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May 26, 2014


(See Doppelgängers and Vampires: Preface and Doppelgängers and Vampires: Part I)


Though versions of blood sucking demons have existed in folklore for centuries, vampires did not figure prominently in the Western European imagination until the 18th century, when Balkan tales from an oral tradition began to be recorded and published.

The tales spread through Eastern Europe, resulting in waves of mass hysteria in the countryside. Then as now, vampires have been invested with more currency when the political climate tends toward plutocracy, and the blood sucking provides a useful metaphor for the deprivation the rich heaps upon the poor.

In 1764, in an entry in his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire asks, “What is it in our eighteenth century that vampires exist?” It is, after all, the Age of Enlightenment. Whether the existence of such creatures can be proven or not, Voltaire is keenly aware of the “stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.”

In his 1867 opus, Capital: Critique of Political Economy, Marx famously declared, “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”

The latter half of 19th century would see plutocracy reign during the Victorian Era in Britain and the Gilded Age in the United States. The Industrial Revolution transformed the lives of ordinary people. It brought the rise of a professional middle class, but many who had lived in rural communities for centuries were compelled to toil in factories and crammed into overpopulated cities where disease tore through tenements.

In a 2012 Huff Post blog, “The Problem of Plutocrats: What a 19th-Century Economist Can Teach Us About Today’s Capitalism,” Canadian parliamentarian Chrystia Freeland provides an introduction to Henry George's 1879 Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth.

Whereas “Marx was responding to Europe's version of progress and poverty with a wholesale denunciation of private property, George was an enthusiastic supporter of industry, free trade and a limited role for government. His culprits were the rentier rich, the landowners who profited hugely from industrialization and urbanization, but did not contribute to it.”

George observed that “From all parts of the civilized world come complaints of industrial depression; of labor condemned to involuntary idleness; of capital massed and wasting; of pecuniary distress among businessmen; of want and suffering and anxiety among the working classes.”

No surprise then that, in our own 21st century, with its plutocrats pocketing lucre faster than you can say Jack Robinson and excesses that make the Gilded Age look more like nickel plate, there has been a surge in tales of the vampire.
Concurrent with the vampire mania of the 18th century was the emergent Gothic genre. There could be no more perfect pairing of subject and medium.

Irishman Bram Stoker spent a number of years delving into European folklore, especially tales from the central region of Romania known as Transylvania, before introducing the elegant, eloquent Count Dracula in his 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula.

The novel was met with critical acclaim, though it was not until F. W. Murnau’s silent Nosferatu appeared in 1922 that the story became cloaked in its iconic status.

Max Schreck’s Dracula is a chilling character, a demonic gargoyle with none of its humanity left intact.

By contrast, Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula, for Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation based on the 1924 stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, is a cultured, cultivated, erudite, urbane sophisticate and hospitable host who is simultaneously furtive, inscrutable, enigmatic. Lugosi’s is the quintessential Dracula, the Dracula against whom all subsequent Draculas will be judged.

Much as I admire Frank Langella, I am not a fan of his 1979 Dracula. Christopher Lee was good in Terence Fisher’s 1958 version, in a spate of 1970s Draculas, and again in ’72 and ’73. 

Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppala’s flawed 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula was an excellent choice even if other casting was dubious, and though I expected to hate Tom Cruise as Anne Rice’s Lestat in Neil Jordan’s 1994 adaptation of Interview with the Vampire, he did a respectable job.

But Klaus Kinski trumps post-Lugosi Draculas in Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre. Kinski imagines the Count into a cross between Schreck’s reptilian demon and Lugosi’s gentleman.

Recently, the finest vampire tale to come down the pike was Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 incandescent Swedish rendition, Let the Right One In, where the vampire, played by Lina Leandersson, is arrested in her twelve-year-old state. (Unlike most remakes of European films, Matt Reeves’s 2010 British-American production Let Me In is surprisingly faithful to its Nordic source, in substance and in visual style.)

