Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control
Jim Jarmusch’s sensibility has always been intimately connected to poetry. In a recent interview in New York Magazine (May 4, 2009), he says, “You gotta realize my poetry teachers were Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro and the New York School is very close to my heart” (62). His comedic noir Down by Law (1986) makes nods to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost and the film’s closing image of the forking road overtly references “The Road Not Taken.” Jarmusch’s breathtaking post-western Dead Man (1995), which I consider to be his first major work, follows Johnny Depp’s character, hilariously named Bill Blake, as he transforms from a geeky would-be accountant in the provincial town of Machine into a visionary renegade. In perhaps one of the most electric scenes in Jarmusch’s oeuvre, enhanced by Neil Young’s brooding modal score, Blake, wanted by the law, stumbles across two U.S. marshals in the forest. When one of them asks, “You William Blake?”, he coolly responds, “Yes, I am. Do you know my poetry?” before shooting them dead with pinpoint accuracy.
It is no surprise then that Jarmusch’s latest film The Limits of Control (2009), which opened last weekend in New York, turns to poetry as a means to frame his stylish exercise in repetition and variation. The film’s epigraph comes from the first two lines of Arthur Rimbaud’s groundbreaking and hallucinatory poem “The Drunken Boat” (1871), which, incredibly, Rimbaud wrote as a teenager:
Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles
Je ne me sentis plus guide par le haleurs…
As I descended impassible rivers,
I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen…
I understand Rimbaud’s poem as a kind of oneiric nekuia, a descent into the underworld, an epic convention which we find in Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, as well as in modernist classics like Pound’s Cantos (Canto I is an accentual rendering of Book XI of The Odyssey) and “The Tunnel” section in Hart Crane’s The Bridge—texts which drew on such a trope to signify our entanglement in a horrific and chaotic modernity.
And while Dante had Virgil to steer him through the Inferno, the film’s protagonist, the Lone Man, played by Isaach De Bankolé, like Rimbaud’s drunken boat, has no such guide or directional aid. The overarching question that animates The Limits of Control is: how does one find direction and make meaning in a disorienting present when “everything is subjective” and “reality is arbitrary” (these are pieces of advice that the character named Creole tells Lone Man at the airport before his journey)? Lone Man travels throughout Spain, from Madrid to Seville, on some unspecified, illicit mission encountering a variety of puzzling clues, characters, and cultural phenomena (from a cubist painting to a flamenco performance).
Like the fantastically entertaining Broken Flowers (2005), Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control is an episodic road movie that presents an inscrutable and overdetermined matrix of signs and symbols. But whereas in Broken Flowers the aging lothario Don Johnston (played by Bill Murray) suffers from a kind of “referential mania” (Nabokov’s fantastic coinage) and believes every detail he meets (from the name of a dog to an abandoned pink typewriter) somehow refers to his own personal situation, Lone Man, perpetually dressed in dapper iridescent suits, coolly negotiates a series of elliptical, Jarmuschian scenarios.
He meets a variety of characters including an elfin, platinum blond played by Tilda Swinton who tells him “Movies are like dreams you’re never really sure you’ve had” as well as a pony-tailed and bearded Mexican played by Gael Garcia Bernal who says, “sometimes the reflection is far more present, than the thing being reflected.” Indeed, much of the movie is a meditation on mimesis and representation; between these meetings in which Lone Man exchanges match boxes and receives coded messages (which he promptly swallows with a sip of espresso), he visits Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia to view particular paintings which often prefigure or reflect what De Bankolé’s character encounters. For instance, a nude portrait proleptically indicates the nude woman (played by Paz de la Huerta) that Lone Man finds in his bed, and, in a striking sequence, the cityscape of Madrid blurs and morphs into a photo-realist painting of the same scene.
Eventually we learn that Lone Man’s mission is to assassinate “American” (played by Bill Murray), a figure for corrupt power and wealth, and Lone Man ultimately infiltrates American’s heavily guarded compound to strangle him. In a recent New York Times review, Manohla Dargis calls the ending “naïve” and a “lousy letdown,” and, to some extent, the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed and the poetic justice is laid on a bit too thickly—especially if we think of the conspicuous memento mori on which Bill Murray’s character rests his toupee or the guitar string that acts as Lone Man’s murder weapon (we remember that the guitar came from the flamenco club where we heard the foreboding lyric: “He who thinks he’s bigger than the rest should go to the cemetery. There he’ll find what life really is: It’s a handful of dirt.”) And when the American asks, “How the fuck did you get in here?” and Lone Man matter-of-factly responds, “I used my imagination,” we are firmly in Arnold Schwarzenegger one-liner territory.
Nevertheless, “imagination” is perhaps the film’s master term and Jarmusch quite utopianly envisions the imagination to be our most reliable guide, our ideal ferryman through a universe that, as Creole says, has neither edges nor a center—it is the antidote to an American imperialist, bigger-is-better attitude. In these terms, “the message” of the movie is indeed “naïve,” though such a crude and cursory analysis obviously does violence to the gorgeously layered texture of the film, and it is really within these interlocking layers where we find Jarmusch’s strongest case for seeing the world poetically.
In a gorgeously shot scene on a train from Madrid to Seville—Christopher Doyle, best known for his work with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, is the film’s brilliant cinematographer—we see the character called Molecules (played by Youki Kudoh) telling Lone Man: “The sufis say each one of us is a planet spinning in ecstasy. I say each one of us is a set of spinning molecules, spinning in ecstasy.” All the while, in the background through the train’s window, we see a series of white windmills spinning dreamily—which beautifully echoes the whirling dervishes of sufi mysticism. It is in moments like these when we feel (to adapt Rimbaud) “bathed” in the poem of the movie and we realize that it is the imagination that allows us to apprehend such ecstatic connections.