Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Limits of Control redux:

To the best of my knowledge, this piece wound up generating more comments than any other on the old Tisch Film Review site. Along with a defense of Shyamalan's The Happening by this mad man, people seemed to generally hate my assessment of Jarmusch's odd ball hit-man/New Wave homage. I still think the film is a lot of fun, and I had a lot of fun writing this essay (in retrospect, it is perhaps slightly more pretentious than I had intended).

* * *

Opaque – adjective: “hard to understand; not clear or lucid; obscure: The problem remains opaque despite explanations”

Uncertainty, aridity, peace – all things will resolve themselves into these and pass away.
- Kafka

By the looks of it, Jim Jarmusch has committed the cinematic atrocity of the year. Despite a couple of reasonably high profile defenders, The Limits of Control has to be one of the worst reviewed films of recent memory. Even more curious is the vicious hyperbole and acidic vitriol being hurled his way, questioning Jarmusch’s integrity, sincerity, intelligence – as if the simple act of viewing his most recent film has somehow damaged the individual critics psyche in unknown, irreparable ways. Perhaps this is the price one pays when playing the kinds of games Jarmusch seems interested in here. Mysteries abound, and more to the point, remain unsolved, open ended…

1. Mystery:
A mysterious man has appeared, as if from nowhere, to perform mysterious tasks, apparently at the behest of mysterious people. He will go on to meet other mysterious people, interacting with them in mysterious ways, before seemingly attaining his ultimate goal – a goal which, by and large, we are unclear about.

2. Being and Nothingness: In his dismissive one star review, Roger Ebert assumes the persona of Isaach De Bankole’s elusive hit-man spectre in a snarky speculative fiction about a day-in-the-life on the set. His Isaach wonders about what the director and cinematographer will ask him to do, and how long he will have to wait before being done. Presumably unwittingly, Ebert sums up much of the film’s modus operandus, the idea of languidly waiting, of simply being.

3. Repetitions:
“You don’t speak Spanish do you?”; two espressos, in separate cups - not a double espresso; Diamonds, Matchbooks; Unintelligible, yet edible, notes; “he who believes himself bigger than everybody else ought to visit the cemetery”.

4. Point Blank:
As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the film bears a resemblance to John Boorman’s pseudo-psychedelic thriller, with De Bankole assuming the role of Lee Marvin’s carved-out-of-granite perpetual motion machine, a pit bull on a singular mission who’ll be damned if he’s letting go. Jarmusch honors the film, and lays bare his intentions, with an opening credit – the production company that birthed the film has been named after Boorman’s film. But to what end?

5. Godard, et al:
Not quite (not simply) a homage to the French New Wave, Jarmusch instead casts his net a bit wider. Glenn Kenny, as well as Rosenbaum, sense the spirit of Rivette at work in Jarmusch’s puzzle-without-an-answer. There is a bit of Antonioni’s spiritual and spatial ennui, as well as odds and ends from the noir love-letters/deconstructions of Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player. De Bankole’s stone faced non-acting aligns him with a legacy of Bressonian models, while Chris Doyle’s elusive, shimmering cinematography, beyond the most obvious connotation, evokes that other great contemporary DP, Agnes Godard. The other Denis connection? The presence of Alex Descas, Denis’ favorite leading man. The camera ogles the local architecture like it was a Gaudi masterpiece, and there is a diffusive sense of space that Pedro Costa has been exploring in his recent pictures. The narrative (which does actually exist, although perhaps not in the sense that most people would prefer) proceeds in fits and starts, with scenes seemingly motivated by exquisite corpse-like free associations, or, (Kenny again) Robbe-Grillet zero-degree word play. Another association, again involving play – the games/narrative puzzles of Resnais’ early trifecta (Hiroshima/Marienbad/Muriel).

6. Doubles and Doppelgangers:
Having nothing to say - having no point - is different from arriving at ones point in a round-about way. Jarmusch seems to have a handle on his material at all times, and while one can disagree with or dislike that point, or its system of delivery, it is entirely inappropriate to confuse that dislike with idiocy on the filmmaker’s part. Whatever one makes of The Limits of Control, to assume that, like Ebert, every shot and gesture is simply a passing whim is, not to put too fine a point on it, missing the point. Paz de la Huerta’s “Nude” is the quintessential femme fatale, her goal stated and pursued with, um, naked abandon. She is all surface, every gesture simply there, and truthful. She seems incapable of subterfuge, although her existence implies it, and her eventual death is simply inevitable. Her role (and there is nothing else – the lack of depth is (purposefully) comical) requires it. She occasionally reappears as Tilda Swinton, her double/opposite – fully clothed from head to toe (not naked, unfortunately), with pale skin and blonde hair (not dark skin and deeply brown hair). Jarmusch also links them with raincoats – neither functional, one is heavy and thick, the other is totally transparent. Descas and De Bankole could be brothers, and both speak French, although Jarmusch has them interact, perversely, with a translator. The brief cameos by John Hurt (“Guitar”) and Gael Garcia Bernal (“Mexican”) are, despite obvious differences in age and ethnicity, linked by similar garb – the film briefly digresses into trying to redefine bohemia in the modern age – as well as interest in a particular guitar case. There is also a visit by Youki Kudoh as “Molecules”, who provides a dubious scientific explanation for the film’s far-fetched, comical ending. Needless to say, an international cast of actors meeting in terse vignettes and having pseudo-comical interactions, interrupted by the occasional language barrier, should be no surprise to Jarmusch fans.

7. Politics:
Make no mistake – beyond the genre trappings (lovingly violated), Jarmusch has made a boldly political film. I don’t necessarily agree with Rosenbaum’s assertion that Bill Murray’s “American” is a Cheney stand-in (an unreasonably limiting perspective, to my mind), but I do agree that Jarmusch has, for better or for worse, laid out a very specific statement of purpose – a kind of personal declaration/summation. The limits of a very particular kind of “control” become clear, as Jarmusch is railing against a society that no longer values art, museums, film, genre, the act of looking and sitting quietly, waiting, meandering through quasi-defined space, repetitions that become mantra-like – those elusive secular prayers.

8. Repetitions:
“You don’t speak Spanish do you?”; two espressos, in separate cups - not a double espresso; Diamonds, Matchbooks; Unintelligible, yet edible, notes; “he who believes himself bigger than everybody else ought to visit the cemetery”.

Postscript: In the most recent issue of Film Comment, there is an appreciation of the film by Kent Jones, which I very purposefully avoided. And, as it turns out, with good reason – as usual, Jones elucidates difficult material with remarkable poise and a disarming ease. I don’t think there is any critic working right now in English that makes the art of writing seem so incredibly effortless. I worried that the above post would come off as the very snark I was decrying, or even worse, as pretentious. But if that is the case, so be it. While writing about film as a pastime engenders quite a few benefits – reflection, hindsight, sometimes a second or third viewing – it can also be encumbered by all the cultural noise around it. Unless one lives in a vacuum, it is impossible to avoid reviews, conversations, all those opinions both pro and con, and it becomes something of a chore to sift through the avalanche of words and try to remember something of ones initial response to the film at hand. In other words, it is entirely possible that I value The Limits of Control so highly simply because everyone else dismissed it so easily. I certainly hope this isn’t the case – only time, and a few more viewings, will tell. I’ll end with Jones’ words, “Jarmusch’s new film stands alone, within his own body of work and in the landscape of current cinema. It is militant, and it is serene.” I can’t wait to see the movie again.

No comments: