Sunday, February 14, 2010

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Isaach De Bankolé, Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bill Murray
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Runtime: 116 min. (really?)
Verdict: An interminable bore. A pretentious movie and a badly made one. The kind of movies that suffix artsy with fartsy.
Genre: Crime

        The black assassin, his nose permanently flared, walks into a room. A petite body lay absolutely naked on the bed. Her sparkling clean posterior is facing the wall. She is even wearing those typical spectacles office women wear in porn movies to cater to our elitist cravings. She is played by Ms. Huerta and when I check her images on Google, she is a beautiful woman. He snatches the gun. No, the film is too inert too include something as kinetic an action as snatch. The black assassin just takes the gun. He puts it inside and walks out, when she says if he likes her posterior. He says yes. She wonders why he doesn’t want to have sex. He explains. The next scene cuts to him on the bed, in his dress, and her lying naked on him. He obviously is exercising control. The point is, it doesn’t feel like much of an effort because the entire sequence is absolutely un-erotic, if that is a word.
        Why else, or how else is the scene intended to work? Mr. Jarmusch references, by the posturing of the woman, by the dialog, Jean Luc Godard’s Contempt. That was a film which was about the struggle of commerce and art because it was about it. And I have watched that film. I wonder though, why should you have seen the film? Why should you have watched some obscure film to enjoy and get the point of this scene here in The Limits of Control? This is the most condemnable aspect of modern art movies, where gratuitous masturbation of cinephilia is mistaken for art. Why should an audience, who has just spent his day working 8 hours, be treated with empty cinematic references? An art film is meant to spiritually awaken. Film attempts like The Limits of Control, which are the exact equivalent of the blockbuster world’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, should be criticized vociferously, and burnt so that young filmmakers do not get the wrong notion of art.
        Now consider the kind of filmmaking at hand. Look at the manner in which Mr. Jarmusch tries to reference Hitchcock. One of the black assassins contact is a blonde (alert), played by Ms. Swinton, and she sits next to our guy, as all of them do. On a table in a café. Behind them is a pillar with two dragons, and behind it are two taps. Hitchcock would do that kind of silly symbolism in his films, most notably Strangers on a Train, to represent the duality of a man. I hate that. A symbol itself is a reference. A reference to a reference makes me want to rip my arm off and throw at the film in absolute disgust. And just to make sure that everybody watching gets it that the film wants to discuss art, the blonde woman explicitly mentions her views on Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai and Suspicion. That is the scene’s point. I ask again, reader, why should you even know that some guys called Welles and Hitchcock even existed to enjoy this scene? Such is the pretentiousness of The Limits of Control. I believe that is BAD filmmaking. Mr. Jarmusch doesn’t have an idea how to involve an audience. Often, when a filmmaker doesn’t have an idea, he resorts to being “cerebral” and go all referential. And then remark, Oh you didn’t get that? Well, it referenced so and so. If I was you, I would say, Sir, please watch your own films and connect your own dots. And while you’re at it, please get a life too. Cinema is about emotion, is about self. It is not about cinephilia.
        What is the film about? For the most part it is about an assassin getting exposed to art. In all its forms. The setting is in Spain, and you know how it is there in these European cities. They are just classic settings for culture and art, and not the practicalities of life you feel in Mumbai or New York. Now, in one of the more interesting discussions I had over my review of The Reader, which is actually a profound movie over the affects of art over morality, and vice versa, I had incidentally used the example of a sniper/assassin. How would an assassin react to art? I am sure Vincent from Collateral was extremely spiritual. How does art affect a person? Does it make him human, does it push him further into the region where everything seems, well, a variable of an equation.
        But I think I should stop asking these questions, because The Limits of Control doesn’t ask them? Not does it provide any insight on them. It just exists in a vacuum of empty style, but the problem is there is no style. It is obligatorily shot, where not a single shot evokes. I remember that great film, In the City of Sylvia, which I believe is one of the greatest ever made, and I see there a camera which becomes the male eye. Here the camera is nothing. No unique perspective, not even a cinebuff’s. Just obligatory shots. Except for of course an early sequence, where the assassin lands out of the airport and gets into a cab and rides and rides and minutes turn into hours turn into days. There is no editing but blending of images, and they are so bright you feel like you are under the afternoon sun driving a car. I think I had to close my eyes once. It is a spectacular sequence, and from thereon the filmmaking gets so monotonous it feels it is on autopilot. Look at how unimaginatively Mr. Jarmusch highlights the assassin’s various contacts. They are in slow-mo, with a hand-held camera. The shot doesn’t make you feel anything. The slow-mo isn’t even grand, it is just there. Stylistic films gain a resonance, like Sergio Leone’s films, but this one doesn’t even have a heart to beat. Forget the resonance altogether. It is all just badly made. And a horrible viewing experience. People do not like normal people. The only degree of sanity comes when Mr. Murray appears on screen. It is an unbearable movie too. You want to watch the movie as an honest man with noble intentions, but your mind starts revolting after a while. Your mind insists it has plenty of better things to do. The black assassin walking across as a train passes beneath sure is supposed to mean something or refer some obscure movie, but who cares.
        I believe, for the most part, The Limits of Control exists as one of my most contemptible movie watching experiences of the past year or so. Between this, Kambakht Ishq and Transformers: ROTFL, I guess I have to hand it out to Kambakht Ishq. But Mr. Jarmusch’s film trails only by a whisker. And the Michael Bay masterpiece is lagging a distant third. For all its incomprehensibility I never did really mind it.

