Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Festivals’ Category

The Night of Counting the Years (1969)

Friday, September 8th, 2017

One of the greatest Egyptian films of all time is not available on DVD – but you can see it here.

As an anonymous critic at the website Public Domain Movies notes, “Egyptian critics consistently list The Night of Counting the Years (also known as The Mummy) as one of the most important Egyptian films, and perhaps the most important one, but it remains largely unknown, both within Egypt and elsewhere, despite winning a number of awards at European film festivals. Directed by Shadi Abdel Salam in 1969, it was his first feature film, after a long career directing experimental short films, and was selected as the Egyptian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 43rd Academy Awards.

Set in 1881, on the eve of British colonial rule, it is based on a true story: an Upper Egyptian clan had been robbing a cache of mummies near the village of Qurna, and selling the artifacts on the black market. After a conflict within the clan, one of its members went to the police, helping the Antiquities Service find the cache of stolen goods. While this is the nominal plot of the film, it is much more interested in establishing a sense of the past, and embracing cultural history, than in the advancement of a narrative structure.

The film casts this story in terms of the search for an authentic, lost Egyptian national identity (represented by the neglected and misunderstood artifacts of ancient Egyptian civilization), but the conflict between city and countryside suggests questions that are not resolved in the film, making it an ambiguous, unsettling reflection on the price of identity. Unusual camera angles, striking colors and slow editing give the film a dreamlike quality, reinforced by Mario Nascimbene‘s trance like music. For those who know Arabic, the dialogue is entirely in classical Arabic, which adds to the film’s sense of timelessness.”

As Wikipedia notes of the director’s career, “Shadi Abdel Salam was an Egyptian film director, screenwriter and costume and set designer. Born in Alexandria on 15 March 1930, Shadi graduated from Victoria College, Alexandria, 1948, and then moved to England to study theater arts from 1949 to 1950. He then joined faculty of fine arts in Cairo where he graduated as an architect in 1955. He worked as assistant to the artistic architect, Ramsis W. Wassef, 1957, and designed the decorations and costumes of some of the most famous historical Egyptian films, [and] taught at the Cinema Higher Institute of Egypt in the Departments of Decorations, Costumes and Film Direction from 1963–1969. He died on 8 October 1986.” This film remains his only feature length work.

I’ve seen the film projected in 35mm format on a number of occasions, and it’s one of my very favorite films – absolutely dreamlike in its construction, slow and meditational, but with an enormous presence in every single frame. Now, although the film is still unavailable in a full-quality HD DVD, there is at least a YouTube video version of the film with English and Spanish subtitles, which you can view by clicking here, or on the image above. The best way to watch the film would be to stream it to your television, and get carried away by the intensity of the imagery.

The Night of Counting The Years is a brilliant film, which absolutely should be on DVD.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster Screening at Studio 44 – Stockholm

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s video is being screened at Studio 44’s Short Film Festival in Stockholm, Sweden.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster‘s video, Sleeping with The Fishes, is being screened by invitation at as part of the Studio 44 Short Film Festival, hosted by the Stockholm Culture Festival, August 15 – 20, 2017. Studio 44, Stockholm, Sweden, curated by Helena Norell and Mats Landström.

Studio 44 is an artist run collective in Stockholm; the Studio 44 Short Film festival is a wide-ranging event including animation, narrative, documentary, experimental video and film, feminist, queer, and anti-racist films, featuring work by 40 film and video artists from 15 different countries.

You can view Foster’s films on Vimeo by clicking here.

You can view Foster’s Vimeo Channel by clicking here.

As Foster says of her work, “chance is my favorite collaborator. I often allow ideas to emerge by manipulating images and sound with little or no intentional ‘plan.’ I create abstracts, slow films, unusual sound designs, music, and video installations that are described as hypnotic, surreal, and enigmatic.

I like to explore liminal spaces between film & video, real & virtual, abstract & representational, aesthetic & philosophical; disrupting binaries whenever possible. Some of my films are punk feminist, political and eco-critical; confrontational and abrasive, but other times I fashion slow cinema, inviting contemplation and active meditation.”

