If I had to resort to one of those crude movie equations to describe Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009), it would have to be “Quentin Tarantino minus the hyperkinetics”. Studded with a plethora of movie references, Jarmusch’s movie is a film buff’s dream, literally. In some ways, Jarmusch is like Pedro Almodóvar, who has been consistently accused of being apolitical in his movies (Is it a mere coincidence that The Limits of Control is based and shot in Spain?). But a little investigation shows that the very nature of Almodóvar’s films – with their explicitness of ideas and visuals – reinforces the difference between contemporary Spain and Francoist Spain and, in the process, draws a portrait of a country that has come a long way since those oppressive years. Jarmusch’s cinema, too, does not exist in vacuum. With their plotless scripts and unhurried pacing, his movies are the perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster of Hollywood. These films have been relentlessly repudiating Hollywood’s ideas of filmmaking and its mantras for success through the years. However, with this movie, Jarmusch establishes himself as the absolute antithesis of the industry-driven cinema of America. It is almost as if Jarmusch believes that he exists only because an entity called Hollywood exists – a kinship like the one between The Joker and Batman. Hollywood and Jarmusch, it seems, complete each other. In that sense, not only is The Limits of Control Jarmusch’s most political movie, it is also his most personal and most complete film.
The Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) dresses in snazzy formal clothing and meets up with two men at an airport, one of whom speaks Spanish and the other translates. The conversation is completely tangential to the mission briefing, which seems like some illegal job, possibly an assassination. He listens to them keenly, gets up and leaves. Cut to Madrid. In the city, he visits art galleries daily before retiring for the day at the local restaurant, where he orders two espressos in separate cups. He is, of course, waiting for Violin (Luis Tosar), who, like all the other agents in the film, exchanges matchboxes with him. The Lone Man draws out a piece of paper from his matchbox, which has some kind of codes written on it. He memorizes them and eats the paper. A day or few later, he has a rendezvous with a blonde woman (Tilda Swinton). The matchbox routine is followed. This time the matchbox contains a bunch of diamonds, which the Lone Man hands over to the woman (Paz De La Huerta) who has been staying with him in his hotel room. He leaves Madrid and on the next train meets up with an oriental woman, Molecules (Youki Kudoh), who has her own scientific, religious and philosophical theories to tell him. After the matchbox ritual, he checks into the hotel at Seville. There, he attends a dance rehearsal and meets Guitar (John Hurt) who tries to derive the etymology of the word “Bohemian” and hands him over a priceless guitar. Lone Man leaves the town. On the way to his next destination, where he would meet a Mexican (Gael García Bernal), he snips off one of the guitar strings that he will soon use to assassinate an important man. Make what you will of this weird plot, but you can’t blame the film for what it does not have. Jarmusch has written and directed the movie exactly the way he wants it to be.
The Limits of Control continues to explore one of the director’s favorite questions – How aloof can a man be from his surroundings? Till this film, this idea was most manifest in Ghost Dog (1999) (which clearly takes off from Jean-Pierre Melville’ austere Le Samourai (1967)), wherein a Black American lone ranger living in Jersey City follows the code of the Samurai and, in effect, constructs his own moral and psychological world. In The Limits of Control, the Lone Man – an American who performs Tai Chi in dressing rooms, hotels and train compartments in Spain – is a blue whale in a baby carriage. The film opens with a quote by Arthur Rimbaud: “As I descended into impassable rivers I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen”, recalling the final scene of Dead Man (1995). This “impassable river” soon goes on to take multiple meanings in the film as Lone Man commutes from the labyrinthine western structures of Madrid to sparse and open locales of the Spanish countryside. This fitting quote is followed by the bizarre opening shot whose camera angle presents us the Lone Man in a seemingly reclining position, like that of William Blake (Johnny Depp) in Dead Man. The Lone Man has already entered the mystic river. Production Designer Eugenio Cabarello’s fabulous work gives us ominous vertical, horizontal, diagonal and spiral structures that attempt to devour the Lone Man. Christopher Doyle’s camera arcs and glides to trap the Lone Man within the convoluted architectures of the film, in vain. Evidently, the Lone Man is Jim Jarmusch himself, like a monk, relentlessly wading through from the corrupt, impassable and savage rapids of Hollywood.
