The Limits of Control (2009)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: *** spurs (out of four)

Quentin Tarantino, as part of a veritable orgasm of hornswoggling to accompany his latest cinematic venture, pronounced Inglourious Basterds a "spaghetti western" to the press. The inside jokeyness of the claim aside, I confess that I fail to recognize much of the elan of Leone (or others) in that challenging, exhilarating mess of a film; but his reckless genre-izing raises piquant questions about setting, soul, and simulation. Without belaboring worthless distinctions between form and content (or that third nebulous artistic aspect, "style"), we might leap-frog to the point that trimming one's film with flourishes reminiscent of a particular cinematic tradition is not necessarily the same as contributing to that cinematic tradition. Angularly aping the vernacular of the old west, emphasizing sweltering masculine clichés, and employing an episodic, slow-burn plot with dribbles of violence occasionally over boiling apparently does not add up to a western-minded film (let's be generous and at least say that at intervals IB is a film ABOUT western films): What then, does?

Jim Jarmusch is just as fecklessly allusive and genre-bending -- explain the plot of Ghost Dog to anyone and it's likely to seem a poor excuse for mis-matched archetypes. Similarly, that film explored its roots in the least subtle manner thinkable, with the protagonist a fan of Rashomon's source material. And yet Jarmusch's references are the direct opposite of Tarantino's name-dropping, though the latter can at first appear more satisfying in its fleetingness and coiled passion. Just as the destiny of the young girl in Ghost Dog is definitively shaped by a ratty paperback serving as a cheeky, existentialist movie connection, so Jarmusch's characters (especially those in Ghost Dog, Dead Man, Night on Earth and Down by Law) actively learn from their antecedents in profound ways -- to the point that Jarmusch's cinema seems at times to be an incisive, ongoing conversation with its predecessors. Tarantino's, on the other hand, is a tremendously popular clearinghouse of worthless film ephemera.

The Limits of Control is the not the first film by Jarmusch I do not love dearly (that distinction goes to the subpar but still perfectly adequate Broken Flowers), but it's the first film of his to startle me with its lack of candor. It's not that his other movies aren't complex, but one can be honest and sneaky simultaneously, and Jarmusch always struck me as a champion of that filmic voice (just as JD Salinger was in print, especially in his short fiction -- those dreadful camp letters from Seymour Glass!), adept at pinning useful emotions to his lapel while keeping quieter themes with more longevity close to the vest. LoC is an insidiously recondite hodgepodge of tropes, types, and twists (the best: the trade of an antiquarian Spanish guitar is brilliantly used as a MacGuffin, the only purpose of which is to foreshadow the murderous denouement with a creatively-used, tautly pulled low E string), following a sophisticatedly sable Man With No Name (Isaach De Bankolé) as he tediously carries out unexplained steps towards a vague assassinary objective in the Spanish (I think?) countryside. Out of Jarmusch's oeuvre it most closely resembles Coffee and Cigarettes in the sense that it amounts to, in the end, a series of bewildering conversations -- in this case between the (possible) hit man and other operatives who feed him instructions via hand-written ciphers delivered in classy matchboxes.

As my editor Ed Gonzalez astutely puts it, the film "[resembles] what a David Lynch film no doubt looks like to people who don't actually like David Lynch films," though to someone familiar with both directors the distinctions are enormous. Lynch has become something of a peddler of unsolvable puzzles -- perhaps coincidentally like the koans one can use to clear the mind while meditating, a practice Lynch actively engages in -- of electric images bewilderingly branching out in to the great, dendritic unknown. Jarmusch, on the other hand, excels at portraits comprised of film grammar divorced from any greater narrative meaning -- eg, the pop culture quotation of "Danger, Will Robinson" as evidence of a character's clunkingly mechanical fatalism (which in turn amounts to jack squat -- but again, we've emotionally acknowledged the reference in a way we don't with Tarantino). Perhaps he's unintentionally chasing the dragon of purely reflexive cinema as Altman (The Long Goodbye, especially Quintet) did, and admittedly Tarantino as well with less successful results (Kill Bill).

And much in the sense that Jarmusch's film Stranger than Paradise was structured around non-encounters and non-events that ordinarily would only be implied at the periphery of a typical story, LoC is collection of cinematic mannerisms (a nude girl with a gun, a peculiarly anal method of drinking espresso, an old man who won't shut up and a woman in tantalizingly obscure trouble) without any sort of expository foundation. It's one of the best examples I've seen of what we might call "swinging trap door" cinema -- rather than "releasing" the plot at the proper time for dramatic effect, the film simply operates as though the bottom had already been dropped out from under it, and the narrative's neck had been snapped and stilled long before the audience even arrived.

