Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 01 May 2009
Source Focus Feature 35mm print
Reviews: The Limits of Control, part two
Jim Jarmusch Symposium, Reverse Shot, Summer 2005
“The Way of the Samurai,” it is said, “is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong.” So, let me state at the outset: The Limits of Control is a bad-ass film, probably the most overtly and self-consciously bad-ass film Jim Jarmusch has made.
It’s worth dashing in headlong in this way, especially for those who complain that a certain kind of film criticism stops short of expressing a clear opinion. So, here’s a clear opinion: Jarmusch’s film is one that he alone could have made, one that he could have only made now, and one that frankly no one expected him to make. A massive, puzzling compendium of ideas and influences, ways of seeing, of walking, and of being cool, The Limits of Control exults in the capacity of cinema to make something out of nothing—or everything. But what distinguishes this film from his previous works, all of which also take a bricolage approach by comprising many of Jarmusch’s tastes, faves, and fetishes, The Limits of Control accomplishes something that the director has been trying to achieve at least since Dead Man: it constructs a complete point of view—a philosophy, even. By the end of the film – an ending which Manohla Dargis somehow calls “naïve,” “obvious,” and “anticlimactic” – this point of view becomes even something of a credo for Jarmusch’s career, an almost combative stance, a line in the sand from a filmmaker who has hitherto seemed only to operate in the blurry realms of ambiguity.
That said, there is much about the film that is blurry, beginning with the cinematography of Christopher Doyle, whose way of shooting the shiny and mercurial surfaces of Madrid and the shifting desert landscapes of rural Spain is as unpredictable as his vision of Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong nightworld. From the first appearance of Isaach De Bankolé’s character, known simply as “Lone Man,” whom Doyle frames upside down, practicing tai chi in the stall of an airport men’s room, the spectator knows that she will be consigned to a specific viewpoint for the duration of the film. We are aligned with the Lone Man, sent forth from the airport on an obscure mission to Spain, instructed multilingually by a Creole (Claire Denis-regular Alex Descas) and a Frenchman to use his imagination as his primary weapon. Along the way, as in so many of Jarmusch’s films, we meet many characters – Tilda Swinton’s blanched, mysterious Blonde; Paz de la Huerta’s enigmatic, transparent Nude; John Hurt’s grizzled, bohemian Guitar; Gael García Bernal’s hirsute, denimed Mexican; and others – who drop hints, leads, and oblique strategies for understanding. Jarmusch challenges us to a game in which we must use these characters’ clues and references, as well as our own weapons of the imagination, to reconstruct the point of view Jarmusch puts us in, an empty center suggested by those objects, references, and ideas that orbit and form around it.
Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase, “form is emptiness.” That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase, “Emptiness is form.” One should not think that these are two separate things.
Many years ago, my friend Diana told me, “Jim Jarmusch doesn’t know how to tell a story.” Being a Jarmusch-partisan, I vigorously denied the claim, but in essence she was right: Jarmusch’s films don’t tell stories; they relate vignettes, raw material for a larger narrative, perhaps, but one that fails to cohere—whether out of laziness, deliberate primitivism, or post-modernist equivocation.
His 1984 breakout film, Stranger Than Paradise, exemplifies this vignette structure with its loose series of single-take scenes, following the three protagonists as they smoke, eat TV dinners, drive to Cleveland and then to Florida in a 1965 Dodge Coronet, and get variously lost. Each sequence-shot inches the characters further along towards nowhere.
That film, partly shot by German cinematographer Robby Müller with unused film stock from Wim Wenders’ The State of Things, initiated Jarmusch’s tendency to make road movies. Stranger Than Paradise, Night on Earth, and Broken Flowers are all road movies, in their way, but contrary to convention the characters in these films drive not linearly, but in circles. In most road movies, the characters are headed somewhere—indeed, the very notion of driving in American popular culture suggests control, mastery of direction and destiny. But in Jarmusch’s films, this is more equivocal: as Eddie says in Stranger Than Paradise, “You know, it’s funny: You come to some place new, and everything looks just the same.’ In Broken Flowers, Bill Murray’s Don Johnston jets and drives around the country in search of his lost son, but he really appears to circumambulate the same region of the Catskills (where Jarmusch himself now lives) in a series of interchangeable rental cars. (“I’m a stalker in a Taurus.”) In these films, then, driving (and travel generally) is less a way of getting from Point A to an elusive Point B, but a way of getting closer to the center, tourism as a means of self-understanding, self-realization. At the end of Broken Flowers, Don Johnston finds himself at the center of the camera’s orbit in Frederick Elmes’s uncommonly elegant Steadicam shot. He still has not found his son – or has he? – and is dumbfounded and alone with his interpretation of the world.