11 comments:

Just Another Film Buff said...

"I wonder though, why should you have seen the film? "
- You needn't have. I guess it works nevertheless.

"Why should an audience, who has just spent his day working 8 hours, be treated with empty cinematic references?"
- Oh man, that's a bir crude isn't it? One could well ask this for any film? It's, after all, a question of tolerance.

"An art film is meant to spiritually awaken."
- Most of avant-garde goes down with that statement. It is a bit unfair to put down a film to suit a rigid view of what cinema must be. Of course, one has preferences. But to say that cinema has only a specific purpose would limit its potential vastly.

"Mr. Jarmusch doesn’t have an idea how to involve an audience."
- Come on dude. Bit old school, ain't it? See the mode the film is operating in. Audience involvement? Godard didn't know that. He didn't want that. Is he a bad filmmaker?

"Often, when a filmmaker doesn’t have an idea, he resorts to being “cerebral” and go all referential"
- Au contraire. A filmmaker who doesn't have an idea would go for the audience manipulation.

"People do not like normal people."
- You mean people don't act like normal people? Come on, man. You're looking for realism? WHo gives the rulse for "normal" anyway? Hollywood? Were Tarkovsky's characters normal?


I'm not arguing that it's a great film or that you should love it. Just that the prism of reasoning here seems a tad rigid.

man in the iron mask said...

It works nevertheless
That is cool. I think we cannot be arguing over this.

One could well ask this for any film? It's, after all, a question of tolerance.
That is exactly my point, Srikanth. Why should anybody spend any time on anything they cannot improve their lives, their hearts or their minds? I watch In the city of Sylvia and I am crying and terrified at the end of it. The shots connect and invoke within me spiritual and emotional feelings. Beyond that, why waste your time in anything, is a simple philosophy I adhere to. There is no point, I believe in academic exercises.

Most of avant-garde goes down with that statement…..But to say that cinema has only a specific purpose would limit its potential vastly.
"Mr. Jarmusch doesn’t have an idea how to involve an audience."
Au contraire. A filmmaker who doesn't have an idea would go for the audience manipulation.

On the contrary I really expand the boundaries and suggest the infinite for cinema, or any art, when I say it must spiritually awaken. Art can be about politics. Art can be about existence. Art can be about itself, i.e. the nature of art and its very existence. What is the motivation behind avant-garde Srikanth? To express one’s heart out in newer ways and convey it to the audience. Not give the audience the tried and tested but engage them in newer ways. Avant-garde doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists as a higher form of self-expression. The Mirror is one of my favorite movies. Doesn’t mean it is not experimental. It is, because somebody put himself on the line and made expressed something straight out of the heart.

