PRINT May 2009


JIM JARMUSCH’S NEW FILM, The Limits of Control, is a cryptographer’s dream. In this interpretation—fittingly, one among many—the cryptographer is at once the filmmaker, the viewer, and the film’s protagonist, a professional hit man (played by Isaach De Bankolé) who travels through Spain, following a series of gnomic clues as he tracks down his target. The dream is the film itself, an embodiment of the Surrealist notion of movies as oneiric experiences—elusive projections where memory and desire are coded in images of disturbing beauty. Thoroughly implicated in the very apparatus of moviemaking (photography and editing) and exhibition (projection), Surrealism infiltrated many popular and art-film genres. The Limits of Control is partly inspired by one such strain—French secret-society conspiracy narratives, most pertinently the silent serials of Louis Feuillade (Les Vampires [1915], Judex [1916]), Jacques Rivette’s early New Wave Paris Belongs to Us (1960) and his epic Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971), and many of the films that the Chilean director Raúl Ruiz has made over the past thirty-odd years in France and Portugal.
Acknowledged worldwide as an “American independent,” Jarmusch has always kept one foot in the US and the other abroad in terms of the form, content, and financing of his movies. His United States is a land of immigrants and subcultures, where no one seems at home—except for the Native American spirit guide in his greatest film, Dead Man (1995). Beginning with Stranger than Paradise (1984), all his films could be described as “travelogues,” but only one, Night on Earth (1991), is situated, even in part, outside North America. The Limits of Control is in that sense a first: Set in Spain and shot by the brilliant, freewheeling Hong Kong–based cinematographer Christopher Doyle, it fabricates its alluring dreamscape from the vistas, architecture, and dramatically shifting light that inspired a century of surrealist visions. And yet this is also a movie made from an American perspective, albeit a subversive one. Its title is taken from an essay of the same name by William S. Burroughs, and its production company, PointBlank, named for the 1967 chill neo-noir puzzle movie directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin as a blinkered but implacable avenger, perhaps come back from the dead to put a bullet through the heart not only of his nemesis but of the Hollywood studio system as well. Most crucially, Jarmusch’s villain, identified in the credits as the “American” and played by Bill Murray, faces down the man who comes to kill him, raging against everything that the director, his films, and their audience hold dear.
Like Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and Broken Flowers (2005), The Limits of Control is built around the journey of one man: an outsider with a mission. Here the character is even named the Lone Man (though no one ever calls him that). The narrative alternates sequences of this inscrutable sojourner alone—traveling by plane, train, and automobile and performing private rituals to hone his body and his imagination—with one-on-one meetings with his contacts, played by an international array of actors, including Hiam Abbass, Gael García Bernal, Paz de la Huerta, Alex Descas, John Hurt, Oscar Jaenada, Youki Kudoh, Tilda Swinton, and Luis Tosar. Although the hit man presents an enigmatic face to the world, he is also a fully human presence—De Bankolé’s performance suggests that he contains multitudes—especially compared with his contacts, who, despite their intense and colorful obsessions, are as flat as tarot-card figures. In the endless succession of hotel rooms he briefly inhabits, the hit man practices tai chi and listens to Schubert, but his quest is driven by a score that features noise bands, including the Japanese ensemble Boris, who sound like early Velvet Underground combined with New York No Wave (a scene in which Jarmusch participated in the early ’80s)—all processed through a contemporary Japanese rock sensibility. The Limits of Control presents a vision of a culture, not without limits, perhaps, but certainly without borders.
The Limits of Control opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 1.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.

Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 116 minutes. Production still. Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé). Photo: Teresa Isasi-Isasmendi.

AMY TAUBIN: Has anyone ever told you that you look amazingly like Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s Point Blank [1967]?

JIM JARMUSCH: Well, yeah, because I’ve been in this secret organization—the Sons of Lee Marvin—for twenty years. We consider ourselves his theoretical sons. Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Nick Cave are members, and so was [the writer] Richard Boes, who just died. Both Sam Fuller and John Boorman told me I remind them of Lee sometimes. John Boorman even asked me to read Marvin’s war diaries for a film. He said my voice sometimes reminds him of Lee’s, too.

AT: It’s a remarkable resemblance, given that your body language is nothing like his. The similarity is just from the neck up—in close-up. When did you first see Point Blank?

JJ: Probably in the late ’70s, not when it came out in the ’60s. When we made The Limits of Control, we weren’t trying to imitate Boorman’s film. We were merely using it as a strong inspiration. Chris Doyle and I would watch it together and talk about how it was constructed or comment on certain camera angles, not to replicate them but just to sort of soak in things we both responded to. The editing and rhythm of Point Blank is way far from our film. And the main character is quite different because in Boorman’s movie, Lee Marvin is on a revenge thing, and it’s very emotional to him. Our film avoids that, to the point where one character says, “Revenge is useless.” I find revenge to be devolutionary. It’s like capital punishment. That’s just going backward. I get bored with revenge plots. They’re so easy.

AT: I noticed a couple of parallels between the two films. The repetition of close-ups in which your protagonist is framed dead center so his face is like a mandala. Boorman did that with Marvin. And the use of architectural structures with multiple levels. Both films have really extreme camera angles in relation to the architecture.

JJ: Yeah. Boorman sort of alternates between a kind of classical symmetry and something very unusual or striking. He did something beautiful in the contrast between the symmetry of the shots of Lee Marvin and the asymmetry of so many of the other shots. We kind of did that too, but I’m not sure how consciously we did that because of Point Blank.

