Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 03 May 2009
Source Focus Features 35mm Print
Reviews: The Limits of Control, part one
Jim Jarmusch Symposium, Reverse Shot, Summer 2005
This is the second installment of a two-part review.
The word “amongst” derives from the Old English word “gemong,” which means “crowd.” So, when the Lone Man declares, “I am amongst no one,” he is stating that he is literally apart from the crowd, though much of his time is spent wandering the streets and cafés of Madrid, Sevilla, and Almería, watching out for the clues they hold: a guitar, a violin, a familiar book of matches. He is, like Poe’s character, “a man of the crowd” (whence derives Baudelaire’s flâneur), but not part of it.
His statement also suggests that he is amongst Nobody, Dead Man’s peripatetic (and verbose) mixed-blood Indian, an exile from his people, who shepherds the wounded Bill Blake to the Pacific Ocean and thence to the spirit-world. As a child, Nobody was shunned by his tribe, and later captured by white soldiers and brought eastward to England in a cage. (“And each time I arrived in another city, somehow the white men had moved all their people there ahead of me. Each new city contained the same white people as the last, and I could not understand how a whole city of people could be moved so quickly.”) When he escapes and returns to his people, his stories of capture in the white man’s world seem incredible to his tribe. They ridicule him, naming him Xebeche, “He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing.” Still, he prefers Nobody, perhaps a nod to Bob Dylan’s diminutive typsetter-turned-knifethrower, Alias, in Sam Peckinpah’s own “acid Western,” Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
What’s particularly remarkable about Gary Farmer’s character – and in fact what makes Dead Man almost unique among Westerns – is that Nobody is not at all a “noble savage.” He is a figure whose travels have stripped him of his Otherness, decontextualizing or even globalizing him. Upon his return he is renamed, devalued, dismissed, “left to wander the earth alone,” a perpetual tourist.
The Lone Man operates even further beyond the reaches of any tribe or nation. Like many Jarmusch films, The Limits of Control is a transnational film, a product, like Night on Earth or even Coffee & Cigarettes, of Jarmusch’s own wanderings in the circuit international film festivals and co-productions. It’s no surprise, then, that almost the entire cast is comprised of actors who have gained some prominence in multiple countries. Aside from De Bankolé, who is French-Ivorian (and has worked through Europe and Africa, and in the United States), there are: John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, both English; Gael García Bernal, Mexican; Hiam Abbass, Palestinian; and Youki Kudoh, Japanese. (Paz de la Huerta is actually American, though her father is Spanish.) The conspicuous exception here is an unusually curt, colorless, and doughy Bill Murray, who plays a character called “American.”
Of course the principal difference between Nobody and the Lone Man is the latter’s taciturnity. Unlike Xebeche, the Lone Man rarely talks (though he may say lots of things or nothing, depending on your point of view); he merely observes, absorbs, and ruminates without an offer of response.
“You don’t speak Spanish, do you?”: each new contact asks this of the Lone Man (who responds, as it were, by not responding), presenting a questions that coyly casts doubt on the stability (or, for the Lone Man, utility) of language generally. Language is, after all, arbitrary, and yet the Lone Man seems to understand things spoken in languages that he apparently does not speak.
The film’s title derives from William S. Burroughs’ essay of the same name on mind control. Burroughs here identifies language as the instrument of social, political, and artistic oppression:
words are still the principal instruments of control. Suggestions are words. Persuasions are words. Orders are words. No control machine so far devised can operate without words, and any control machine which attempts to do so relying entirely on external force or entirely on physical control of the mind will soon encounter the limits of control.
The essay asserts that control is inherently contradictory, because it demands a certain degree of both acquiescence and opposition. Total control of a person, if even possible, would reduce him to a mere tool (“You don’t control a tape recorder – you use it”). Mind control, on the other hand, ideally functions through the manipulation of an individual’s will through suggestion. The presence of will implies the possibility of opposition, and thus control meets its limits. But if the (circumscribed) power of control lies in the persuasiveness of words, then, language must itself be subject to interrogation and opposition. Burroughs’s 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded includes a sort-of how-to essay on the author’s cut-up technique called “the invisible generation”, a fluid, unpunctuated ribbon of text that describes the process of breaking down language by manipulating tape-recorded speech and sound.
Matters of great concern should be taken lightly… Matters of small concern should be taken seriously.
The Limits of Control doesn’t so much suggest that language is a limited means of expression, but rather that there are alternatives. Language is of course important—while not necessarily a stable marker of nationality or a key to meaning, it is nonetheless one of many disparate media that the cinema employs to form a whole. (“A written word is an image and that written words are images in sequence that is to say moving pictures.”—William S. Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution).
“You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” This oft-repeated question identifies the Lone Man as a tourist first and as a dilettante second. These are both dirty words, implying superficiality, but they nonetheless match Jarmusch’s interest in interests, his hyper-referentiality in image and sound, what Claude Lévi-Strauss calls “mythical thought,” speaking through “the medium of things.” Like Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur, Jarmusch and his characters “work… by means of signs,” “the constitutive units of myth.”
All of the characters that the Lone Man meets are interested in things, practicing erudition of one kind or another, however chattily. One might say they are all scholars to some degree, like John Hurt’s Guitar, whose interest is the history and etymology of bohemianism, or Youki Kudoh’s character, who wears a black and white polka dot dress and theorizes about molecules. (In Mystery Train, the same actress discourses on the merits of Elvis Presley versus Carl Perkins.) Jarmusch’s film, then, does not reconstruct a stable, univocal reality (think of the colorless illusions of variety in Broken Flowers’ vision of America), but a play of shifting surfaces. His film exists in a polymorphous world of things, a deliberate multiplicity exercised not for its own sake, but as a part of a vernacular, a polyglot.
It’s interesting that this element of the film is what some take issue with—that this multiplicity is a sign of “flagrant hipsterism,” limiting rather than liberating. (A great many reviews of the film make note of the limits of the critic’s patience. One might counter this quip by similarly quipping about the limits of critical vocabulary.) Indeed, there’s definitely something a little quaint and old-fashioned about Jarmusch’s approach – “Are you hip to Francesco Rosi, man?” – and insofar as the film privileges a particular kind of observer, one belonging to a globalized community of knowledge, taste, coolness, it perhaps sets limits on its audience.
This is, however, unsurprising given the Lone Man’s status as a lone man, one of many emphatically lone men in Jarmusch’s films, from Nobody to Ghost Dog to Don Johnston. Zack, Jack, and Roberto in Down by Law are lone men united in a provisional community, just as Jarmusch is himself a founding member (along with Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Richard Bose) of a secret society of lone men called The Sons of Lee Marvin, about which he says:
I’m not at liberty to divulge information about the organization, other than to tell you that it does exist…. You have to have a facial structure such that you could be related to, or be a son of, Lee Marvin. There are no women, obviously, in the organization. We have communiques and secret meetings. Other than that, I can’t talk about it.
Such lone men – like Alain Delon’s Jef in Le Samouraï, Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank, and Donald Westlake’s Parker (the basis for Marvin’s character) – possess a singularity of purpose, though precisely what that purpose is not often made clear. One thing is for certain: this purposefulness forms a wall around the hero, one that will not be penetrated even by the temptations of a completely naked woman.
Speaking of impenetrability, one’s initiation or exclusion from the world of Jarmusch’s film may have something to do with the soundtrack, which primarily comprises music by the Japanese doom metal and noise band, Boris and some of their collaborations with the like-minded American band Sunn O))). To many, this may seem an unvarying morass of droning feedback; to others, a rich, ambient, multi-layered soundworld (not unlike the Neil Young’s beautiful, harsh, melancholic score for Dead Man). The soundtrack is therefore either a blockage, an obstruction, or a welcoming environment, an envelope.
One analogue to this aural impenetrability or enclosure can be found in Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, which everywhere seeks out the shifting, reflecting character of surfaces of the Spanish landscape, Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oíza’s Torres Blancas, Isaach De Bankolé’s sharkskin suits. Gazing into the mirrored surface of a napkin dispenser (“Matters of small concern should be taken seriously”), García Bernal’s Mexican ponders that those things found in reflections may be more real than what they reflect. At very least, this rumination offers an alternative to strict, orderly representation.
In The Limits of Control, this struggle between the adherents of representation and of abstraction is largely fought on the benches of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid’s contemporary art museum (and home to another famous aesthetic conflict: Picasso’s Guernica). As the Lone Man successively ponders four pieces of art from the museum, Jarmusch explores the different perspectives of Spanish artists in the 20th century. Juan Gris’s “El Violín” is a late example of cubism, a movement that attempts to represent the world from multiple perspectives simultaneously; Roberto Fernández Balbuena’s “Desnudo” (which rhymes with the Nude nuzzled in the unsleeping Lone Man’s armpit) is representative of Spanish new realism; Antonio López Garcia’s “Madrid desde Capitán Haya”, which simulates the perspective of looking from the window of the titular building is a further example of realism (from an artist who is incidentally the subject of Víctor Erice’s Dream of Light); and finally Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies’s “Gran Sábana,” an examples of mixed-media abstract expressionism. This last work seems pointedly closest to Jarmusch’s own aesthetic intentions: a somewhat rare Spanish example of Arte Povera, an art movement from 1960s Italy (cf. Antonioni) which sought to combine ordinary found objects into painting. The purpose of Art Povera – like that of other art movements of the 1960s, like Situationism, Fluxus, and Actionism – was to break down the divisions between art and real life, in essence to free art from a responsibility to reflect reality.
It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream. It is said that the world we live in is not a bit different from this.
Realism – in the guises of cinema vérité, humanism, social commentary, and so on – has been the dominant medium of international art cinema for at least the last decade, probably longer. In the face of this, one might recall the curmudgeonly resistance of Jean-François Lyotard, attempting to answer the question, “What Is Post-Modernism?” in 1982:
But in the diverse invitations to suspend artistic experimentation, there is an identical call for order, a desire for unity, for identity, for security, or popularity… Artists and writers must be brought back into the bosom of the community, or at least, if the latter is considered to be ill, they must be assigned the task of healing it.
What Lyotard – like Jarmusch – objects to are “the fantasies of realism,” a mode of thought “whose only definition,” he states, “is that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art.” This is to say that, if realism demands acceptance of reality as a reassuringly fixed and orderly whole, abstraction, experimentation, and a multiplicity of perspectives offer a way out—or, if we are using our imaginations, a way into something else.