As Foster notes of Sleeping with The Fishes, the work is “a surrealist collage in honor of Luis Buñuel and André Breton. ‘Give me two hours a day of activity, and I’ll take the other 22 in dreams.’―Luis Buñuel. ‘Words have finished flirting. Now they are making love. The same is true of images.’―André Breton.”

Foster’s films have been screened at The Nederlands Filmmuseum, The Rice Museum, The Collective for Living Cinema, Swedish Cinemateket, National Museum of Women in the Arts, DC, Bibliotheque Cantonale, Lausanne, Switzerland, International Film Festival of Kerala, India, Films de Femmes, Créteil, Outfest, The Museum of Modern Art, Women’s Film Festival of Madrid, Kyobo Center, Korea, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Université Laval, Quebec, Forum Yokohama, Anthology Film Archives, Amos Eno Gallery, NY, SLA 307 Art Space, NY, Maryland Institute College of Art, NETV, and festivals and venues around the world. This is yet another honor in her career as a video artist.

This is a remarkable accomplishment; congratulations to Gwendolyn on this event.

Reset! More Than 990 Posts On This Blog! Back To The Top!

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

There are more than 990 entries on this blog. Click on the button above to go back to the top.

Frame by Frame began in 2011 with a post on Nicholas Ray – now, with more than 990 posts & much more to come, we’re listed on Amazon, in the New York Times blogroll, and elsewhere on the net, as well as being referenced in Wikipedia and numerous other online journals and reference websites. And this is just the beginning.

With thousands of hits every day, we hope to keep posting new material on films and people in films that matter, as well as on related issues, commercial free, with truly open access, for the entire film community. So look back and see what we’ve been up to, and page through the past to the present.

USE THE SEARCH BOX IN THE UPPER RIGHT HAND CORNER TO CHECK FOR YOUR FAVORITE TOPICS.

There are also more than 70 videos on film history, theory and criticism to check out on the Frame by Frame video blog, arranged in carousel fashion to automatically play one after the other, on everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to film aspect ratios, to discussions of pan and scan, Criterion video discs, deep focus, and a whole lot more.

So go back and see what you’ve been missing – you can always use the search box in the upper right hand corner to see if your favorite film or director is listed, but if not, drop me a line and we’ll see if we can’t do something about it. We’ve just updated our storage space on the blog, so there will be plenty more to come, so check it out – see you at the movies!

Click on the image above & see what else you can find!

Denis Côté’s New Film: “A Skin So Soft” at Locarno

Friday, August 4th, 2017

A Skin So Soft: “there’s nothing but them and the struggle with themselves.”

Denis Côté continues to consolidate his reputation as one of the most important filmmakers working today with his new film A Skin So Soft. The film recently premiered at The Locarno Film Festival, and won rave reviews from every quarter, which if you ask me is about time – he’s an absolute original. My sincere thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster – one of the most perceptive viewers of Côté‘s work –  for bringing this to my attention.

With such films as Drifting States (Golden Leopard in the Locarno Video Competition in 2005), All That She Wants (Best Director Award at Locarno in 2008) and Curling (another Best Director Award plus a Leopard for Best Actor in 2010), Côté is clearly a major talent, and yet his films are often misunderstood by mainstream critics. They also, of course, need to get much more distribution, but that’s true of so many thoughtful films in 2017.

Here’s an interview with Côté by Muriel Del Don from the journal Cineuropa, in which he talks about the genesis of the film, what it is and what it is not, and how he approached the material in way that’s absolutely different from films that dealt with body building in the past.

Cineuropa: Why did you decide to film the world of bodybuilding?

Denis Côté: For a long time, I had wanted to make a documentary about one of the protagonists, Benoit, but he didn’t really want to lift the lid on everything in his private life. So then the project just stayed inside my head. I have a number of health problems, and observing these men in their pursuit of perfection seemed to be a way of striking up a conversation with my own ailing body, in a very real way. I became interested in them again, looking at all the awe-inspiring photos they posted on their Facebook profiles. I interviewed several of them, then I finalized the cast.

Cineuropa: Your film is very powerful but extremely human at the same time, going far beyond the clichés linked to bodybuilding. How did you manage to “protect” your characters, without falling into the trap of voyeurism?

