Is There a Limit to the Imagination? A Philosopher and a Photographer Examine the Themes of ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Katja Vogt and Jens Haas, respectively, are a professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and a photographer/artist. We recently had a chance to sit down with Vogt and Haas to discuss one of their favorite films, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. While ostensibly a fairly simple story about a pair of vampire lovers, Vogt and Haas show us that there is a lot going on underneath the surface and take us through the philosophical, emotional, and artistic aspects of the film in what is probably our most in-depth series on a single film thus far at 8HOURS. Check out all four parts in the playlist below.

Expanding the Imagination

The film weaves in many complex themes, but one overarching theme that captured the attention of Vogt and Haas is the philosophical question of what, if any, are the limits of the human imagination. The lovers around which the film centers are 3,000 and 500 years old and have been married for a very long time. Vogt notes that the question of it would really be like, in a practical and experiential way, to have eternal life is a popular topic in philosophy—and more specially, whether we are even capable of truly wrapping our minds around the concept. The film pushes the limits of our imaginations by playing out this idea, and it does so in a surprisingly un-cynical way. While one might be tempted to think that more experience might lead to boredom or apathy, the film’s lovers are for the most part very passionate about the world and their specific interests in art, literature, and music. It is also a portrayal of a literally ancient relationship in which affection has not grown stale, and the film shows us this through the apparently mundane details of their long lives.

It’s interesting that philosophy has come to play such a significant role in the horror genre. For more on this, watch this video.

Vampires as Artists

Vampires have historically represented many things throughout the years, but their portrayal in Only Lovers Left Alive is very human. The characters are simultaneously relatable, passionate, and flawed. They have a great love of art and the human imagination, but because of their condition as vampires, they are separated from society and take on the role of observers of the world. Haas points out that this is very similar to the role of artists in society, and in many ways, they may serve as stand-ins for Jarmusch himself. They represent an alternative lifestyle that doesn’t revolve around the conventional goals of a stable career or nuclear family. Vogt and Haas suggest that perhaps if this film has a statement to make, it attests that this lifestyle is not fruitless. This use of the vampire archetype is an interesting departure from how it has traditionally been used.

If you want to learn more about the history of vampires in film, check out this great video.

It is interesting that of the many meanings that vampires have represented over the course of film and literary history, that only recently should they act as a such nuanced and deeply feeling vision of the human experience. In this article we have only scratched the surface of Vogt and Haas’ observations on the film, check out the full series for a true deep dive into the film, and check out the videos below to learn more about these topics.

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