The Limits of Control

Last Year in Jarmuschabad 
(Image Courtesy: Impawards)

If I had to resort to one of those crude movie equations to describe Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009), it would have to be “Quentin Tarantino minus the hyperkinetics”. Studded with a plethora of movie references, Jarmusch’s movie is a film buff’s dream, literally. In some ways, Jarmusch is like Pedro Almodóvar, who has been consistently accused of being apolitical in his movies (Is it a mere coincidence that The Limits of Control is based and shot in Spain?). But a little investigation shows that the very nature of Almodóvar’s films – with their explicitness of ideas and visuals – reinforces the difference between contemporary Spain and Francoist Spain and, in the process, draws a portrait of a country that has come a long way since those oppressive years. Jarmusch’s cinema, too, does not exist in vacuum. With their plotless scripts and unhurried pacing, his movies are the perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster of Hollywood. These films have been relentlessly repudiating Hollywood’s ideas of filmmaking and its mantras for success through the years. However, with this movie, Jarmusch establishes himself as the absolute antithesis of the industry-driven cinema of America. It is almost as if Jarmusch believes that he exists only because an entity called Hollywood exists – a kinship like the one between The Joker and Batman. Hollywood and Jarmusch, it seems, complete each other. In that sense, not only is The Limits of Control Jarmusch’s most political movie, it is also his most personal and most complete film.

The Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) dresses in snazzy formal clothing and meets up with two men at an airport, one of whom speaks Spanish and the other translates. The conversation is completely tangential to the mission briefing, which seems like some illegal job, possibly an assassination. He listens to them keenly, gets up and leaves. Cut to Madrid. In the city, he visits art galleries daily before retiring for the day at the local restaurant, where he orders two espressos in separate cups. He is, of course, waiting for Violin (Luis Tosar), who, like all the other agents in the film, exchanges matchboxes with him. The Lone Man draws out a piece of paper from his matchbox, which has some kind of codes written on it. He memorizes them and eats the paper. A day or few later, he has a rendezvous with a blonde woman (Tilda Swinton). The matchbox routine is followed. This time the matchbox contains a bunch of diamonds, which the Lone Man hands over to the woman (Paz De La Huerta) who has been staying with him in his hotel room. He leaves Madrid and on the next train meets up with an oriental woman, Molecules (Youki Kudoh), who has her own scientific, religious and philosophical theories to tell him. After the matchbox ritual, he checks into the hotel at Seville. There, he attends a dance rehearsal and meets Guitar (John Hurt) who tries to derive the etymology of the word “Bohemian” and hands him over a priceless guitar. Lone Man leaves the town. On the way to his next destination, where he would meet a Mexican (Gael García Bernal), he snips off one of the guitar strings that he will soon use to assassinate an important man. Make what you will of this weird plot, but you can’t blame the film for what it does not have. Jarmusch has written and directed the movie exactly the way he wants it to be.

The Limits of Control continues to explore one of the director’s favorite questions – How aloof can a man be from his surroundings? Till this film, this idea was most manifest in Ghost Dog (1999) (which clearly takes off from Jean-Pierre Melville’ austere Le Samourai (1967)), wherein a Black American lone ranger living in Jersey City follows the code of the Samurai and, in effect, constructs his own moral and psychological world. In The Limits of Control, the Lone Man – an American who performs Tai Chi in dressing rooms, hotels and train compartments in Spain – is a blue whale in a baby carriage. The film opens with a quote by Arthur Rimbaud: “As I descended into impassable rivers I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen”, recalling the final scene of Dead Man (1995). This “impassable river” soon goes on to take multiple meanings in the film as Lone Man commutes from the labyrinthine western structures of Madrid to sparse and open locales of the Spanish countryside. This fitting quote is followed by the bizarre opening shot whose camera angle presents us the Lone Man in a seemingly reclining position, like that of William Blake (Johnny Depp) in Dead Man. The Lone Man has already entered the mystic river. Production Designer Eugenio Cabarello’s fabulous work gives us ominous vertical, horizontal, diagonal and spiral structures that attempt to devour the Lone Man. Christopher Doyle’s camera arcs and glides to trap the Lone Man within the convoluted architectures of the film, in vain. Evidently, the Lone Man is Jim Jarmusch himself, like a monk, relentlessly wading through from the corrupt, impassable and savage rapids of Hollywood.

