In another one of those fortuitous moviegoing coincidences, I recently saw The Canterbury Tales (1972) in the Siskel Center’s Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective just after checking out Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive for a second time. I found the pairing instructive—each one provided insights into the other I might not have experienced had I seen the films separately. In hindsight, though, it wasn’t such an unusual pairing. Pasolini had achieved fame for his poetry before he started making movies, and he continued to publish poems for the rest of his life. Jarmusch aspired as a young man to become a poet, and one can feel the influence of poetry on all of his films. (Indeed I can’t think of another living U.S. narrative filmmaker as informed by poetry as Jarmusch.) I enjoy revisiting his movies for similar reasons as I enjoy rereading poems—on repeat viewings, motifs I’d considered only superficially become more resonant, and I also find deeper meaning in the overall structure. For instance, it took me a few viewings of Night on Earth and Broken Flowers to realize that the dramatic encounters grow more pessimistic over the course of each film.
On the other hand, I didn’t need to see Only Lovers more than once to recognize how pessimistic it is. “I feel like the sand’s at the bottom of the hourglass,” says Tom Hiddleston’s 500-year-old bohemian vampire early on in the film, describing his feelings on the state of civilization. Much of the film would seem to illustrate this sentiment, not only in its images of run-down Detroit—where Adam (Hiddleston) lives like a recluse, surrounded by old books, recording music but refusing to let anybody hear it—but in its caustic portrait of contemporary youth culture as represented by Mia Wasikowska’s insufferable, status-obsessed L.A. party girl. (Wasikowska might give the most purposefully annoying screen performance since Michael Cera in Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus.) “Overburdened by centuries of history and culture, Adam and Eve [his longtime partner, played by Tilda Swinton] are more indolent (and very likable snobs) than elderly sages,” asserts the critical collective Celluloid Liberation Front in a perceptive essay for Mubi.com. They continue:
[Adam and Eve cling] on memory, chasing the figurative ghosts of a civilization that once was. No choice of setting could be more eloquent than Detroit in this regard. The one place on earth that incarnated the euphoric splendor of capitalism and now holds up an unflattering mirror to its grotesque ‘miscalculations’ . . . In a world deprived of dialectics and generational clashes, where the youths no longer reject but aspire to the establishment, eternity becomes unbearable even for vampires. The unfolding of history is lost in an endless present, caught in a desert of values where anything is allowed as long as it is profitable and meaningless.
Only Lovers may be somewhat flimsy as a political statement, but as poetry it’s rather affecting. Jarmusch assembles a rich, evocative set of metaphors, in which vampires stand for, alternately, underground culture, the Romantic tradition, and political despair in the early 21st century. Adam and Eve refer to humans—whom they blame for all of civilization’s problems—as “zombies,” a term that evokes the predatory nature of capitalism, wanton destruction, and cultural amnesia (i.e., zombies aren’t undead, but rather the “living dead”). These terms inspire different associations as Jarmusch sets them alongside different details and cultural references, yet an air of morbidity is constant. Neither vampires nor zombies are really alive, and the film’s canny references to widespread ecological devastation hint at the possibility that all humanity might join their ranks in the next century.
Few filmmakers communicated despair over modern civilization more potently than Pasolini: he regarded the rise of consumer capitalism as a punishing form of social control that eradicated regional and class-bound traditions, leaving a conformist monoculture in their wake. The Italian provocateur developed this argument throughout his career, which both concluded and culminated with Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (screening in the Siskel retrospective in a few weeks). I’ve refrained from writing much about the current Pasolini series (even though it’s one of the most important cinematic events in town) because I’m totally unfamiliar with his literary output and only slightly more familiar with the political climate of post-WWII Italy, which inspired so much of his poetic angst. I’ve started to rectify the problem by watching the documentaries on Pasolini included as special features on various DVDs of his films, though I’ve found the films plenty meaningful on their own. In all of them, Pasolini stages bold clashes between classicism and modernity, challenging common assumptions about both—almost always the latter ends up the more battered of the two.
The Canterbury Tales, like the other two entries in Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life (The Decameron and Arabian Nights), invokes the Medieval world as a means of obliquely criticizing the present. As Colin McCabe explains in his valuable essays on the Trilogy, included in a recent Criterion Collection box set, Pasolini looked to pre-industrial society to imagine life untainted by capitalism or cultural standardization. (Tellingly he shot the first two films of Trilogy in antiquated regional dialects.) These films present human beings at one with nature, unashamed of their bodies, and always on the verge of spiritual epiphany. Everyday life is permeated by myths, both religious and secular. Poor characters are capable of outsmarting their social superiors. The Trilogy’s much-discussed sexual content might be better described as an extreme form of earthiness—Pasolini rejected pornography as the commodification of bodies and in fact repudiated the Trilogy when soft-core porn knockoffs started being made.
“I am a force of the past,” begins one of Pasolini’s poems (Orson Welles, playing a Pasolini stand-in, reads from it in the 1962 short La Ricotta). It goes on: “I see . . . the first acts of Posthistory . . . for the privilege of recording them from the outer edge of some buried age.” Those words wouldn’t be out of place in Only Lovers Left Alive, in which specters of the past literally haunt the present and whose final scenes—shot in age-old portions of Tangiers—reasonably evoke the “outer edge” of Pasolini’s verse.