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Among all the things that Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive attempts to be—dirge for undead Detroit; shooting party targeting the fatted fowl of Hollywood; slacker’s antique roadshow, to name but three—it is not least an ode to the lute. That the movie’s director is himself a guitarist is well known to devotees of his films and will come as no surprise to those who buy his recordings—on vinyl of course. Hailed as the “last independent,” Jarmusch has assailed the vapidity of mainstream soundtracks. With Only Lovers he has literally taken matters into his own hands, performing the music for his film along with avant-garde Dutch lutenist based in New York, Jozef van Wissem. The movie premiered in May of 2013 at the Cannes Film Festival, where van Wissem won the prize for best soundtrack. A British/German production, Only Lovers appeared first in Europe in the 2013 and then in the U.S. in January of this year. The movie made its way to Ithaca, New York only recently. Eager to hear how Jarmusch and van Wissem measured up against their own high standards, I took it in on a dark and stormy night.
In a Washington Post article, “Jozef van Wissem wants to make the lute sexy again, and Jim Jarmusch is helping him,” coinciding with the release of the soundtrack back in April, the lutenist is quoted as saying, “I feel that I’m sort of political. Jim’s film is anti-contemporary-society. And the lute goes against all technology and against all computers and against all the shit you don’t need.” That’s a “yes” to gut strings and vinyl, and “no” to silicon and Spotify.
But this mission of making the lute hip asks us to believe that what van Wissem can do is cooler, more sensual than the efforts of earlier masters of the instrument—Dowland, Gaultier, Weiss—and present-day practitioners Paul O’Dette, Hopkinson Smith, and even Edin Karamazov, whose incursions into pop culture in the company of Sting have given the lute some quality time among the rockers.
At the opening of Only Lovers Left Alive we gaze down at dark-haired Tom Higgleston, who plays Adam to Tilda Swinton’s bleached-out Eve, in a swirling ceiling shot and see his hand draped over a renaissance lute as if interlocked with the limbs and locks of lover. Sexy? Maybe. Stylized? Without a doubt.
The lute’s position in his bed will soon be taken over by his wife Eve, who resides in the old city in Tangier. After a Facetime chat—in which the gloomy antiquarian Adam projects Eve’s image onto the convex screen of vintage television through a tangle of intravenous tubes hooked to his cell phone (stuff you do need, as opposed to the wireless networks you don’t)—Eve suspects her mate of harboring suicidal intentions. Anyone with a lute in Detroit should be a kept a close eye on, and Eve jets on two successive night flights (not an easy thing to do when flying west across the Atlantic). The once great factories and civic spaces of the Motor City are derelict, its wide, weedy streets devoid of cars. Detroit is an ever better place for vampires as the apocalyptically post-industrial city turns the lights out on itself. This expansive desolation contrasts with the vibrant narrow alleys of Tangier’s Medina, where the soundtrack introduces the lute’s Mediterranean cousin, the oud, to exoticize the scene.
The sounding embodiment of renaissance melancholy, the lute also connects us thematically to another English expat in Tangier, Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt. The furrowed topography his of face bespeaks centuries of hard-living and aggrieved discontent that his best work was not credited to him: turns out he wrote Shakespeare’s plays, whom Marlowe dismisses as a philistine and illiterate. Adam’s declaration of respect for the funeral music of William Lawes—a Jacobean composer of searching works for viol consort—confirms his own affinity for the Golden Age of Melancholy. And remember that is a viol is after all but a bowed guitar.
Back in darkened Detroit the lute serves as the perfect emblem of economic and psychic depression. But its descendant, the guitar now holds sway over Adam’s musical affections. He is visited frequently by a young guitar dealer, who procures for him spectacular specimens: a 1905 Gibson, a Chet Atkins’ Martin, and various other collector’s items. These are reverently cataloged and caressed: voyeuristic affectation reigns in this scene, as the guitar cases are opened like coffins. That Adam’s stroking of their bodies is devoid of sensuality is just as one would expect from this particular fetishistic branch of pornography—guitar porn.