The Limits of Control is an unabashed celebration of art, of its eccentricities and of losing oneself in it. The film is loaded with conversations about paintings, music, dance, films and books. In fact, Jarmusch’s film is closer to Last Year at Marienbad (1961) than any other. “It’s just a matter of perception”, says one of the characters in this movie. The world in The Limits of Control is one that exists solely in the mind of its protagonist. Like in Marienbad, Jarmusch uses parallel structures – hedgerows, pillars and hallways – to underscore the idea that what we see is not a physical world built out of concrete and cement but the labyrinths of the mind – memories and experiences, particularly, of art. If the surroundings, at times, seem highly artificial, it’s because that is how the Lone Man perceives it to be. It’s a world that is completely parallel to the real one, like Jarmusch’s cinema. It’s a world which is far more valid, uncorrupt, honest and truer than the real world for the Lone Man, very much like Jarmusch himself. One character quotes that “For me, sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected” and that “La Vida No Vale Nada” (Life is worthless), as if believing that if at all there is some meaning to be found anywhere, it is in this world of art – the one which they live in. It is this alternate world that interests Jarmusch more than the real one. The film is parenthesized between shots of the Lone Man entering and leaving his dressing room –the portal to the film’s world. The first cut in to the movie signals, through the skewed camera angle, the other worldliness to come and the final cut out of the film, an unmistakable Jarmusch signature, segregates the film from squalor of the real world (This cut recalls the final one in Broken Flowers (2005), where the director nudges the hitherto Jarmuschian protagonist into the melodramatic clockwork of the pop cinema and cuts away to indicate the end point of his world).

Throughout The Limits of Control, there is the notion of interchangeability of art and life – of reality and memory. Representation becomes perception and vice versa. One character even believes that violins have a memory and can remember every note that is ever played on them. The Lone Man watches the paining of a nude woman, only to find a nude woman lying on his bed, in a similar position, a few minutes later. His point-of-view shot of the vast expanses of the city of Madrid is intercut with a similar paining of the city. Life becomes images and images come to life. The Limits of Control reinforces George Steiner’s theory that “it’s not the literal past that rules us, but the images of the past”, through works of art and through one’s own memory – the two carriers of history – that have preserved them from being destroyed completely. Jarmusch’s movie reflects on how these images of the past – our masters – are being rapidly corrupted and replaced by the ones from popular media in an attempt to forge false histories, destroy critical mythologies and homogenize world culture by influencing their past (art) and present (life), through endless stereotyping and manipulation of truth, to reflect kindred iconographies and system of beliefs (One can sense seething anger beneath the cool exterior of the film). The climax of the movie (that I, first, felt was crude and which, now, I feel is deliciously Lynchian) depicts the Lone Man in a remote region in Spain getting ready for a face off with his adversary, a typical Conservative, American executive (Bill Murray, top class), who does not understand or give a damn about these “bohemian” ideas of art and who has infiltrated the deepest of foreign regions on a mission, perhaps, to establish the biggest studios, worldwide.

[The Limits of Control Trailer]

The Limits of Control seals Jarmusch’s position as a reactive filmmaker. Each facet of the film seems like a move against the “industry norm”. The cast consists almost entirely of non-Hollywood actors. The film is shot on location in Spain, a world away from the cluttered studios of Fox or Universal. The average shot length is way too high compared to that of the blockbusters. The colour palette isn’t at all like anything we see on TV every day. On the surface, Jarmusch’s is the typical man-on-a-mission movie. His script, however, is made up entirely of in-between events that are taken for granted in such movies. There is a Bourne movie, a Bond movie and a McClane movie unfolding somewhere in the background. But that is not Jarmusch’s world. What Jarmusch did with cinematic time in his movies, so far, is applied to cinematic space in The Limits of Control. Jarmusch’s “dead time” has always complemented Hollywood’s “show time”. In The Limits of Control, he goes to the extent of dividing his protagonist’s world into Hollywood zones and non-Hollywood zones. The moment our man enters a “Hollywood infested zone”, the camera goes crazy, the editing becomes rapid and the soundtrack starts blaring, while at other times they remains sober. None of the “actions” of the mission are shown on screen. Like Le Samourai, which opens with an photograph-like shot of the protagonist, Jef Costello (Alain Delon), on his bed and goes on to show us a zombie-like detached figure walking through familiar checkpoints in a genre movie as if performing a ritual, Jarmusch’s Lone Man is seen, for most part, lying down on bed and walking towards his next strategic position. We come to know neither of the meaning of the codes that he gathers, not of his business with diamonds and matchboxes. Heck, we don’t even get to know his name.

Quentin Tarantino said about The Bride in Kill Bill (2003-04) that she was, in fact, fighting through all the exploitative cinemas from around the world. Tarantino’s movie both paid homage to and incriminated all the exploitative movies that the director had grown up on. Likewise, within his world of art, Jarmusch integrates cinemas from around the world in an attempt to illustrate that all art is one (Molecules tells us that Hindus believe the whole world to be one and that she thinks people are nothing but molecules rearranging themselves regularly). There are actors from almost every continent in the film. Like The Bride, the Lone Man wanders these empty corridors on a mission to keep art untainted. His arch nemesis seems to be the “art industry” that tries to infiltrate his perception (of the world, of art and of this art-world) and impose its own dynamics in it. The Limits of Control is a clash of these two perceptions where the title of the film refers to the ability of one to “think the right thing”, free from TV-driven emotional response systems. During the final scene, upon being inquired, not so politely, how he got into the heavily guarded building, the Lone Man says “I used my imagination” as if pointing out that one’s acceptance of rejection of popular beliefs is purely a question of the psychology. So the film also unfolds as one man’s journey into his own subconscious, to free himself from the chains that bind him to predictable ways of acting and thinking. It’s an odyssey to rid art of capitalistic models based on consumerism and marketability (The post credits sequence flashes a huge marquee that reads: “No Limits No Control”). The film is counteractive to every “formula” that pop cinema sticks to for keeping its “products” of art saleable (“No guns, no cell phone, no sex” quips someone in the film). Again, Resnais’ and Marker’s Statues Also Die (1953), an overt, one-sided but well-crafted bashing of the western world’s fetish for exotic art and its detrimental effects on lifestyles and cultures, comes to mind.

But, by no means is Jarmusch’s film a propagandist assault on this conveyor-belt mindset of ours. It is far too assured and composed for that kind of conversation. “I’m among no one”, claims the Lone Man. Jarmusch makes it clear that he does not have an agenda here. He just wants no other agenda to be made with respect to art. He is not against any particular system or a film industry, he is against the very notion of industries that try to regulate and quantize the quality of art. And justifiably, his movie is a celebration of all such films that have survived the concentration camps of major studios. Jarmusch adorns the movie with references to iconoclastic movies that have raised their voice against the oppressive, money-driven tendency of the studio systems. Early in the film, the Lone Man returns to his hotel room in Madrid to find a nude woman named, well, Nude on his bed. She asks him if he likes her posterior. This, of course, is the hyperlink to Godard’s polemical Contempt (1963), where the director bit not only the hand that fed him, but all such hands which feed only conditionally (Jarmusch even recreates the shots of Brigitte Bardot swimming). Later, Blonde, a film buff, talks about The Lady from Shanghai (1947), where Welles had to put up with a lot of meddling by the execs at Columbia Pictures. Jarmusch even sneaks in pointers to his own movies, effectively categorizing his movies under this kind of cinema of resistance, although he never takes sides. There are broken flowers, there are coffees and cigarettes everywhere in the film and the Lone Man, whose cousin lived by the Samurai code, travels in a mysterious train with that Japanese girl who we saw in Memphis a few years ago. There are also movies that Jarmusch loves and pays tribute to. There is Jean-Pierre Melville, there is Aki Kaurismaki and there is Andrei Tarkovsky, packed somewhere into this seemingly sparse and empty film.

Because of all this and more, watching The Limits of Control is like having a déjà vu marathon. Notwithstanding the fact that many lines in the movie, as is the case in other Jarmusch films, are recited over and over throughout, one gets the feeling of having seen these people, these objects and these setups somewhere, sometime ago – another Resnaisian trait of the film (specifically redolent of one of Marienbad’s powerful, enigmatic quotes “Conversation flowed in a void, apparently meaningless or, at any rate, not meant to mean anything. A phrase hung in midair, as though frozen, though doubtless taken up again later. No matter. The same conversations were always repeated, by the same colorless voices.”). It is the kind of experience some people have watching Vertigo (1958). “The best films are like dreams, you’re never sure you really had.” tells Blonde. Indeed. Like Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1992), The Limits of Control blossoms out as a dream in which you meet the most unexpected of movie stars in the most trivial of roles. Jarmusch’s self-referential tricks only add to this strange familiarity that we feel with the movie. Blonde likes movies where people just sit there, doing nothing. Ring a bell? She tells the Lone Man that Suspicion (1941) was the only film in which Rita Hayworth played a blonde. The Limits of Control must be the only film in which Swinton plays a blonde. Seemingly pointless lines such as “You don’t speak Spanish, right?”, “Life is a handful of dirt” and “The universe has no center and no edges” go on to become central to the ideas of the film (there is a strange little prank involving subtitles in the all important opening conversation of the film). The major attack against The Limits of Control, I imagine, would be regarding the self-indulgent nature of the film. Sure the film is self-indulgent, but it is also more than that. It is a self-indulgent movie that promotes self-indulgence. It is a movie that dares to almost profess that art can exist for only its own sake (what else can it exist for? World peace?). That there is nothing called “progress” or “superiority” in art. That all art is one and, to kill the most frequently uttered maxim in this movie and elsewhere, everything is subjective.


