Friday, May 1, 2009
the limits of control vs. wolverine...
Wow, it's been a really long time since I've written anything of substance here. I'm definitely feeling kind of rusty. Things have been going alright here in the Negative Zone, sometimes good, sometimes bad. A couple of months ago, everything was really chaotic, less for me than for a lot of people around me, but it was still kind of a troubling and difficult time. Eventually it all got a bit calmer, and then I finally found a job. It doesn't start until the fall, but I'm going to be teaching writing and literature at the art school where I did my undergrad studies. So, yeah, that's pretty cool, really cool, in a bunch of ways, and the first thing that's ever happened to me career-wise that's ever felt like any kind of real achievement, like getting a job based on my credentials and stuff. I've been flying pretty high off that one for a couple of weeks now, although I still need to find some kind of side gig to help pay the bills.
Anyway, on to the films. The other night I got a chance to see THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, Jim Jarmusch's latest. As a matter of full disclosure, and not the be a total name dropper, but I've know Jim for some 15 years now, and I worked on GHOST DOG and COFFEE & CIGARETTES. His brother is one of my closest friends, so I'm kind of predisposed to like his movies, and generally I do. Some of them, I like a lot. DEAD MAN, I think, is one of the most significant films of the 1990s, and as of yet the last great American western. And of course like anyone with a taste for cinema I love STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, MYSTERY TRAIN and GHOST DOG. I like the others too, just maybe not as much. It feels really awkward to write about this. Do I really need to publicize it? Do you really need to know, or care? But I guess it has an effect on my viewing and reception of the film.
THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is kind of an experiment. It was shot without a formal script, the dialogue was devised by Jim and the actors during production. Actually, there isn't much dialogue, it appears only in a repeating series of vignettes. For the most part, the film eschews a traditional sense of narrative as well. The main character drifts through situations and this cycle of exchanges, the details of the plot (vaguely having something to do with a series of hand offs between members of an international criminal syndicate) remain nonspecific. THE LIMTS OF CONTROL works instead of a kind of dream logic, which becomes increasingly fantastical as the movie progresses. In the final scene, the main character, identified in the credits as "Lone Man" and played by the great Isaach de Bankole, from Claire Denis movies, enters a seemingly impenetrable desert fortress. When asked how he did, the reply is simply," I used my imagination."
Jarmusch pretty much spells out his intent in an exhcange between de Bakole and Tilda Swinton, as "Blonde." Discussing film, she talks about small moments and long silences, and the cinema as an archive of how people in the past dressed, their enviornements, how they smoked etc. We see a lot of this throughout the film. The first hour or so is pretty mesmerizing, as de Bankole drifts through beautiful Spanish locales from one exchange to the next (he encounters fellow Claire Denis vet Alex Descas and DEAD MAN's John Hurt, among others) and we are given views of the architecture surrounding him, the art that he views, landscapes and small details of day to day life. This part of the film is as good as anything Jarmusch has ever done, it's fairly remarkable, involving, beautiful, reminiscint of the films of Jacques Rivette as well as lo-fi, minimal yet detailed crime flicks like Melville's LE SAMOURAI, John Boorman's POINT BLANK and the lesser known French-American co-production THE OUTSIDE MAN, starring John-Louis Trintignant, all films featuring a stoic, lone character travelling on a mission of some kind.
Toward the end, the film starts to falter somewhat. An exchange between de Bankole and Gael Garcia Bernal, as "Mexican," about hallucinogens, echoes the Mick Jagger monologue in PERFORMANCE that's become the standard bearer of second-rate philosophizing in pretentious movies (not that there's anything second rate about PERFORMANCE, but the William Burroughs quote "nothing is true, everything is permitted" has been parrotted in lesser films for decades, and seems a bit juvenile here when used by a filmmaker of Jarmusch's intelligence and stature). Soon after, the dream logic was broken, for me, anyway, in a scene between de Bankole and Bill Murray, as "American," which felt kind of rushed and clumsly compared to the easy elegance of the rest of the movie. Murray refutes all of the beautiful sentiments uttered by others in the film, and de Bankole kills him. Not to be overly harsh, but there's something almost student film like about it, though perhaps there's some intent to that. THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, as an experiment, is something like Jarmusch's own student film, PERMAMENT VACATION, 30 years on and with the steady hand of a master behind it.
Despite these two moments which took away from the overall experience for me, the rest of THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is simply a beautiful, remarkable piece of filmmaking. It's sort of a wonder that this even got made in today's cinematic climate. Jarmusch gives the audience nothing, not in a confrontational way, but simply, he allows things to remain mysterious, gives us uncertainty as to what is coming next, something most films today seem to shy away from, almost violently so. This is definitely a movie that calls for active viewership, it's engaging, and that's pretty wonderful.
Also worthy of mention is the shoegaze-y score by Japanese hipster metal outfit Boris (some of their songs with Suno))) are included as well), the typically stunning cinematography from frequent Wong Kar Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle and the painful beauty of female co-star Paz de la Huerta, as "Nude," naked in every scene she appears in, and the character who makes the most personal connection with de Bankole's Lone Man.
By contrast, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE is hardly worth mentioning. Not that it's the worst movie I've ever seen, or even the worst superhero movie (it's certainly better than it's predecessor, X-MEN 3), but it's so slightly as to barely register. I suppose it hits a few of the right marks, in that some of the action sequences are well-played, and visually it's stylish enough to not be so overtly tacky as it could haver been, but still...so what? As I process it, I may want to say something about the political aspects of the film, which are typically troubling in that they seem to present the idea of colonialism as a matter of course and nothing to be bothered about, but then again, maybe it's not worth it. It goes without saying that I'll take the flawed beauty of a serious-minded art film like THE LIMITS OF CONTROL over the bland crowd-pleasing action of WOLVERINE any day...