Denis Côté: First of all, I watched the classic Pumping Iron, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I told myself that we had seen all there was to see about bodybuilding. Then there are those countless TV reports and other highly conventional documentaries revolving around diets, drugs and all those hours of training. I thought the ‘subject’ had been filmed quite enough using a head-on approach. I decided to skirt around the edges, even if it meant occasionally drifting towards the extreme fringes. Besides the fitness centers, we see ordinary guys with families, some less glamorous moments, and private and intimate scenes that the other films on the ‘subject’ do not concern themselves with.

The idea of impressionism has caught on, and it was the fragility of these giants that really guided my perspective. But the lads still didn’t understand what I was looking for. They wanted to glisten and explode onto the screen to a thundering soundtrack, but all I was asking them to do was the washing-up. In the end, they were happy to show us another face. They thought it was ‘different’. I filmed people with passions, not their feats and achievements. You can really feel the tender and human angle, because it’s a film about human beings with passions, rather than a movie about bodybuilding.

Cineuropa: In A Skin So Soft, the dialogue is scarce, and there is a complete lack of music and voice-overs. In contrast, “human” sounds are very prominent, almost magnified. What was the thinking behind this?

Denis Côté: That comes down to the need to film what we see less of in the other films centering on this world. If I steer clear of interviews, informative content and statistics, what’s left? Bodies – bodies suffering, bodies that are satisfied, at rest or in a state of quasi-euphoria. I hunted down the slightest physical expression but also the slightest hint of anxiety. They are always on show, always performing, and they are very much aware of their image. Sometimes it’s the camera bothering them, at others it’s the sheer emotion of achieving their goals. I had no screenplay to work with, so I sought out these tell-tale signs of vulnerability.

Cineuropa: The bodies that you depict are supremely perfect, statuesque but simultaneously very sensual. Were you aiming to upend the established roles surrounding relationships of seduction by shattering the stereotypes linked to the insensitive, chauvinistic muscle man?

Denis Côté: Right from my first few visits to the fitness centres, or whenever I saw a competition, I noticed that there was absolutely no sex appeal, nor any so-called ‘normal’ games of seduction. It’s a world that is sexualized very little, even though everyone is constantly half-naked. It’s all about pure performance. The men and women never look at one another in a lustful way. They check each other out, but only from a performance point of view, with perhaps a smattering of jealousy.

They examine one another from head to toe, all the while silently giving marks out of ten. It’s a far cry from sexualizing the relationships, and that took me by surprise. To the casual observer, it therefore becomes quite astonishing to see all of this homoerotic electricity go utterly unnoticed among the bodybuilding enthusiasts. The most awe-inspiring bodybuilders are not extremely macho. They don’t talk about sex; they don’t hit on people. That may seem strange, but in the end, it’s logical. There’s nothing but them and the struggle with themselves.

See the trailer here – I’ll have more to say on this remarkable film in the future.

Forgotten African American Women of Early Hollywood

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Here’s a really important new exhibition at the California African American Museum; above, Iris Hall as Eve Mason in The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), directed by Oscar Micheaux.

As the notes for exhibition outline, “curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates, History Curator and Program Manager, CAAM, and the Tyree Boyd-Pates, Center Stage [is] an exhibition that considers pioneering African American filmmakers and production companies in the early 20th century that provided African American women the opportunity to participate in front of, and behind, the camera. They challenged disparaging portrayals of black women in Hollywood, and instead conveyed their wit, intelligence, and talent for largely black audiences to admire and emulate. The exhibition runs from June 28 to October 15, 2017.

Produced for American audiences between 1910 and 1950, these motion pictures were commonly called race films. CAAM will screen several rarely seen examples, including Oscar Micheaux‘s Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), extant clips from Lincoln Picture Company’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1921, dir. Harry Grant), The Scar of Shame (1929), The Scar of Shame (1941, dir. Spencer Williams), and others. Each film features women protagonists and captures the spirit of entrepreneurship and African American upliftment characteristic of race films from this era.”