Verdict (Oh, The Irony!):

Of Interconnected Lives

Of Interconnected Lives

Every now and then, when people start saying “Indie is dead”, there comes a filmmaker, who contradicts them and redefines the course of cinema – both mainstream and parallel. John Cassavetes had ridiculed the American mainstream cinema and its incessant thriving on extravagance with his Shadows (1959) and went on to become one of the pioneers of American underground cinema. Cut to the 1980’s when gangsters were ruling Hollywood. Enter Jim Jarmusch with the short film Stranger Than Paradise (1982) which humiliated Hollywood with its normal characters and simple situations. Independent cinema was never the same again.

One can easily note that Jarmusch makes films about people. He films their lives, how they are inevitably interconnected, how their lives get impacted due to others’ all the time and how characters interchange characteristics and opinions all through their lives. What Alejandro González Iñárritu does with the most extravagant and devastating of situations, Jarmusch does using the most banal of happenings, most of them as simple as coffee table conversations and cab rides. Like Godard and Cassavetes, Jarmusch films life’s most normal moments that usually occur in between events. What the mainstream considers implicit and skips with an ellipsis, Jarmusch considers central and interesting. Indeed, his theory that the most fascinating things arise out of the most mundane events proves bang on when one watches even one of his films. The apathetic characters, their interaction (sometimes, the lack of it) and their idiosyncrasies concoct a truly riveting picture of human life.

Jarmusch puts forth his ideas right from his first film Permanent Vacation (1980) which follows the life of Aloysious Parker, a youth without a grip on life. He has lost his father and has an institutionalized mother. Afraid of being sucked into the quagmire of everyday struggle and a textbook life, he does everything in order create an atmosphere of restlessness that mirrors his own inner emotions. This is effectively put forth in the first scene where he starts an impromptu dance in the middle of a serious conversation  He interacts with various kinds of people (including a Parisian lad just like him) on his way and hears the most bizarre yet fascinating stories. Possibly the only “self-indulgent” film by Jarmusch, Permanent Vacation still resonates for its handling of a theme most popular among the youth of that time – the quest for meaning of life.  Jarmusch’s style shows its roots with its long takes and minimal speech placed over pedestrian events.

Jarmusch’s characters come as stark contrast to the ones that occur in conventional scripts. The latter are first provided a major objective that they achieve at the end of the film. The characters are then expanded and given minor objectives that they complete within each scene or sequence in order to achieve the major one. Jarmusch’s characters, on the other hand, do not possess permanent or long term objectives. They set out on of-the-moment objectives and act on impulses that may or may not be justified by their milieu. They live life as if it were not under their control. This unpredictability is another ingredient that makes Jarmuschian so unique and off the beaten track.

Stranger Than Paradise was extended into a full length film of the same name in 1984 and followed the American way of living of a young man from Hungary, his American friend and his teenage cousin who has just arrived from Hungary. The three of them spend some time in Florida where they lose all their money in a dog race and gain it back in another. Any other director would have made the race and its denouement as the central event driving the lives of the three. But Jarmusch keeps the race off screen and thrives on the petty talk and arguments of the friends with long, single shot scenes. In another similar scene at a cinema hall, the camera focuses on the characters’ faces as they watch an action film, instead of the screen. Amazingly, these usually-hidden images feel more absorbing than their driving events themselves and one feels the immediate power of the mundane that Jarmusch captures effectively.

Another intriguing aspect of Jarmusch’s style is that he loves characters that exist outside the framework of the social world. He takes up people who are outcast, outlawed and totally alien to the environment they are living in. They appear usually as foreigners, convicts and disoriented individuals. These characters seem to be anomalies in the society and their high reactivity towards their amicable yet strange world churns out the most amusing moments. These marginal characters are often filmed along the edges of the frame highlighting that they are out-of-place yet always in the picture. Although Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation had put that into execution, it was Down By Law (1986) that would take it one step further.

Down By Law follows the life of three convicts who have been framed for all the wrong reasons. They plan a simple escape technique and succeed. But what is more difficult is finding civilization after they have broken out. Typical Jarmuschian characters, they don’t seem to have any aim in life. They live for the moment and leave it to time to decide their future course. Roberto Benigni has an uncanny ability to induce energy into any kind of situations and he tops himself in this film. Again, Jarmusch keeps the escape off screen and makes the characters take the podium. Down By Law is beautifully shot in black and white by Jarmusch regular Robby Müller and out of this seemingly bland monochrome arises a stream of energy that couples itself with the amusing journey of the trio and provides such a colour to the film that no colour film could have provided.

