Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Film Club segment on Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control
Years ago I remember Terry Gross interviewing Jim Jarmusch and using the word "quirky" to describe his work. He seemed to take offense at the term, maybe hearing it as somehow dismissive or trivializing. But when I read his comments in the press notes for his new film The Limits of Control (opening May 15 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) I have to admit that the word "quirky" did cross my mind. And by quirky I mean playful, out of the ordinary, unconventional and oddly unexpected. Jarmusch's comment was this description of what his film was like: "What would it be like if Jacques Rivette remade John Boorman’s masterpiece Point Blank? Or what if Marguerite Duras remade Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai? Antonioni looms large in my subconscious, so he’s probably in there, but I wasn’t thinking of him beforehand. I was obliquely thinking of Euro crime films from the 1970s and 1980s, like some of Francesco Rosi’s work." Okay, to me that's quirky in the most intriguing sort of way.
On initial viewing, the film feels frustrating with a narrative that offers little to engage you in any conventional manner. The film is made up of a series of meetings between someone we come to know as the Lone Man (a wonderful Isaach De Bankolé). In a scenario that keeps repeating, he sits down at a café, orders two espressos in separate cups; meets a stranger who says "You don't speak Spanish do you?"; exchanges matchboxes with encrypted notes; eats the paper and leaves. The conversation with each person (among them Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Gael García Bernal) varies slightly. The Lone Man says next to nothing while each person speaks lovingly of some passion (music, film, painting, the universe). The meeting places also change with each one seeming to find a more remote location until we feel we are out in the middle of nowhere. This all ends in a surreal, bunker-like facility where the Lone Man's mission seems to come to an end.
Not much to latch on to, and no characters to really engage you. So why did the film still cast a spell over me? Maybe because Jarmusch has put this Chinese puzzle box together with such care and precision that I sensed I didn't get it because I wasn't putting in enough effort. Jarmusch had done his work but I came to the movie expecting to be a passive viewer (which is what films depend on) and Jarmusch wanted me to be more engaged. He wanted me to think about why he was making the decisions he had made and he was asking me to connect the dots. Jarmusch opens the film with this line from Arthur Rimbaud's poem The Drunken Boat: "As I was floating down unconcerned Rivers I no longer felt myself steered by the haulers." Jarmusch leaves us the viewers feeling a bit adrift without anyone to guide us. So you have to decide, are you willing to go along for the ride or not?
This is one case where reading about the film, specifically Jarmusch's interview in the press notes, helped me to start piecing together the film. The film’s title comes from the essay, The Limits of Control, that William S. Burroughs wrote in the 1970s. The essay raises the issue of language as a control mechanism: “words are still the principal instruments of control. Suggestions are words. Persuasions are words. Orders are words. No control machine so far devised can operate without words, and any control machine which attempts to do so relying entirely on external force or entirely on physical control of the mind will soon encounter the limits of
control.” So that's one piece of the puzzle. The Lone Man resists using language and is almost silent. He's as laconic as Clint Eastwood's The Man with No Name in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. But everyone else is quite talkative, and seems to be trying to control and manipulate others. Some have suggested that the Bill Murray character at the end of the film in the bunker is a stand in for Dick Cheney. Cheney represents an administration that played endlessly with double speak and language as a means of controlling the message. Murray as Cheney would actually make sense and would give more meaning to the final title in the film that states: "No limits. No controls." It's almost a call to action, a coolly intellectual call for resistance.
Also in the interview, Jarmusch said this about the look and style of the film: "What would it be like if Jacques Rivette remade John Boorman’s masterpiece Point Blank? Or what if Marguerite Duras remade Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai? Antonioni looms large in my subconscious, so he’s probably in there, but I wasn’t thinking of him beforehand. I was obliquely thinking of Euro crime films from the 1970s and 1980s, like some of Francesco Rosi’s work. These impressionistic inspirations drifted through my head, in terms of finding a style rather than imitating these movies."
Again this helped me read the film in a new light. Seeing this as Jarmusch's take on Point Blank or Euro crime thrillers makes sense because it is Jarmusch's anti-thriller. It takes the thriller formula and turns it on its ear by not delivering elements you expect. At the end (I don't think this qualifies as a spoiler because nothing I can reveal gives away anything because each person will have to make sense of the story in their own way), the Lone Man surprises Bill Murray's character. He has infiltrated the high security bunker and Murray, shocked, asks, "How did you get in here?" The Lone Man simply replies: "I used my imagination." That comeback made the whole film worthwhile for me. It seems to be Jarmusch's way of criticizing the ridiculousness of so many Hollywood films while elegantly suggesting a completely different escape route from a complicated plot. He's like a magician who doesn't have to reveal how he pulled off his trick.
Now I know that a lot of people will go to this film and exit thinking that Jarmusch has simply entertained himself with an exercise is pretension. Jarmusch does employ his close circle of friends making this film feel a little clique-ish with the viewers being left outside. And I must confess that I miss the character connection and more accessible playfulness of some of Jarmusch's earlier films (Mystery Train, Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers). Yet this film still beguiled me and left me feeling that it had a mystery worth uncovering. Not to mention that cinematographer Christopher Doyle made it gorgeous to look at.
The Limits of Controls (rated R for graphic nudity and some language) is not Jarmusch's best and it's definitely not his most accessible film. Yet it reaffirms his status as a truly independent filmmaker working outside the mainstream and challenging viewers to look at film from a different perspective.
Companion viewing: Down by Law, Mystery Train, Ghost Dog, Point Blank, Le Samourai, Blow Up