Calling Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive a vampire film would be selling it short. The movie profiles the relationship between Eve and Adam (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton!) two many-centuries-old, ultra-sophisticated, globetrotting vampires, their estrangement from modern society, and the mechanisms they develop to continue to make life worth living. The film, which debuted in Cannes, explores the dynamics of their marriage as they face the particularly human challenges of long-distance love, ennui, addiction, and even sibling rivalry.
In one oddly pedestrian scene in the otherwise fast-paced movie, Eve discovers a patch of Amanita Muscaria mushrooms–the iconic bright red ones with white spots. She squats to look at them and calls to Adam, “Have you seen these?!” She is quite surprised and excited by their presence. A nice, long shot of the mushrooms follows as the two discuss why they are popping up out of season. Adam speculates that, like the energy-generating antennae he had built for his house, the mushrooms were receiving some kind of signals from the environment.
“Just goes to show,” Adam muses while looking straight into the camera, “we don’t know shit about fungi.” Eve then tells the mushrooms, “You know you’re not really supposed to be here,” and as she releases parted grass, the scene closes.
The moment left several viewers wondering what the eff it was about. As a fan of fungi myself, I wanted to know. I mean, I can’t think of a single other mycological cinematic celebration (of the non-magic variety).
The scene showcases not just Adam’s knowledge of the natural world (he knows the toadstools’ Latin name and proper season) but also his reverence for it. We see him take solace from his depressive disdain for the modern world in science throughout the film. In this scene, the mushrooms provide a rare source of wonder, which he expresses with his pun about “shit.” I also suspect the mushrooms are a metaphor for the vampires. Eve leaves the mushrooms at the end of the scene with the remark, “you’re not really supposed be here,” referring to their off-season, out-of-placeness. Same with the vampires; forced to live in the nocturnal margins of human society, they exist eternally out of place. They’re both ancient, mysterious creatures of the dark that don’t follow the laws of science humans have established. Also, Amanitas, like the vampires, pop up out of nowhere, live all over the world, and have the power to kill humans.
Outside of the symbolism though, why was the scene there?
I luckily caught a screening at the New York Film Festival at which Jarmusch participated in a Q&A. The first question the moderator asked was, “What’s with the mushrooms?” Jarmusch descended into a dark, bodily-fluid filled story of a near-death wild mushroom poisoning experience. One hour later, the doctors told him, and he should have been mushroom crostini toast. Upon recovery, Jarmusch became obsessed with mushrooms. He now considers himself an amateur mycologist. He attended the Telluride Mushroom Festival and even prepared a lecture about mushrooms that he was never able to present. He wanted to give the little guys some airtime so he built in the scene. He said he thought, “Hey man, I don’t have any mushrooms in my films.” And that was the end of his explanation. I snuck in the last question of the Q&A and asked if the mushrooms were metaphors for the vampires. He answered only, “Possibly.”
So we know that Jarmusch shares Adam’s fungal awe, and so do I. When I first started working with mushrooms five years ago, an enthusiastic customer asked me if I was obsessed with them. I said no and he responded, “You will be.” And soon I was. Few people that come into intimate contact with mushrooms can resist their mind bogglingly complex beauty.
The subculture of mycophiles is less sub these days than ever. Mushroom world celebrity-god, Paul Stamet’s video “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World” went viral in 2009. The famous food writer, Eugenia Bone put out a New York Times bestseller called Mycophelia in 2011 and is now president of the New York Mycological Society. Even Katy Perry is somewhat on board, supposedly following a mushroom-rich diet called the M Plan. For the most part, the mushroom world of humans to which Jarmusch now belongs consists of the down-and-dirty-nerdy type more likely to be able to identify Amanita Muscaria than Katy Perry. But it’s a varied club full of folks just like Eve and Adam, looking for ways to make life worth living and finding awe and solace in the mystery of mushrooms.