Mystery Train (1989) would take the idea to the extreme as Jarmusch follows the lives of three sets of people staying in adjacent rooms in a hotel in Memphis – A pair of Japanese teenagers who have come to see their music idols’ starting places, a naïve Italian lady who is forced to share a room with a loquacious woman after her flight is delayed, and three natives who have committed a crime out of control.  These three situations are visibly so disparate if not for Jarmusch who starts his game of connecting the dots. He places a talkative character and a totally opposite one in each set and once again reminds us of the universality of emotions and dependence of lives. To top this, he places the soul of the city, Elvis Presley, in all their lives as they reflect upon their opinions on the legend.

Jarmusch would expand his integration of world culture in Night on Earth (1991) that documents the lives of five taxi drivers for a period of half an hour each spanning 5 different nations, languages, mentalities and emotions. With each episode lasting hardly twenty five minutes, Jarmusch examines how life offers different choices based on trivial interactions and how distinct yet similar each of their lives are. Once again, Jarmusch employs people out of the ordinary – foreigners, physically challenged, mentally challenged and the seemingly normal. He shatters our prejudices and questions the notions of sympathy and happiness using the tritest conversations. Almost the whole of the film is inside vehicles but the film never once feels claustrophobic or overly long.

It is not only in the characters that Jarmusch captures the spirit of the era, but also in the settings and locales where he places his quirky characters. Almost all of his films are shot in shot in warm little towns in the USA and the quiet neighbourhood is invariably captured by a tracking shot, perhaps his favorite, which reveals the shops, houses, people and atmosphere of the area instantly. Additionally, Jarmusch uses the mellowest of sounds in his soundtrack prominently featuring R&B, jazz and rap that typifies the locales and age in which the film is made. Needless to say, these sounds blend with the deliberately paced imagery to produce the apt atmosphere for the characters to develop.

The tracking shot features strikingly in Jarmusch’s next and most popular film Dead Man (1995) that employs all of Jarmusch’s themes but transcends into a whole new dimension and takes metaphysical meanings. Johnny Depp plays William Blake who has come into a weird little town called Machine and soon gets outlawed for murder. He meets Nobody (Gary Farmer), another pariah who seems to believe that Depp is indeed the reincarnated version of the late English poet and gets him out of the limbo that he is stuck in, the one between the hell called Machine where bigoted “philistines“ chase foreigners away and the heaven called death. Although set in a remote time and age, Dead Man’s characters still have all the characteristics as those of other Jarmusch’s. Both Blake and Nobody are outcast characters that meet up to produce engrossing results. They do not know what each other is saying but still entertain each other.

Similar themes and style is carried onto his next film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) that follows the life of a modern samurai/hit man Ghost Dog played by Forest Whitaker. He reads ancient Japanese text and lives by the samurai code of honour. He speaks sparsely and his only friends seem to be the little girl with whom he discusses books and the Haitian ice-cream vendor Raymond who can only speak French. Ghost Dog may first seem like an atypical Jarmusch film for it is more narrative-driven than any of his previous films. But Ghost Dog himself is very much like his predecessors created by Jarmusch. He too is a man without a worry for the future who lives for the moment, for the book says so. Like Nobody and Blake of Dead Man, Ghost Dog and Raymond do not understand each other a bit, but still are the best of friends and lick their ice creams over one way conversations.

Interestingly, his most trashed film Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) forms the central point of exhibition of most of Jarmusch’s themes. Made from discrete pieces of shorts that Jarmusch had made as early as 1986, Coffee and Cigarettes comes as a collection of vignettes each involving not more than three people over a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes. The black coffee is accompanied with the white cigarettes placed on the alternating black and white pattern on the tablecloths. These adversarial colours are woven together with the gray of the cinematography. Similar to the colours, these seemingly contrasting and independent people’s lives seem connected and influenced forever by the petty conversations over the coffee table that they indulge in.

Consider the sweeping first segment of the film called “Strange to meet you” where Roberto Benigni meets Steven Wright. Wright tells Benigni that he has to rush as he has an appointment with a dentist. But he does not want to go. Benigni tells him that he has got a toothache and he can go instead. So Wright gives him the address and Benigni hurries off informing Wright that he has an appointment with a dentist and has to rush. And that’s it – two lives have interchanged just like that! Not only within segments, but even across segments, Jarmusch ties his theory of interconnected lives and questions the episodic nature of the film.

