I like to give a film a good ponder before completely trashing it. After all, just because I haven’t figured it out, doesn’t mean it can’t be figured out. Except I’m pretty sure that The Limits of Control, directed by (and, if I’m being charitable, written by) Jim Jarmusch, isn’t meant to be figured out.

To prove this, I’ll have to take the film apart. So, to spite Jarmusch and his collaborators, I’m going to break the story down into its components, much as I did with Synechdoche, New York, and interrogate them for clues as to what the filmmakers could possibly be thinking (or smoking).

The Limits of Control Explained

The title seems at first to be a commentary on the central character, Lone Man, played by Isaach de Bankolé, who is a picture of self-control. We first see him doing Tai Chi in an airport bathroom stall, and much the film is a study of his composed, emotionless face. (The movie uses as a crutch the fact that de Bankolé has one of the most interesting faces in cinema, even when without discernable emotion.)

But Lone Man, while repeatedly refusing a temptation to sex with a naked woman, the equally-pretentiously-named Nude (Paz de la Huerta), is not without his limits of control. He seems to take pleasure in fine art and flamenco music. And he has a weakness for espressos. When one of his coffee partners looks longingly at his tipple, finally an emotion breaks across that blank face.

Because it is so strongly hinted near the end, perhaps we are meant to understand ‘the limits of control’ to apply to the idea of corporate hegemony, as personified by Bill Murray’s character, American. The oblique dialogue exchange he has with Lone Man suggest that Lone Man is part of some international conspiracy of artists and dreamers and is enacting a ritual killing on their behalf. The fact that Lone Man kills American with a string from a musical instrument is no doubt meant to have significance. Nevermind that greater significance is placed on solving problems with violence, an idea I find morally abhorrent, as do most of the artists and dreamers I know.

A more appropriate ending might’ve been for Bill Murray’s character to realize, Ozymandias-like, that all men are equalized by death, even as he dies of natural causes. This would’ve tied into the refrain “whenever someone thinks he is bigger than the rest of us, he must go to the cemetery.” Lone Man need not have killed him, only waited him out.

There is an alternate title (for Israel?), No Limits, No Control, listed on the IMDb. This uses the same nouns, but has a very different connotation, that without limits there can’t be control. I’m not sure if this would suggest that artists shouldn’t control themselves, or that corporations need to be controlled, or what. Either way, it seems that the definitive English title has settled on The Limits of Control.

UPDATE: Found a Christianity Today article that notes that William S. Burroughs wrote an essay titled “The Limits of Control” about how language is used to control the masses.

“No control machine so far devised can operate without words,” writes Burroughs, “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.” It’s not entirely clear exactly how this idea fits into writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s film.

The full essay can be read here. A key sentence that may have inspired the setting of the film is, “Dr. Delgado, who once stopped a charging bull by remote control of electrodes in the bull’s brain, left the U.S. to pursue his studies on human subjects in Spain.” Perhaps American is meant to be this Dr. Delgado, a master of mind control?

One thesis of the essay is “When there is no more opposition, control becomes a meaningless proposition.” This could’ve inspired the pas de deux between Lone Man and American. Of course, none of this is overt in their dialogue, nor in the film in general. If this is what Jarmusch intended to communicate, he did a poor job. I do suggest reading Borroughs’ essay, which is far more thought-provoking than the film of the same name.

No Longer Guided by the Ferryman

The movie opens with a quote from French poet Arthur Rimbaud, translated as: “As I descend down impassable rivers, I no longer feel guided by the ferryman.” This quote is from the opening lines of ‘Le bateau ivre’ (‘The Drunken Boat’) — UPDATE: translation also here, credited to Oliver Bernard — one of Rimbaud’s early verse works, dated 1871, making him age 17 at time of composition. In other words, Jarmusch need not have delved very deep into the exceedingly brief oeuvre of Rimbaud to find it.

Nor does anything in ‘The Drunken Boat’ or Rimbaud’s writings leap out at me as a clear connection to The Limits of Control. The poem is written from the perspective of a boat. Yes, a talking boat. It’s poetry.