As Nadra Nittle adds in an article on the series on the KCET website, “Hollywood has long had a problem with representation and diversity, especially concerning anyone female and nonwhite. In the first half of the 20th century, black women were largely relegated to playing mammy and Jezebel roles. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation even depicted African Americans as rapists and imbeciles, leading to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The black woman’s unfortunate standing in Hollywood history is why the California African American Museum’s “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” which runs until October 15, is so significant. It reveals how as early as 100 years ago, independent black filmmakers presented complex portrayals of women of color that major studios never fathomed. These silent gems depict black women exploring their religious faith, fighting for the rights of African Americans and in loving relationships. They underscore how even today Hollywood has much ground to cover in its depiction of black women.”

I have been running these films in my classes for years, way back in the 1970s in the 16mm era, when they were first made available in prints from the original 35mm negatives. But with the passing of time, it seems that people forget, and new generations need to be reminded, of the immense value of these works – films, directors, and actors who made an enormous and indelible contribution to the history of the cinema. Not only are these films an essential part of cinema history; they offer an effective antidote to the evils of D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist Birth of A Nation, which is still being widely screened while these far superior films are neglected. It’s time to change that – forever.

This is an amazing chance to see these key works; don’t miss it if you’re in Los Angeles.

Storm de Hirsch’s “Goodbye in the Mirror” (1964)

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Storm de Hirsch’s Goodbye in the Mirror is an early masterpiece of feminist cinema.

Storm de Hirsch is finally getting something of a reappraisal of her long career; right now, archivist Stephen Broomer is trying to track down some of her more obscure books of poetry, but her major work was in film, and Goodbye in The Mirror, shot in 16mm with post-synced sound in Rome in 1964 is one of her most affecting films. I knew de Hirsch, and she was kind, generous, and very much her own person; like Shirley Clarke, who is better remembered, she was very much a founding member of the New York avantgarde.

Goodbye in the Mirror was shot for less than $20,000, and later blown up to 35mm – I ran the 35mm version in my class on experimental cinema sometime ago, to excellent audience reaction – and was, in de Hirsch’s words, “a dramatic feature shot on location in Rome. Centered around the adventures and illusions of three girls living abroad, the film explores their restlessness and personal involvements in assuming the role of woman as hunter”, prompting critic / filmmaker Jonas Mekas to proclaim that “I, myself, belonging to the Spies for Beauty, Inc., and the humble monk of the Order of Fools, was allowed to peek at this film, and I couldn’t believe what beauty struck my eyes, what sensuousness.”

As filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos noted of the film, “from the beginning to the end of the film, the spectator’s pleasure and understanding are enhanced on the same social filmic scale of that grand experimentalist Rossellini. Though the images in most films are easily forgotten, such is not the case with those of Goodbye in the Mirror. Best retained and rooted are the images and episodes of the turning streetcar; the central characters Maria and Marco; the sweeper; the scurrying nuns; the steps of the water supply tank ([a] homage, perhaps, to Maya Deren‘s Meshes of the Afternoon); the visual melodies as conceived in the walk episodes which alternate between one character and another; Marco’s performance; the grapes being washed and the paper bag crumpled by the same two lovers. One is reminded that there is a sense of existence as in the famous Sous les toits de Paris by René Clair.”

In a conversation with de Hirsch, Shirley Clarke called Goodbye in the Mirror the first “real woman’s film” and added that “so far in film, we have yet to have treated on the most basic level, very personal reactions of women. Because so far, we’ve had mostly men directors who, whether they’ve been very sensitive or not, have not really been able to deal with women this way. Just like when they write about women, they’re writing from a certain separateness. Goodbye in the Mirror is dealing with women. And women’s reactions to a series of events.”

The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in Spring 1964. It was screened at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland that summer, and at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1966, and yet it’s mostly forgotten today. A DVD of this film would be a very welcome addition to the filmic canon; and bear in mind that this is just one of de Hirsch’s many works, all of which can be rented from the Filmmakers’ Cooperative in New York in 16mm format.

Storm de Hirsch – yet another important artist who deserves more attention.

Advice to Young Filmmakers from Denis Côté

Friday, July 7th, 2017

As Leo Barraclough reports in Variety, director Denis Côté does not suffer fools gladly.

As Barraclough writes, “Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté has won multiple awards at top festivals, including Berlin with Vic + Flo Saw a Bear and Locarno for Curling. This week he has been mentoring a group of student filmmakers at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where he advised them on how to get ahead in the independent film world. Variety was given exclusive access to the discussion.

Although he is genial, Côté doesn’t seem like a man to take hostages. He told the 10 students – gathered together by European Film Promotion as part of its Future Frames program — that they were ‘shy,’ and given the context of the discussion – how to get your films selected by film festivals — it wasn’t a compliment.

‘You need to be social. If you are this kind of weird poet director who has no friends and is always alone you might be a genius but… you need to talk to people,’ he said. ‘Cinema is a social world. It is not like playing a guitar alone in your room or painting. Cinema is the most social art.’

Young filmmakers needed to be proactive when trying to get on the festival circuit, and not leave it to others to put their films in front of festival programmers. ‘Never trust sales agents, distributors or films schools when they say they are taking care of your film. Send [the submissions] yourself.’

He cautioned against being overly pushy. ‘There is a thin line. You need to be respectful and not annoying. The moment you become annoying everybody knows.’

Côté’s go-getting attitude is also applied to generating projects. ‘I’m my own job provider. If I don’t write a new script, no one will write it for me. I’m my own locomotive bringing people with me. I’m open to collaboration but it’s never happened to me.’

He explained that he has developed the reputation for being ‘this alien weird guy making these weird films,’ which may put off writers from sending him their scripts to direct. His ‘weird’ – a.k.a. experimental — films include Bestiaire, a documentary in which a variety of zoo animals stare into the camera, and Carcasses, about a man who collects wrecked cars, and four teenagers with Down Syndrome, carrying guns, who invade his junkyard.

He advises young people to be brave and not to wait too long to go into production on their first feature. ‘Young filmmakers are just afraid to shoot sometimes,’ he said. ‘If they feel that they don’t have the right budget for their story they don’t start.’

Many of his films have been shot with very little money and just a few people. His latest feature documentary A Skin So Soft, which follows six body builders, was shot over 27 days on a budget of Euros 40,000 ($45,700). Although unconfirmed, the intention is for the film to have its world premiere at Locarno.

Côté’s love affair with cinema started in his early teenage years when his diet was purely horror movies, mainly European artistic genre filmmakers like Dario Argento, who filled his head with images of ‘witches, zombies, skulls, blood and cannibals.’

When he went to college at 18 his film teacher opened his eyes to the delights of arthouse movies by the likes of Fassbinder, Godard and Cassavetes. ‘It changed my life,’ Côté says. ‘I never watched horror cinema after that, but its DNA was still inside me, so when you watch some of my films there is a feeling of menace. There is always something that I borrowed from horror cinema because it has stuck in my head and my personality somewhere.’

After college he became a film critic on community radio, and later worked as the critic for a local publication. He then decided to make his first feature film. ‘I said, “I’m going to show the world what I can do with zero money, a video camera and four people,” he recalled. ‘I was pretentious like that.’

He decided to ‘make a movie at the end of the world’ and so chose a village at the end of a road heading out of Quebec. Drifting States (2005) featured a man driving for 16 hours – shortened to two minutes and 45 seconds in the film – until the road stopped (‘for me that was super poetic,’ he said), and then starting his life afresh.

The film won the video section award at Locarno and the prize money allowed him to quit his job and follow the film as it appeared in around 50 festivals over one and a half years. When the film won $10,000 at a festival in Korea, he used the money to make his next film, Our Private Lives (2007).

Bigger-budget films followed, like All That She Wants (2008) and Curling (2010), but Côté has repeatedly returned to low-budget filmmaking. He remains an independent film guy at heart and admits he has an aversion to folks from the mainstream movie industry. [As for Hollywood filmmaking, he notes] ‘I can’t be around these people. I hate these people so much.'”

Words of wisdom from someone who knows what he’s talking about.

My Videos on Vimeo – Full Speed

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

Here’s a brief abstract video I’ve made – nice and short – entitled Full Speed.

I have been making quite a number of videos, and posting them on Vimeo – free to view for all – and here’s one I made two years ago that seems particularly popular. I check my viewing stats on a relatively daily basis, and re-order the playlist in order of changing viewer preferences – not necessarily my own favorites, but the ones that get played and loaded the most. Actually, our tastes coincide most of the time, and I’m drawn, especially these days, to my lighter, more accessible work.