Jarmusch arguably reaches the peak of his creative prowess in Broken Flowers (2005). Bill Murray (magnificently) plays Don Johnston (with a‘t’!), a quintessential Jarmuschian character with total passivity to the world around. He lives life for the sake of living and his wife jilts him for the same. One great day, he receives a letter from supposedly one of his old flames about his son that he never knew about. He does not care, but upon a nudge from his nosey spy/neighbour, he goes on a trip to find out who had sent the mail, but only as a perfunctory activity. Nothing much happens but at the end of the film he feels an urge to find out the identity of his true son. Jarmusch does the unthinkable here by pushing the inert Jarmuschian character into the clockwork of the daily world and providing him a direction in life. The camera fades to black as the hitherto impassive Johnston shows traces of emotional fatigue.

Some may consider it a running gag that Jarmusch loves, but most of his films have some kind of strange entity running through them like a mysterious train. Dead Man had the tobacco gag, Mystery Train had Elvis Presley and the number 22, Broken Flowers had the Don Johnston confusion and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai had the cartoons. In Coffee and Cigarettes many character across various segments utter the same line to our amusement. “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth to be a conductor of acoustical resonance” they say and that is exactly what Jarmusch emphasizes. Not only do the characters seem connected by the strange statement, but the earth itself seems to conduct their thoughts and acts, stressing on the continuous interaction of lives and characters, independent of geography.

Fascinatingly, this kind of integrating thread that Jarmusch weaves runs across multiple films and even more bafflingly, in his life itself. For instance, the heavily accented Benigni in Down by Law tells his cell mates that he had killed a man with a number 8 snooker ball and we see the equally crazy Benigni with the same accent in Night on Earth where he is using a number 8 snooker ball as the head of the gear of his vehicle! Broken Flowers has Bill Murray asking for only coffee whereas the same Murray had played the coffee addict in Coffee and Cigarettes. The Elvis Presley mystery carries over form Mystery Train into Coffee and Cigarettes. And the Nobody character from Dead Man appears in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai too.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) bear one such remarkable relationship between them. Both films deal with men, assassins to be precise, who live the life of samurais, but in cities. They are loners and adhere to the moral code defined by the book of samurai. When Melville approached Alain Delon for the lead role, he found out that Delon was immensely into Japanese culture and had his bedroom decorated with antiques related to Samurai Culture. Similarly, when Jarmusch approached Forest Whitaker for the role, he discovered that Whitaker was very much interested in the Eastern culture and martial arts! Now that’s what I call interconnected lives!

Self-indulgence or Sheer Elegance?

Self-indulgence or Sheer Elegance?

Independent cinema has always been the unsung power behind the ever changing face of cinema. Every time the industry feels stale with the flood of “formula” films, some gifted soul pulls off something extraordinary that keeps the river flowing. Although these films polarize the film goers into love-hate relationships on their arrival, looking back at them years later reveals their vitality and contribution to the present state of affairs. However, ones who fall into either the love or hate category seem to perpetually remain in their domain and seldom find themselves feel otherwise.

The year was 1959. And an utterly low key film without any particular banner associated with had released. It was director by a relatively new actor in the industry. 50 years later, the film continues to amaze and charm audiences with the same power as it did at that time.  The actor was John Cassavetes and the film, Shadows. Months later, came Jean Luc Godard’s similar structured film Breathless (1960). Celebrated as the renaissance of cinema, Godard’s piece was an instant entrant into film school lessons.

Like the independent invention of calculus by Newton and Leibnitz, both Godard and Cassavetes had simultaneously come up with something peculiar, something hitherto unseen, something so fluid in its execution and hence something great. Both Godard’s and Cassavetes pieces have become chapters in film history. And when one watches Shadows, one is reminded of its concomitant film . However, the similarity ends here and the directors went in different directions.  Godard continued to amaze the world with his flashy cuts and out-of-the-blue petty events whereas Cassavetes went on with his improvisational style and serious notes, though their attention towards the relatively banal moments of life persisted. However, Godard was relatively more successful with the critics with his films than Cassavetes who was panned regularly and labeled “self-indulgent”.

Here is a sampling of critic-historian Leonard Maltin’s reviews of Cassavetes films:

  • “Cassavetes aficionados will probably like it; for others only marginally bearable.” (Love Streams)
  • “Strange, self-indulgent (even for Cassavetes) home movie” (Killing of a Chinese Bookie)
  • “Typically overlong, over-indulgent Cassavetes film” (A Woman under The Influence)
  • “…plagued by Cassavetes’ habitual self-indulgence.” (Husbands)
  • “Fascinating if you appreciate Cassavetes’ style, interminable if you don’t.” (Opening Night)

That brings us to the question: What is self- indulgence? For some, it is the thin line that separates La Dolce Vita from . And like the latter, Cassavetes’ audience is also split into ones who love his films and those who despise them. Films, and art in general, has always been about how the artist views the world he (or she) lives in (and sometimes about the world only he lives in), his choice of the medium he wishes to express his ideas in and how well he has been able to translate it onto the medium he works. On the other hand, appreciation of the film depends on how much the viewer accepts (not necessarily empathizes with) the world that is synthesized based on the whims of one person alone. And more comfortable the viewer feels in the director’s vision, louder is the viewer’s applause for it. Hence, the question whether a work is self-indulgent or not is strictly a matter of experience, social conditions and the era in which the film is watched. Having said that, Cassavetes films have definitely got more acceptance now than at their release and his work is getting universally recognized as one of the truest portrayal of the American society.

