August 11, 2009

What films do

It was in Tarkovsky’s Stalker that I saw an image from a dream that has visited me all my life, made real. Does a thing have to be shared to be made real? A bird, flying towards the camera, dips its wing into the sand that fills a room. Did I imagine this? I haven’t seen the film for years. Can somebody tell me? Was I dreaming even then, in the Cambridge Art Cinema in 1981? Or might there be the possibility of a shared dream, a shared unconscious after all? This was before I had ever made a film, ever met a filmmaker, ever half-willingly stood in front of a camera. --
Tilda Swinton, from her second State of Cinema address, 2006.
Tilda Swinton also uses that story of the bird dipping its wings into sand during her brief but very memorable appearance in Jim Jarmusch's new, mesmerising The Limits of Control although without any connection to Stalker. The dialogue in her cameo is about what films do; her character is billed as the Blonde and it's a film situation, meeting a contact at a cafe, swapping some information and some abrupt dialogue and then disappearing. So she talks about Hitchcock's Suspicion and then neither says anything and then she says, "Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there not saying anything".

The Limits of Control is a film about what films do, pitched like a shared dream. "Part of me wanted to make an action film with no action in it, whatever the hell that means," Jarmusch says in this essential interview in Film Comment. It's an enigmatic thriller where nothing really feels at stake and everyone is reduced to their archetypal essence: the Lone Man, the Blonde, the American, the Driver, and so on. No other names. It has a calm sense of drift, contemplation; it's as metaphysical as Dead Man but without the abiding sense of doom. The Lone Man is on a mission in Spain, first Madrid, then Seville, then somewhere more remote. He has to bust into an apparently impenetrable building. In the next scene, he is seen inside a locked room. "I used my imagination."

A dry, self-reflexive joke again. Jarmusch also used his imagination to get out of a tight spot, working up a slight screenplay based mostly around repeated phrases and brief encounters, punctuated by beautiful shots of urban Madrid and rural Spain and set to a psychedelic guitar soundtrack by Boris that is sure to remind Jarmusch fans of Neil Young's great soundtrack to Dead Man, this film's closest relative in the Jarmusch back-list (especially when the soundtrack flicks from Boris to a track by labelmates Earth from Hex, an album inspired by the Dead Man soundtrack -- a detail Jarmusch must be aware of). The cool humour of Jarmusch films is often about that link to other films in the Jarmusch universe, which is getting more refined and minimalist with each decade, as well as the cultural reference points that cluster outside it. Surely the two espressos that the Lone Man orders have something to do with the doubling that Jonathan Rosenbaum saw in Coffee and Cigarettes? The views of Spain from the windows of cars and trains can run like the opening sequence of Dead Man, that trip from civilisation to the wilderness. It seems apt that just as the gloomy Broken Flowers was dedicated to Jean Eustache, this honours Point Blank (via the name of Jarmusch's one-off production company). We know that the "very fine Finnish film" that John Hurt's character refers to in his short rant about bohemians is La Vie de Boheme by Aki Kaurismaki, who Jarmusch paid tribute to in the Finnish segment of Night on Earth. And there is a world of speculation in that title, The Limits of Control. Jarmusch took it from Burroughs and it gave him the "nothing is true, everything is possible" ideas that are part of the strange briefing the Lone Man gets at the start of his mission and sets the wider philosophical mood. But it might also be about Bill Murray's American, a character said to be modelled on Dick Cheney. Or it could be about Jarmusch's method, working in a way that is less prepared and less conscious. From that Film Comment interview:
I was just thinking the other night that in a way, for me, the poet Neruda is a huge inspiration. All those beautiful odes to mundane objects. I kind of wanted to just build that kind of sense of perception of things through this character and how he sees the world. But he’s on a mission, and that’s another element—I’ve always liked this kind of game structure in things. The title comes from an essay by William Burroughs. And Burroughs, his use of cut-ups, and re-arranging found things, was very interesting to me in the same way that Burroughs was very interested in the I-Ching as a motivator. Or Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards. Or the French poets… Queneau made this book, Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, that has little strips you can move around. All of these things were inspiring, I didn’t realize until we were editing the film that I was using Oblique Strategies all along the way. I was weaving things, in a way.
... I’m always very open while filming, for example I haven’t used a shot list in my last six films, and I’ve always been very open to things I can’t control, like, Oh, it’s raining but this scene’s not in the rain; well maybe this scene’s better in the rain! So I’ve used those things throughout my work. In recognizing what you can’t control you have to decide, is the thing going to make the film better, even though you didn’t expect it? So I try to incorporate that.