Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Interpretations, Creative Ids and The Limits of Control
There may be mild SPOILERS in this review.
If there is one concept about movies I am dismayed many moviegoers resist, it is that a movie can have more than one interpretation. The relationship between film and audience should be personal to such an extent that it should be inevitable that one's reaction to what they are watching should be unique in some way. In theory.
Of course, that doesn't take into account that many of us can be catharsis junkies sometimes. Demanding that movies can only one meaning. That there only be a single answer to its mysteries. This addiction is often fed by filmmakers, who often feel the need to explain plot and theme, sacrificing the pace of their narrative. There is this false notion that a film fails if everyone doesn't get it exactly the same way.
Part of the fun in watching movies should be the comparisons of different reactions from those bringing distinctive life experiences into the theater. There are those who make the most obvious interpretation and those who will come up with theories that make others scratch their heads and accuse them of being a crackpot. Regardless of how off-base you think someone is, you have to appreciate the discussion a film can inspire.
There are times when I am watching a film like Jim Jarmusch's “The Limits of Control”, when I begin to latch onto a theme and hold onto it regardless of whether I felt it was intended or not. Jarmusch has long been a filmmaker whose works have often welcomed anyone willing to wrestle with their meaning.
Jarmusch's films offer plenty of mood and an attention to often methodical rhythms present in his films since his NYU thesis project “Permanent Vacation”. “Stranger Than Paradise” is composed of scenes with neither cuts nor any camera move more elaborate than panning. “Dead Man” threatens to have a traditional western plot in its first half hour, only to focus on the inevitable journey to death for the rest of its running time. “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” spends a great deal of time with its title character's process, which includes rooftop training, book reading, stealing cars, pigeon handling and playing specific music on his way to jobs.
“The Limits of Control” is the cousin to “Ghost Dog”, following a nameless hit man (or is he?), played by Isaach De Bankolé, through the process of one mission. What made “Ghost Dog” special to me was the both thoughtful and hilarious ways Jarmusch showed the clash between different ancient codes and how feasible they were in the modern world when the cultural differences between a would-be samurai and over-the-hill gangsters create obvious divides despite the fact they have much in common. One of the funniest gags in that film is when the gangsters complain about young kids making up names for themselves like rappers do. In the next breath, one of the gangsters then asks an underling to go find some other guys, rattling off a list of stereotypically ridiculous gangster nicknames.
I cannot say “The Limits of Control” is in the same league as “Ghost Dog”, but I believe it to be more than just the display of self-conscious hipsterism that its many detractors have labeled it. Although the idea was forming when watching the film, it truly hit me on the train ride afterwards that “Limits” was about the creative id.
In the movie, the Lone Man, as he is called in the credits, moves from location to location in Spain, meeting a different character at each stop, exchanging matchboxes containing a small piece of paper with a number code written on it. These characters are given names like Violin, Blonde, Molecules, Guitar and the sure-to-be-noticed Nude. When the Lone Man meets up with each of them, the actual details of the mission are rarely discussed. What often happens is a character sits across from the Lone Man while he's drinking his 2 espressos (it must be 2 cups, not one double shot in a single cup!) and launches into a one-sided discussion involving topics such as movies, music and science. Occasionally, the Lone Man also visits an art gallery to look at one specific painting each time, an act which led me to believe what was really happening in this movie, a physical manifestation of someone's mind.
From how I described this film, it is obvious that some of you are not going to be on Jarmusch's wavelength. I'm not particularly sure some of the choices he made as a filmmaker didn't hurt the film a bit. What does puzzle me in the reactions to “The Limits of Control” are the criticisms directed at its lack of adherence to the real world. Is it not clear, especially at the moment the Lone Man says the line “I used my imagination” that the laws of the real world do not function here. Since when did they ever for Jarmusch films?
I could not help but notice the attention the movie paid to artistic expression, whether it is film, music, or art. I never felt the Lone Man was simply on a mission for others. As disciplined and restrained as he was, there was something more at stake. What I was watching was a real world representation of how the creative mind works and the need to defend the individualism of that mind at all costs.
When I am writing, I am often absorbing influences often at an overload. The creative mind is often a busy and even cluttered mind, never having a shortage of diverse thoughts regarding different subjects. Very often, the creative process brings many thoughts that are distractions or can create doubts. And, in order for the process to move forward, you have to often push aside those distractions and, especially, rid yourself of those doubts. Without doing that, you are creating your own prison.