Shadows provides the perfect launch pad to get acquainted with Cassavetes’ style. It is often called an improvisation film and misunderstood that the whole plot was played out as the shooting went on. But, as with all of Cassavetes’ films, he wrote the plot, rehearsed it but let the characters cook up their emotions based on the events as the film was being shot. Hence the improvisation part sustains as far as the reactions are concerned not the actions. And this improvisation is what provides Cassavetes’ films their fluidity, credibility and unfortunately the tag of self-indulgence.

Take for instance, Husbands (1970), the most “self-indulgent” of all Cassavetes in my opinion. Three married friends are shattered by their pal’s death and lose faith in life and the meaning of it. They get away to a foreign country without their wives’ knowledge and engage in debauchery and lots of pointless chatter. This is where Cassavetes’ improvisational style seems to make the difference. He lets his on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown trio, played by the formidable threesome of Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself, shape up the moments on their own. As a result their idle talk and unwarranted activities seem no more than acts of drunken revelry and are hence forgettable.

This is in stark contrast with the situation in Faces (1968), considered his masterpiece by some. The notable early scene where John Marley and Lynn Carlin talk over the dinner table about their friends and the one where Marley and Gena Rowlands meet for the first time serve as the contrasting points. The situation is all jocular and the humour that it exudes is natural all the way. Everyone must have experienced such simple, magical moments and one loses any hostility and gets involved in the merriment. Contrary to this is Husbands whose primary premise alienates you from any significant experience and makes you question the leads’ motivations and actions. As a result you feel that Cassavetes is trying to universalize something very unique to him suiting his tastes.

Even the most riveting of all Cassavetes films, A Woman Under The Influence (1974), is called self-indulgent by many. With one of the best pair of performances that can challenge the Josephson-Ullmann duo of Scenes From A Marriage (1973) or the Hoffman-Streep duo from Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), A Woman Under The Influence carves out one of the best portraits of the working-class immigrant family in America. The film might have well been called A Man Under The Influence for it is not only Gena Rowlands who is crumbling under her syndrome, but also Peter Falk, who is trying to establish respectability among  the small section of his Italian friends and struggles to juggle the love for his wife and his yearning for honour among his friends. Again, perhaps, because of the bizarreness of the plot or because of the actions of the leads (In one notable scene, Falk allows his kids to booze), the ones not acquainted (and some who are) feel the film is drenched in Cassavetes’ perspective alone.

However, it is surprising to see even Opening Night, probably his most accessible film, being condemned. Opening Night, my favorite Cassavetes, follows the life of stage actress Rowlands and her inability to accept her aging and lost opportunities. It has the quintessential ingredients of a Cassavetes film – the constrained relationship with her husband Cassavetes (who happens to be her real life husband as well), a yearning to re-enter youth and the gravity of loneliness. The stage plays within the film play as vital a part as the plot itself just like later films such as Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980) and Almodovar’s All About My Mother (1998) (Both of which are unanimously appreciated, though deservedly so). Long and testing agreed, it is still puzzling to see why such a character oriented film fell on the “other side of the line”.

Interestingly, some of his other works that are made in the same tradition as above films are accepted with open arms. Minnie And Moskowitz (1971) opens up to the audience like a regular Cassavetes film as far as his techniques are concerned – the extreme close-ups, the harsh city noise and between-the-crowd cameras et al. However, instead of a marital pair that starts out happy and gradually disintegrates – perhaps Cassavetes’ favorite theme – Minnie and Moskowitz plays as a romantic comedy with the ruffian Seymour Cassel and Gena Rowlands in search of love. Though Cassavetes yet again allows his cast to improvise upon the situations, they are pretty much within the “predictable” context and norms of a rom-com. Hence instead of being called a self-indulgent film, it was hailed as a quirky and uniquely refreshing portrait of love.

Another example of the same situation is Gloria (1980). Remembered for the veteran performance by Rowlands, the film follows the titular character who, reluctant at first, decides to defend an orphaned boy against a huge crowd of mafia led by her ex-lover.  Cassavetes wrote this for a mainstream movie without the intention of directing it and he eventually took it up for himself. Virtually, all of his idiosyncrasies are absent and it can be easily taken for any feel good film. Cassavetes’ take on the gangster genre was instantly lapped up by audience and even remade with Sharon Stone in the lead in 1999.  Now, that yet again proves that the notion of self-indulgence is more an experiential opinion than an absolute one.