Full Speed is a brief abstract animation, nice and bright, to add some color and cheer to your day. You can see my front page on Vimeo by clicking here, which includes my latest works, just posted today – Dome and Flowers along with a batch of other popular videos, including Serial Metaphysics, DJ, Dana Can Deal, Numen Lumen, Beat Box, Real & Unreal, Life of Luxury, Escape and about 300 more videos from 1974 to the present. They cover a wide range of approaches, from documentary to abstract and nearly all the possible stops in-between. Most run about 5 minutes or so, with some longer works in the 20 to 30 minute range.

My films have been screened at The Maryland Institute College of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, The Microscope Gallery, The British Film Institute, The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen Center for Experimental Art, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Spacesee the video for that screening here –  The Gallery of Modern Art, The Oberhausen Film Festival and at numerous universities and film societies throughout the world.

Now’s your chance to see them – for free – whenever you wish.

Offscreen – An Essential Canadian Film Journal

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an absolutely essential, completely free film journal that deserves much more attention.

I came across this journal this morning, and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it before – mea culpa! Offscreen, an online film journal based in Canada, offers a refreshing alternative to the Hollywood based fan mania which is currently inundating the web, and showcases the major contributions that Canadian cinema – often neglected in the United States – offers to cinema culture and practice.

As the journal’s editor, Donato Totaro notes, “Offscreen has been online since 1997, along with its French language sister journal Hors Champ. Based in Montréal, Offscreen is a wide-ranging film journal that covers film festivals, retrospectives, film forums, and both popular and more academic events. Part of our mandate is to cover the Montreal film scene, but within an international context. The scope of its content, and the type of material featured and promoted in Offscreen can be summarized as follows:

  1. personal and independent film above big budget, formulaic film
  2. the under-represented (young, up and coming filmmakers)
  3. films with creative design and broad social commitment
  4. local and Canadian films/filmmakers
  5. Asian and alternative cinemas (horror, exploitation, esoteric,
    experimental, documentary, etc.)

Offscreen features extensive interviews, in-depth festival coverage, and lengthy, well-researched essays. The latter is in line with the guiding editorial policy at Offscreen, which is to allow for the flexibility to feature rigorous, well-researched texts alongside material that does not fit into traditional scholarly formats (director interviews, film festival reports, DVD reviews, etc.).

In short, our goal is to produce intelligent, thoughtful, and combative film criticism, analysis, discussion, and theory. We are driven to this end because we feel strongly that, within today’s image saturated info-entertainment landscape, cinema needs to be rigorously discussed in order to continue being an important voice of cultural and artistic expression well into the 21st century.”

It’s an excellent journal, and I found several articles of immediate interest. Click here, or on the image above to go straight to the journal’s website, and see for yourself the wealth of material available, covering everything from experimental cinema to indie features, decisively in favor of independent visions over corporate franchise films. It’s really breath of fresh air, and I recommend it highly.

Check out Offscreen by clicking here, or on the image above – happy reading!

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

Only Lovers Left Alive is that rare thing – a genre film that reinvents the genre.

As Susan Wloszczyna writes in a sharp and perceptive review from 2014, very little can “compete with the fabulously aloof and effortlessly cool creatures of the night lurking in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. They don’t need the sun to sparkle. They are superstars illuminated from within.

Not that Jarmusch’s denizens of the dark are so mundane as to be directly referred to as vampires during the course of this pleasurably droll and languorous soak in a pool of comical musings, nostalgic longing and sorrowful loss. They are more like supreme beings, too good for the mundane and crassly disposable 21st-century chaos that exists outside their carefully curated domains. The domestic fortresses where they doze during daylight hours are bursting with rare books, objets d’art, collectible musical instruments, exotic fabrics, ancient electric gadgets and other relics culled from the many centuries they have existed amongst us lesser mortals.

Like most of Jim Jarmusch’s films, the emphasis is not on action but interaction—especially the verbal kind. And atmosphere. Loads of atmosphere, down to the sounds of far-off howls and crimson-red Gothic lettering during the opening credits. As usual, his pacing is decidedly unhurried—the less kind might say sluggish—but it is made more than tolerable by the presence of a pair of exceedingly appealing lead actors.

