Thursday, May 7, 2009

Jarmusch's "The Limits Of Control"

One of my favorite things at Filmmakers Alliance is the various discussion groups we sporadically hold. Small groups of us get together to discuss anything related to film and filmmaking. And any member of the organization can arrange to have them. Often, they are around various filmmaking topics such as "Point Of View", "Color and Composition" or even "What is Cinema?" and sometimes they are set up for argument such as "Do We Need Antagonists in Film?" or "The 3-Act Structure: Time For It To Die?". Other times, we'll simply go see a film and discuss it. This is what we did last night.

Sometimes the more difficult (or even unpleasant) a film is, the more room there is for discussion. This couldn't be more true for Jim Jarmusch's new, inscrutable film "The Limits Of Control". I say inscrutable, although there is much in the film that seems completely obvious - even sorta campy. But the bulk of the film is anything but obvious. I don't want to have to give a spoiler alert so I'll avoid giving any details about the film - which is tricky given that I want to talk about what the film stimulated in our discussion - without giving away the specific elements in the film.


What I will say is that the discussion quickly became an investigation - with all of us trying to solve a mystery or put together a puzzle built from a number of cinematic set pieces. In Jarmusch's films, the director's hand is never hidden - sometimes it's directly in your face, even to the point of obscuring your own experience of the film - so it's easy to assume that everything you see is by design, intention. You can then just as easily fall into the trap - as we did via a post-screening discussion - of trying to figure out the "meaning" of what we saw. Or, I should say, trying to ascertain the director's intent. But the conversation became much more interesting when we each began assigning our own meanings to the film and making our own connections without trying to justify them through "directorial intent".

But if there is an intention to embrace in Jarmusch's film - and his work, over-all - it is to eschew clear intention all-together. I don't think he cares a lick about whether or not you get his "meaning". To me, he seems more concerned with investigating things for himself and allowing anything to be brought into question for the audience. He throws a lot of stuff at us that feels like red herrings - roads that seemingly lead nowhere and repetitious actions/sequences whose purpose is never made completely clear to us. But I don't believe they are as much red herrings as they are simply very idiosyncratic and personal back alleys Jarmusch enjoys exploring more than the path most familiar to audiences. Maybe they are a bit of both. No doubt Jarmusch enjoys playing with both form and content in his films.

This kind of stuff, of course, infuriates narrative traditionalists. When A plus B does not clearly equal C, some people begin to feel jerked around and angrily denounce the filmmaker as "self-indulgent", or, hit them with the even more dreaded epithet, "boring". Even for those of us that embrace non-traditional narratives - are starved for them, actually - there is much that can annoy us in Jarmusch's new film. His studied "cool", his use of interesting actors mouthing quirky, self-conscious, pseudo-profound dialogue, his sometimes obvious/silly film references and his occasional sledge-hammer thematics can all conspire to pull me out of his films at various times. Watching Jarmusch's films is, for me, like digging for buried treasure except Jarmusch is wielding the shovel and I am his captive, silent partner. Where he chooses to dig and how deep is beyond my control. I partner with him, nonetheless, because I know he will always find enough "treasure" to make it worth my while even if I'm not always compelled by where he chooses to dig and what he happens to find.


But in the discussion after the film, we ultimately did our own digging and found some of our own treasures. We were able, at some point, to let go of what we think Jarmusch's work means to him and focus on what it means to us. And, indeed, not everything we found was treasure. Or even pleasure. But how many films or filmmakers allow you to take your own journey - for better or for worse - inside their films? Many do, actually, but they are not always easily found. Jarmusch gets to do this kind of work with relatively substantial budgets and roll his films out on a scale that doesn't make it a chore to find the film. Is that a good or a bad thing? Depends on your perspective. Is this a "good" or a "bad" Jarmusch film? Again, it's all about perspective. But for me, those kind of subjective judgments are pointless and limiting. The film made us see, think and feel...and then discuss what we saw, thought and felt at length. It took us beyond the parameters of the cinematic experience. In that, lies the film's value...and, to my mind, it's true purpose.

In a Jarmusch film, the journey always seems more important than the destination - as it should be in life (since we all end up at the same lifeless destination, eventually). But my feelings about his (and others') films are the exact opposite. I may not always like the roads he chooses to walk, but I always like where they leave me when the trip is over.


  1. A nice informative writeup. Jarmsuch is one my favorite filmmakers and I'm looking forward to watch this film.

  2. What a wonderful blog you have!!
    I'm looking forward to reading your other posts!

    I agree with everything you said about films in general,(I haven't seen this one yet though) especially the starvation for non-traditional narrative!

  3. I would say, "Are we there yet?" My father would reply, "You're always here and never there."

    I'm still learning what that means.

    If I needed answeres, I could study algebra. Jarmusch makes films that help me ask better questions and that is a rare thing in any form.