Monday, November 2, 2009

The Limits of Control

The latest from Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control exalts the incidental pleasures of narrative filmmaking—mood, scenery, quiet moments and little mysteries—by turning its own story into such an abstraction that nothing else remains. All we are left with is a man walking through glorious architecture projecting an aura of undefined purposefulness. But if we are meant to enjoy this film for its supplementary charms, then why does it seem so drained of pleasures? Is this a work of audacious genius, or merely a stale art-fart of a film?

Or dare I say neither? I find it hard to share in the indignant rage so many critics have unleashed on this difficult, often lovely film, just as I can’t quite work myself up to the impassioned praise voiced by others. Instead, I remain respectfully intrigued. Jarmusch and cinematographer Christopher Doyle seem to be working towards an austerity that would shame Ozu, but I can’t deny that they still held my imagination throughout the stillness and quiet. The empty spaces of this film are eminently inhabitable.

A good thing too, considering how much emptiness you’ll find here. At times, I found myself missing Jarmusch’s usual dry wit, which is all but absent here, with what little humour there is submerged on the formal level. True, there is something droll about the film’s little verbal and visual repetitions, but this is hardly enough to relieve the stifling air of seriousness that occasionally threatens to choke the life out of the film.

Lifelessness, however, is a fitting theme for The Limits of Control, which isn’t so much a living, breathing narrative as a story under glass—a rare creature stuffed and mounted, all the better for us to appreciate its elegant shape and colourful plumage. Similarly, as the Lone Man, Isaach de Bankole seems encased in metal, so stoic as to border on inhuman. It’s rather fitting that his character eats the little encrypted messages he receives on pieces of paper hidden in matchboxes—like a robot, he is fed code and then acts with mechanical efficiency. If you look to this film hoping to appreciate the unruly mess of life, brace for disappointment.

Actually, the film’s refusal to create a vivid narrative is not quite a failing, but really its whole purpose for being. I admit this sounds like making excuses, but bear with me, please—the film’s meaning is easily grasped on broad terms, even if the details are somewhat fuzzy. Jarmusch is primarily preoccupied with the limits of power and perception (interchangeable terms in the cinematic world, where the camera eye exerts god-like control over reality), suggesting that the subjective perspective imposed on the world by any authority, be it artist or autocrat, can’t escape the judgment of arbitrary reality. That might sound like rather vague philosophizing, but this really just means that even the mighty must feed the worms sooner or later, and even the best director must lay down his camera at some point and allow reality to roll on out of sight.

For such a dense and complex delivery system, that’s a fairly plain message, and viewers may wish for something more worthy of Jarmusch’s obscurantist strategies. But this is a film not so easily sunk, despite all the broadsides aimed against it. It remains so resolutely on message that it never betrays its purpose, never suggests that it is aware of its own absurdity. As such, I find it hard to dislike The Limits of Control, just as I would find it difficult to feel fervently against a tree or a rock (this is a film that simply is, implacably and beautifully, itself). Really, all you can do with a film like this is accept or reject its game, and much to my surprise, I’m willing to roll the dice with Jarmusch on this one.


Natalie said...

Oh Joseph! Beautifully written :) "The empty spaces of this film are eminently inhabitable." ... took my breath away.

Joe Wet Cow said...

Aw, thanks Natalie. I always take heart in knowing you're out there reading and appreciating this stuff. But, please—remember to breathe!