For a creature without a reflection, the vampire has been one of fiction’s most useful mirrors. Beginning with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which crystallized our image of the vampire, authors and directors have invoked it as a means of exploring technological change. Stoker put the connection up front by using an epistolary structure—in which the story is told through letters or diary entries—but updating it to include telegrams, phonographic transcriptions and typewritten copies. In a convincing argument for techno-literacy, Dracula’s powers are countered only by the protagonists’ facility with data storage and transmission.
A generation later, when Dracula made his first appearance on film in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the cinematic form allowed the audience to experience the vampire’s telepathic vision firsthand. Like the film viewer, this iteration of Dracula straddled both the physical realm and the realm of images, unbound from the constraints of pre-photographic time and space. When the vampire suggested the possibility of allowing the eyes to go where the body can’t, the cinema actualized it.
Two recent films, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, emphasize an aspect of vampirism more relevant to the digital era: agelessness. In Lovers, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play Adam and Eve, centuries-old lovers united by shared malaise, intellectualism and ethical bloodlust—i.e. definitive hipsters for ours or any other time. Through allusions to the cultural canon, we learn that they aren’t merely bystanders to history but have been active participants. They banter about the piece Adam “gave” to composer Franz Schubert; they hang out with their best friend, the 16th-century writer Christopher Marlowe, often presumed to be Shakespeare’s ghost writer.
Adam and Eve’s taste in culture is curated with the same care and recklessness as that of the dudes in High Fidelity, for instance, which is likely a point of appeal for those who like the film and a turn-off for those who don’t. (A shot of the inside of Eve’s suitcase includes works by Cervantes, Molière and David Foster Wallace.) But whereas the Fidelity guys’ appetite for pop culture belied an emotional immaturity, nothing seems to define the Lovers except their tastes. Whether indulging in blood or art, they prefer “the good stuff,” as Eve says early in the film. Later, when Adam, whose Detroit mansion is filled with analog recording equipment and vintage guitars, plays his own music, it underwhelms. The culmination of his centuries of musical composition sounds uncannily like shoegaze.
The Lovers‘ memory bank, with its seemingly infinite storage, embodies a fantasy familiar to the modern cultural omnivore. Setting this story in the present day might even render Adam and Eve anachronistic, given the accessibility and depth of cultural archives in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the film pursues the parallel between technological and supernatural only insofar as to make it a punchline. When Adam lets his cover slip by mentioning that he once saw Eddie Cochran perform, he adds, “…on Youtube.”
While Stoker’s Dracula suggested that technology could alter human senses to the extent that they blur the natural and supernatural, Jarmusch keeps the two separate, going so far as to have Adam and Eve designate humans as “zombies” (a.k.a. the braindead undead). And rather than wading into how and why their real-time experiences differ from the zombies’ on-screen ones, Adam and Eve approach everything with a smugness that implies you just had to be there.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, currently in limited release, can’t help but invite comparison to Lovers. Shot in black and white and set in the fictional Iranian suburb of Bad City, the film follows another vinyl-spinning, unconventionally beautiful vampire, known as The Girl. In Bad City, as in the bleakest film noir settings, day rarely breaks, and no one goes out at night. Those who do, of course, only leave the house to prey or be preyed upon.
As in Lovers, The Girl’s tastes seem unmoored from time, though it’s less apparent whether they’re a product of immortality or internet access. At home, without her chador, she dresses like a French New Wave actress and spins electro-pop, Iranian rock and Lionel Richie. Amirpour draws less attention to The Girl’s cultural tastes than Jarmusch does to the Lovers‘, though. And, unlike Lovers, Girl uses its protagonists’ tastes to complicate rather than simplify the process of characterization. While Lovers emphasized the differences between vampires and humans, Girl uses their consumption of pop culture as a way of emphasizing their similarities. The Girl’s love interest, a mortal named Arash, also borrows his fashion sense from another era, sporting a pompadour and leather jacket. Amirpour (more than thirty years’ Jarmusch’s junior) seems to understand more intuitively that eternal life is not a prerequisite for being a cultural polyglot in the 21st century.
The Girl and Arash’s tastes, like the rest of Bad City, don’t exactly add up. Similar to the streetscapes in Jules Dassin’s films noirs, Bad City shows signs of massive-scale human activity without ever showing the people themselves. Establishing shots linger on oil derricks and humming power plants, never revealing where the energy goes. (In fact, counting the bodies that line a ditch near the power plant, we see more dead residents in Bad City than alive ones.) While this displacement is unsettling, the feeling never penetrates The Girl’s bedroom, where discordant combinations of sound and image make sense. The processes of production may remain grounded in the material world, but the cultural consumption we see appears increasingly untethered from it.
Although Girl and Lovers make relatively restrained connections between the vampiric and the digital, they push the genre toward what feels like a realization. The vampire, which has mirrored so many types of information technology over the past century, perhaps best resembles the universal machine—the computer. Like a simulation, it has been a shape-shifter, endlessly changing form to meet our needs.