The film’s north American release happened to anticipate by a few months the sale of collection of some 265 rare guitars at an early April New York auction. The highest price paid at the event was $300,000 for a Martin OM-45 Deluxe, which went to the museum run by the Martin company itself, thus returning this venerable instrument to its birthplace in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The seller was hoping for two million for that guitar. These inflated expectations had to do with overly optimistic predictions about the lusts of hedge fund managers and the like, rich middle-aged men who pay top dollar to own these objects even though many don’t even play. But at the auction, even the super rich got sticker shock and many items received no bid at all.
Guitar porn was sent up in Rob Reiner’s classic film This is Spinal Tap of 1984, in which the eponymous band’s lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel shows off his collection, including one still with “the tagger on it” having “never been played”—a dig at just the kind of misplaced acquisitiveness of the White Collar Deadheads just mentioned. (The later allusion in Jarmusch’s film to an underground Black Album also riffs on Spinal Tap, long the standard cinematic reference work of rock.)
Adam is not only a guitar pornographer, but also a renaissance man whose dilapidated Detroit Victorian evokes the Kunstkammer of his first youth in Elizabethan England: aside from the globe and lute—ubiquitous subjects of vanitas paintings—there’s lots of vintage vinyl, turntables, a Telefunken reel-to-reel and other toys to be obsessed over by the initiated. Like Marlowe penning Hamlet, Adam claims to have slipped Schubert the sublime Adagio for insertion into his last chamber work, the string Quintet in C major. This brooding vampire both the daylight and the limelight.
Adam has changed with the times. While once he ghosted for Lawes and Schubert, he now composes independent rock using old-school equipment of the 50s and 60s. As with his classical material, the current songs are works of genius and have somehow made their way, much to his chagrin, into the underground scene in Detroit and even Los Angeles. Angered by such expropriation, Adam makes embittered digs at the music industry. After his impertinent and intemperate sister-in-law “drinks” the guitar dealer, thereby poisoning herself with his tarnished blood, Adam scoffs: “What did you expect? He was in the music industry.” Vampires no longer sustain themselves on real killings since humankind’s ecological assault on their own environment has ruined their bodies. Later, after he flees the U.S. for Morocco in the aftermath of the guitar dealer’s murder, Adam watches a sexy Lebanese singer perform in a bar, and concludes, “she’s too good to become famous.” Better to retreat to the isolation of the antique studio, sip centrifuged blood, and brood about immortality and the decline of the natural and artistic worlds. Like Jarmusch, Adam seems himself as a true “Independent,” lurking and creating in the shadows rather than hitting the slopes of Sundance with all the other full-spectrum pseuds.
In contrast to the vampire’s disdain for celebrity, van Wissem has said he’s eager to get the lute out of the ivory tower and into the viewshed of a wider public, wanting it “to sound more like rock music” even if without the aid of amplifiers. Inspired by the uncanny ambience of electric guitar plaints provided by Jarmusch and his band Sqürl, Wissem plucks hypnotically at his lute above a pared-down modal language of two or three chords. As the parched lovers stagger through Tangier in search of their blood supplier—the stricken Marlowe himself—van Wissem adds the faintest, ephemeral touch of mournful renaissance profundity into a solo lute lament. Otherwise van Wissem serves up desiccated fare that makes one yearn for the banquets of yore, where the lute was a vessel of Elizabethan imagination, eloquence, and debauchery. In Only Lovers Left Alive, the once noble instrument has never sounded so physically and emotionally shackled. Minimalist is the adjective van Wissem uses to describe his style. Monotone would be another.
Having abandoned his collection of guitars, lutes, and other paraphernalia in Detroit, Adam is assuaged in his loss by the gift of a sumptuously decorated oud by Eve, a treasure procured with a wad of greenbacks in Tangier’s Medina. Adam’s ashen face lights up one last time as he plucks a couple of notes from its ornately seductive body. However gorgeous visually, the instrument as heard here, like the vampire himself, sounds depleted and bored and ready for its coffin. Like Detroit, Adam’s lute was much better back in the day.