Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Limits of Control

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Viewed: From the Balcony

I think it's reasonable to call Jim Jarmusch's latest film a test of the viewer's patience. It may sound odd to say that I don't really mean this as an insult or to cast a negative light on the film. In fact, I found Jarmusch's quiet, deliberate, repetitive pace nearly transcendent. Nearly. And it wasn't the inactivity or lack of a real script that causes the film to miss the mark for me. I honestly feel that the tipping point is Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, his skewed eye in this case, being at odds with Jarmusch's pinpoint contemplative story -- what there is of a story anyway. In the end, you're left with a film that's much more interesting as a subject of post-film debate than it is to actually watch.

We follow long time Jarmusch collaborator Isaach De Bankolé as he goes through the day to day routine of his job. It just so happens that he's an assassin of sorts. This entails flying to Spain and picking up tiny messages in matchboxes from one person to the next until he finds his target. But more than that, it entails a daily regimen of tai chi, espresso, abstinence and singular doses of fine art. I'm sure there's a back story to De Bankolé character, and I'd be fine with that story remaining a mystery, if only we were allowed catch a glimmer of character behind his shiny suits and stoic expressions. It's quite perverse in a way (most of the film is in one way or another), how Jarmusch designed this exercise in minimalism around one of the most expressive actors in the business. The film is set-up in a similar way to Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. Each morning De Bankolé wakes up, exercises, goes to the museum, get's some coffee and meets someone with a new matchbox containing an encrypted message. The film could be described as four one-sided conversations over coffee tied together by trips to the museum and tai chi. Even more perverse is that the "conversations" (De Bankolé rarely says more than one word to the people he meets) are all variations on a theme -- everyone's saying the same thing, just using different words.

What dialog there is revolves around the cellular (or Molecules, as one character goes by in the credits) memory of the instrument, the role of bohemians in the art world and the reflection meaning more than the source -- but what it all adds up to is fuzzy and untenable. I enjoyed the idea of Bankolé being as much an instrument as the classic acoustic guitar that changes hands throughout the film. There is a sense that his routines, his shiny suits and his deflective demeanor are all in place to prevent his surroundings from influencing him. And of course, the film makes an attempt to show us that, try as he might, he is affected by his job and his surroundings and the people he meets. De Bankolé has such a fascinating face that it's a pleasure to watch even when it's doing nothing -- or softening as it tends to do as the film progresses. The more obvious signs that his environment is creeping into him is watching his suits soften from shiny blue to earth tones. But aside form a few interesting ideas spouted form eccentric characters, what is it -- is it the flamenco interlude that finally cracked his wall? Is it the ominously coincidental paintings that he returns to -- do they reflect upon his life in a way that causes him to open up? Do all these things come across in the film as less than meaningful, therefore making his adventure rather boring? Yes and no.

What really both helps and hinders the film is Christopher Doyle's cinematography and the music of Japanese drone maestros, Boris. Doyle has been working magic with his cameras for years, perhaps hitting his apex early on with his work for Wong Kar Wai - especially In the Mood For Love. He's amazing with colors and movement (two of the last words I would use to associate with Jim Jarmusch) and can make just about any setting look like art. He does some great stuff with the tiny, graffiti tagged sidewalks of Spain and manages to take the discussion of cellular memory to the level of the buildings and apartments we come across. Unfortunately, and this may be the reason even die hard Jarmusch fan’s may be left cold by The Limits of Control, the film feels more like an uneasy collaboration between Jarmusch and Doyle than it does a Jarmusch film – I’m just not convinced that the two were operating on the same wavelength. (Actually, after watching the documentary In the Mood For Doyle, I doubt anyone else on the planet is really on the same wavelength as Doyle.) The films of Jim Jarmusch have never been briskly paced, they’ve all taken their own sweet time to sprawl out, but usually the photography is stubbornly inert, forcing the moments and extremely limited when it comes to inserts and similar edits, always preferring the long, fixed take. Something about handheld cameras and a Jim Jarmusch story just doesn’t sit will with me and there’s a fair amount of Christopher Doyle calling attention to himself in this film when we’d normally just be relaxing in the moment with Jarmusch’s characters.

The handling of music in the film, on the other hand, remains one of Jarmusch’s strongest talents. If it weren’t for the perfectly timed intrusions of Boris’ growling guitars and overall menace, the film could very well slip by a viewer like a whisper in the wind. What drama the film is able to summon up from its matchbox sized, encrypted story is due in large part to the rumble created by Boris. If The Limits of Control achieves only one cinematic footnote it most likely will end up being the realization of Boris’ potential as epic soundtrack music.

A movie this perverse in its minutiae can’t go down as a complete failure (more fiasco, really). It’s been a few days since I’ve watched the film and it’s still a lot of fun to think about – which is strange since it really wasn’t all that fun to watch. The movie has some great photography, even if the style doesn’t quite suit the film, great music and if it wasn’t for the fact that Jim Jarmusch only makes two or three movies a decade the film would probably be an agreeably thought provoking film. Instead it’s a frustratingly thought provoking film.

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