There is no analogue in the film — a speaking plane, a thinking train, a garrulous automobile — that seems similarly anthropomorphized. Rimbaud’s boat is taking on water (becoming “drunk”) and speaking in wild, hallucinatory imagery. The imagery of The Limits of Control is, by contrast staid and literal (even though there is a predilection for reflections).

The translation I link to has “haulers” instead of ferryman. ‘Ferryman’ of course conjures the mythical Charon, who ferries the souls of the dead across the river Styx. Does Jarmusch wish us to read Lone Man as an agent of Death, like Charon the Ferryman or the Grim Reaper, or is he merely a passenger being taken on a journey ‘down impassable rivers,’ much like Dante’s journey through the circles of Hell? Again, the text is suggestive without substance.

Perhaps Jarmusch meant to evoke not any particular writing of Rimbaud, but his potent life story. He gave up a promising literary career at the age of 20 and devoted himself to a life of physical labor, dying of complications from a surgery to amputate one of his legs at the age of 37. The question his many biographers have sought to answer is why, as Stéphane Malarmé put it, “he amputated himself, alive, from poetry.” (from the Introduction to A Season in Hell and Illuminations, translated by Mark Treharne). Are we meant to consider Lone Man’s quest as an amputation from art? I don’t think so. If anything, art is an integral part of his quest.

So who is Lone Man?

Some argue that Lone Man is a deconstruction of the hitman. If so, Jarmusch already did it better in Ghost Dog, which also toyed with movie notions of samurai as noble warriors. The movie Le samouraï, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and written by Melville and Georges Pellegrin from the novel The Ronin by Joan McLeod, often is mentioned as a touchstone for Ghost Dog by critics, and explicitly by Jarmusch for Limits of Control:

Jarmusch has compared the movie to “Marguerite Duras remaking Le Samourai” … But for most of the film what obtains is Bankolé and company’s bohemian prerogative to contemplate, rather than any reworking of past films. While one profile shot of a hotel room seems to mimic the opening shot of Le Samourai, the cultural references and notebook quotations don’t feel like telegraphed pastiches as they sometimes do in other Jarmusch movies, even though a few lines are ridiculous.

Nicolas Rapold, The L Magazine

Duras had a long career as a writer and filmmaker, but is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay to Hiroshima, mon amour, directed by Alain Resnais.) Both Le samouraï and Hiroshima, mon amour are contemplative French films, but have far less opaque plots. The former is about a hitman who seeks revenge on an employer who attempts to reneg on a contract after the hit goes bad. The latter is about a love affair in the titular city:

While shooting an international movie about peace in Hiroshima, a married French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) has a torrid one night stand with a married Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). They feel a deep passion for each other and she discloses her first love [with a German soldier] in times of war … He falls in love with her and asks her to stay with him in Hiroshima.

IMDb summary by Claudio Carvalho (I’ve seen the movie, but too long ago to feel comfortable summarizing it.)

You would be hard pressed to describe The Limits of Control as succinctly, although the contemplative nature of both these films certainly bears some relation. I think the hitman characterization of Lone Man is misleading. Rather, he is more like a spy, moving from safe house to safe house, having arranged meetings with other agents to exchange information.

In the end, Lone Man changes out of his shiny dark suit look and into a track suit that, to me, suggested a Brazilian or South African sport pro. De Bankolé himself is from Cotê d’Ivoir (Ivory Coast) so maybe I was supposed to think of his real country of origin, as I did with the other actors. He’s just one more world citizen in this strange conspiracy.

One last note: I don’t think the filmmakers intended it, but Lone Man does fit into a nasty stereotype whereby black men are desexualized because of white fears of their (superior?) sexual skills. The character is meant to have great self-control but, as I mentioned before, this fails when it comes to coffee, fine art and music. Why could he also not succumb to the charms of Paz de la Huerta?

What’s with the notes?