Godard? Srikanth, when I say involve, I don’t mean manipulate. Manipulation is a higher form of craft too, but involvement is a larger set. I was involved in that scene in Breathless. Let me say I was erotically turbo-charged. Vivre Sa Vie has Karina dance, and it is one of the most beautiful things ever put on screen. I am involved there too. I am watching somebody create a sequence with life in it, not just empty references. I hope you get the point. Amateur filmmakers make referential statements. Look at Haneke. He references. He manipulates. And he makes you feel, what he wants to feel. That is a filmmaker of supreme craft. There is Gus Van Sant. And he puts such honesty on screen, it is hard to be unaffected by them.

Were Tarkovsky's characters normal?
When I say normal, I say people. Tarkovsky’s characters, everyone of them, were people. Here they are not. They are placeholders. That blonde is a person? Really? That nude woman is a person? They have a conversation like real people? Bring out any Tarkovsky moment, and you shall see a conversation, not a masturbation.

Srikanth, not sure my reasoning is rigid. It is just that this film is stupid. Because, I know, by god, I’m one of the most liberal when it comes to accepting films. The thing is I just hate pretension. If you got nothing within you, on moral grounds don’t waste valuable film stock.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Satish,

"Why should anybody spend any time on anything they cannot improve their lives, their hearts or their minds?"

But, Satish, that depends on what you call improvement of life. On what you are looking for. Some may find deep spirituality in The Limits of Control. My friend Stephen slammed Citizen Kane last week for not being evocative. True, Kane may not improve people's lives, does that mean it is not worthy of attention or it is not great art at all? One might say "Oh, what boring, cold academic exercise in camera angles and lighting. Who wants to see that?". It is also unfair to be cold to film academics. These films may not be evocative per se, but in the long run, these are the films that discuss the politics of the film image - the very elements that tell you what you should feel. It may not be always self-expression. It may merely be an "exercise" in academics. What did Andy Warhol wanted to express when he filmed the Empire State for hours together? Does a movie without people/nature at all mean it is not worthy of attention? These films give us new ways of observing the world and hence the sensitivity to empathize.

I'm not sure if being moved by a piece of art alone can make one a better man. Schindler's List moved many. Many would perhaps have treated neighbors better after that. But is that great art? Even a cerebral involvement, for some, would mean a step towards improvement of lives. Robin Wood finds intense spirituality in Hitchcock's films. May be we don't. That does not mean it is mere craft creation.

Can art ever change people's lives by itself (gosh, that's a big responsibility we are giving it)? The world doesn't seem to have improved even with so many anti-war films.

Placeholders - Yes, absolutely. That's their purpose. You can't accuse Bresson's characters as being unresponsive and artificial. Godard too. They are all placeholders for a study/critique. Haneke too, I think. Haneke would be the last person to eschew academic film watching for emotional connection. Acting itself is a form of manipulation. What I mean to say with all this is that detached, "academic" observing could also result in immense empathy, understanding and improvement in people's lives. After all, the willingness to do good is both a function of your consciousness and the sub-conscious

Coming to the point about empty cinematic references. I would like to believe that neither is Jarmusch such a filmmaker (I think you would agree with me on this) who merely references other's films (are there any such celebrated directors at all, except for those who make spoof movies, who don't have a vision of their own? Tarantino is surely not one of them) and nor is the Limits of Control a film that thrives on empty references. The references are all peripheral to the film. Like the bedroom scene in Breathless and the Karina dance in Vivre sa Vie.

Not sure if the film is pretentious either. What is pretentious, anyway but the vast distance between intention and result? I might find some directors pretentious with their philosophizing, not this one, for it does not promise anyone anything.

Or I have missed all your points completely.

man in the iron mask said...

Emotional doesn’t mean just the heart. Emotional means spiritual. Engagement of the eyes, of the ears, of the heart, of the mind. Cut and dried, that is it.
Godard and Kubrick and Haneke, they all used their characters to critique. But they first attributed something to them so that they could critique. None of these guys placeholders were mannequins. When Haneke creates a character, he asks you to engage yourself in the various perspectives within the film, and thus gauge your reactions. When there is something within the film, we react. They create, we react. If there was nothing to react, then why does the film exist?
Srikanth, Citizen Kane is not a great film because it has great camera angles. It is great because it evokes those thoughts within us, about Charles Foster Kane. Every image in that film works. When I say works, I mean the filmmaker has created something that is successful in conveying its inherent meaning and everything else to the viewer watching it. As a viewer analyzing this we only got to ask two questions –
(a) Why does that image work?
(b) What is the meaning that is conveyed?
A deep focus by itself never works. A Dutch angle by itself never works. A tracking shot by itself never works. If that was the case, Joe Wright and Martin Scorsese stand on the same pedestal (Atonement and Goodfellas.) You watch Kill Bill Vol.2 and you watch Sergio Leone’s stuff, and you see they aint the same thing even remotely. Why is that? That is where the artist and the craftsman come into the picture. It is not about just knowing the grammar and the vocabulary, it is about using it.
Why is Citizen Kane great? Because it used all those zany camerawork? No, because it used them effectively. If what you cite were the case, then I would just show up, with a spreadsheet that this filmmaking technique means this, and just make a film, and say the audience gets the point. And let me tell you, that is the nature of most of the films these days. Art and commercial.
Now let me cite an example. I have had a short film in my mind. In that the perspective for the entire length shall be through the windshield of a car. The audience is within the car, and they are driving (or being driven), and the car is looking at people, and sights, and at the end of which an innocent passerby is selected for something. If I am a filmmaker with any skill, I will engage the audience in asking questions they themselves might have faced in their lives. As against it, I can just shoot and show up. The Limits of Control just shows up.
New way of seeing is what I demand from filmmakers. New observations. That is what I mean by self expression. Does The Limits of Control have any such thing? Nope. It is just all obligatory, as I note in my review. If it wasn’t, it was new, it was expressed, then it wouldn’t have been obligatory. I have seldom seen such inert usage of slow-mo. And by god that nude scene. How bad the filmmaking ought to be there.
I don’t know if I am able to convey my point. Let me put it simply. It is ineptly made. As in, a shot just doesn’t work. What are we seeing, and why are we seeing it?

Just Another Film Buff said...

Satish,

Now that you've put it clearly that by "involvement" you mean a cerebral conversation with the film too, it makes a lot of things simple. My point was that the mise en scene needn't evoke, but could "tell" us something academically also. Now I guess you agree with that, with Kane as reference.
Of course, every film is made for some kind of involvement (otherwise it would not have been made. Every filmmaker makes a film that at least he will watch).

Now that that's out the line, I can see that both of us are agreeing (albeit going on different paths) instead of disagreeing. Let's agree to disagree and start disagreeing!

Before that, let me take off from your 2 points on somethign I believe, If a film tries to engage intellectualy rather than viscerally, I guess one ought to see

(first) What is the meaning that is conveyed?
(and then, based on it) Does it match with the meaning that was supposed to be conveyed i.e. Does it work

Going by your definition of "involvement", which includes an academic, cerebral interaction with the movie also, I am surprised why you find TLOC to be barren. I'm guessing, based on the above assumption, that you didn't find the images (a) meaningful or (b) that they didn't work.

I would disagree right away with (a) because I found the mise en scene and editing to be rather meticulous and fertile. As for (b), it purely depends on what kind of weight you are attributing to the image. Mind you that resorting to conventional film grammar to derive what an image is attempting to say may be really restrictive.

Could you please elaborate on why you don't think that the slow mo or the nude scene work?

man in the iron mask said...

The Limits of Control has the assassin sense various experiences, physical, sensual and intellectual. At least it intends to. Even the experience of time, as it slowly passes. Someone as single minded as an assassin needs to control these impulses, and must be able to control the restlessness as time passes.