The Limits of Control is an unabashed celebration of art, of its eccentricities and of losing oneself in it. The film is loaded with conversations about paintings, music, dance, films and books. In fact, Jarmusch’s film is closer to Last Year at Marienbad (1961) than any other. “It’s just a matter of perception”, says one of the characters in this movie. The world in The Limits of Control is one that exists solely in the mind of its protagonist. Like in Marienbad, Jarmusch uses parallel structures – hedgerows, pillars and hallways – to underscore the idea that what we see is not a physical world built out of concrete and cement but the labyrinths of the mind – memories and experiences, particularly, of art. If the surroundings, at times, seem highly artificial, it’s because that is how the Lone Man perceives it to be. It’s a world that is completely parallel to the real one, like Jarmusch’s cinema. It’s a world which is far more valid, uncorrupt, honest and truer than the real world for the Lone Man, very much like Jarmusch himself. One character quotes that “For me, sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected” and that “La Vida No Vale Nada” (Life is worthless), as if believing that if at all there is some meaning to be found anywhere, it is in this world of art – the one which they live in. It is this alternate world that interests Jarmusch more than the real one. The film is parenthesized between shots of the Lone Man entering and leaving his dressing room –the portal to the film’s world. The first cut in to the movie signals, through the skewed camera angle, the other worldliness to come and the final cut out of the film, an unmistakable Jarmusch signature, segregates the film from squalor of the real world (This cut recalls the final one in Broken Flowers (2005), where the director nudges the hitherto Jarmuschian protagonist into the melodramatic clockwork of the pop cinema and cuts away to indicate the end point of his world).
Throughout The Limits of Control, there is the notion of interchangeability of art and life – of reality and memory. Representation becomes perception and vice versa. One character even believes that violins have a memory and can remember every note that is ever played on them. The Lone Man watches the paining of a nude woman, only to find a nude woman lying on his bed, in a similar position, a few minutes later. His point-of-view shot of the vast expanses of the city of Madrid is intercut with a similar paining of the city. Life becomes images and images come to life. The Limits of Control reinforces George Steiner’s theory that “it’s not the literal past that rules us, but the images of the past”, through works of art and through one’s own memory – the two carriers of history – that have preserved them from being destroyed completely. Jarmusch’s movie reflects on how these images of the past – our masters – are being rapidly corrupted and replaced by the ones from popular media in an attempt to forge false histories, destroy critical mythologies and homogenize world culture by influencing their past (art) and present (life), through endless stereotyping and manipulation of truth, to reflect kindred iconographies and system of beliefs (One can sense seething anger beneath the cool exterior of the film). The climax of the movie (that I, first, felt was crude and which, now, I feel is deliciously Lynchian) depicts the Lone Man in a remote region in Spain getting ready for a face off with his adversary, a typical Conservative, American executive (Bill Murray, top class), who does not understand or give a damn about these “bohemian” ideas of art and who has infiltrated the deepest of foreign regions on a mission, perhaps, to establish the biggest studios, worldwide.
The Limits of Control seals Jarmusch’s position as a reactive filmmaker. Each facet of the film seems like a move against the “industry norm”. The cast consists almost entirely of non-Hollywood actors. The film is shot on location in Spain, a world away from the cluttered studios of Fox or Universal. The average shot length is way too high compared to that of the blockbusters. The colour palette isn’t at all like anything we see on TV every day. On the surface, Jarmusch’s is the typical man-on-a-mission movie. His script, however, is made up entirely of in-between events that are taken for granted in such movies. There is a Bourne movie, a Bond movie and a McClane movie unfolding somewhere in the background. But that is not Jarmusch’s world. What Jarmusch did with cinematic time in his movies, so far, is applied to cinematic space in The Limits of Control. Jarmusch’s “dead time” has always complemented Hollywood’s “show time”. In The Limits of Control, he goes to the extent of dividing his protagonist’s world into Hollywood zones and non-Hollywood zones. The moment our man enters a “Hollywood infested zone”, the camera goes crazy, the editing becomes rapid and the soundtrack starts blaring, while at other times they remains sober. None of the “actions” of the mission are shown on screen. Like Le Samourai, which opens with an photograph-like shot of the protagonist, Jef Costello (Alain Delon), on his bed and goes on to show us a zombie-like detached figure walking through familiar checkpoints in a genre movie as if performing a ritual, Jarmusch’s Lone Man is seen, for most part, lying down on bed and walking towards his next strategic position. We come to know neither of the meaning of the codes that he gathers, not of his business with diamonds and matchboxes. Heck, we don’t even get to know his name.
