Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The ‘Limits’ of Directorial Self-Indulgence

Landon takes a look at Jim Jarmusch’s new film and other meaningless movies that are meaningless.
By  · Published on May 4th, 2009

If you watch the trailer for Jim Jarmusch’s new film, The Limits of Control, there’s one point where Tilda Swinton—donning a snow-white wig, cowboy hat, and trenchcoat accompanied by a clear plastic umbrella on a sunny day for seemingly no other reason than the wardrobe’s photogenic appeal, like Swinton herself—states the following over footage from various parts of the film: “It’s like a game…deception…[loud whisper] suspicion!” When one hears these words in the trailer, they are likely misled into thinking Swinton is referring to whatever “game” the unnamed hitman protagonist (Isaach de Bankolé) is involved in that makes up the plot of the film. However, Swinton is instead referring to Suspicion (1941), the Hitchcock film starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. This discrepancy between the film’s marketing and what the film actually is—its placement over extra-textual, self-reflexive cinematic winking over a plot sustaining itself on its own terms—accurately sums up the experience of watching The Limits of Control.

In interest of full disclosure, I need to out myself as a Jim Jarmusch fan. I particularly dig the irresistible comic meandering of Down by Law (1986) and Night on Earth (1991) and the existentialist wandering of Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog (1999). And frankly, anybody that casts Tom Waits in more than one film is good in my book. The Limits of Control explores territory familiar to any fan of the filmmaker: a stranger traveling away from home, understated moments of characters seemingly doing nothing at all, unmotivated philosophical waxes of random wisdom, and bare narrative minimalism. The Limits of Control also possesses an impressive cast of immense credibility in the art and indie film world—Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, veteran actor John Hurt, and Bill Murray, whose recent work with Jarmusch, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson has solidified him as the former-movie star-turned-king of understated indie quirk—yet, like Night on Earth and Broken Flowers (2005), this ensemble is (somewhat disappointingly) segregated into separate episodes of encounter for the traveling protagonist rather than integrated as recurring characters with shared screen time.

But it is the trademark Jarmusch moments that are most striking, and often frustrating, about The Limits of Control. Most of the film features the loner (but apparently not lonely) protagonist in various forms of solitude, whether in private stasis (staring out a hotel window, lying in bed awake), in public (frequenting the cafés of Spain), or in travel. Any Jarmusch fan knows it’s not unusual to see his characters living lives of often deafening solitude, but what works differently in The Limits of Control is that the depiction of this solitude seems to show no purpose within the narrative itself. Where Broken Flowers’ leading man lives a life of solitude as a result of an inability to make lasting connections with women, or Dead Man’s protag lives in solitude as a result of an inability to function in a changing western landscape, the unnamed, psychologically bereft leading male of Jarmusch’s latest seems only to live in isolation as a means to posture him in the frame to highlight Christopher Doyle’s (Wong Kar-Wai’s longtime collaborator) illustrious cinematography.

While the narrative of Limits is deliberately less-than-bare-bones (forsaking motive or even character names), its style cannot accurately be likewise described as minimalist or restrained. These repeated quiet scenes featuring little ado about nothing don’t seem to intend to capture those quiet, introspective, contemplative moments many of us spend alone in our daily lives that are rarely depicted on film (like, say, Lost in Translation did), but instead serve little beyond stylistic self-indulgence, quite intentionally stating nothing in the process. There is no indication that Jarmusch intends to portray, or even comment on, lived reality. While none of Jarmusch’s films can be accurately described as “realist,” much of his previous work has utilized this dense style to comment upon some aspect of lived existence. But every time we see Bankolé in a café or wandering in and out of hotels and museums, he is always framed in such a way that we never forget, or overcome, Jarmusch’s directorial influence. As evidenced by its repetitive musical cues in tandem with its repeated, pretentious and generic “themes” as bluntly articulated by various characters (“Those who think they are better should go to the cemetery, there they will learn about what life really means,” and “La vida no vale nada (Life is worthless)”), Jarmusch here puts all his efforts into an aura of coolness which made up the outer shell of a substantive center of his previous films but fails to serve as an indicator of further meaning here. Life may be worthless, yes, but what do we learn from that hypothesis through this story? Jarmusch here posits no answers to questions he never really seems to ask. Just like Paz de la Huerta’s inexplicable nudity in her entire role throughout the film, there is no meaning or explanation on or beyond the surface of what is observed.

