by William Goss
Back in one of my high school composition classes, we had to watch a movie (that may or may not been 'Koyaanisqatsi;' Iím not entirely sure) and write about what it meant. I had been quite bored by the film and, as such, was at a loss for words. What did it all mean, man? Who was to say it had meant anything at all? Then I began to wonder, what if it really wasnít art? This grew into a thesis of ďanti-art,Ē suggesting that it was all just a high-minded attempt to combine the most tangentially related images into a feature of Deep Proportions, and that thesis grew into an essay that my teacher seemed to believe as much as I did. To some extent, it felt like bullshit begetting bullshit, but since the paper passed, I suppose that day would mark my first real reward for taking up cynicismÖ My tolerance for the tedious has grown significantly since then, and Iím sure that given another chance, I might even see some value in what may or may not have been 'Koyaanisqatsi' that had eluded me back then. Now, at the ripe old age of twenty-something, Iíd surely know better about acknowledging what merits, if any, a film might have, and I say all of that to tell you all of this: I donít know what Jim Jarmuschís 'The Limits of Control' is getting at. I do know that itís getting at something, and I do know that itís not getting to me, and while I may not be above it, it may very well be beyond me.ďEverything is subjective,Ē the subtitled man says. ďEverything is subjective, whatever that means,Ē his translator chimes in. Theyíre together sending a man on a mission. We donít know the manís name (the actor is Isaach De Bankolť); we donít know the missionís objective. Heís a man who knows how he likes his espressos (two of them, in two separate cups), and heís a man who is willing and able to swallow coded instructions on pieces of paper that come in the matchboxes he trades with strangers at the cafťs where he gets those espressos. Heís a man who walks much more than he talks, a complete cipher (maybe he is what he eats) who hates mobiles (maybe Jarmusch is suggesting that viewers themselves should stop texting, look, and listen). Heís a man who likes his art museums Ė a violin in a painting begets a violin in the following scene; a nude woman in a painting begets Paz de la Huerta in her birthday suit shortly thereafter. Heís a man of very few words, she of very few clothes. Much to Chekhovís chagrin, she welcomes him with a gun in the first act that does not return in the third.
We know itís the first act because our Lone Man is wearing a blue suit; I dare not spoil what other colors he comes to wear, but his costume changes do tend to coincide with the breaks in a traditional narrative structure. Of course, a traditional narrative structure isnít exactly the name of the game here. The man meditates. The man meets. The man moves, by plane, then train, and then automobile. Rinse, lather, repeat. Espresso, espressoÖ ooh, a pear! Actually, do we ever see him touch the second espresso? And is he the only one not ever wearing either glasses or sunglasses? To say that I care about either would be a most generous assessment, but it is curious to note after a while, as is most of it, just barely, just enough. Itís intriguing, sure, but exciting never. Hypnotic? Semantics. And so on, and so forth.
See what I mean? I could tell you what happens, but I couldnít tell you what itís all about (hell, Alfie would even find that to be a challenge). Itís as proudly obtuse as anything Jarmusch has made, as much an un-thriller as Dead Man was an un-Western. Hitchcock, Welles, and Schubert all get name-checked, so these characters are at least gliding through some version of our reality. When Tilda Swinton shows up and talks to the quiet man about the confluence of films and dreams, Iím left in a daze. When Swinton then talks about films in which characters donít speak, Iím left with a grin. Itís nothing more than coy, but better that than minimalist at some point, better that than abstract. For a stretch, The Limits of Control works itself into a nice enough groove, with the help of Borisí moody score and the hope that things might still build, grow, develop, change, or climax to any discernible degree.
De Bankolť sits stoic beside Swinton and John Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal and eventually none other than Bill ďGroundhog-Day, Ghostbustin'-assĒ Murray, who calls out our mystery man on everything we thought, but didnít have the heart to say out loud: ďItís all fucking nonsense!Ē His profane cries, alas, do not last long. We canít have talk like that in a movie like this, or else, why would we have watched? What then if the sum is even lesser than those exceedingly spare parts? Characters keep saying, ďHe who thinks he's bigger than the rest must go to the cemetery,Ē and while I donít know that Jarmusch deserves a fate that harsh, it seems clear that his game is supposed to be a bit bigger than us all (or, again, maybe not; look, at least itís not willfully frustrating on the level of Guy Ritchieís Revolver, Iíll give it that much).
The film certainly looks swell. Then again, cinematographer Christopher Doyle could elevate any sight to the level of Shinola, though Spainís more picturesque locales seem to meet him halfway. I think Welles himself mightíve approved of the Kipling quote that came to mind: ďItís pretty, but is it art?Ē Yes, and maybe. Is it a slow-burn anti-capitalist screed? Eh, perhaps. Should you seek it out? Meh, perhaps. Itís a film that tests either my limits or the filmmakerís own Ė Iím still not sure, but hey, thatís the beauty of art. Some people can look at it and see what others cannot. After all, everything is subjectiveÖWhatever that means.
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originally posted: 06/16/09 01:46:44