Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive opens with blood-red titles in a font I will call Third Reich Martin Luther Sans Serif against a very slowly rotating star field. The text is so remarkably crisp at the edge and the rotation so leisurely that the impression is of words floating out of a deep field into your eyeballs, the sort of three-dimensional effect that none of the bogus 3D efforts of the last several regrettable years in cinema history has managed to accomplish. The opening credits disappear. The stars revolve more quickly, resolving into a spinning short play record. The pace is—I use the word advisedly—majestic; it’s languorous. There’s a point to this. I’ll get there in a moment.
Spiderman The Amazing Man 5 opens with a scene from Television’s Revenge. The reboot has retooled/retconned Peter Parker’s father into a sort of whistleblowing scientist for the Oscorp corporate octopus whose various executives and research mishaps are the source of all woe in the Spideyverse. It isn’t an inherently bad idea, although it could have all been sketched with a few lines of dialogue rather than shot as a broadcast-quality teaser episode on a fake-looking Gulfstream set. It’s all loud, cheap, and makes very little sense. Cut to hectic scene of Spiderman doing his thing and Paul Giamatti getting, if not earning, a paycheck.
You might say it’s unfair to compare the films, because one is a zillion-dollar tentpole blockbuster and the other is a stately art flick. In fact, one of the things I like about Jarmush’s picture is that it really isn’t an art flick; if stylized, then it’s still a genre flick, full of plenty of fun tropes pulled from every other vampire movie ever, including some pretty hilarious digs at the old Interview with a Vampire rock star conceit. I mean that as a compliment. Even its goofy literary references are as clunky as you’d find in a costumed flashback on The Vampire Diaries. Ohhh, Byron. Ohhhh, Marlowe. I choose to believe this was intentional. The movie is slow and quiet, but never not trashy fun.
Look, really, I’m not going to go to the trouble of reviewing either film. I’m only interested in a particular and pretty technical comparison of how to render a particular aspect of sense and consciousness in a filmic medium, and what it is that this says about a good movie versus a bad. Both movies, you see, have to find solutions to the question of how to display, on a practical level, superhuman sensitivity and sensory perception. Marc Webb, of Spiderman, does this in the same rote and over-produced manner as every other action movie that’s contemplated the question in recent memory. He slows down the frame, then the not-actual digital eye of the non-camera moves through the rendered images to record all those things that Spidey would notice with his Spidey sense. Sometimes, zip-zoom-boom, the whole thing then re-transpires at normal speed. Yawn. Chewing sounds from the audience. The collection of red pixels that is the movie’s star bounces around some more.
In Only Lovers, by contrast, the whole affair is deliberate and slow—also, very quiet, other than the music. When the rare outside sound intrudes—a group of nosy fans outside Tom Hiddleston’s vampire dump, a soda can opening and cutting a man’s finger on a plane—it registers so deeply against the quiet, and so intensely on the faces of Hiddleston and Swinton, our vampire pair, that we in the audience experience it in the same three dimensions as we experience those red letters against that background of stars. If you think of those times when you’ve watched TV late at night—you can’t sleep, but as the hours tick till morning, you find that the volume becomes oppressively loud, so you turn it down, only to find a few minutes later that the feeling’s returned, so you turn it down again—you have some idea of the sensitivity this implies; the weird feeling of noting everything. The effect is subtle and clear, and it renders the characters as simultaneously supernatural and real.
Only Lovers is 120 slow minutes that seem to be over the moment they’ve begun; Spidercorps 2: Not Without My Aunt May is 140 fast minutes that seem interminable. These are both schlock films about mythological creatures, but one of them is good. Its director and its stars give us time to notice; noticing is engagement; engagement is participation; participation is enjoyment; enjoyment is joy, which is why we go to the goddman movies in the first place, no?