Wenders himself is no stranger to road movies of the more circular variety. Indeed, nearly all of his best films are of this subgenre: Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, Kings of the Road, Paris, Texas, Until the End of the World. (Wenders’ production company is, in fact, called Road Movies Filmproduktion.) Jarmusch met Wenders while working as an assistant to Nicholas Ray with whom he had studied at NYU, and who had himself created something of a prototype for this kind of road movie in They Live By Night. Jarmusch assisted in the production of Wenders’ and Ray’s Lightning Over Water. He is credited as “Observer.”
The Limits of Control, however, is a rather different kind of road movie. Unlike its immediate predecessor, Broken Flowers, it is a film not about driving but about being a passenger. On one level, this role would seem to be more passive than that of the driver, lacking the choice of direction, mastery of destiny and the way ahead. But through the figure of the Lone Man, we realize there is a mastery in passivity, in being the observer: the Lone Man travels to all kinds of places on the passenger side of cars, airplanes, trains, and a pick-up truck emblazoned with the phrase, “La vida no vale nada.”
Given the location of rural Spain and a protagonist whose identity has been deliberately evacuated, it is clear that Jarmusch, an avowed Antonioni fan, is thinking of the Italian director’s The Passenger. In that film, Jack Nicholson’s similarly anonymous (or pseudonymous) seeker meanders around Spain, hooks up with a mysterious woman, and takes in the mosaics and Moorish architecture of Barcelona and Andalucía. But Nicholson is a driver in Antonioni’s film (literally, if not metaphorically); Maria Schneider (Antonioni’s “Girl”) is more a passenger. Nonetheless, all of these characters are also to some extent tourists, or in Charles Baudelaire’s phrase, flâneurs, “passionate spectators” of la vie moderne. “By ‘modernity’,” says Baudelaire, “I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.”
At the outset of Limits, as the Lone Man sits watching the changing skies and glimmering buildings of Madrid from the passenger-side window of a taxi, one might guess that Jarmusch is also thinking of Iggy Pop:
Oh the passenger
He rides and he rides
He sees things from under glass
He looks through his windows eye
He sees the things he knows are his
He sees the bright and hollow sky
The rumor is that Iggy Pop and David Bowie named their song after the Antonioni film, but in fact Iggy ripped the lyrics off from an early (and uncommonly good) Jim Morrison poem, in which the Doors singer theorized that, “Modern life is a journey by car.”
Or, indeed, by drunken boat. Jarmusch’s film begins with epigraph from the poem by Arthur Rimbaud, himself no stranger to wayward journeys. Rimbaud’s poem describes a hallucinatory voyage into the unknown, a 19th-century acid trip as described by a mariner cut adrift from safe, European moorings and floating in a sea of violent, euphoric possibilities. The result is a kind of vision quest for Rimbaud’s doped and stuporous passenger, who “bathe[s] in the Poem/Of the star-infused and milky Sea.” It is a passive encounter, and “Foam flowers have blessed my aimless wanderings.”
This mirrors more or less exactly the fate of Johnny Depp’s poet-outlaw William Blake in Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man. And while the Lone Man travels exclusively over land, he is nonetheless subject to similar visions: clues whispered discreetly by the strangers he happens upon, and symbols deployed by the context and landscape around them. Aboard a mystery train, through the window of the Lone Man’s sleeper car, the skies warp and change color, replicating Kubrick’s acid-drenched visions of the surface of Jupiter. The Lone Man remains ensconced in his tai chi, neutral on the moving train.
This is the first installment of a two-part review.