Jim Jarmusch’s Limits of Control and Poe’s The Purloined Letter

Posted by Aspasia Stephanou on May 15, 2010 in Blog tagged with

Jim Jarmusch is undeniably a great director and I have to admit I am a Jarmusch-partisan. He does not consciously play with gothic tropes and his films, it can be said, are not gothic. From Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger Than Paradise (1982), to Down By Law (1986) and Mystery Train (1989), Jarmusch’s style evinces the marvellous and surrealistic qualities of characters that carry on dreaming in elusive and impermanent realities. The melancholic urban lives of outcasts who persist in creating fantasies, always literate- reading Lautreamont (Stranger Than Fiction), (Dead Man-William Blake) and listening to Charlie Parker or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (cameo role in Mystery Train), driving 1960s cars (1965 Dodge Coronet in Stranger Than Paradise) smoking cigarettes and looking cool (Tom Waits, John Lurie, Richard Boes, Joe Strummer) are a trademark of his films. With the exception of a Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, 1984), a Gus Van Sant (Elephant, 2003 and Last Days, 2005) or a Tarantino, Jarmusch’s characters, their dialogue, their silences, along with the landscape create a mythical America, not ideal but kind of hip, where slackers are kings of the dirty streets of New York and jazz is played in every corner. John Cassavetes’ unforgettable (another gem) 1959 film Shadows, about beatnik culture in New York, captures the spirit of many of the early Jarmusch, black and white films. Jarmusch’s films would make a Goddard proud. As I have mentioned, these films are not gothic, but some of them (like Dead Man, 1995) demonstrate a Kafkaesque closure, claustrophobic lives and cityscapes.

What has left me uncomfortably perplexed is Jarmusch’s latest film Limits of Control (2009). This is very different from his previous films; highly symbolic but utterly mature. Perhaps this is Jarmusch’s cinematic zenith. In Limits of Control there is something mysterious happening: cryptic and symbolic personae and scenes, coded messages and repetitive language, an uncanny feeling that something is about to reveal itself, but never does, maybe disappointingly. Nothing happens. Jarmusch wittingly explains that he makes action films that have no action. The film opens with an Arthur Rimbaud quote: ‘As I descended into impassable rivers/ I no longer felt guided by the ferryman.’  There’s no one to guide as in this hypnotic descend into the unknown world of contemporary Madrid , Gothic Seville and Almería. The characters are nameless. The mysterious black man, who wears a suit and holds an empty bag, is given coded messages that he then swallows. The messages given to him by different characters in the course of the story, add new instructions that he needs to follow in order to complete his mission. We never find out what the message, written on the small white paper and hidden in matchboxes, is. It is given to him by strange artistic people –a man holding a violin, a John Hurt with a guitar, a Tilda Swinton infatuated with Hitchcock, a Mexican Gael Garcia Bernal, a nude woman called Nude (reference to a painting perhaps)- acting as symbols, individuals with no names and cryptic identities. The encrypted message hidden in the matchboxes with the brand Le Boxeur, is what makes the Lone Man keep moving in the film, pointing the different route he needs to follow. Like a muppet in a story controlled by others the Lone Man is like Poe’s The Purloined Letter. But while the letter changes its destination and alters the characters that possess it, in Jarmusch’s Limits of Control, it is the Lone Man who is controlled by the message, but his identity remains fixed and controlled. At the same time he destroys each message by incorporating it in his body. Thus he exerts control over the message itself. Desire only moves the character to a certain place, but ends when the message is swallowed and destroyed. Then there is the repetition of the same act again and again: a new message, a new destination, and the destruction of the message.

The eccentric individuals that carry the message, each one from different countries (a Mexican, an Arabic woman, two British, a Palestinian man, and a Japanese woman) and all cultivated and knowledgeable of their own artistic oeuvres are symbols of resistance and imagination. Their desires coded in messages drive the Lone Man (he hardly talks, he only smiles when he watches a flamenco dancer) – an empty vessel that contains their message and through the message and their language, their desires.  Their message finally leads the Lone Man to the secluded mansion of the rich American. Bill Murray who plays the American, a symbolic figure of capitalism and American colonisation, demands from the Lone Man to tell him how he managed to enter his technological citadel and well-protected mansion with an army of black-uniformed men with guns. The Lone Man simply answers: “I used my imagination” and proceeds to kill the American with a guitar string. It is impossible not to read the film as a parable of modern globalisation and American hegemony.

The Lone Man, having no desires himself becomes a metaphor for the superego. His almost ideal existence (his only transgression being two cups of espresso) sets him apart from all the other characters. He is a flâneur, travelling through cities, mysterious and dark. His final destination is the master signifier, the American. The murder of the Symbolic Father offers redemption. The last matchbox carries no message, is empty. The Lone Man is no more restrained by any control and contained by no limits.

I find that there is a certain gothic atmosphere in the film, maybe in its repetitive language, scenes, symbols that render this an uncanny quality. What do you think?

[1] The film’s title is a reference to Burroughs’s essay “The Limits of Control”.

[2] From Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “ The Drunken Boat”

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