Not the teen heartthrobs of Twilight, True Blood, or The Vampire Diaries into which the vampire has ridiculously morphed of late, the undead of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive hearken back to Bela Lugosi’s suave sophistication and dead seriousness. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton exude charismatic magnetism as Adam and Eve, the lovers of the title, devoted despite time and distance.

They are also lovers of culture, discerning collectors of fine things – vintage guitars, fine violins, first editions, vinyl recordings, cut crystal, the buttressed Jaguar XJS luxury grand touring car – who continue to see the importance of knowing Latin binomial nomenclature. Their homes are littered with portraits of lost friends – great writers and artists and thinkers in media from etching to daguerreotype to monochrome.

We find the lovers separated, exiled it might seem – Eve in Tangier, Adam in the wasteland that is present day Detroit. The mortals they live amidst Adam calls zombies, not because they are Night of the Living Dead sorts, but because they live reckless, thoughtless, unexamined lives uninformed by history while sucking the life from a planet about which they are less than indifferent.

The demands on the primitive electric grid that powers the U.S. have long ago exceeded its capacity. Infrastructure is neglected; innovation has stagnated. Adam bemoans human hostility to science – the Catholic church’s refutation of Copernicus and judgment of heresy against Galileo, Tesla’s fall into obscurity, and Darwin – “They’re still on that one,” he sneers.

Adam is weary of time without end. Humans have exhausted the world, poisoning themselves and everything else in it. Vampires must exercise caution and purchase plasma from blood banks or trusted underground networks.

Adam’s source is a hospital where Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) – a skittish incarnation of the tormented Renfield – deals in shady transactions.

Ian (Anton Yelchin) is a go-to guy with connections in the criminal underworld – something of a solicitor, if you will – who ferrets out vintage electric guitars and other obscurities for Adam. Ian will end up the victim of Eve’s surrogate sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who cannot control her appetites any more than humans.

Eve’s dealer is the languorous Kit Marlowe (John Hurt), himself a vampire. (My only quarrel with the script is the introduction of the Marlovian theory of Shakespeare authorship.)

Eve, as her name implies, is protective and munificent. She is solicitous of Marlowe, and, sensing Adam’s dejection, arranges a complicated nocturnal transcontinental flight to assuage her lover and bolster his spirits.
Adam suffers the vampire’s essential melancholic trait, the sorrowful loneliness that comes from the wisdom of his years and immortality itself. There is nothing new under the sun, Ecclesiastes tells us, a proverbial verity eternity teaches all too well. 

Yet what would seem the futility of the immortal vampire’s wretched soul is redeemed by what he retains of his humanity. The vampire must evoke our sympathy – not pity, but compassion. To revile him for his vampire nature would be to condemn the cat for pouncing upon the mouse, the lion for lunging at the gazelle.

The act of blood sucking has always been sexualized. In Only Lovers Left Alive the partaking of blood induces an orgasmic ecstasy beyond the transport of a heroin rush. 

Like a bad fix, tainted blood can potentially afflict, and so too, it would seem, can immature vampires, vulnerable to the influences of human debauchery. 

Eve savors her blood; Ava guzzles hers. Eve nurtures; Ava wastes. Eve radiates passion; Ava craves cheap thrills.

In Jarmusch's telling, humans have become utterly nihilistic. In our voracious gluttony and greed, with our self-indulgent materialism and rush toward instant gratification, we are not only destroying the planet as we know it, we are sullying ourselves and all other life, taking the immortals with us in the process. 

Jarmusch sets his lovers in a world of human dereliction, the influence of which sets Ava’s rash recklessness amok, causing Adam and Eve to flee Detroit. When Eve gets Adam to Tangier, an exhausted Adam asks, “Have the water wars begun or are they still on the energy wars?” 

When Eve first arrives in Detroit, Adam remarks with resignation on its abandoned desolation. Eve, by nature propitious, is not so ready to surrender to hopelessness. “It will undergo a renaissance,” she tells him. “It has water. People will return when the southwest has become a desert."

Thirst. Thirst for blood. Thirst for water. Thirst for knowledge. Thirst for love. Thirst for life. Thus has it ever been. Yearning – and grace – we must hope, like Eve, will endure.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive.

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