This gallows metaphor is a fine enough transition to my final point, namely that if LoC is an incoherent assembly of filmic gestures, they are almost certainly western ones -- and the film's rewards via this interpretation are not insignificant. There's no disputing the occasional noir-isms -- especially Paz de la Huerta's pouting, supple bottom -- but their implementation is far more akin to the western milieu. (It's worth noting that de al Huerta's seduction of the Man With No Name fails, if it is seduction, and that they spend impotent nights curled up on hotel cots with the former's hand gripping the latter's uncomfortable thigh with restless inanimation.) The most successful westerns are counterintuitively derived from unacknowledged emotions and seething (often masculine) vulnerabilities -- these elements are not foreign to noir, certainly, but in noir they're often parsed as an inability to act (The Crimson Kimono, Ace in the Hole) rather than as an inability to feel. Decision at Sundown, the most psychologically penetrating of the Ranown series, limns a protagonist unable to cope with his estranged wife's infidelity; even more so than with the discovery of Ethan Edwards' unholy, incestuous determination, our realization of Randolph Scott's character's culpability and projections of violence are deeply affecting. And while individuals in noir often wheedle and misrepresent, in the western world facts are made to be distorted beyond recognition and salvation, very probably because motives are more crucial (see how quickly a raucous act of sexual violence expands in ugliness as it travels the countryside by hearsay in Unforgiven, and how few people care).

What Jarmusch has slyly constructed in LoC is a universe without facts, without details, and without (for the most part) the visceral punch that makes a Fuller or a Mann or a Peckinpah shuffle along with grace. What's left is a tone poem not at all like the "white on white" painting that the Man With No Name observes in a Spanish gallery -- it is, rather, a collection of blocky colors with bleeding juxtapositions not unlike a Rothko or a John Ford tequila sunset. One such hue is John Hurt's whiskered vagrant, scraggily clearing his throat like he desperately needs a cerveza. Another is the wide shot with which Jarmusch frames the Man With No Name sauntering down the street with a guitar case in one hand (remember, with a smile, Desperado?) and a leather duffle in the other. A third is an impenetrable fortress much like that of El Jefe's, and the Man With No Name is able to freely enter for the same reason as Warren Oates' Bennie. He holds something of monstrous value: A putrid objective correlative for male weakness and, naturally, the limits of a man's control over his sexual sensitivities.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Damn. I can't read this yet! I return in a month after I have seen it (it's sitting on my computer as we speak, ready to be watched). I am really excited for this film. Anyway...I read the teaser on your website...sounds good!

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

I await your scintillating response, Kev...!

mister muleboy said...

more content, boys.

tick tock -- time's a wastin'!

Sam Juliano said...

"What Jarmusch has slyly constructed in LoC is a universe without facts, without details, and without (for the most part) the visceral punch that makes a Fuller or a Mann or a Peckinpah shuffle along with grace. What's left is a tone poem not at all like the "white on white" painting that the Man With No Name observes in a Spanish gallery -- it is, rather, a collection of blocky colors with bleeding juxtapositions not unlike a Rothko or a John Ford tequila sunset."

Well Jon, that's quite an excellent piece odf writing there, but so is the review. I'll definitely be seeing it soon, and your reasonable respect for this roundly-trashed movie - which has even caused some bloggers to write scathing appraisals - (Chuck Bowen had me laughing today when I read his review at Bowen's Cinematic, where he likened followers of this film as those "who think Resnais's LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD is one of the greatest films ever made" and the sam eones who thing every Clint Eastwood film is the year's best!) but the professional establishment was perhaps even worse.

Let's face it, there are those in our ranks Jon, who believe anything Jarmusch makes is a masterpiece, even that unevern COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, which was by and large a tedious view.

But I respect you quite a bit - more than almost anybody - so DVD land it will be and soon.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

I'm workin' on it, Muleboy! I'm going through a personal crisis at the moment, though I know that's no excuse to stop blogging...

Thanks for your comments, Sam. I actually liked "Coffee and Cigs" quite a bit (don't hit me!) but I know I'm in the minority there, too. And the review by my fellow Slant writer Chuck Bowen was hilarious and spot-on, totally agreed. This is def a movie one has to check out for one's self.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I fail to understand what this very stupid and extremely boring namedropping and rancidly "postmodern" movie is doing here. Certainly not anything to do with the western.
Miguel Marías