Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Too Cool or Not Too Cool

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, US, 2009)

Being a big fan of the 'Musch since way back, I'm going to hold off on my usual preamble; suffice it to say, hopefully, that when it comes to the still-developing area of my consciousness devoted to cinema, his work has been essential and indelible. If it wasn't for Jarmusch, I may never have become interested in thinking about or making movies.

So what's the deal with his latest work? Much buzz has centered around it being magnificently and maddeningly cool - too cool, apparently, for the likes of many. If cool isn't being thrown around as a pejorative term, it's likely that hip is. These are not auspicious words in today's mainstream lexicon, usually connoting a naive, out-of-touch disposition; the assumption is that there's no better indicator of being un-with-it and lame than if you appear to be trying to be cool and/or hip. There's a good thesis waiting to be written about this current aversion to these terms, and an in-depth unpacking of the terms themselves, but that's quite a bit beyond the scope of this review.

But really, though: If you're complaining that Jarmusch is too hip or too cool, then you've probably been saying that since way back, and this latest one isn't going to change your mind. The Limits of Control is a very cool film indeed, even by Jarmuschian standards. So coolness is intrinsic to the film - to what end is it employed?

DeBankole's character, credited as Lone Man, is a hitman, and as hitmen go, he's about as cool as they come. As anyone who's ever seen a movie will tell you, that's saying something. No sex, no guns, no booze - at least not while he's working. He does permit himself expressos, music, and jaunts to the art museum, but these seem somehow connected to his quest, almost as if they were required steps in his meticulous process.

The level of precision is reflected in the filmmaking itself, which is exceptionally, consummately elegant. The music, cinematography, and editing are expertly orchestrated, and they tick along together Swiss-watch style. If there's one nigh-impossible to deny thing about Jarmusch, it's that he is a great lover of the cinematic image. Here, he's aided by the of Christopher Doyle's visual genius and the brilliant editing of Jay Rabinowitz, and someone of a cynical bent might even be tempted to assert that the credit belongs to J's partners in crime. But that's nonsense - anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Jarmusch's previous work would recognize the director's fingerprints all over the place: long(ish) steady takes, laconic characters, tongue-in-cheek humor, a vibrant and nuanced use of color, cross-cultural synergy and dissonance - it's all there.

But there are other things about it aren't quite the usual fare. For one thing, it's his least-funny movie in a long time. It isn't hard to view pretty much any Jarmusch film as a comedy, albeit one with a bone-dry sense of humor. Even what could arguably be deemed his darkest, Dead Man, has moments of comedy that range from wry to downright wacky. I don't think Control marks anything like a break with that tradition, but it's consistently more serious than his previous couple of films.

The seriousness only goes so far, though; it's much more of a tonal choice than a preoccupation with being on-the-level or direct. Jarmusch has always been a sort of playful filmmaker; his movies have always been most enjoyable when one approaches them in the spirit of fun and mystery, as if each one were it's own little excursion into a waking dream. The state of flux that his characters always seem to exist in is most appreciated if the veiwer is willing to be in that limbo herself - to not expect much in the ways of conclusions or definitions, but to be able to appreciate the sights and sounds for their own sake.

I don't mean that his films are bereft of more serious issues; in their own way, they touch on such heady stuff as loneliness, guilt, death, and the problem of connection in a world of cultural and individual differences. But they do so with subtlety, and they seem to be defiantly opposed to conclusions. The questions posed in Jarmusch's cinema are whispered, and they are never answered.

It's odd, then, that for all of the obliqueness of the film's surface appearance, it's upfront about its thematic concerns. You don't have to do much reading between the lines (or the gestures, as it were) to imagine Lone Man as being a soldier in a surprisingly dichotomous meta-conflict. The two sides of this symbolic war could be called, for lack of better terminology, Creative Culture vs. Square Anti-Culture. Each of the Lone Man's encounters with other operatives consists primarily of a one-sided bull session on a particular form of Art: movies, paintings, music, etc. When the bad guy is finally revealed, he turns out to be a walking, talking stereotype of the Ugly American Businessman - obnxious, condescending, and narrow-minded to the extreme.

Ideologically, then, The Limits of Control is uncomplicated and straightforward. For all of the interest in existentialism, it embraces an unambiguous configuration of the symbolic order of things: there are those in favor of the Imagination, and those against it, and both sides are locked in a perpetual battle with each other. This seems shallow, but only if you forget where Lone Man stands in this cosmology. He appears to be following orders, yes, but he asserts at one point that he's "among no one." One way to look at Lone Man's various encounters is as a series of lectures - to which he listens but doesn't respond. Ultimately, he occupies a kind of middle ground - it's clear he's of the Imaginative bent (when Murray's American demands to know how the fuck he got into the bunker, he responds "I used my imagination") but he also follows his own path, his own rules, his own little idiosyncrasies. This is a man who takes his sweet time.

This doesn't put the film in the realm of moral complexity, though - if it did, we'd have to think a little harder about the fact that Lone Man is, at the end of the day, a professional killer. (Morality is almost always skrited in Jarmusch's films, which doesn't mean they're impervious to moral readings and critiques - Ghost Dog comes to mind as ripe territory for such a discussion.) Choosing then to take it mostly on a symbolic level, I think The Limits of Control is a just-barely-qualified success. I like the fact that it celebrates the very virtues it expresses; aesthetic sophistication, elegance, wit, contemplation, and a measure of seriousness and discipline. That last part is crucial, because it's the world of difference that exists between actual creativity and exression and New Agey indulgence. In this sense, then, the film's unalloyed sincerity actually becomes kind of heroic. In this dark and gloomy world of postmodern skepticism, this film is clear about its sympathies and aspirations. Creativity, Imagination, Human Expressiveness - sense of humor notwithstanding, The Lone Man defends them with deadly seriousness. As should we.

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