Sunday, 13 December 2009

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL



PLOT SPOILERS AHOY!!!

This new Jim Jarmusch movie has proved controversial in many quarters, generating a lot of baffled resentment. As a longtime fan of his work, I have to tell you it looks, feels and sounds absolutely great – in particular with some fantastic photography. More than any previous Jarmusch film, it is surely challenging Antonioni (in particular The Passenger). The soundtrack (by drone outfits such as Earth, Sunn))) and Boris) is so superb you wonder if all films should have such a soundtrack by law. You feel such music as much as hear it, it has a subliminal effect upon you as if creeping beneath the radar of your critical faculties - the perfect soundtrack music.

Some commentators have despaired of the way this espionage story doesn’t have any literal kind of resolution. Yet even classics of the genre, such as The Big Sleep, had supposed ‘plots’ which even the makers couldn’t follow – without it mattering much. Indeed, such an absence may even count as an improvement. As the comics artist Eddie Campbell has pointed out of this genre, “the solution is often a pin that lets the air out of the balloon, dispersing forever anything that was there in the first place.”

You would in any case need fairly hefty blinkers not to recognise that proceedings here merely use the form of an espionage film to get you watching in a particular way. As Jarmusch has commented:

“This is not a neo-neo-realism style of film; it’s fantastic in a certain way. I didn’t want to make a film that people had to analyze particularly while watching it. I really wanted to make a film that was kind of like a hallucinogenic in the way that, when you left after having seen it, I hope the audience will look at mundane details in a slightly different way. Maybe it’s only temporary, maybe for only 15 minutes, but I wanted to do something to… I don’t know, just trigger an appreciation for one’s subjective consciousness.”

The film mostly follows nameless ‘Lone Man’ as he undergoes a series of encounters, which may or may not be full of clues. Each individual he encounters seems to embody some discipline – film, music, science. There’s something almost Gnostic about it, the scenes are structured as if he’s being imparted knowledge but the sense of them is more that he’s becoming steeped in a worldview.

More neatly still, Jarmusch achieved this effect mostly through improvised filming, turning up to locations with only the most minimal script to see where the journey took him. One way to read the title is that ‘Control’ is a conventional shooting script, insisting reality conforms to it.

This is of course a great idea for a film. It’s surely no accident that one of the great blockbusters of our time was called Titanic, while it’s successors have become increasingly obsessed with gargantuan disasters. Hollywood feels virtually the last Fordist industry left, oversized, clumsy, it’s projects impossible to resteer once they’re set out on. What better counter than to make a film more like an improvising troupe?

And if it didn’t have a hallucinogenic effect on me, it did bring back to my mind the spy games we’d play as kids. We had nothing in particular to say in those messages we’d elaborately code, nor anyone to hide them from. But this very lack of function gave them their significance, the medium was the message. We wanted so much to talk to each other it wasn’t enough to just say things, new languages had to be invented just so they could be used. So much effort was put into the form, the content was rendered important.

But does this cool idea actually come off? First, there’s a formal distinction to contend with. Unlike music or theatre, film doesn’t happen live before the audience; we never see the process, only the result. So when we see, for example, a black helicopter at the start then again at the end – in a sense it was already present at the end, the film exists for us in a kind of simultaneity of time.

But worse, rather than counter this tendency the film instead enhances it. The character we follow doesn’t extemporise on what he sees (like say in Fellini’s 8 1/2), he follows what appears to us a pre-set arrangement of clues which take him to a denouement. The end result is not impressionist but deterministic; we don’t make sense of the world we are thrust into, we soak up these clues and wait for their sense to be made manifest to us.

This is reinforced by the style of the film which (though arresting in itself) is not freely associative but rigid and almost minimal. At one point, in the art gallery, a big painting behind the Lone Man’s head carries only a big cross, as if marking the spot where he should sit. It’s surely no co-incidence the camera here seems so in love with architecture and design. If it was a painting it would be by Ed Ruscha, with it’s sterile yet numinous empty urban spaces, not a Dadaist collage or teeming Futurist street scene. Objects arrive almost labelled as clues, like some cerebral kind of video game.

I am also unsure whether there is the connection between imagination and the figure of the secret agent which Jarmusch seems to be implying. A character like James Bond is clearly an agent of chaos, breaking into the clockwork order of the secret base in order to disrupt it. But is chaos the same thing as imagination? (Crucially, the hero here is explicitly not sexualised.)

Admittedly, I may have been weighted against the film by being wrongfooted by it. Early on, I assumed that this heady stew of significance somehow existed only in the lead character’s mind. He’d see paintings in a gallery which he’d later translate into encounters. Yet something I always responded to about so many previous Jarmusch films (including the direct predecessor, Broken Flowers) was the way the protagonist would be not so much an unreliable narrator as a hopeless one – the last person who was ever going to reach an understanding of the world he was in.

But the biggest weakness of all is the denouement, which spells out the antagonism between imagination and control and in the process lets all the air out of the balloon just as surely as if the caretaker had dunnit. Though, as Jarmusch has indicated, the title references Burroughsian control he doesn’t really honour the concept. Bill Murray’s American is really just The Man, a one-dimensional authoritarian Aunt Sally. Try comparing the ending here to the face-off against Number One in the final episode of The Prisoner. Both endings employ genre conventions to subvert them more deeply, but The Prisoner. The Prisoner’s subversion is deeper, a much more challenging and ambiguous sequence which tantalises the viewer with easy answers yet ultimately deprives them. And with such a view of Control, the film itself cannot help but feel limited. Imagination good, Control bad. That’s not actually very imaginative. Just as The Baader Meinhof Complex wasn’t really very complex, The Limits of Control is ultimately rather limited.

Conversely, perhaps the problem with this character is that he is all too tawdrily accurate. Against widespread speculation that the American is a thinly veiled stab at Dick Cheney, Jarmusch has responded:

“It’s not pointed at the Bush administration. That’s a great example. But it continues; it’s continuing now. Who is telling us what world economic/financial structure are we trying to repair? Are we trying to prop it up, are we trying to patch up its wounds? It’s something that’s already dead; the structure is the problem.”

But by being so perfunctory and one-dimensional the American fails to represent any such structure but becomes almost the perfect description of Bush or Cheney – whose role on the stage of history was only ever as bad melodrama villains. Brecht referred to Hitler diminutively by turning him into Artuo Ui, a Chicago gangster with designs to control the vegetable trade. But a fictional biographer of Bush and Cheney, attempting to make them into characters deserving audience interest, would be forced to do the opposite - magnifying their dimwitted scheming and elevating their grasping into something grander. As the old New Model Army song went: “Not foolish and brave, these leaders of ours/ Just stupid and petty, unworthy of power.”

I’m finally torn between two responses to this film. In some ways it left me feeling as I did with I’m Not There, a success in it’s own refreshingly idiosyncratic terms, but not ultimately terms I favour. Or perhaps it was simply a failure, a brave and noble failure but nonetheless unable to live up to it’s own intentions.

NB: The resy of my Cine-City write-up is coming shortly. Honest, guv. Would I lie to you?

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