Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Limits Of Control

...So I duck out of two possible concerts to come home, “unwind,” and turn on Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits Of Control, which I think came out about a year ago now. I’d intended to catch it theatrically, except the period it played was shorter than the time I needed to psychically prepare myself for the experience of seeing it. After that point - after it left the theatres and came out on DVD - there was simply no need to rush; in fact, there was good reason to wait. Having worked at a corporate video store in the past, I knew, based on experience, that this would be the kind of film that such chains - whose buyers at head office neither understand much about cinema nor mainstream audience reactions to arthouse fare - will buy in sets of six, based on the raving blurbs the distributors have compiled and the presence of big names like Bill Murray and John Hurt. (At the same time, they won’t carry one copy of Down By Law for their catalogue, though that one would actually rent, which many of their staff realize far better than their head office. Such is the sad nature of corporately-run video stores, which, save perhaps in real backwaters where there are no hip video stores, will surely be the next major facet of the entertainment industry to fall after CD’s...).

....Anyhow, the corporate head offices will do all this without realizing that many of us at all in the know about cinema are at a low ebb in our admiration for Jarmusch, and that reviews of this film have been largely mixed; Rotten Tomatoes, where it stands Rotten at 41%, is kind enough to sum up reviews, for those of us who really don't like to do our own thinking about cinema, by calling the film "a minimalist exercise in not much of anything" and "a tedious viewing experience with little reward." Head office, for all their charts and projections, is oblivious of all this, and doesn't much realize that those of us who actually care enough to want to see it have either already bought it, or have plans to do so when the price is right (more on which below), and thus have no need to waste money on a rental. Since middlebrow “fambly” folk won’t touch it on the rental shelf - perhaps trusting the no-neck pool of journalistic jobbos that Rotten Tomatoes draws on - or if they do, will largely find it objectionable or offensive and warn off their friends, the six copies the head office does buy (at a substantial discount and probably in a package with some other relative theatrical failure the distributor is pushing) will only generate enough rentals in two months to pay for three of the six, after which the video store will pragmatically dump five of ‘em into their PV bins at $14.99, to recoup their losses. They’ll sit in their bins - currently there are multiple copies at the Maple Ridge Rogers and Blockbuster locations, which are the only full-on video stores in this town - until it’s time for them to be marked down - a day which us few suburban cinephiles who understand this whole process have been impatiently awaiting; this was the next optimum time, economically, to buy and thus see the movie.

(I apologize to anyone living in the developing world or born into poverty for my refined shopping skills. Anyone who has to carry clean water for a few miles to be able to cook, drink, wash their dishes and bathe has full rights to resent that anyone should have thought enough about buying used DVDs to be able to discourse at such lengths on it. I am very sorry about everything. Please do not join Al Qaida.)

As for that “low ebb in [cinephile’s] admiration for Jarmusch” of which I spoke, I assert that based on conversations I’ve had with a few people: it ain’t everyone, but it sure ain’t just me, either. Though a few people I know find Ghost Dog delightful, there are also quite a few who find that it screws itself up with inappropriate bursts of coyly self-conscious Jarmuschian daffiness, like the whole gangsters-as-Indians-making-animal-sounds shtick: the fuck? These same people think that Iggy Pop in a dress reciting “Goldilocks” in no way improves what Dead Man appears to set out to do, and have similar observations about others of Jarmusch’s films; his fondness for silly non-sequiturs is often at odds with his more mature and disciplined impulses and ends up substantially lessening the impact of his films, even for those of us who admired his early work. Fussy, cruel pricks that we are, folks like us kind of enjoyed Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro poking fun at Jim’s appearance and cinematic ambitions in Year Of The Horse - tho’ we also enjoyed and admired Jarmusch’s decision to include these barbs in the finished film (which is either in third or fourth place on my list of favourite Jarmusch films, depending on when you ask me; and by the way, if you’re thinking I mustn’t have much of a sense of humour, Mystery Train is number two). Even as far back as the Neil Young film, see, we were getting a bit tired of Jarmusch’s self-reflexive and mannered weirdness, which only interfered with our appreciation for Ghost Dog, Cigarettes And Coffee, and Broken Flowers. Isaach de Bankolé receiving mysterious matchbooks and cryptic messages as he travels about Europe, in a film described as being somewhat cold, flat, and alienating? Um. “Well, if it’s any good, it could be great,” we thought. “It kinda sounds like he’s riffing on Antonioni,” we thought, but swapping Jack Nicholson out for a black guy, which seems quite appropriate and cinephilically crafty, deliberately riffing, maybe, on the camera flip from The Passenger; “I mean, it could be terrific.”
On the other hand, any description I read online made it sound like there was a lot of room for ol’Jim to make a full-on awful film, which certainly seemed within the realm of possibility, since the reviews weren’t often highly positive. The next question then is: are the critics who are panning the film doing so because it’s really not that good, or are they just brainless jobbers with no love or understanding of cinema at all? If you don't care what the people who write for The Province or Sun or most other local papers' film sections have to say about movies, you have to realize that the vast majority of reviewers polled by R/T are exactly the same sort of creature, three parts desk jockey to every one part cinephile. There sure are a lot of them sunsabitches in the newspapers of the world - which is why, oh, I dunno, Gregg Araki’s absolutely terrific pot comedy Smiley Face gets 62% on Rotten Tomatoes while Broken Flowers gets 87% and PT Anderson's embarrassingly bad (and apparently mercifully forgotten) There Will Be Blood gets 91...

