As filmmaker Jim Jarmusch sits down for our conversation, he pulls out a small notebook filled with what looks like quickly jotted-down ideas during his travels. When I ask about it, he jokes with the same deadpan wit that his movies are known for that they’re his answers to my questions. He then segues to his musician friend and hipster icon Tom Waits, who apparently kept a similar notebook full of topics he wanted to remember to discuss while being interviewed: “So, regardless of the question, he’d say: ‘Do you know there are albino moles living under Las Vegas?'” Since his rise from early ’80s Lower East Side breakout to world-renowned auteur, Jarmusch is still one of the coolest people living in New York.
Also effortlessly chic is “The Limits of Control,” Jarmusch’s first film since 2005’s “Broken Flowers,” in which a sharkskin-suited Isaach De Bankolé stars as an enigmatic, meticulous criminal on an unknown assignment in picturesque Spain. Shot for shot the most gorgeous film of the year thus far (thanks to cinematographer extraordinaire Christopher Doyle), the film is an impressionistic, minimalist art-thriller… but maybe that’s not accurate. The two-espresso-drinking De Bankolé sits in cafés, visits museums, walks around and encounters a bizarre series of contacts (Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt) on the way to completing some mission involving Bill Murray’s patronizing businessman. It’s a viewing experience that’s mysterious and fulfilling, cerebral but open to analysis. Jarmusch and I certainly analyzed the film a bit, while occasionally discussing William Burroughs and French poetry, Dick Cheney and naked women. If you’re confused by Jarmusch’s references to “he,” by the way, that would be De Bankolé’s nameless “Lone Man.”
After reading “The Limits of Control,” the William Burroughs essay with the same title, the only direct correlation I could come up with was that you frequently have characters who interact with one another through language barriers.
The Burroughs essay isn’t all that pertinent to the film, although it concerns language as a control mechanism, a very powerful one. But really, I was just lifting the title because I liked it. The essay is interesting, although somewhat out of date due to the web. The way information is disseminated now is quite different than 1975 or whenever he wrote that. More importantly from Burroughs to me are his investigations into coincidence, the cut-up method and using the I Ching. Those things were very important in how this film was created. The essay itself is less directly relevant than some [other] ideas of Burroughs’.
What made me think there was more to it was the end credits, which close with “No Limit. No Control.” That was the only reason I took another peek at Burroughs’ essay.
Well, it’s in there. But this film has an incredible amount of references to other things that are not essential to understanding. I didn’t want to make a film that was mentally taxing. I wanted it to be, not an exercise, but a trip for the audience to be sucked along by, and hopefully be entertaining on some level. The film was structured [so that audiences] accept things as we went along and look for connective layers that would present themselves if you’re open to them.
I don’t know if you know this French school of poetry called Oulipo. Raymond Queneau used a lot of game structures, puzzling things together that are seemingly not connected but then become connected by juxtaposition. Burroughs made a series of incredibly beautiful scrapbooks where he would take things out of the newspaper. He’d find things on the same page that were seemingly unrelated, and yet he’d find something else that connected them. I like Brian Eno’s little Oblique Strategies cards. All those things were inspirations on to construct a film as you go, to some extent. I had all the scenes sketched out, but I hadn’t written the dialogue. We were very open as we went. That makes no sense at all now. [laughs]
No, it does. I was enthralled with the film’s peculiar sense of logic. It has these delightful red herrings, and an elliptical sense of both dialogue and imagery that seems just out of reach of concrete meaning. It’s a very human trait to search for patterns in these kinds of elements.
Yeah, and to me, one of the strongest forms of human expression has always been variations on things. The film embraces that, too. A lot of the situations keep repeating, but they’re varied by the place or the person he’s meeting with, or where he’s waiting. It’s just a series of variations, which is in classical music, pop music, fashion, architecture, literature and painting.
At the press screening I attended, a woman behind me kept sighing. I think she was expecting something more to happen, and I wanted to turn around and say, “You’re watching it.” In a film that’s clearly about the moment-to-moment experience but still about the puzzle, how do you strike a balance between giving and withholding?
In this case, one key is the first painting that he goes and looks at, a Cubist painting of a violin by Juan Gris. The film, although not visually referential to Cubism in any other way, is kind of cubistic philosophically or structurally, in that you can look at scenes differently, details differently, details from different perspectives that are all equally valid. The film doesn’t tell you how to interpret anything, really. That was the intention, which I understand — for some people, like that lady — might be frustrating because it’s an action movie with no action. That’s contradictory and frustrating if you’re expecting conventional action, but we’re referencing crime films and action movies in small ways… my big Michael Bay helicopter descending shot, you know? There is no real convention that satisfies those things, although the ending is kind of a convention because he [has to] complete his mission. But even that, what does it mean? It’s amusing to me to hear that people have interpreted some things that I didn’t even think of.