing. A beautiful film, languidly orchestrated. Excellent review.

  4. “Marlowe being the author of Shakespeare’s plays,” seems to sum up the credentials of Only Lovers Left Alive pretty well. There won’t be too much future nostalgia for this film, I’d suggest. Or will there?

  5. I meant to add, that while I disagree with Andrew’s view that the film is more surface detail and little else, I still found his review interesting and insightful.

  6. While I quite enjoyed the film and agree with the overall tone of this review it set me thinking about the film and on second thought I have to say the film is really quite vacant of any substantive ideas or any true understanding of the literature these characters supposedly saturated their lives with. (I’ve not read the book, maybe that has more substance.) All the references -literary, artistic and musical- in this films seems superficial to an almost adolescent level. Sure there are heaps of name drops and glimpses of ‘heroes’ but do the characters display any intrinsic insight into these high artistic achievements? I think not. I consider this film to be about people who like to think they love art/literature but who can’t be bothered to delve into the great works to any great worthwhile degree. I’d even suggest that the various books referenced for instance, are indicative of a certain type of ‘hype’ mindset and is not really indicative of a in depth appreciation of literature. But that is getting a bit top heavy I guess…

    In this review you mention: ‘The film positively oozes musical and literary one-liners and in-jokes…’

    I spotted many in jokes, yes, but the one liners not so much. Could you list a few?

  7. The film takes place in Detroit. Not the Detroit suburbs. The house is located in a dilapidated neighborhood far within the city limits.

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