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Impassible rivers

The "Lone Man" (Issach De Bankole) looks at a movie poster featuring a woman he had recently met.
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- There is a quote featured in the opening credits to Jim Jarmusch’s 2008 film The Limits of Control. It’s a quote from French poet Arthur Rimbaud – “As I descended into impassible rivers, I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen …

Yes, the ferrymen.

One does feel as though they are on a ride, but to where? It is Spain, or is it in the mind of the Lone Man? Is this all just a dream? It's just like the Alan J. Pakula-directed, conspiracy-ridden 1974 film The Parallax View. I just watched that one as well and in one scene, Warren Beatty's character finds himself swept down a river, fighting for his life, as water is released from behind a dam. The idea of a "flood" synchromystically resonates heavily with me. But then so does the arid-set "dust devil," as opposed to the more moisture-filled tornado. Interesting that both Zabriskie Point and The Limits of Control take place is fairly arid climates. 

And the oh-so-cool Jarmusch hits the mark with The Limits of Control that is a mix of French New Wave, a dash of David Lynch and the Michelangelo Antonioni 1966-1975 film trio of Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger – films (produced by Carlo Ponti, who was then married to Sophia Loren – and whose Italian villas was the set for Roman Polanski’s controversial Alice in Wonderland-esque sex-fest What? (Che?) from 1972) that have inspired many filmmakers over the last four decades.

I was inspired to watch the English-language Antonioni films in succession after reading a fantastic Blog of Caverns post last July titled “Antonioni’s Beatles/Manson trilogy.”

Both The Blog of Caverns and Juli Kearns’ analysis of Blow-Up reveal an Isis/Osiris link. Additionally, Richard Lester had planned to do a new Beatles movie in 1967 titled Beatles 3 (a.k.a. Shades of a Personality), and was to be shot in Spain.

In fact, in Zabriskie Point (1970), there is a sense that the desert villas (“a capitalist occupation of nature”) are not unlike the one the “Lone Man” assassin (played Sphinx-like by French-Ivorian actor Issach De Bankole) in Jarmusch’s film, manages to penetrate and ultimately assassinating “The American” (Bill Murray). And like in Zabriskie Point, “the man” (“cops,” “pigs,” “Old America”) doesn’t get the youth of America, with their acid rock music, protests and concerns about the future. 

In the Spain-set film The Limits of Control, Murray’s “American” discounts current society and says people today don’t understand how the world really works.  Is this “American” a global frontman, using his advanced technology to kill art?

As in Blow-Up (1966), we really don’t know what is going on beyond the fact that the central character is doing his job, while seemingly caught up in conspiratorial currents that are never fully revealed. Thomas (David Hemmings) is good at what he does – a fashion photographer – just as the Lone Man is good at listening, observing and doing his job (he loves art museums and flamenco music, apparently), which is to take out some capitalist pig who has unmarked black helicopters flying around in a menacing fashion.

Jarmusch’s directorial style, along with the filming techniques (the beautiful-yet-haunting style of cinematographer Christopher Doyle) adds to the mood, one of unease and disquiet, as train rides are taken through fields of whirling Spanish wind farms, giving the landscape an almost alien or dreamlike feeling.

And with Rimbaud’s surrealistic streak, it’s no wonder that early in The Limits of Control, we realize that we are on an existential journey that Albert Camus would appreciate, were he here with us.

An enigmatic (and who isn’t enigmantic in The Limits of Control?) woman in white played by Tilda Swinton tells the Lone Man that she loves old films and that “Sometimes, I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything.”

And that is important in The Limits of Control. The ugly American capitalists with their greed and their technology are trying to kill art, music, bohemianism and simple existence. This message is pretty clear. The Lone Man meets quirky contacts along the way while he waits in cafes for his "two espressos in seperate cups" and blankly watches the world around him as he accepts matchboxes with enigmatic messages - before cosuming them and chasing them with his espresso.

One character that interested me most was the garish Mexican cowboy gangster character as played by Gael Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros, El Crimen del Padre Amaro, Fidel, etc.). He wants the famous guitar that the Lone Man has. Garcia Bernal's Mexican cowboy talks about violins and Jarmusch features a close-up of his violin pendant and a trident tattoo on his hand. The significance of this trident tattoo is never revealed. 

I also couldn’t help but think of Richard Linklater’s 1991 breakthrough Slacker, where a bartender tells a visiting English woman that she should join him in watching a 4 a.m. screening of Blow-Up, “you know … London, the Sixties, photographing, and mimes playing tennis.”

Linklater definitely understood French New Wave and the work of Jarmusch and Antonioni, as well as John Boorman’s Point Blank.

And if you are interested, take a look at this academic analysis of Zabriskie Point.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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