Still, with so few people sticking up for it, there was cause to be wary about this film: hence the previous decision to just wait until I could buy it for the cost of renting it, which happened last week some time.

So why not review it now?

Problem: as I type this, I’m only about fifteen minutes into it. Understand that I put quotation marks around “unwind” in the first paragraph: thus unwound, I had to stop to write down my reactions “thus far” before I was prepared to proceed.

Reactions thus far:

1. Oh, my. I’m still thinking Antonioni, and the film has started. And better yet, I’m thinking about Zabriskie Point as well as The Passenger, and wonder if I’ll have cause to think of L’Eclisse or Red Desert or L’Avventura. You know how I knew before they appeared that the first words onscreen at the end of Signal 7 would be “dedicated to John Cassavetes?” I am wondering if this film will end with “Dedicated to Michelangelo Antonioni.” Might I be right, Jim?

2. Ohmigod I’ve waited all this time and now it’s going to turn out to be a fucking masterpiece. I should have just seen it in the cinema. Sorry, man! My faith was shaky, what can I say. If the film delivers on the promise of the first few minutes, this is going to be GREAT!

3. Hm. I suppose eating the math equation IS a bit daffy, but it has a poetic resonance that gangsters-imitating-Indians-making-animal-sounds just doesn’t have. It hasn’t broken the mood, I’m still with it.

4. Ooh, maybe not: my first moment of real worry is when the relative quiet that the film begins with is ruptured by music (by Boris, I think), as our protagonist commences his travels. Up to that point, I had been entirely engaged in the film, interpreting it, questioning it, and being grateful for its restraint, cinematic force, and intelligence. Then suddenly I’m being told how certain images are supposed to make me a feel by an extended abstract psych-y/ Krautrocky piece that is forcefully superimposed on them, and I’m shuddering, rebelling. Unlike the music that Kelly Reichardt uses for Old Joy, say, which actually really suited the mood her images conveyed - or, more relevantly, the discordant electronica that Antonioni used to compliment his images of LA in Zabriskie Point - the music here calls a great deal of attention to itself by not quite fitting with the images, or at least how I’ve been feeling about them thus far. It seems to want me to feel some other way. It’s trippy enough music, mind you, that within a minute or two, it has my attention, but I am also slightly in mourning, the powerful grip of the first five minutes or so having been replaced by a rather loose one. ‘Member Stephen King’s old observation, somewhere in Danse Macabre, I think, that certain films - he cites Deliverance - win our trust immediately with their opening scenes, letting us know that we can relax, because we're in "the hands of a master," or such? At this juncture in my viewing of The Limits Of Control, my trust has not yet been won; I have already been reminded that I am in the hands of someone who sometimes makes cinematic choices that are not altogether sound.