I’d put money down that the CIA’s best cryptanalysts couldn’t break the codes glimpsed briefly on the notes before they are swallowed. The first one, with the clue of the Le Boxeur matchbox (a bad pun on ‘box’?), seems intriguing. By the fifth time, the pattern is worse than dull. I thought they might correspond to gallery numbers, but Lone Man stopped viewing a painting after each one, and eventually the camera doesn’t even show the codes, which must be Jarmusch’s way of saying the codes are not important. They are McGuffins, prop excuses for scenes to happen.

I started asking myself what sort of payoff could win back some goodwill towards the movie. About halfway through the film, I realized that there was no conceivable way that Jarmusch could tie it all together in a narratively satisfying way. So I sat back and instead enjoyed the small wonders the movie had to offer.

Small Wonders

Legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle has been much better elsewhere. Nonetheless, he makes The Limits of Control‘s ample dead spaces a pleasure to watch, especially with his keen eye for Spanish architecture.

The music, as in every Jarmusch film I’ve seen, is both strange and wonderful. Jarmusch describes his process of musical inspiration in an interview with Sharon Abella:

“Boris” is a band I love, I think I first heard them in 1999, a Japanese band. When I was writing the script to the story that the film was based on, I was listening to a lot of their stuff, and wanted to have it as the score in the film, along with “Sun” and “Earth” and other bands that I school. Then, yeah, my band made music for places where we couldn’t quite find existing stuff from the bands that I love, that worked, so we decided to try to make some of our own and it winded up working for us, so we wound up making the music when he is in the museum, and when he first arrives in Sevilla.”

The plot thins

Jarmusch, in his interview with The Onion AV Club, brags about not having a fully-realized script while shooting:

Once I had that 25-page story and then got the financing for the film, then I started scouting locations and casting the film. It just kept building and building from there. And then I didn’t really write the dialogue until while we were filming, actually. The 25 pages did contain the basic form of the story and the scenes within it, but they were intentionally very minimal, without a lot of description and without any dialogue.

This can be a recipe for success. Sophia Coppola won Best Original Screenplay for her collaboration with Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen and d.p. Lance Accord, Lost in Translation, based only on an extended outline.

With Limits of Control, this lack of description and dialogue seemed to make it on screen. In fact, according to Jarmusch, there was only one significant change, which happened to result in the most-developed scene in the film…

Blonde on Blonde

The scene with Tilda Swinton (“Blonde”) is perhaps the most explicit in terms of dialogue, suggesting meta-interpretation as a method for understanding the film’s narrative. However, it was not originally part of the movie. It was rewritten the night before:

The only real problem I had was when I wrote a scene that didn’t work for Tilda Swinton. Then I realized while I was shooting it, “I am not liking this,” and I said, “We’re going to come back tomorrow and start the whole scene over and I’m going to rewrite it tonight. I’ll call you, Tilda, and talk to you about it. We’ll start again tomorrow.” Which is very problematic, since we only had six and a half weeks to shoot this damn film. [Note: this is a reasonable and normal length of time by indie standards.] So we were under a lot of pressure, but I just knew instinctively that I wasn’t liking it. That was the only time I pulled it and wrote something else.

The Blonde character is explicitly a movie character. She literally appears in a movie poster, and her mention of The Lady from Shanghai, an Orson Welles-directed film famous for its funhouse mirror shootout, could be another hint at The Limits of Control as espionage thriller, perhaps planting a red herring idea that Lone Man is being set up for the murder of Nude, much as in Lady the character Michael is framed for the murder of Grisby.

In Limits‘ most self-referential moment, Blonde says she likes films where people don’t say anything. This is followed by a minute of the characters not saying anything. I take this to mean that her conviction that “The best films are like dreams you’re not sure you really had” is a description of the film we’re watching. It’s certainly a description of the films of David Lynch, a filmmaker whose method is to draw from the subconscious via meditation, and who refuses to answer questions as to what his films are about, preferring to let audiences come to their own conclusions. Though The Limits of Control lacks the sensationalist imagery of Lynch’s films, is it meant to be in the same vein?