Quentin Tarantino said about The Bride in Kill Bill (2003-04) that she was, in fact, fighting through all the exploitative cinemas from around the world. Tarantino’s movie both paid homage to and incriminated all the exploitative movies that the director had grown up on. Likewise, within his world of art, Jarmusch integrates cinemas from around the world in an attempt to illustrate that all art is one (Molecules tells us that Hindus believe the whole world to be one and that she thinks people are nothing but molecules rearranging themselves regularly). There are actors from almost every continent in the film. Like The Bride, the Lone Man wanders these empty corridors on a mission to keep art untainted. His arch nemesis seems to be the “art industry” that tries to infiltrate his perception (of the world, of art and of this art-world) and impose its own dynamics in it. The Limits of Control is a clash of these two perceptions where the title of the film refers to the ability of one to “think the right thing”, free from TV-driven emotional response systems. During the final scene, upon being inquired, not so politely, how he got into the heavily guarded building, the Lone Man says “I used my imagination” as if pointing out that one’s acceptance of rejection of popular beliefs is purely a question of the psychology. So the film also unfolds as one man’s journey into his own subconscious, to free himself from the chains that bind him to predictable ways of acting and thinking. It’s an odyssey to rid art of capitalistic models based on consumerism and marketability (The post credits sequence flashes a huge marquee that reads: “No Limits No Control”). The film is counteractive to every “formula” that pop cinema sticks to for keeping its “products” of art saleable (“No guns, no cell phone, no sex” quips someone in the film). Again, Resnais’ and Marker’s Statues Also Die (1953), an overt, one-sided but well-crafted bashing of the western world’s fetish for exotic art and its detrimental effects on lifestyles and cultures, comes to mind.
But, by no means is Jarmusch’s film a propagandist assault on this conveyor-belt mindset of ours. It is far too assured and composed for that kind of conversation. “I’m among no one”, claims the Lone Man. Jarmusch makes it clear that he does not have an agenda here. He just wants no other agenda to be made with respect to art. He is not against any particular system or a film industry, he is against the very notion of industries that try to regulate and quantize the quality of art. And justifiably, his movie is a celebration of all such films that have survived the concentration camps of major studios. Jarmusch adorns the movie with references to iconoclastic movies that have raised their voice against the oppressive, money-driven tendency of the studio systems. Early in the film, the Lone Man returns to his hotel room in Madrid to find a nude woman named, well, Nude on his bed. She asks him if he likes her posterior. This, of course, is the hyperlink to Godard’s polemical Contempt (1963), where the director bit not only the hand that fed him, but all such hands which feed only conditionally (Jarmusch even recreates the shots of Brigitte Bardot swimming). Later, Blonde, a film buff, talks about The Lady from Shanghai (1947), where Welles had to put up with a lot of meddling by the execs at Columbia Pictures. Jarmusch even sneaks in pointers to his own movies, effectively categorizing his movies under this kind of cinema of resistance, although he never takes sides. There are broken flowers, there are coffees and cigarettes everywhere in the film and the Lone Man, whose cousin lived by the Samurai code, travels in a mysterious train with that Japanese girl who we saw in Memphis a few years ago. There are also movies that Jarmusch loves and pays tribute to. There is Jean-Pierre Melville, there is Aki Kaurismaki and there is Andrei Tarkovsky, packed somewhere into this seemingly sparse and empty film.
Because of all this and more, watching The Limits of Control is like having a déjà vu marathon. Notwithstanding the fact that many lines in the movie, as is the case in other Jarmusch films, are recited over and over throughout, one gets the feeling of having seen these people, these objects and these setups somewhere, sometime ago – another Resnaisian trait of the film (specifically redolent of one of Marienbad’s powerful, enigmatic quotes “Conversation flowed in a void, apparently meaningless or, at any rate, not meant to mean anything. A phrase hung in midair, as though frozen, though doubtless taken up again later. No matter. The same conversations were always repeated, by the same colorless voices.”). It is the kind of experience some people have watching Vertigo (1958). “The best films are like dreams, you’re never sure you really had.” tells Blonde. Indeed. Like Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1992), The Limits of Control blossoms out as a dream in which you meet the most unexpected of movie stars in the most trivial of roles. Jarmusch’s self-referential tricks only add to this strange familiarity that we feel with the movie. Blonde likes movies where people just sit there, doing nothing. Ring a bell? She tells the Lone Man that Suspicion (1941) was the only film in which Rita Hayworth played a blonde. The Limits of Control must be the only film in which Swinton plays a blonde. Seemingly pointless lines such as “You don’t speak Spanish, right?”, “Life is a handful of dirt” and “The universe has no center and no edges” go on to become central to the ideas of the film (there is a strange little prank involving subtitles in the all important opening conversation of the film). The major attack against The Limits of Control, I imagine, would be regarding the self-indulgent nature of the film. Sure the film is self-indulgent, but it is also more than that. It is a self-indulgent movie that promotes self-indulgence. It is a movie that dares to almost profess that art can exist for only its own sake (what else can it exist for? World peace?). That there is nothing called “progress” or “superiority” in art. That all art is one and, to kill the most frequently uttered maxim in this movie and elsewhere, everything is subjective.