Tom Hiddleston, with wavy dark hair cascading Veronica Lake-style over one eye and boasting a poet’s slim-hipped physique, Hiddleston is a [superb] as a woeful and weary loner who finds solace in collecting classic guitars and penning mournfully hypnotic mood music. The only thing that truly relieves his gloom is his spouse and soulmate, Tilda Swinton’s more upbeat Eve. This runway-ready vision in a fawn-hued apparel, sunglasses and leather gloves while topped by a tangled mop of beige hair resides across the globe in Tangier, but stays in touch with her Apple iPhone.

Despite the distance between them, Jarmusch cleverly signals their psychic connection to one another from the first scene when a spinning 45-rpm record fills the screen and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s witchy wail resounds on the soundtrack. That hypnotic image dissolves into the sight of two reclining figures going round in a circle, seemingly in the same room yet miles apart.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a concerned Eve paying her beloved Adam a visit, which requires booking a night-time-only flight and selecting just the right fake passport.Why they are apart is not fully explained, though we are left to guess it has to do with Eve’s close ties to Christopher Marlowe. Yes, that Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan tragedian whom some believe—including Jarmusch—wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He, too, is a vampire but less than thriving. The conceit that he is still around, hiding out in Morocco and supplying fresh untainted blood to Eve comes a bit out of nowhere, but John Hurt invests both pathos and humor into the role.

It is just one of the ways that Jarmusch, who with his legendary shock of white hair could be a cool vampire himself, allows his characters to toy with supernatural lore instead of over-explaining their lifestyles. Fearing contamination from feeding on humans directly, Adam, posing as Dr. Faust, gets his supply of hemoglobin by bribing a hospital worker who goes by the name of Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). He also employs the services of Ian (Anton Yelchin), a none-too-swift kid who may or may not have tipped off others about the existence of Adam and his underground recordings.

Ian, who is a real bloodhound when it comes to fulfilling his master’s craving for rare guitars, doesn’t seem to question Adam’s nocturnal habits or the fact that his bathroom is perpetually out of order. The only time he gets suspicious is when his delivery of a Gretsch Chet Atkins gets Adam reminiscing about seeing rocker Eddie Cochran of Summertime Blues fame—who died in 1960—perform while using that model. Ian pipes up: ‘You saw Eddie Cochran play?’ ‘On YouTube,’ quickly explains Adam, covering his tracks. It’s akin to Bela Lugosi saying, ‘I never drink—wine.’

The arrival of Ava, Eve’s brazenly bratty little sister who is given a mischievous spin around the seductive bloodsucker block by Mia Wasikowska, soon up-ends the order of their carefully maintained universe. But the best parts are when we get to witness the reunion of Adam and Eve, sipping blood in aperitif glasses or slurping it in Popsicle form, driving around the ruins of a downtrodden Detroit in a vintage sports car (when Adam mentions the Motown Museum, Eve begs off: ‘I’m more of a Stax girl myself’) and sharing ancient memories of acquaintances past.”

Everything about the film is meticulously detailed, and the gorgeous score, composed principally by Jarmusch’s own band, is the perfect accompaniment to the proceedings. The ruins of Detroit, the back alleys of Tangier, and a seemingly endless round of intercontinental flights blend together to create a commentary on the passing of time, coping with changing technology, of the long view that 500 years of existence can bring to one, and the daily need for blood – now obtained through blood banks and other semi-legal means (most of the time) – as a constant factor in continued existence.

What makes the film so ravishing is the intoxicating camera work, the dim yet pungent lighting, and the mood, feel, atmosphere and eternal timelessness that the film conveys. This isn’t another film about some roving vampires and their victims, and it isn’t another franchise film cranked out by someone who once had promise with their first film, and then abandoned any pretense of artistic integrity to follow the Marvel or DC bandwagon. This is a slow moving, deeply felt, and passionately crafted film, which lingers in the mind long after the last frame has faded from the screen.

Only Lovers Left Alive does nothing less than create a whole new way of looking at the “undead.”

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos