If you were listening to a piece of groovy music and were responsive to it, you wouldn’t mind following its vibe, nodding at refrains, enjoying the use of instruments, tempo, rhythm—so why is it audiences get impatient when movies attempt to do the same thing? Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control feels both formally rigorous and genuinely spontaneous, the way good musical improvisations allow for freedom within selected confines. And I’d argue it’s enough to create a movie about an actor with a very strong presence (in this case, Isaach De Bankolé) moving through spaces (in this case, various locations in Spain) and allowing the images to convey a sense of mood, tension, atmosphere, whatever you want to call that feeling we get from watching moving pictures on the screen. The narrative is pared down to a man purposefully going forward, occasionally stopping for Tai Chi or two separate cups of espresso.
If the pictures are formally interesting, accompanied by a slow-driving score, we’re along for a journey. If we were traveling by bus through a foreign city, we might want to look out the window and absorb as much detail as we could. Why, then, can’t we do the same within a movie? Instead of looking through the window, we look at cityscapes and landscapes on the screen—and let’s not deny that when you have a charismatic actor on the screen, his face, his body, his movements become a landscape. In much the same way the image, if it moves with the actor, has a rhythm, the actor’s body also provides a sense of rhythm. But writing about The Limits of Control in this way strikes me as painfully theoretical, and if you were listening to that piece of groovy music I mentioned earlier, you would either respond or not respond. You wouldn’t sit there and theorize if the music were any good in the first place; you’d feel something.
While almost two hours of a “vibe movie” can get a little tedious, that’s not the problem with The Limits of Control. It’s not the music, it’s the refrains that got me—involving individual cameo scenes for actors who encounter De Bankolé along his trek. He will sit in a café and an iconic screen actor (such as Tilda Swinton or John Hurt, for example) will approach, ask him if he speaks Spanish, then ramble on about whatever topic seems to interest them. One talks about movies, another about biological cells, a third about bohemians—and so on. Something about these moments rang false for me, as if Jarmusch couldn’t resist a little earnest philosophizing about both the world around him and a few of his favorite, most fascinating subjects. The effect isn’t really pompous or pretentious so much as it feels like a Jarmusch sound-bite; a use of the monologue when the images were saying so much more, and even the framing feels pedestrian (locked down two-shots, close-ups, and fetishistic overhead shots of cups of coffee). I’d inwardly groan with frustration at the scenes—that is, I did until the final sequence (with Bill Murray) which ties together all of the different monologues, but also validates them. There’s a touch of wish-fulfillment fantasy in how Jarmusch’s Perfect Man handles an Ugly American with no comprehension of the value of culture, but more than that it feels like Jarmusch says ideas are worth fighting for.
“Wasn’t that such bullshit?” a woman asked me in the elevator after a screening of The Limits of Control. I confess, I didn’t feel like having an argument while coasting on what I felt was a good movie experience, with arresting visuals that felt very present, very spontaneous, very rich to me. I demurred something about how, yeah, the movie was long. Admittedly, at one point I reached the limits of my control (about 100 minutes into the picture) and felt like saying, “Just do something already, for God’s sake!” But I wouldn’t change the climax for anything, where our hero reaches the end of his mission, the camera literally shifts off of the cameraman’s shoulder and it feels like a break in the reverie. This woman, however, remained unconvinced. “This movie was an excuse for a bunch of movie stars to hang out on vacation in Spain and drink some wine!”
I just responded by raising my eyebrows and saying, “Jarmusch!” But how else are you supposed to respond? She already made up her mind that she didn’t want to participate in sitting through a movie that is a vibe, whereas I’d gladly watch The Limits of Control again over most of the movies I’ve seen this and last year, or most of the films Jarmusch has made since Dead Man. When I interviewed the director a few years ago, he said the crews on his past couple of films were too big for him, with union considerations and an unwieldy crew size of 20-25 people. “On Ghost Dog, there’d be times when just driving to our location I’d see another location and think, ’Ah, I’d like to grab one shot where he’s walking along this street.’ But I would be prevented from doing that. ’Well, that scene involves a company move. Where do we park the trucks? What about the teamsters?’ I felt restricted in a way that wasn’t healthy creatively.”
On Year of the Horse, the concert film about Neil Young, Jarmusch felt great relief because “it was like having no road map at all. It was like, start driving and see where you end up. That helped me a lot. I hope it will have repercussions on future work somehow.” But Broken Flowers and Coffee & Cigarettes still felt too formal for my taste, and it took working with free-form cinematographer and all-around genius Christopher Doyle to get Jarmusch to that place again—not to mention that they were working from a 20-25 page short story that he didn’t really adapt into a screenplay. I suspect these things helped Jarmusch, and allowed him to be free somehow, to be able to go wherever he wanted with the camera, and with someone as daring as Doyle, the camera finds itself in odd and unlikely places, from high and low angles or shooting reflections in mirrors or drifting along flat surfaces or doing slow dolly creeps to the back of someone’s head. The images are alive in The Limits of Control, they breathe.
In Dead Man, Jarmusch never filmed postcard vistas; instead he’d turn the camera around and shoot a cactus and a pile of rocks. He applies the same unlikely choices, the same sense of a surprise about what the picture will be, to The Limits of Control. But he probably should have called this movie The Perfect Man, since Isaach De Bankolé embodies everything I suspect Jarmusch would love to be in his life—a perfectly attuned, perfectly Zen, perfectly meticulous, awake and aware individual who uses economy in his every look and gesture. He doesn’t even smile when he sees a Flamenco dancer, and yet through the slight and subtle movements of De Bankolé’s face, he is smiling.