In “The Limits of Control”, we have these many characters and their monologues on artistic and scientific matters. Then, we have a character like Nude (played by Paz de la Huerta), a woman attempting many times to tempt the Lone Man with sex by apparently forgetting to put her clothes on. (You can never accuse her of giving up!) I believe any straight male writer who doesn't admit to thinking about women in this way during any creative endeavor is lying. At some point, fantasies emerge in the mind that often prove to be distractions.
There is also the American (played by Bill Murray). And, let's face it, much like his country of origin, he believes little in the art it creates, particularly if it can challenge the status quo. He is the voice artists hear when they neuter their own work to gain mainstream appeal.
Glenn Kenny, when he discussed “Limits” on his blog, mentioned that Big Hollywood, the website for conservative moviegoers, would lose its shit when seeing it. I don't believe conservative watchdogs pick their targets as small or subversive as this. Attacking a Jim Jarmusch film is not going to get them any publicity. Though what it implies about how the conservative mindset often works to suppress creativity is more of a direct attack than the latest Sean Penn film that gets their panties in a bunch.
As much as I took this very personal theme from “The Limits of Control”, I felt Jarmusch miscalculated the execution. In an article in Film Comment, Jarmusch admits the movie came together quickly after another project fell apart. He also adds that he never wrote an entire screenplay before shooting, often writing the character monologues the night before shooting the scene. This explains to me why I felt the monologues weren't a little more focused and stronger in their language. Often, the cast (consisting of reliable pros such as John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal and, of course, Bill Murray) made the monologues work better than they necessarily deserved. You still sense a strain on the actors' parts to make their roles do more than leave a colorful impression.
The structure and pace of the film also needed work. As much as I was willing to be on Jarmusch's wavelength, there ultimately were too many repetitions of meet-ups and matchbox swaps to the point when the last couple of them felt unnecessary. I certainly do not mind when the pace of a film is slower than the norm, but “Limits” lost its way a few times, occasionally sputtering to a halt when we're ready to move on. What's odd is that Jarmusch shot more coverage for this film than any of his previous ones, but often created montages of repetitive action shots (though still gorgeous to look at). Whether it be characters walking, riding in trains, driving, etc. He often lets montages go 1 or 2 minutes beyond what is necessary to set the mood. These pale in comparison to his “Ghost Dog” montages, often with images layered on top of one another with music more propulsive and richer in character than the somewhat droning doom metal tracks Jarmusch uses in “Limits”.
Although De Bankolé is a very good actor (He does great work as the very expressive ice cream man in “Ghost Dog”), I'm not particularly sure why Jarmusch restricted his emotions so much to the point of inexpressiveness. Yes, the man is supposed to be in control of his feelings, but you would think that would be more of a struggle. You only get a sense of a true inner life when the Lone Man smiles during the flamenco performance in the middle of the film. Compare De Bankolé's performance to Forest Whitaker's in “Ghost Dog”. Whitaker's expressions hint at the troubles that character may be having in his mind. There is also a humanity in Whitaker's scenes with the ice cream man and the little girl he befriends/mentors that I feel was missing in “The Limits of Control”. If “Control” was intended to be about the creative process, I would like to have seen more of a hint of that passion up on the screen. There can be such a thing as being too methodical.
I should also mention that the cinematography from Christopher Doyle (best known for shooting Wong Kar-Wai films such as “In the Mood for Love”) is quite beautiful and more representative of the creative id than anything else in the film. While the compositions are very striking without being too showy, it is the colors that pop out where you least expect them that grab your attention, as they often do in Doyle's images. They are like splashes of color on the film's canvas. Special kudos to how the color of the Lone Man's suits contributed to the look of any given shot.
I admittedly have mixed feelings about “The Limits of Control”. As much as I have latched onto my interpretation of what the film was about (certainly colored by the story's similarities to the inner workings of my mind when I'm writing), I also wished the film was better in presenting it. Subjective interpretations can be a bit irrational in that one is demanding more from the artist based on a notion that they may have never intended. I will give the film credit that it, at least, produced this level of thought and that I never have to worry about Jim Jarmusch dotting all his i's and crossing all of his t's for easy consumption.
“The Limits of Control” was viewed at BAM Rose Cinemas.