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Carl Looper

Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch

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Only Lovers Left Alive, by Jim Jarmusch

 

Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

 

Somewhat disappointingly (or perhaps I haven't quite got it yet) Jarmusch's latest film (Only Lover's Left Alive) is (in part) about quantum mechanical entanglement but where Einstein is attributed as the origin of this idea. The problem here is that Einstein was very much philosophically opposed to this very idea - and for his entire life. He could not, despite all possible effort, conceive of such a thing. He called it "spooky" which he meant as a criticism. He's the last person to be put at the origin of this idea.

 

However a more generous position might be to read the film, not as introducing an historical mis-take, but posing a philosophical double take. In other words it could very well be Einstein's characterisation of entanglement as "spooky" that is to be understood as that which Adam is pointing out, ie. it's not the theory itself, but Einstein's characterisation of such: Einstein's 'theory' so to speak.

 

Now when Eve refers to the theory as wonderful, Adam responds that entanglement is not a theory - because it's been proven (!). Adam is proposing a disjuncture between theory and proof (an excellent idea). So is it Einstein proving that entanglement is spooky? Is that the philosophical double take?

 

The problem with this possibility is that the spookiness of entanglement is precisely that which Einstein tries to remove (or exorcise) from any theory of entanglement. The EPR experiment (a thought experiment) is precisely such an attempt. But he (they) couldn't do it. Does this failure make Einstein the discoverer of the spookiness? In the sense that exorcism necessarily invokes that which is being is exorcised we could say 'yes', but Einstein is in no more original position than any of the others attempting an exorcism in relation to entanglement (or QM in general). There were many before Einstein and many after. But perhaps Einstein's EPR experiment is one of the better attempts at an exorcism (or 'discovery/invention' of spookiness, to follow this angle). But does this long shot really connect in with the film's philosophical trajectory? I can't really see it.

 

The bigger picture here, and which the film otherwise does tap into quite well, is the theme of scientists (or lets call them artists) under persecution by the zombies. We say that science studies natural forces but it's important to note that the origin of that term "natural" has a political history. At a certain stage in history it was against the law (over which the Church had undue influence) for scientists to study super-natural things. But we need to understand that by "super-natural" might be something like gravity. Or electromagnetism. Both of these can be regarded as involving "action at a distance" and such a thing was a definite candidate for a super-natural force, ie. in danger of being forbidden from study. The clever solution that scientists conceived was to simply call such things "natural" instead. This is the historical origin of the equation between "nature" and science. It is why the term "nature" is so front and centre in the discourse of science. Had scientists done otherwise eg. called it super-natural, it would have been far more difficult for them to study it. Indeed the death penalty could be risked.

 

This should be remembered the next time one reads some zombie dismissal of the way science deploys the concept "nature". It is not a truth claim (as the zombies want to think, and as we want them to think) but a strategic use of language.

 

Now if it's the zombies that impose the law: 'if it's spooky it's not (allowable) science', it sort of makes Einstein a mouthpeice for the zombies. However unlike the zombies Einstein does study entanglement and that's an important distinction. It may be spooky. It may be supernatural, but that doesn't stop Einstein studying it (even if it's to elliminate the spookiness). So more generously (because Einstein was a cool dude anyway) we can read Einstein as another victim of the zombies - if in a kind of Stockholm syndrome (parroting the judiciary). But this still makes it very difficult for Einstein to fit the role of a romantic hero, or martyr, in Adam's (and Jarmusch's) elaboration of entanglement.

On the other hand all of this reminds me of Barthes writing on Einstein in which there is the Einstein who was (and remains) an icon of popular culture. A stand in for all scientists. And it this 'Einstein', methinks, that Adam (and Jarmusch) are channeling.

Somewhat unfortunately methinks. But perhaps I haven't got it yet.

 

Carl

 

postscript

 

If anyone can be said to have "proved" the spookiness of quantum entanglement it would have to be John Stewart Bell in 1964. Bohr did a pretty good job (in response to Einstein) but only really did it philosophically - which many scientists these days just don't get (and don't want to get). They hate philosophy. Generalising I know. However it's probably impossible to prove "spookiness", at least not within a mathematical framework. Even Bell, using a more statistical method, hated the idea he might be "proving" it (to the extent we can say anyone can prove it). Indeed every quantum mechanic, worth their salt, want to pull their hair out over the spookiness. The more they investigate (good on em) the more hair they lose. An alternative (if you want to keep your hair) is to give statistics some more credibility than it otherwise gets, and (god forbid) have a bit more of a predilection for the strange. To this day and probably to the end of time there will be diehards (no real offense intended) trying to eliminate the particular spookiness of QM. Or perhaps tomorrow they'll do it. In the meantime many are more than content to technologically exploit the spookiness - eg. quantum computers are based on the spooky effects of entanglement. And like their historical counterparts ('magicians, alchemists, etc) they'll call it by it's strategic/traditional/historical name: "nature".

