Some people drink coffee to go to sleep. While I’ve always used it as a means of keeping my brain aflutter like children absently batting balloon volleyballs, there are folks who’ll slurp down a cup and pop off to slumberland, caffeine be damned. What does this have to do with anything? I have no idea. I just had my mind wiped by trying to contemplate Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, as if I focused too closely on the individual molecules of paint in a painting and went blind. In fact, The Limits of Control is very much like being in an art museum. For some people, it’s a deeply moving soulful experience, but in reality, it’s just a whole lot of walking and standing and staring. The Limits of Control feels like Coffee and Cigarettes as delivered to one single solitary person who’s not much of a talker or smoker. It would be impossible to say I hated this film or that I loved it. It was the equivalent of spending an entire day listening to the same classical song performed by various orchestras. For some folks, this is an electric buzz that will have them seeing colors and shapes and magic. For me, it just put me to sleep.
Jarmusch is a ponderous filmmaker, who creates difficult and beard-scratching movies. They’re usually offbeat character pieces involving existential or pontifical conversations. It’s often some kind of high philosophy done in a charming and cleverly accessible manner. It’s what you hoped your sociology seminars would be like, delivered in a sitting circle beneath a tree while a joint is surreptitiously passed. Jarmusch can’t be considered the father of the diner culture, but definitely a cultural influence, inspiring those 3 AM coffee convos where thick glassed twenty-somethings exchange song lyrics as if they were their own thoughts. His early works, the John Lurie stuff especially, was like a fresh take on the beat generation, taking the wanderlust spirit of On the Road and setting it in the diner, where stoners have Castanedian beat sessions. Lately though, Jarmusch’s work seems to have taken a sedentary and rambly stance, like the same twenty-somethings thirty years later, still sitting in the diner having conversations now about why the hell they have conversations. It only makes sense that Bill Murray would represent this phase, a pock-marked Fool whose capering has gone heavy and bitter with age. It’s as if Jarmusch is navel gazing and sighing over the gray hairs he finds.
I couldn’t begin to tell you what the hell this movie was about. Characters don’t really have names, they’re just identified in the credits by kitsch labels like Mexican, Violin, Guitar, and Blonde. The Lone Man (Isaach de Bankole) wanders Europe on what may be some sort of an espionage/mercenary mission, meeting up with various contacts, who exchange vague monologues with him that read like freshman psychology essays. The conversations are interesting in only that each is given by fantastic actors: Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, among the known. It’s a cavalcade of what-the-fuckery, even more sinus melting than the pairings in Coffee and Cigarettes. Jarmusch has always had an otherness about him, so his cast appears as an Epcot Center buffet line. Even the folks I never heard of have multiple credits in other countries, and perhaps are stars there where they are unheard of here. The Lone Man exchanges red and blue matchboxes with each prospective personage, who delivers Thin Man-esque instruction — “Wait for the bread. The Guitar will meet you.” — before disappearing. The only semblance of a plot built around these encounters is that The Lone Man finds a girl called Nude (Paz de la Huerta) waiting in his room, living up to her name. I’ve said that some actresses spend the entire movie naked, but Nude truly lives up to the role, never wearing a stitch in any of her scenes. The Lone Man finally reaches his destination, where he encounters Bill Murray in a bunker, a brash American of sorts who spews the f-bomb like a five-minute Tarantino/Mamet showdown.
The trailer makes the film seem more coherent than it actually is, coyly hinting at an element of possible supernatural or superhuman to the plot that never comes about. And to Jarmusch’s credit as a filmmaker, he imbues his films with a sense of dreamstate, where if one character was suddenly to explain he had to go and then turns into a cloud and float away, you might not even blink. “Among us there are those who are not among us” sounds like an astounding premise about meditating assassins who can travel through walls using the power of their mind, but instead, it becomes one of those things college newbies say to the high school girls when they return home on break to seem panty-loosingly profound. Secretly, I had hoped the film was a dig at the pretentious crowds who simper in the lobby after one of JJ’s flicks, a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes, where film students gush about reality’s fabric and mise en scene metaphors, while he giggles from behind the curtain at their interpretations. Sadly, this appears to be nothing more than an old magician gasping in mock awe at his own lazy sleight of hand.
Even now, I can feel the snitterati inhaling in collective disgust at my lack of insight. I know, I know. I just don’t get it, I’m a heretic. I was the guy in film school who watched Stan Brakhage and promised never, ever to let that happen to good people. I laughed at the girl who got all weepy and defensive over Maya Deren, like she had hid herself long enough in the filmic womb to claim heritage. I sat in a classroom and parsed Andy Warhol’s Blow Job for all its symbolism. I understand it. But it doesn’t mean it makes it right. Jarmusch is spending his days shooting scenery and sad-faced men in suits standing around young girls with puffy nipples. It’s probably art, but I’ll just keep walking cause there’s a lot more to see.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.