Limits’ revisited theme of subjectivity seems to give some indication of Jarmusch’s intent. Characters give unmotivated musings on the easy manipulability of perception, how our senses often deceive us—a sentiment that can be likened to the practice of watching cinema itself, as it often oscillates between captured and manipulated reality. Like the beautiful but unavoidably fake-looking vistas out the window the protagonist’s train, Jarmusch reminds us again and again that perception, and thus reality, is relative. This hypothesis seems to hint at socio-cultural relevance when the protagonist finally meets his projected target, an arch neocon suit played by Bill Murray (critics have compared his character to Rumsfeld and Cheney) who profanely argues that subjectivity is an invention of the blindly artistic mind, that there is only one harsh and true objective world. His death, then, can be read as the triumph of subjectivity.

Jarmusch is one of the true artists of the formerly booming American independent film scene, keeping his unique style and approach intact since his 1984 Sundance debut. Yet not much seems “independent” about Jarmusch’s latest work, as the film wasn’t promoted through a festival circuit and was partially financed and distributed by Focus Features, a deceivingly dependent subsidiary of Universal. Jarmusch seems now to be taking advantage of the toys afforded to him because of his stance as a “legitimate artist,” revisiting a far less clever or fresh rehashing of the narrative minimalism of his breakthrough film Stranger Than Paradise (1984), except this time he can afford helicopters, exotic European shooting locations, and Bill Murray. What does this say about the growth of this rare filmic artist that many argue has retained his independence?

It seems dismissive, as many critics have done, to cast off Limits of Control as meaningless, because it seems deliberately so. In fact, some films are worth celebrating for their intended meaninglessness, like Jarmusch’s fellow 80s-generation American filmmaking duo the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading which, as opposed to their thematically dense No Country For Old Men, reveled in the madcap insignificance of the narrative’s many goings-on. The Limits of Control, then, seems intended to be read as bereft of meaning, but also to serve as a filmgoing “exercise” highlighting the inherent subjectivity of spectatorship. Indeed, as Swinton rambles about films and even states that she likes films where characters just “sit there” before she and Bankolé…just sit there…indicates in a (for me, gratingly) tongue-in-cheek winking meta-self-reflexive way the self-awareness of the film as a film (as Bankolé often stares directly at the camera and into the audience) and furthermore how this film was determined by the annals of cinema history.

Jarmusch is a known cinephile, and Limits has been compared a great deal to John Boorman’s gangster classic Point Blank (1967), which makes sense considering Jarmusch’s outspoken affinity for Lee Marvin and particularly Point Blank’s almost avant-garde play with subjective narrative (filmnerds like myself argue to no end to what extent Point Blank takes place inside Lee Marvin’s head). But Jarmusch’s other influences echo within the frames of Limits as well, including Michelangelo Antonioni (who often depicts the act of nothing happening), Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki (similarly minimalist, reiterated by the John Hurt character’s affection for Finnish cinema), and, especially, Jean-Pierre Melville, whose Le Samouraï (1967) is the blueprint for both Limits and Ghost Dog. But cinematic referencing is usually imposed as a fun game of identification for film buffs (like in the works of Tarantino) or as a jumping-off point for a new take on classic material (like previous work by Jarmusch and the Coens), but the references to other films in Limits, like the film as a whole, builds no meaning and signifies nothing. Not that a movie should be judged by the extent of its appeal, but it’s hard to figure out exactly who The Limits of Control was made for beyond die-hard Jarmusch fans.

It seems that, by depriving us of psychological character motivation or development, character names, or a sense of building any sort of narrative purpose, Jarmusch intends to embolden the subjectivity of the viewer by either challenging them to fill in these gaps or highlighting the subjective process of filmgoing. But despite the presence of a Cheneyesque character, Jarmusch gives little meaning to chew on that exists beyond the film itself, saying nothing through the process of deliberately saying nothing. Like the works of art passively consumed by the protagonist throughout the film (modern painting, Schubert, flamenco, and acoustic guitar), we are expected to view The Limits of Control likewise: an artistic expression not inherent with meaning, but meant to be received with the act of attaching meaning to it. We are left instead as museumgoers posing in front of an incomprehensible canvas, either pretentiously pretending to dissect its elusive meaning or being forced to move on to the next exhibition.

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