Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control
() is your Christmas treat if you are adversarial, independent-minded or possibly mad. You shouldn’t need to be any of those things to enjoy this film, a kinetic abstract painting masquerading as a crime thriller. But the anti-Jarmusch lobby is becoming noisy. I was overtaken, after the screening, by the Daily Mail, advancing down New Marlborough Street with incandescent purpose, who said something as he passed about the film being a good advertisement for suicide.
O Daily Mail! You are right beyond your years. The Limits of Control is indeed about despair, meaninglessness and the absence of intelligent life in the universe, including large parts of Planet Earth. But I haven’t seen a more wittily intricate, voluptuously inventive disquisition on these themes in years. Jarmusch pretends to be adapting John Boorman’s Point Blank. A contract killer – here a black gangster with natty suits and an art connoisseurship sideline played by Isaach de Bankolé – passes through mazes of mystery and intrigue towards his quarry (Bill Murray, adding the last Dadaist touch to the casting).
Prior to that, in Spain, the film’s setting, Bankolé sits at cafes, wanders galleries (the mournful lyricism of Juan Gris’s cubism), meets weirdos (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt), exchanges matchboxes or guitars with them, spends Platonic time with guitar-shaped odalisque Paz de la Huerta, and listens to passers-by who theorise on art, dreams, life and molecular apocalypse.
Or not. “Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there not saying anything,” says Swinton, dressed in white like a cowboy who has stepped from a bucket of lime. Magical cinematography from Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-wai’s lensman) turns Spain into sun-bright collages, almost non-figurative, which is exactly the point. The Limits of Control ponders the paradox that human actions and landscapes – human existence – arguably have no meaning until distilled into an idea, an artwork, a piece of stationary conceptualising. So where exactly do we locate “life”? In deeds and actions? Or in the stasis that mills significance from them? In running about with a mission? Or in sitting still? In this world? The next? Or others altogether?
Molecular apocalypse, cerebration-style. The pattern and permutations are endless, like a Rorschach test reflected in a hall of mirrors. Not only does a guitar
equal a nude. A T.S. Eliot line recurs as a flamenco lyric; a preludial Rimbaud quote ricochets through the story. You have to take sides. Go see the film, go judge. Either this is plotless rubbish designed to inflame tabloid newspapers. Or it is the future of cinema, and Jarmusch has got there before the rest of us.
“I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie, I set out to make a movie about childhood,” says Spike Jonze, director of Where the Wild Things Are (). Hang on. Where have we heard that before? I dived into my memory and came up with this. “I didn’t set out to write music for children, but music about childhood.” Thank you, Robert Schumann. And you did. You were speaking of Kinderszenen. And the difference between Kinderszenen and Where the Wild Things Are is that one is an imperishable delight for both kids and grown-ups while the other is a consignment of misconceived codswallop destined to infuriate both.
Maurice Sendak’s fantasy picture-book was a marvel: an enchanted Träumerei set in a monster-mad forest. Sendak’s creatures were and on page still are cuddly, scary, indelible. Jonze, formerly of Being John Malkovich, and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, a gold-chip novelist who with this and Away We Go is becoming a Hollywood liability, do everything wrong. They come at it like killjoy opera directors wanting to set The Magic Flute in Auschwitz. Little Max (Max Records) runs from a quarrelling home to a remote fantastical island, reached across rough seas in a sailboat. We are bursting to go “Oo-er!” at the awaited ogres, combined with “Coochy-coo” for the cute ones. Instead we go, “What the hell are these?” Performers in manky creature-suits, wearing oversize soft-toy heads, waddle into frame and spout banal, tetchy dialogue. The familiar voices (James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine Keener) somehow add to the sense of cheat and cheesiness.
The scenery is dead-leaved trees in a dun wilderness, with ashy dunescapes for variation. Has the Bomb gone off? Something has
blown the plot to pieces. I wasn’t sure what the creatures were quarrelling about, but quarrel they do endlessly, sometimes with dirt-clod fights, sometimes with verbal abuse. The Jonze/Eggers message must be that Max’s fantasyland duplicates his home life and that maybe mimicry and reflection will exorcise reality. But shouldn’t therapy, at least in art for or about childhood, be fun? The book was entrancing. The book deserved better. Happily there is still time, before the world ends, for someone else to film it. For now: return to Sendak.
Steven Soderbergh, artist and filmmaker, career-plans on the cyclical principle: “I’ll make one for them, then one for me.” So Planet Popcorn gets The Informant! or Oceans 11, 12, 13, while the samizdat crowd – film critics, art-lovers, other masochists – get The Girlfriend Experience ().
For random parts of its 77 minutes this penumbral, low-budget teaser about the life crisis of a call girl (played by porn star Sasha Grey) is intriguing, even Godardian. Part instructional mock-doc, part affectless montage, it is a mod American Vivre Sa Vie.
There is no emotion, or only – and in the context mesmerically – with a scene of confrontation between the girl and her quasi-pimp boyfriend, after she makes a forbidden romantic date with a client. Human feeling dares to outstare, for a mini-moment, the world of accounting, commodification, ecstasy-management.
Departures () is a sweet Japanese film over-rewarded with last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. All about death, and a young cellist’s career change to “casketing” (preparing the dead for coffined cremation), it is touching and bleakly funny before going soft-centred and a little squishy, like a mismanaged embalmment.
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