Monday, January 4, 2010

The Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is a confounding, enigmatic, puzzling film, a sustained series of non-sequiturs strung together. It's a film built around contemplation and repetition, around the slow, deliberate examination (and re-examination) of a limited set of situations and events. It's built also around the moment, around the details that, ordinarily, would add up to a complete picture, but here exist simply for their own sake. It's a mystifying film because of this, obscure in its intent, nearly dialogue-free for long stretches of time. The film patiently, deliberately follows a mostly silent assassin, credited only as the Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé), as he meets with a series of contacts, receiving a coded message from each one, all leading towards the completion of his latest mission. This assassin hardly says a word, he never seems to sleep, and he sticks to a rigid routine of walking around, visiting museums, sitting in cafés where he always orders two separate cups of espresso, an order that seems to be one of several codes that identifies him to his contacts. Jarmusch observes these routines at length, utilizing methodical editing schemes that enhance the film's careful repetition, its continual returning to the same phrases, the same images and basic setups.

Perhaps the key to understanding this simple, stripped-down film is in a scene where the assassin meets with Tilda Swinton's dolled-up, platinum-blonde mystery woman (credited only as Blonde, as befits the film's succession of archetypes and basic forms). While the assassin sits and listens, she lectures him about the joys of old movies, referencing Hitchcock's Suspicion with its juggling of possibly poisoned milk glasses and Welles' The Lady From Shanghai with its hall of mirrors finale and its messy structure; it doesn't make any sense, she says, and neither does this film, for totally different reasons. But she convincingly makes the case for the pleasures to be found in classic cinema. "You can really see what the world looked like, thirty, fifty, a hundred years ago," she says. "You know: the clothes, the telephones, the trains, the way people smoked cigarettes, the little details of life. The best films are like dreams you're never sure you've really had... Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything." When she says "smoked," Jarmusch cuts to an image of the café's waiter deeply inhaling from a cigarette, letting the smoke roll through his nostrils and out again. It's a sublime moment, and this conversation is one of the film's undeniable high points, a celebration of the cinema's power and a kind of statement of purpose for a film that is otherwise often unfathomable. It's also a moment of pure sensual satisfaction and an image that provides its own justification.

This seems to be what the film is aiming for, a series of more-or-less disconnected moments that provide their own justification, that exist simply as a document of the way things look and feel. The assassin's museum visits reflect a similar concept, as what he sees in paintings gets reflected in reality, and vice versa; life and art flow into one another, responding to one another, just as a film both documents and comments upon reality. When the film is over, and the assassin's mission is complete, he receives a blank piece of paper and goes to the museum to look at a white-on-white painting of a plain white sheet. The film moves at the slow rhythm of daily life, but at the same time it is absurd and unreal, working on movie logic: it is like someone's hyper-real dream of what life might be like. It is movie life, and de Bankolé's assassin is a movie assassin, receiving coded notes in matchbooks and eating the little scraps of paper after silently decoding and reading the messages. He also meets with a series of movie stalwarts, identified in the credits only with simple nicknames. Paz de la Huerta, notably, appears as a continually naked femme fatale, credited as Nude, who first threatens de Bankolé with a gun, then attempts again and again to seduce him. He, of course, refuses, since he can't give in while he's on a job. It's a thriller cliché, the icy killer who shuns human connection, while the girl is there to show some skin and prove what a badass the killer is, so cold that he can resist even this temptation. It's one of Jarmusch's most clever subversions of genre tropes, as he simplifies the typical noir romance into a platonic relationship between a stony killer and a sensual, continually naked seductress. When they sleep, she's naked and curled up in a ball against him, while he's stiff and fully clothed: it's both a visual reference to the usual sexual dynamics of movies like this, and a potent encapsulation of the femme fatale/cold hero archetypal relationship.

