Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Limits of Control

For some reason or another, The Tisch Film Review has allowed me to join their roster, so for the foreseeable future most of my writing will be popping up over there. First up is a piece on Jarmusch's most recent film, The Limits of Control. Despite popular opinion, I was quite taken with it - maybe the 3 or 4 of you who read this little blog of mine can swing on over and argue with me in the comments section.


Andrew said...

This was done out of love and respect. For real.

Jake said...

To Alex:

Just read your write up and wanted to toss a few thoughts in before they left my head. Forgive the jumbled words as I'm very tired and am not feeling very lucid: I don't think the film is nearly as hermetic as you argue here. In fact, one of the things which struck me most about it isn't how many easy references I could spot (which I honestly don't remember many of... Sans the direct Welles/Tarkovsky mention) but how succinctly Jarmusch re-contextualizes genre traits as well as the particular formal and performative techniques of filmmakers such as Keaton and Ozu (just off the top of my head). In his book (available for FREE on his website, btw) Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, David Bordwell compares the repeating shots, rhyming compositions and use of color in Ozu's cinema to structures found in poetry. For example, in An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu repeats several establishing shots when entering and exiting a scene, to much the same effect a poet would use a verbal or visual rhyme. Bordwell observes on his wonderful audio commentary for the film, that on a purely visual level its cognitive effect is a "bracketing" in preparation for a variation on the scene which -in the process- establishes its own contemplative rhythm as well as illuminates thematic possibilities within the previous scene. What's striking to me about about The Limits of Control is how this effect is turned inward toward the body, in such a way that it includes space. My favorite shot in the movie is of the Lone Man doing Tai Chi (?) alone in his hotel room. At first the camera seems to be negotiating empty space, but after a few moments the Lone Man's finger tips appear from behind a half-closed door. The camera continues its corner while very gradually revealing more and more of the Lone Man's body. He's repeating the same motion over and over again (an almost physical embodiment of the films circular structure?). Simultaneously, the space behind him opens up and his geography (and one must assume his psychological space) within the room becomes clear. This is poetry of the body. With a simple camera move Jarmusch is not only speaking with Ozu but creating small visual essays within the sparse narrative! I think the tendency among modern audiences is to read something like this as being "pretentious" or "ironic", but to whom? I can't imagine too many people in the audience thinking "Fucking Jarmusch referencing Sun Lu-t'ang! That's SO 1912!" This example I think is not only notable for its beauty but also for the way it echoes the larger poetic structure of the entire film (repetition, variation, repetition, variation).

I mention Keaton because above all, I think this film is very funny. Who better than the Great Stoneface to guide us through a film about a political assassin in which we are denied the most elemental pleasures of films about political assassins? We get a nude scene but the naked Woman has asymmetrical breasts! We are denied a sex scene in the most undramatic way imaginable. Sure we get to see a guy get killed but how the hell did the Lone Man get in that complex? I think it's funny that a film you criticize for being too heavily processed is actually a film in which we are completely denied observing a process. This denial, I think, becomes most useful when confronting the simple truth that there is a huge difference between a film about simply being and waiting and the actual reality of simply being and waiting. I think The Limits of Control attempts the actual reality of being and waiting... It's is the first film I've ever seen that denies being a film. Mystery in quotation marks indeed.