My interest is certainly piqued, however. I get back to it, and spend the next fifteen minutes in a tug-of-war. Sometimes the film works brilliantly. After half an hour, I still can’t judge what it will amount to, but as a collection of perceptual set pieces, it’s astounding, and features my second-favourite-ever deliberate visual confusion between paintings and cityscapes (after the brilliant start of Emile de Antonio’s Painters Painting). De Bankolé doing an unfamiliar version of Tai Chi in his hotel rooms, the way he looks at pigeons in flight from his café seat, the way the camera frames the Spanish town where the action is taking place - these images profoundly understand cineastic scopophilia and resonate long, just like musical notes played on a wooden instrument, which itself is an image used within the film to perhaps suggest an appropriate mindframe for viewing it. Contra the claim that this is an exercise in not much of anything, it's clearly an exercise in meta-cinema. That much you can tell from the gitgo.

There are things that don’t quite work, however. The repetition of the phrase “You don’t speak Spanish” - some sort of secret code - starts to seem a little too mannered and self-conscious, a distraction - like the soundtrack - from fully experiencing the film as a viewer (rather than a processor of words or music). And while occasionally the music works, a montage of images 33 minutes in of a glamourous woman (Tilda Swinton) walking down the street, set to more obtrustive alt-rock stuff, suddenly makes me shift my paradigm away from Antonioni to that of rock videos, which is not really a place I'd wanted to find myself. She will discourse about cinema, point out a references to a Hitchcock film and to The Lady From Shanghai that I confess I had not caught, and later appear in a movie poster within the film, so the self-consciousness with which Jarmusch frames her is clearly deliberate - but what it means I can’t really say; Jarmusch could use a class in meta-cinema from David Lynch, say, whose Inland Empire does a better job of waxing metacinematic without feeling didactic. The hat-tips to Godard are thankfully less obtrusive... It's starting to seem like the film will not deliver on the promise of the first few minutes, but it's certainly still holding my attention.

So it goes with the rest of the film. For all its compelling visual poetry, there’s an overall sense of strained self-consciousness to the film, as if it really, really wants you to be aware of it’s artifice - as if Jarmusch had so little faith in his audience's ability to read an art film that he felt the need to scream "this is an art film!" at them every fifteen minutes or so, which more refined viewers will not need and less refined ones will likely not benefit from. The odd little conversations that de Bankolé has on his journey (which climaxes in a murder) all fit together, obviously, with much talk of molecules and art and “bohemians,” though on one viewing, I can't quite tell you what they mean, other than, perhaps, "we are the good guys" - the film is all too eager to congratulate us for going along with it, like it's striving to create a little in-group of viewers who "get it" and who are thus superior to those that don't. Youki Kudoh, from Mystery Train, makes an appearance on a train. Bill Murray plays some sort of bad guy who appears to represent - oh I don’t know, mebbe mainstream Hollywood, the corporate influence of the arts, or maybe the "control" of the title, a word Jarmusch has him use explicitly without pinning down exactly what he means by it. At least he doesn’t make weird animal sounds, even when he's being strangled. The film seems to attempt to contain within it a theory of how to watch it - or how to watch cinema - which could be instructional for younger viewers, should they try to engage with it, and the tone of the film throughout remains within arm's reach of Antonioni - especially The Passenger - but the “poetry” of Jarmusch is so much clunkier than that of Antonioni that this must be noted. If The Passenger confronts viewers with the sound of one hand clapping, The Limits Of Control confronts us with the sound of one hand clapping really loudly.

By the end of the film, I’m exhausted, and straining to stay awake - no fault of the film’s, it’s just been a long week - but for my reservations, I’ve enjoyed the experience and want to revisit it; I can’t say exactly what I make of it, but I know I like it better than the last three of Jarmusch’s films, has been underrated as much as they were overrated, and I can say that it’s my fave of his since 1997’s Year Of The Horse. Certainly worth the $6 or so I paid for it, in any event! It's a bit late for me to advise my readers to rush out to cinemas to catch the film, but if you head to your nearest video chain’s PV bin, you’ll be able to scoop it up there without much difficulty, at a very reasonable price.
If you haven't already.

A final note: thank you, Wikipedia, for teaching me of The Sons of Lee Marvin, a “semi-secret society” of whom Jim Jarmusch is a member. So is John Lurie, saith Wikipedia. I don’t think I’ll trouble him to ask.

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