The film comes alive during encounters like this, as well as the appearances by Swinton's absurdist spy, John Hurt's Guitar (who discourses on the origins and meanings of bohemianism), Youki Kudoh's Molecules (who talks about the intersections of science and spirituality), and Gael García Bernal's Mexican (who talks about hallucinations and illusions). Each of these conversations, which are really more like monologues since de Bankolé rarely contributes more than a word, adds to the film's loose array of themes, which together create a ragged portrait of modernity and all its mysteries. In its structure, the film is a bit like Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, albeit mostly without that film's sense of back-and-forth conversational gambits; here, most of the talk is distinctly one-sided. While the lone assassin just sits and listens, his contacts tell him about art and philosophy, about cultural tropes and powerful experiences. His stone-faced reticence is contrasted against their various passions; each person he comes into contact with cares, and cares deeply, about something or someone, some idea or object.

All of these threads weave through the film, aided by the repetition and the subtle, unexpected bursts of humor that arise from these simple situations, like the increasing absurdity of the repeated catchphrase "you don't speak any Spanish, right?" The film's moody pulse is also accentuated by the stunning soundtrack, organized by psych-metal outfit Boris with additional contributions by likeminded bands Sunn O))) and Earth. It is questionable, however, if all of these disparate strands and sketched-out ideas ever really add up to anything in the long run. The film is built around the temps mort, but all this dead space, though sometimes hypnotic and beautifully shot, is just as often numbing and empty. There's a thin line between languid and soporific, and The Limits of Control constantly wavers between the two. Even for those willing to commit to its laidback pacing and steadfast refusal to explain anything, to provide any characterization or narrative satisfactions, it can be a trying, confounding experience. Jarmusch rebuffs any attempt at psychological probing of his central character, whose craggy face sometimes betrays hints of amusement or pensiveness but rarely more than a momentary flicker, a there-and-then-gone trace of emotion before returning to his bland stasis.

Is this all an allegory of some sort? Maybe, especially since Jarmusch drops a few hints in the forms of some elliptical commentary on Americanism and militarism. The final confrontation between de Bankolé and Bill Murray's incarnation of mundane evil as a corporate middle manager — credited as the American, of course — also seems like a jab at American international activities, a reference to the ways in which powerful people try to control and shape the world. All these references are oblique, little more than hints around the edges of the film, but the intent is obvious nonetheless. Whether this all adds up to anything substantial is another question altogether, one that's hard to answer. It's an undeniably — and typically — idiosyncratic meditation from Jarmusch, a low-key genre deconstruction, a tribute to the beauty and mystery of the movies and also, at times, an insufferable bore. These contradictions are never resolved, making this a weird and weirdly unsatisfying effort from Jarmusch, more like an outline for a film, a sketchbook exercise, than a completed work in itself.


Jonathan M said...

Great piece Ed. Limits of Control was one of my best of the year.

I was reminded of a line someone used about the Melvins. How they were what you got when you stuck metal (the music) in a pot and boiled in until there was nothing but a thick black paste.

I think the Limits of Control does something similar with the spy genre. So we have the bond girl reduced to a naked chick, we have the glam settings reduced to the protagonist wandering around art galleries and we have the larger than life characters that exist in a mundane world... a heightened existence that the protagonist leaves at the end of the film when he changes into normal clothes.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Jonathan. I felt much the same as you about what this film was up to, but wasn't quite as into it. Its genre deconstruction is fascinating, but at the same time there were long stretches where I was simply staring at the screen, alternately marveling at its glossy beauty and wondering when something would actually happen. I'm a pretty patient guy, but I can't help but think that if the film is just an especially pared-down spy flick, there wasn't enough here to make it a really satisfying genre piece or a really satisfying art film. It's just kind of empty. Pretty, and evocative, but not especially deep.

Justin said...

i don't know. i got the impression he was making a case for how art can be used to transcend the limits of reality and also how art can shape reality: the paintings realizing themselves in his life, john hurt's character philosophizing about how the notes played by a guitar actually alter the material composition of the guitar. and then there's him using his imagination to complete his task. so i don't think it's empty.

i was never bored by it either. the interactions and christopher doyle's cinematography were enough to keep my mind from wandering. and even the repetitive motifs were engaging. like a jazz band coming back to the head between solos. which really more or less describes the structure of the film. repeating a theme, going off onto a solo and the whole thing building to something.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for commenting, Ledfloyd. This is one of those cases where, intellectually, I can see exactly what you're talking about, and what Jarmusch was trying to do, but I just didn't connect with it beyond this academic level. The art/reality parallels are fairly obvious, and all the dialogue about art and philosophy drives home the sense that this is a film about art, about the ways in which fantasy can present an enhanced/exaggerated vision of reality. It works, on paper at least, but I'm not convinced that Jarmusch really realized these themes in any deeper way.

Then again, I sense it's the kind of film where it'd be really easy to slip from hating it to loving it, or vice versa, depending on mood.

Rick Bman said...

I am a huge fan of Jarmusch but this is the first film of his that I didn't really enjoy. I don't take exception with anything in your review though, you pretty much hit everything spot on. I just felt the repetition went on just a few too many times for my tastes and ended up drawing things out just a little too far.

I really did like the ending with Bill Murray though. I also found Isaach de Bankolé's performance to be pretty interesting. Overall the movie just didn't satisfy me the way a Jarmusch film normally does. I eventually would like to see it again though. I may have just not been in the correct frame of mind to watch it the one time that I saw it.

Ed Howard said...

Rick, I may have enjoyed it slightly more than you, but otherwise it seems like we're in agreement. I found plenty to be interested in here, but like you thought the whole was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Jarmusch is always worth a look, and because it's him I'll probably give the film the benefit of the doubt with a second viewing. But mostly I'm with you that this is a less fully realized work from him.

Drew McIntosh said...

Jarmusch conceived this film as Point Blank via Jacque Rivette, which I find pretty fascinating and helpful to keep in mind while viewing, at least as a broad conceptual compass.

This film was also on my best-of list last year. I simply found its effect completely entrancing and I was never less than fascinated throughout my two viewings. Having never really been a big Jarmusch guy, I was quite taken aback at how strongly I connected with the aesthetics (an area I've always struggled with regarding Jarmusch), and indeed the poetic use of repetition and conspiratorial allusions evoked old school Rivette for me in the best way.

Great writeup though. I admire the honesty and thought you've put into it. It's tough occasionally to reconcile why we can understand and appreciate (as it sounds like you have here to a degree) what a film is doing on an intellectual level and yet still be left cold; if you recall our brief past discussions of Noroit, you may remember that I had a similar reaction to yours here. Who knows why we respond to different works in different ways? It is the pleasure of blogs like yours to be exposed to some of these personal viewing experiences.

Ed Howard said...

Very interesting indeed, Drew. Point Blank definitely came to mind while watching this, and not only because the production company in the opening credits was Pointblank Films, one of the first things to come onscreen. (A coincidence? A deliberate tribute? Who knows, but it does conjure up that predecessor even before the first image of The Limits of Control appears.) The relationship between the assassin and the nude girl also seems derived from the model of Boorman's film.

As for Rivette, well, I can see the connection but I didn't get the ineffable sense of mystery and play that I get from Rivette. With Rivette's films, I almost always sense depths below the surface and around the edges, a subjective thing to be sure. The other thing with Rivette is that, no matter how metafictionally playful he gets, no matter how much he toys with genre and artifice, I always believe in his worlds and his characters, in the tactile reality of his films. With Jarmusch's film, it's just so obviously constructed and deliberate, so carefully managed, with every piece placed just so, every signifier arranged and contrived. It lacks the spontaneity of Rivette. Which is to say, it lacks the soul of Rivette, because improvisation and spontaneity are the keys to Rivette's cinema.

Drew McIntosh said...

I of course agree with you about spontaneity and improv being the soul of Rivette, and those factors certainly are lacking in The Limits of Control.

I thought the interesting thing here was that we are precisely getting these Rivette motifs through this filter of Jarmusch's brain, which is naturally going to strain those playful, spontaneous aspects in favor of a more reserved, collected and careful method, which, while decidedly less interesting than what Rivette did, still provided me with a specific sense of wonder and mystery, which is what I meant when I said it evoked Rivette in the best way for me.

It undoubtedly would have been a fruitless effort for Jarmusch to capture the specific "soul" of Rivette, but instead we get to see some of the distinct Rivette flavors filtered through Jarmusch's creativity and style, and I found the results to be both awesome and hypnotizing in their own right.

Daniel said...