Amidst it is the nude girl. The scene ought to be erotic. It must titillate, must seduce, and not just stare at us with a bared body. God knows modern porn is so inert. I often end up getting bored by it. You know what is titillating? Raveena Tandon seducing Akshay Kumar in Mohra. I still find that song, well, charging. Did I feel that here? Not in a million lifetimes. It just stood there and hoped we can think that is the point, not feel and arrive. That is where filmmaking comes into picture. And idea is nothing as long as it is not conveyed. I can see through it Srikanth, because I know what the film is getting at. Not sure if the film is getting there.

Slow-mo?
Pardon me if I don’t remember the film that well. Not that I wanted to. But for a film that is supposed to score higher on aesthetic pleasures (audio and video), those hand-held slow-mos were just yuck to watch. Can I use the word amateurish?
Now, what was the point of those slow-mos? Why were they hand-held? Why were they, well, intended to be lyrical (though they felt like a ugly poem)?


You see, the essential repetitive structure of the film is tedious. Well, you could go on and say that was the point. But when does a film start getting irrelevant and overindulgent and tedious?

And you want to tell me Jarmusch doesn’t get referential? Buddy, he is one of the biggest cinephiles out there. His production company reads “PointBlank”. The guy never changes his dress man. Neither did Clint Eastwood. Well? Never mind. What I hate is when somebody wants to impose his ramblings on me. A contact comes and starts speaking about some bloody nonsense. Just speaks man. Not even bother if we are interested. Nobody even bothered to involve us in an interesting conversation. You know, I’ve found another word. Bland, it is. It is so bland it explicitly states its themes – Everything is arbitrary – and so on. That is a bad film, right there.

man in the iron mask said...

Speaking of the slow-mo Srikanth, tell me, can the slow-mo ever be effective with a hand-held camera? Slow-mo is a medium shot, right? And slow-mo should be a continuous shot right? Remember Goodfellas, when Conway decides he is going to kill everybody related to Lufthansa, and Scorsese so awesomely shoots him in a side-view slow-mo, with that glint of notoriety in De Niro’s eyes.
Or, T-101 jumping off with the bike.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Oops, I should have capitalized the EMPTY when I said Jarmusch does not indulge in empty references.

Well, it seems like we disagree on the very basic point itself - what is a scene supposed to mean. Can't do anything about it I'm afraid. You feel that the scene was supposed to be erotic. I thought the other way.

Self-indulgent? I guess you can call that. But where does the boundary between self indulgence and self-expression lie. May be in the audience's interaction with the film? Or should ther be a boundary at all? I don't know.

"Speaking of the slow-mo Srikanth, tell me, can the slow-mo ever be effective with a hand-held camera?"

I think that depends on what the purpose it is used for. One can see what it was used for in The Hurt Locker and come to a definite conclusion that it was pathetic. Wong Kar Wai works wonders with the stoccato, hand held slo mo.

man in the iron mask said...

Exactly Srikanth, you might perceive films as theory classes. I see them as practicals. I have never had much for theory sessions. I want to see the thing being proved, and not just a concept thrown at me. So yes, I guess that is the basic nature of our difference. Now that makes reading each other’s opinions that much more interesting.

Stephen said...

Whatever was intended, whatever one's philosophies of film, whatever road you take to value and judge a film, Limits of Control, to me, is insufferable.

It is pretentious to the nth degree, a 'masturbation' by 'placeholder mannequins' as Satish says.

There is a clear chasm between what is clearly being strived for and what is achieved.

It can try to be this, mean to be that, want to evoke, confound or play with the cinematic language but in the end it does not stir the mind or the heart. It is an empty vessel and terribly acted too.

The repetitions and patterns seem to say 'if there are patterns then there must be meaning, right?'. No, not really.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this review, Satish. You don't hold back.

man in the iron mask said...

Very true. The chasm couldn't have been wider. Jarmusch might have watched the film himself. I was getting the impression he wasn't even trying.