 

Well, at least while the study of nature remains legal.

 

Further reading.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_entanglement
http://www.wired.com/2012/06/famous-persecuted-scientists/
http://ned.ipac.caltech.edu/level5/Sept02/Saslaw/Saslaw1_2.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton%27s_occult_studies
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M8XfgCtrhM

Edited by Carl Looper

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Isn't the exact quote "spooky actions at a distance"

 

Here is a helpful list of the history of quantum entanglement:

 

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/75-years-entanglement

 

Not seen the movie but everyone keeps telling me it is great and I do like a lot of Jim Jarmusch movies so I must see it sometime.

 

Freya

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Isn't the exact quote "spooky actions at a distance"

 

Here is a helpful list of the history of quantum entanglement:

 

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/75-years-entanglement

 

Not seen the movie but everyone keeps telling me it is great and I do like a lot of Jim Jarmusch movies so I must see it sometime.

 

Freya

 

Indeed. The concept of "action at a distance" was (and often remains) something considered "spooky". When Einstein uses the adjective "spooky" he is using it as a criticism, ie. of the concept "action at a distance". It isn't as though there is any non-spooky action at a distance. Einstein is, in part, echoing a taboo on the study of the supernatural (because action at a distance was/is considered such). The term "field" came into use so as to avoid any connotations of spookiness or super-naturalism (associated with action at a distance). So today we might speak of gravitational fields or electromagnetic fields rather then "action at a distance". But they have their origin in same idea.

 

But the action at a distance in QM is particularly troublesome. The greatest achievements in science over the last few hundred years has ridden a wave of neo-platonism from the Renaissance to the present day. But QM doesn't quite fit in. Or neo-platonism doesn't quite work. However that doesn't stop the study of QM or it's technological evolution and exploitation. There's just a limit (if only at the moment) to what mathematical understanding might do to elliminate what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance". Perhaps it doesn't need elliminating. Perhaps it's just an old superstition against the concept of action at a distance. Against the study of the "supernatural". Either way the study continues (as it should), whether mathematically and/or experimentally.

 

C

Edited by Carl Looper

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ps. The film is great. And I enjoyed it immensely. There's a lot more in there than what I've scratched. I'm going to watch it again to see if I can get a better angle on it - how many films do that!

 

Carl

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The malaise of the hipster immortal.

 

The movie is good if you don't mind being lectured by the king of the hipsters for 2 hours. I consider the movie a success because normally I don't like movies that keep reminding the viewer that the writer/director thinks you suck and life is barely worth living because the masses (that means YOU) have no cultural soul.

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That depends on whether we (that means the masses) identify with the zombies.

 

One of the problems with the film is that it over-identifies with the blood addicts. There's no critical distance set up on them. The film/script would have been a lot better if it was able to pull the rug out from under Adam once or twice. Or do the same with Eve or Marlowe.

 

To prove them misplaced from time to time.

 

Not from the point of the view of the zombies. But from another angle.

 

Arguably the last scene might suggest such but it's too late.

 

C

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Woody Allen's Stardust Memories arguably suffers a similar disposition. A kind of "too far up your own arse" atmosphere. Allen is eventually able to get outside himself in subsequent work. And no doubt Jarmusch will also find a corresponding vector.

 

The world that cinema opens up is a strange and powerful one, with it's own peculiar logic. While authored it's not particularly happy with authors. It implodes so very easily, at the very moment you think you've completely mastered it.

 

C

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The fiddle with ideas about nature beyond Newton (QM) make the movie seem really interesting. The words "zombie" and "blood addict" do not. When I saw Stranger Than Paradise I thought Jarmusch was to be a heroic seminal indie. A big gap almost till seeing the Limits of Control movie, and seeing doc footage of him working with Doyle on that. JJ seems to hover between being a genius and a complete tool lost in his own myth, hubris.