This was one of my favorite movies last year. I can't claim to completely "get it" but I don't think it's the indecipherable puzzle many critics were pegging it to be.

One thing that stuck with me was how the Lone Man can be seen as the audience surrogate of the piece and the trip he takes similar to the movie-watching experience. He travels to many exotic places, meets many exotic people who talk about some specific subject, be it music, film, science, etc. And he does so without saying a word because as an audience, what else can we do when watching a movie? Not only that, the Lone Man never drives himself anywhere either. He's always taken to a location by a driver or by train or plane, etc. He is literally a passenger.

That last part, along with the Spain location, actually got me thinking of Antonioni's The Passenger. Oh, and the Iggy Pop song. But that's probably for different reasons.

I do agree, however, that the movie is practically impossible to relate to on an emotional level. Jarmusch has created a movie that is purely ideas.

Unknown said...

I had actually interpreted this film as the freeing of a creative mind with the American representing the force that suppresses art.

The editor in me thinks the movie could have worked a half hour shorter and with less dialogue. It was the monologuing of these characters that made this movie tough to sit through. I felt it called too much attention to the narrative's own artificial construction, as if Jarmusch were announcing this was a movie of big ideas.

I think Jarmusch simply couldn't sustain the mood as long as he did, particularly when he's opaque intellectually and completely divorced from emotion. A tighter film could have pulled it off better.

I wasn't reminded of "Point Blank", as I thought this film was yet another riff on "Le Samourai", the problem being that Jarmusch went down this road before with the superior "Ghost Dog".

Ed Howard said...

Drew, I'm glad you got all that from the film, but like Daniel below I think the film is tough to relate to in terms of emotions, so the Rivettian elements are too abstracted and pared-down to really make that impact on me.

Daniel, I like the audience surrogate interpretation. One of the things that does interest me about the film is how open-ended it is, how susceptible it is to multiple readings that can be equally supported by the text of the film. It's kind of a blank slate, like the white-on-white canvas at the end, and different viewers can bring all sorts of things to it. I do like films like that, films that allow some space for the viewer to simply think about what he or she is seeing without the director enforcing one interpretation — Gus Van Sant's Gerry comes to mind as one great example of a "blank canvas" movie that I love. But the pure abstraction of Limits, the lack of anything to hold onto or connect with, keeps me from responding to it the way I did to Van Sant's equally stripped-down film. I'm glad so many people seem to love it so much, but for me it's lesser Jarmusch.

Steven, that said, I don't have the problems you did with the dialogue. I like most of the monologues, and I think with less verbiage to orient the viewer, the film would be even more difficult to deal with. Maybe it could've worked as a much shorter, mostly dialogue-free non-narrative work, though I suspect that mostly would've seemed like a flashy travelogue. The film as is at least has a philosophical core to it, but you're probably right that it needed to be tighter, somehow. It's too slack, and it repeats scenes long after they've made whatever simple point they have to make. Some of this repetition could've been trimmed without much loss, I think.

la casserole rouge said...

Oh! I can´t wait to see it!! Love Jarmusch

In Canary Island has not been released so it is probably we have to wait to the International Film Festival in March, hope so.


Just Another Film Buff said...

This is a fantastic review, Ed. However, I am a bit more enthusiastic about the movie than you and find it to be one of the year's best...

Asher said...

I've never seen Limits of Control, but am I right in suspecting that it's bad imitation Le Samourai?

Film izle said...

i think, there shouldn not be any limit for controlling ourselves .. everything must be free; although it was a cinema film.

sikiş said...

I thought the interesting thing here was that we are precisely getting these Rivette motifs through this filter of Jarmusch's brain, which is naturally going to strain those playful, spontaneous aspects in favor of a more reserved, collected and careful method, which, while decidedly less interesting than what Rivette did, still provided me with a specific sense of wonder and mystery, which is what I meant when I said it evoked Rivette in the best way for me.

It undoubtedly would have been a fruitless effort for Jarmusch to capture the specific "soul" of Rivette, but instead we get to see some of the distinct Rivette flavors filtered through Jarmusch's creativity and style, and I found the results to be both awesome and hypnotizing in their own right.