Came finally to one of the must-sees of 2009: Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, a film that got a reception typical to those made by American “auteurs” lately. If you’re European (Pedro Almodóvar) or have Asian roots (Ang Lee), you can make and release films year after year that bear your distinct marks of style and content. But unless you’re the “Academy” beloved Coen brothers (or the once-every-five-years Paul Thomas Anderson), be careful of being an American director who releases films with a distinctive style. As is becoming typical of films in this category, The Limits of Control was disliked by almost everyone who don’t like Jim Jarmusch and embraced and defended by a few Jarmusch fans.
This is a film that resists cogent verbal description while simultaneously striving to give the viewer a Zen-like framework within which to receive it. This framework is like a skeleton; it is present throughout the film, but only in a “bare bones” sense. It isn’t thick or overly complex, but it’s always there. Deconstructionist/postmodernist axioms pepper the repetitive episodes and constantly inform the viewer how to understand the meaning of the images. These images are beautiful. They could be described as “perfect” if this were a world in which perfection was a meaningful concept. Every one of them is composed with a richness of color, contrast, composition, movement, and stasis. Ozu meets Antonioni meets Rivette. What is real? The answer is neither this nor that, neither yes nor no. Art as an idea is its main character, and the film is a cyclical wallowing in the liminal space between art and life, representation and reality. One reading (I believe the review for Cineaste) offered a possible political interpretation. Art does, in a sense, overcome and kill politics here, but only if the murdered character is to be interpreted based on his physical likeness to certain recent American politicians. This seems like a shaky limb on which to rest.
Much of the art that Lone Man appreciates is abstract in nature, and fittingly so. The abstract composition of Lone Man’s surroundings and the woman herself are just some of the counterpoints within what appears to be “reality” with the gallery art he views. Shots of a “real” panorama are exchanged with shots of a painted one, and “real” vistas warp and become something altered photographically. Conversations about cinema and music become realities and initiate a reverse-cycle that questions the nature of earlier encounters. The two films mentioned explicitly by Tilda Swinton’s character are Hitchcock’s Suspicion and Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, two films that are all about this very question: what is real, what is imagined, can I trust what my eyes see?
Having not yet gotten to such probable gems as Mystery Train, Ghost Dog, and Dead Man, one can only comment on the similarities with Jarmusch’s other films Coffee & Cigarettes and Broken Flowers. In a word, The Limits of Control has the episodic narrative of Broken Flowers with its silent anti-hero as well as the episodic non-narrative of Coffee & Cigarettes with its many little conversations over the titular substances. The death of meaning set forth at the end of Broken Flowers is taken up at the very beginning of The Limits of Control, and this is its main proposal and main difficulty. Meaning is “subjective,” we are told, “there are those among us who are not among us,” and if anyone deserves to die it’s the angry and talkative power-holders who live in big compounds with ninja guards. These are the meaning-makers, and they are the ones who should be killed. Once they’re gone, as in this film, the canvas becomes covered from within, blank and devoid. One can shed the final layer of his exoskeleton and go outside to live. Here Jarmusch’s camera cuts out in the manner of a camera that is turned off. It’s the most overtly self-reflexive moment in a highly self-reflexive film, and the implication seems to be that here the representation is unnecessary because “reality” and art have co-mingled.