Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Post-Modern Espionage

The Limits Of Control (2009) directed by Jim Jarmusch

The Limits of Control is a film about spies, interchanging notes in matchbooks, and coded phrases and short monologues about art, music, and film, usually in a cafe on bright afternoons in Spain. Isaach De Bankole plays an all but silent nameless protagonist, who wears a series of matching one color suits; blue, brown, and silver, does tai-chi regularly, and always orders two espressos in separate cups. He goes to art galleries, and may see a painting of a violin, and then a man will sit down next to him at a cafe, nervously with a violin, and tell him every instrument contains every song it has ever written. The two exchange matching match books, of separate colors with "Les Boxer" written in french, and then Bankhole is off again. This mechanism repeats for roughly two hours, as phrases and images repeat and proceed each other through each brief encounter.
There is no exposition, we never learn, who he is, what he is thinking, what the messages or conversations mean, or why he is doing what he does. I use the word "spy" loosely, because the scope of Bankole's mission is never revealed, and involves diamonds, assassinations, an ancient guitar, mysterious men in black stuffing people into vans, and Bankole's refusal to use cellular phones. Its a postmodern espionage film where the characters don't seek out truth, but communicate in deception and deal in relativity. A modern "Blow-Up", another existential minimalist thriller, steeped in the fashions, and trends of it's day, only with a sense of humor. Antonini see's his hipster photographer as morally bankrupt his spiritual emptiness matching the sparse nature of the film, Jarmusch's Bankole is calm absorbing the scenery, practicing tai-chi(as all sound drains from the film, putting the viewer in an even calmer stillness inside him than the one we see in the film), he doesn't have sex on the job, even when the nude Paz De La Huerta makes repeat visits to his apartment(they platonic ally sleep together, her nude, he in trademark suit) though is job seems to consist of only waiting, talking trading, and his not concerned neither with taking a side or seeking revenge. "Reality is arbitrary" he tells Bill Murray, known as The American.
The conversations are not random, though we cant know what they multiple meanings they may have for Bankole, they orbit themes of perception and subjectivity. Some of the first words of instruction he receives are "everything is subjective" , "the universe has no edges and no center", "use your skills and your imagination", and "he who thinks he is bigger than the rest must go to the cemetery. there he will learn what life really is, dirt.". These words are translated by a third party because as everyone whom he meets asks him upon first meeting, he doesn't speak Spanish.
With exposition erased, were shown the first of several layers of perceptual limitations and the absences there of. We cant know what Bankole's character knows beyond the surface level of meaningless gestures and dialog, but we also can't escape the paranoid shadow that everything no matter how minute has a meaning. There is a black helicopter that precedes and follows Bankole throughout the film, but its effect is equally a stifled suspense as it is traditional Jarmuschian deadpan.
When Bankole sits with Tilda Swinton, in white wig and cowboy hat, she tells him she she "likes it in old movies when people just sit quietly without talking", a double jibe, both at Bankole's character's stoic calm, and the films own absurd preoccupations with the small details of life. Later he sees a poster of what looks like a gaillo film with a women dressed just like Swinton. Did she dress to match the poster, or was the poster a sign meant only for him?
The Limits Of Control is a free-form minimalist poem against the shadow of a paranoid espionage thriller. It has a "Rear Window" like ratio of concept to action, in Rear Window you could say "dude call the police or quit peeping, duh! Movie over.", likewise you could make an empty statement that this was "Cofee and Cigarettes", but longer and without the cigarettes. But that would just be to not see the forest through the trees.
One of the last images is a painting of a covered painting (an image Bankole saw earlier in an actual covered painting hanging on a wall), in camera closes up on the contours of the folds in the sheets of the image, though conceptually the painting shows us a blot on our perception, the blot itself( the sheet's folds, bends, and contours), create a texture all of it's own. That's what this film, a blot full of small textures, seeing the limits of perception, the limits of control. The point where you are unmoored and must use your "skills and imagination". The film is preceded by a Rimbaud quote a ferryman swept away by the currents as soon as he touches foot to water.
We see into Bankole's thoughts only once, when he imagines he sees Paz De La Heurta, in a hotel window across the street. Likewise he only smiles once when he watches an explosive a rendition of a Falencio song, whose lyrics are the first words of dialog he is told in the film.
I saw this in a theater by myself in the early afternoon, I was the only person in the theater. After reading some of the reviews, that empty theater seemed a pretty good parallel to the icy reception it's getting so far. But it's the best film I've seen in 2009 so far. And one of my favorites of the decade, hypnotic, absurd, intelligent, and plain cool, but then again I was the only one in the theater...

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