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Yes, I saw Stranger Than Paradise when it had it's Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, and it instantly became my favourite film of all time. It took about five or ten minutes of the film before I realised that was happening. By the end of the film I couldn't get the film out of my mind. For better or worse everything about it was so completely perfect. And remains so. Down By Law was a beautiful revelation as well. Poetry.

 

Subsequent work has taken a number of directions. And there is an ongoing theme evolving. Part of which is an ongoing relationship to realism, not as it might be generally understood (or misunderstood), but as the writer Andre Bazin elaborated it.

 

Hubris is forgiveable. It's some sort of necessary zone that geniuses need to work through before they become proper super-geniuses.

 

C

Edited by Carl Looper

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I should say that in my elaboration of certain themes in the film, the use of the term "zombie" is pulled from the film itself. Adam refers to "zombies" throughout the film. Which we might interpret as "normal human beings" (for want of a better description) like ourselves, or equally "abnormal human beings" such as those we hold in disregard (like Hitler, or members of the Spanish Inquisition). The latter is how I interpreted Adam's use of the term "zombies". Humans certainly, but more so the mindless ones, rather than us (the masses). Adam's heroes are artists and scientists, and there is no suggestion they are or were vampires.

 

In relation to Adam and company I adopted the term "blood addict" as an alternative to "vampire". While Adam and company have the fangs, it is only at specific moments. And in a quite laughable mode. Almost as if, moments earlier, they had simply put on some fake teeth. They don't exhibit any special vampire powers. They don't teleport themselves around, or glide across the floor as if on a dolly, or do anything special like that. There are no special effects (in the Bazinian sense). Adam and company are positioned as completely bound by the laws of the universe (as we might otherwise understand it).

 

For all we know they not vampires at all. There is no literal reference to them being so. It is the dialogue (and a few moments of fake teeth) that imply that idea - well quite apart from their addiction to blood. But which anyone might conceivably have - not just vampires.

 

C

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I should correct that: Adam's heroes are scientists. It is Eve's heroes who are artists. However the two types are entangled. It is in the relationship between Adam and Eve this is elaborated.

 

C

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In realism, or any post-realism that might be elaborated remains the vexed question of the cut. The edit. Opposing special effects (in the Bazinian sense) is easy. Opposing the cut or edit is next to impossible. There is a great moment in the opening shot of Down By Law (ignoring the opening tracking shot down a street) where we are watching an argument for a considerable length. A perfectly framed shot of a room in which the longer the shot holds, the more impressive it becomes. But with Strange Than Paradise in the back of our minds we're wondering how the film might make it's next move.

 

Cut to a perfectly framed counter shot.

 

And in that moment there is such a beautiful release. It is not a cut at odds with realism. But the question is how? Is there not a relationship created between the shots. Of continuity? Yes. But it's also the universe beginning again. From scratch. There's a beautiful ambiguity there. Elaborated throughout the film. Each shot is a film in itself (much like Stranger Than Paradise) but where the black insert is no longer necessary. It is still there but it has become implicit. An instant. There is a relationship between shots, but it's one of disjuncture, rather than continuity. Even if the resulting effect is one of continuity.

 

This is how the hero of Broken Flowers is able to get inside Bill Murray's bunker. The disjuncture between shots is not an obstacle. It is how Woody Allen is able to travel back in time, in Midnight in Paris. There is no need to create or enforce continuity.

 

Indeed there is a supernatural (or serendipitous) moment in Down By Law where the filmmakers find a shack in which the architecture of such mirrors the architecture of the prison in which the heroes had been trapped. One might assume this was intentional, for it is such a beautiful moment in the film. And yet it was entirely fortutitous. Obviously they recognised that and exploited it but it's part of that philosophy - where disjuncture doesn't mean "unrelated" or "meaningless".

 

C

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And it should be "Limits of Control" rather than "Broken Flowers" in which the bunker busting occurs.

 

C

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The malaise of the hipster immortal.

 

The movie is good if you don't mind being lectured by the king of the hipsters for 2 hours. I consider the movie a success because normally I don't like movies that keep reminding the viewer that the writer/director thinks you suck and life is barely worth living because the masses (that means YOU) have no cultural soul.

 

 

Jarmusch is talking about the system ...society as a whole not indivduals. Critique of culture is one of the most important things art offers society furthmore if the film made you consider your actions and your place in this contempoary world that is a great success. Jarmusch is not so one sided and lacking in depth to say something as simple as "the world sucks" he is diving much deeper and I dont think he is blaming anyone or saying life is barley worth living at all.

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