And there is a nice adversarial relationship with two of his films The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) and Love Streams (1984), both of which involve leads that have their way with the women but yet are thorough loners. Both of them don’t seem to believe much in life except for a thing or two. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie unfolds as a straightforward story of a straightforward man who is willing to do things he can in order to save one thing he likes – his business. He believes that one’s happiness lies in one’s acceptance of his/her position and not what the society thinks, like the lead of Love Streams. Whatever happens, the show must go on, literally. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie is grilled by some critics whereas Love Streams is generally considered one of his best films even though it is more mysterious and alien than the former. Perhaps, the somber country atmosphere, the lovely Gena Rowlands and the fact that it became virtually his last film disarmed even the most skeptical, with the film’s final image lingering in the minds of everyone who knew this man and his works.

Hyderabad Blues 2 (2004)
Nagesh Kukunoor

“If divorcing you was the only way to get you back, I would do it all over again”


Hyderabad Blues 2

“Indie Cinema” and “Indian Cinema” – Totally unlike the way they sound similar, the two terms have come to bear quite an adversarial relationship to each other. Undoubtedly, Nagesh Kukunoor forms a vital milestone in the history of Indian Independent cinema and stays in the cream of my list of most important contemporary film directors from the country in spite of his recent debacle Bombay to Bangkok (2007) whose elusive charm eluded most of us! Nevertheless, his films like Rockford (1999), Hyderabad Blues (1998) and its sequel still have the potential to inspire anyone to take up a camera and have taken the esoteric world of Independent films into the households.

And I felt Hyderabad Blues deserves an article in spite of the flak it faces regularly from the lovers of the earlier film. The central character Varun (Nagesh Kukunoor) has already been introduced to us as a broadminded, level-headed and immensely cool gentleman who has been charmed into staying in India by his bold and independent wife, Ashwini (Jyoti Dogra). Varun hangs out with his group of friends consisting of married and single men but most importantly with Sanjeev (Vikram Inamdar) who warns Varun about all the difficulties in having a baby that he has learned the hard way. Ashwini, meanwhile, hangs out with Sanjeev’s resourceful and cunning wife Seema (Elahé Hiptoola).

All is fine with the lead couple until the wife wants to have a child. Varun, however, is totally unprepared and tries to avert the matter. Things don’t help when Varun’s employee Menaka (Tisca Chopra) is found wooing him in the office by another resentful employee and the issue promptly goes to Ashwini. And just like that, they land up in court debating divorce and eventually getting it. Hyderabad Blues gets all the characters right. Be it the consciously flawed Varun or his voluntarily subordinating mother, you see them all in everyday life. And herein lies Kukunoor’s keenly discerning eye that penetrates into the real workings of the society, without the regular mainstream makeup.

I always thought Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) was a great idea (with performances of a lifetime by Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann) overstaying its welcome. But after watching a series of films on the subject culminating with Hyderabad Blues 2, I have come to realize that divorce, in most cases, is itself a very precipitous event and to portray one, the film’s runtime has to be suitably long in order to highlight the impulsive nature of the decision. And Hyderabad Blues does that without making the film once gloomy or overly melodramatic. All this apparent lightness never takes the solemnity of its objective and only aids the film to move closer to reality.

Hyderabad Blues 2 bears a relation to its predecessor somewhat in the same way Toy Story 2 (1999) is linked to its path breaking prequel (1995). In both cases, arguably the sequel is better in terms of the production values and the wholesomeness of the film. However, it is the prequel that is revered unanimously since they are the ones that gave birth to the sequels and they are the ones that changed the way people looked at films of their kind. Hence, the prequels naturally become close to heart and their successors easily dumped. When Hyderabad Blues came out, it was an instant hit. It captured, with near perfection, the way how anyone in the position of Varun feels, trying to cope up with the increased moral and cultural standards and decreased technological advancements.

Hyderabad Blues 2 is as hilarious as it is outrageous. Though most of the dialogue is in English, they never once feel contrived or out of place. Be the typically American wit of Varun or the bumbling acts of Sanjeev (“Pardon my wife. She has a problem with truth. Always speaks it out” is a knockout), they put one instantly at ease even if the sudden dose of iconoclasm as compared to the first film catches one unawares. By iconoclasm, I do not refer the film’s reflections on the society but on the country’s cinema itself. I wonder if the film would have been so open had it been made under the big banners. And thank god that wasn’t the case.