Sunday, 23 March 2014
Death of the Bohemian: The Great Beauty and Only Lovers Left Alive
I saw two movies this week that dealt with similar kinds of subject matters: Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive are both movies about the connection between historical art and the modern day. Both feature bohemians that have lost their way somewhere along the way. And they are not so much plot-driven films as mood pieces, dashing out various scenes presenting ideas and pondering them. So, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at both movies from these angles. Since this analyzing means dealing with some plot points, it should be reminded here that this post may contain spoilers.
The Great Beauty opens with a scene showing Japanese tourist so overwhelmed by the ancient city of Rome that he has a heart attack. This is cut to a outrageous megaparty where tattood strippers lure men in glass booths and drunken upper-class art connisseurs dance in line to the music of hot DJ's mixing traditional sounds to modern beats. In the middle of all this hullabaloo, the birthday-celebrating Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is introduced smiling with a cigar in his mouth, looking like Silvio Berlusconi. He has done this kind of partying for a long time.
Not until someone close to him dies does he realize that he should perhaps want to spend his life also as a creator, not just a partyer. He starts to consider writing another book, but he has trouble getting the inspiration, which he calls "The Great Beauty". But he has trouble spotting it, due to the banality of the performance pieces he tends to visit, and being so used to classical architecture (his own penthouse apartment has a view over the Colosseum).
Only Lovers Left Alive deals with two immortal vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) who have been lovers for centuries. At the start of the film they are "living" seperately, however. While Eve binges on old literature and lives somewhat happily in Tangier, Adam is brooding in his Detroit home, composing music but sheltering himself away from fans. In his desperation he has produced himself a possible exit from this bleak world: a bullet made out of hard wood, that would effectively work like a stake when shot through the heart of the vampire. When the pair reunites, there's plenty of discussion on whether the world has gone astray or if the world's problems are just a permanent glitch.
Adam has a bleak outlook on the future. Humans (or zombies, as vampires call them) are on the verge of self-destruction which has manifested itself also in contaminating their blood. Eve, as an elder vampire, has seen the worst history has to offer from floods and plagues. She shrugs off the problems as long as she herself is living comfortably. The brooding Adam, however is waiting for the global climate crisis to reach the point humans start World War III over fresh water. He has lost his faith on humanity, his idolized poets, authors and scientists throughout the ages being mostly long gone, and left only humanity's self-doubt over their abilities and their subsequent refusal to figure out a way to save themselves.
During The Great Beauty, Jep keeps being disappointed when a potential source of beauty turns sour. A grace-fallen love interest he seeks to redeem dies on him, modern art consists of meaningless performances trying to gain the attention of rich buyers and even spirituality is reduced to status-seeking. People don't pray but rather take similar photographies of themselves with a priest that's to be a strong contender to be a pope or an ancient nun that's to be pronounced a saint after her death, Jep's companions try to hint to him to try to search the Great Beauty from within, not just looking from the outside. It isn't until the grotesquely old nun spells out to him how important "roots" are, does he fully get it and remembers entirely the night he lost his virginity.
So, The Great Beauty has an optimistic look that one may find one's muse when looking at moments of beauty at one's roots. Only Lover Left Alive is far more pessimistic. Art-loving vampires have trouble functioning at a celebrity-crazed culture that insists every popular creator is to be fitted into a spotlight. It prevents the sort of art bohemia of yesterday when poets could feed from one another (so to speak). Even though Adam tries to keep his musical creations to himself, they seem to find a way to leak out and to be played in underground clubs around the world, much to his dismay. He is in it purely from a love of the instruments. He also helds a popular hipster opinion that nothing popular can't be too good, since at the end he hears a Morroccan singer, he comments that she's far too good for fame. Adam seems to find that the more attention things get, the easier it is for money-hungry people to push it to the limits and totally ruin it.
During OLLA, the vampires suffer one indignity under another and are increasingly pushed to the edge. As much as they loathe the modern humans, the more they find themselves to resemble them as their back is pushed against the wall. Even Eva's comforting outlook starts to show cracks. They can't plan for the future when their current needs start to weigh too heavily. Blood is a sort of drug in the movie. When the supply of pure, good stuff runs dry, the desperate vampires have to start taking risks in acquiring it on the streets. The safest bet seems to be drinking from young lovers, since what else is pure in this world any more?
In the end, The Great Beauty is a movie looking back, trying to get people to make the right choices to feel good about their lives in general. It has the stance that happiness can't come from mere self-indulgence or hedonism, one has to have spiritual experiences as well and remember the parts of life that matter. But if this balancing act is reached, it doesn't see why a rich life can't go on as it used to.
Only Lovers Left Alive has a much bleaker outlook.It sees that the fractured world can't anymore produce a sphere for artists to meet and discuss and create. The future of the vampires is either self-destructive retroactivity (as with Mia Wasikowska's Ava) or death. The demise of John Hurt's cultural vampire Marlowe (revealed to have ghost-written Hamlet as well as other world-famous writings and poems over his multiple lifetimes) represents the death of the culture. This is a sign of how dog-eat-dog the world is about to get as things get more and more difficult for everyone. There's no room for new ideas in the world if the only idea that's going to matter is the instinct for survival. Jarmusch's film is nothing short of heralding total apocalypse. it's a good thing that the film has a sense of humor about it too, or it might be harder to swallow.