UPDATE: Tilda Swinton gave a speech about the state of cinema premised on the idea of movies as dreams. So perhaps we should give the scene less interpretive weight, since it has a different origin and Jarmusch did not spend as much time integrating it with the rest of the film. (This might also explain why it is more spicy than the other, bland encounters and has a distinctly different tone than the rest of the film.)

Possible Readings

Supporters of the film have come up with some ‘readings’ that I think are fascinating, especially this one from a filmmaker named Sujewa whose comments below will lead you to his blog and this interpretation:

The entire movie takes place inside either the Lone Man character or some other character’s head. The mission is to kill the violent, closed, maybe money & power obsessed aspect of the self. The mission is to be accomplished by the use of art, science, philosophy, discipline, sex or appreciation of the beauty of the body, etc. Ultimately the Closed Side of the self is heavily guarded, inside a bunker. The Open Side of the self gets in & accomplishes its mission by using the imagination (when the Lone Man is questioned by his target as to how he penetrated the bunker, Lone Man says he used his imagination). Or, by using our imagination – making art, exploring science, etc., we may be able to get the more destructive & selfish aspects of ourselves under control.

I do enjoy films that leave space for the mind to wander and to fill in the blanks, and certainly The Limits of Control is full of empty spaces where a clever mind is free to entertain itself. If we don’t view Lone Man’s answer to how he got into American’s bunker (“Imagination.”) as a narrative copout, we have to view it as an endorsement of creativity’s power to magically warp the environment. It is the moment where the film moves from something that could realistically happen (even though, with its frequent repetitions and self-awareness, we have maintained a Brechtian emotional distance from the depicted events) into the realm of the magical. This magic teleportation is not shown, so an ambiguity remains: was Lone Man merely being sarcastic?

Other readings are out there: Lone Man is dead, dreaming, etc. No doubt more will come when The Limits of Control surfaces on DVD and can be parsed minutely. I just wanted to give the ‘text,’ the actual clues presented in the film, a full consideration, as well as published comments from the filmmakers as to their intentions, before ignoring any apparent intentions in favor of a subjective interpretation. But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, there is no clear intention from the filmmakers beyond creating something that is “like a dream,” and so subjective interpretations are all that remain.

My interpretation…

If the text is so ambiguous as to support any interpretation, then my allergic reaction to the vacuousness of this movie must be as valid as any positive one. My interpretation is that Jarmusch had nothing specific to communicate, designed The Limits of Control as a sort of tone poem that, like the worst parts of Godardian movies, glances at other texts instead of commenting or building upon them. In fact, my interpretation has more support than the readings offered by the people praising the film, since mine is supported not only by the text (the film) but extra-textually (Jarmusch’s published interviews), where he as much as says that the movie is built on stray, undeveloped ideas.

The Jarmusch Spectrum

I see a spectrum to Jarmusch’s work. On one side are Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers and the less navel-gazing segments of Coffee & Cigarettes. These movies wear any ‘deconstructionist’ purposes they have on their sleeves and offer fully-realized worlds. But the sloppy segments of Coffee & Cigarettes demonstrate that Jarmusch has another side, one that lets actors improvise off into meaninglessness, as with the baffling scene between the RZA and Bill Murray. The Limits of Control is on the same wavelength, an exercise in pure self-absorption that, though not without small wonders, is nonetheless a waste of time and talent and an insult to the intelligence of its audience.

Jarmusch is now a grand old representative of American independent filmmaking. I wish he would veer more late-Truffaut than late-Godard. I will still go to see his movies, because I think he has earned the benefit of the doubt. But one more movie that is mere empty art-house calories, and I’ll have to reevaluate. It’s not so much about him — he can go and film whatever half-developed short stories he feels like. But to suck such collaborators as Tilda Swinton, Christopher Doyle, Gael Garcia Bernal and Bill Murray into uninteresting mires such as this, and to take up brainspace that audiences and critics could be devoting to interesting films that actually have something to say, well that makes The Limits of Control not a hitman movie, but a tragedy.

Jim Jarmusch GreenCine interview
Jim Jarmusch San Francisco Bay Guardian interview
Jarmusch fan Mike D’Angelo can’t get behind it