AT: And the position Isaach’s character gets into each time he lies awake on his back in bed is very much like the shot of Lee Marvin in bed, but every time you do it, you have the light moving to gradually reveal his face, which is nothing like the style of Point Blank.

JJ: But it is a repetition of something, and there is a lot of repetition in Point Blank. Variations were very important in making The Limits of Control. The whole film was really just built on variations of similar things happening again.

AT: Compared with your other films, the camera positions and moves are unpredictable. There are the close-ups of Isaach’s face that anchor the film and some of your signature lateral tracking shots, where Isaach walks across the frame, but beyond those I had the feeling that I never knew where the camera was going to be next.

Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control, 2009. (Trailer)

JJ: Chris has an amazing eye. He brought that plasticity of camera position for me. And yet it’s very careful. It’s not haphazard. Preparing a scene, I would say, “We’ll start on this side and this is what’s going to happen. What do you think? Where would you put the camera first?” And that’s not how I usually work. I’m usually like, “I want the camera here. I’m thinking this is 32 mm. What do you think?” But I’m pretty rigid. Here, I was always open. I would ask him what he thought and usually just go with that. A few times I placed the camera somewhere and he was like, “No, that’s not dynamic, man. Oh, I’ve seen that. That’s what you want? You want to do what’s expected?” And when I said I didn’t, he’d say, “Oh good, try this.” He has this intuitive gift. Obviously, he has to plan certain things technically and know about his film material and light and exposures. But he’s always in the moment. The moment of any take you’ve done—that moment is gone. That’s what filmmaking is. It teaches you that everything is momentary.

For the last shot of the film, we were going up the escalator and Chris had the camera on his shoulder. He couldn’t hit the button to turn it off until he took it off his shoulder, right? We did two takes of that move, and each time at the end the camera was still rolling when he took it off. When I saw that in the dailies, I was like, “I want to keep that part.” We had been so careful up until then and in the last shot we throw it all away. It wasn’t intended. It was just when I saw it, I thought, How could you not use that as the nature of the film and Chris Doyle? He likes accidents and mistakes, so he was perfect for this film that way.

AT: How did this project come about?

JJ: I had a very vague set of notes about creating a film for Isaach De Bankolé, as a very strong sort of criminal-type guy. Then I just started, as I usually do, collecting elements in my notebook. Then I wrote a twenty-five-page story. I approached Focus Features, saying, “I’m going to start with this. Here’s my cast, what do you think?” And they said, “Oh, we’d like to finance it and leave you alone,” which they did completely.

AT: Was it conceived for Spain?

JJ: For Spain and for Isaach. I had always loved Seville and just wanted to shoot there. And I had been in the south of Spain, in Almería, where that strange, bunkerlike house is that we kind of doctored up—you know, the one where the helicopter lands, bringing Bill Murray’s character. And I had known that amazing building, the Torres Blancas in Madrid, for twenty years. I just started collecting those things. The twenty-five pages didn’t really have any dialogue, but they were a map of the story. It was very, very minimally written on purpose. I even tried to make the language very minimal, not very descriptive at all. So I started with that.

AT: So many elements in the film—the references to Cubism and Surrealism and particularly the combination of Western European and Moorish elements—are central to Spanish culture. And then you have Isaach, whose face could be a Cubist painting.

JJ: Yeah. The planes of his face are insanely beautiful. Isaach is African, and Cubism came from African masks and those planes of the face.

AT: Because the style of the film is so minimal, Isaach seems like an even stronger center than Johnny Depp in Dead Man or Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog. How did you direct his performance?

JJ: We didn’t want to define where his character was coming from or where he’s going. Basically, we talked about his procedure on his voyage and how he comports himself. And tai chi was very important because it gave his character a way of centering himself. It also gave the title a double meaning. Are the limits of control limits on the way we are controlled or the limits of our own self-control or what? Doing tai chi or yoga or qigong or any kind of meditation that is physical and involves your breathing is a centering thing that connects you with all other things. It connects you with the universe. We talked a lot about how that’s how he looks at himself in the world and how looking at a painting on the wall is no different for him than looking at a blank brick wall and seeing the quality of light on that. Or how you see a plate of pears on a table, as opposed to a painting of a plate of pears in a museum. That is taking something out of context and then out of context again and putting it in a museum. Shifu Yan Ming—the martial-arts master who heads the USA Shaolin Temple in Manhattan—instructed Isaach’s tai chi, and he is sort of a philosophical advisor to me in life.

AT: There are only two points in the film where Isaach openly expresses emotion. One is in the scene where he goes to a flamenco bar and gets carried away by the music, but his biggest reaction is in the confrontation with the American at the end. Even though he says, “I don’t believe in revenge,” there’s real anger in him there. It’s not just “I’m doing my job as an assassin.” Did you steer him in that direction?

JJ: Actually, we used the least angry take we did. I wanted it cool, but I didn’t want it devoid. He’s not a robot, and if he’s representing human nature and the imagination or whatever he’s representing metaphorically in the film, then he feels things. And you know, Bill Murray’s character is like a condescending school principal the way he talks to him. I heard that so much in my life—“You don’t know how the world really works”—from my father, from cops, teachers, any authority figure. So it’s hard for it not to be personal in some way. He’s pretty cool. He’s doing his job. But he’s feeling it, too, so it was the right balance.

Amy Taubin and Jim Jarmusch’s conversation continues in the May issue of Artforum.