2009 has been one gold mine of a year for world cinema with so many great directors across the globe attempting, one last time, to register their name in the decades’ best list. Even if most of these films turn out to be minor works of major filmmakers, the sheer richness and variety it has brought within a small time span is remarkable. Here is the list of my favorite films of 2009 (in order of preference, with a tie at No. 10). Please note that the movies considered for this list were only the ones which had a world premiere in 2009. That means noteworthy films (some of which could have well made their way into this list) such as Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (2008), Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo (2008) were not counted. Unfortunately, I have not seen films from some big names including Rivette’s Around A Small Mountain, Resnais’ Wild Grass, Campion’s Bright Star, Herzog’s My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Farocki’s In Comparison, Noé’s Enter the Void, Denis’ White Material, Costa’s Ne Change Rien, Mendoza’s Lola and Kinatay, Reitman’s Up in the Air, Eastwood’s Invictus, Kashyap’s Gulaal, Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coens’ A Serious Man. So, sadly, they would have to vie for this list later. And needless to say, the following list will most definitely shuffle and change with time.

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA)


I don’t know whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but in any case it’s a masterpiece”, says one of the characters, self-referentially, in Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961). I’m tempted to say the same thing about Tarantino’s deceptively irreverent, endlessly enthralling and relentlessly inventive piece of bravura filmmaking. At once paying tribute to exploitative war movies and incriminating them, Tarantino’s swashbuckling “WW2-film film” is a war movie that ends all war movies. Absorbing as much from Truffaut as it does from Godard, Tarantino’s film is as potent and as personal as the “genre explosions” of the French directors. Essentially a mere medium of conversation between cinephiles on either sides of the film, Inglourious Basterds is the movie that seals the American auteur’s status as a contemporary giant of cinema and one that has the power to make its mark, deservedly, in our collective cultural vocabulary. With Inglourious Basterds, to steal from Michael Powell, Tarantino becomes the ventriloquist and his doll, the singer and the song, the painter and his palette, the pupil and the master.

2. The Maid (Sebastián Silva, Chile/Mexico)


A sister film, in some ways, to Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Rachel Getting Married (2008), Sebastián Silva’s The Maid is nothing short of a spiritual revelation at the movies. What could have been an one-note leftist tirade about Chile’s class system is instead elevated into the realm of human where one facial twitch, one stretch of silence and one impulsive word can speak much more than any expository monologue or contrived subplot. There is no simplification of human behaviour here, no easily classifiable moral categories and no overarching statement to which truth is sacrificed. Nor does Silva suspend his study of the classes to observe his characters. He merely lets the obvious stay in the background. And just when you think that Silva’s vision of the world is getting all too romantic, he delivers a fatal blow to shatter your smugness – a single, deceptively simple shot during the final birthday party that masterfully sums up everything from the irreconcilable, repressed tension that exists between classes in capitalistic societies to our adaptability as humans to live peacefully with each other despite socio-economic disparities.

3. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Spain)


Rigorous but oh-so-tender, centenarian Manoel de Oliveira’s one-hour wonder Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is a film in one and a half acts. Oliveira translates the work of Eça de Queiroz to the screen, running the 19th century tale of romance through the current economic landscape and harnessing the resultant anachronism to paint an achingly beautiful picture about the inability to transcend class, escape reality and lose oneself in art. Despite its decidedly Brechtian and ceaselessly self reflexive nature, Oliveira’s film is rife with moments of poignancy and touches of humour. Using double, triple and quadruple framing and achieving a mise-en-abyme of art and reality, Oliveira writes a ruminative essay on the impossibility of art and reality to merge, the confusion that exists between them and the classism that exists within and with respect to art. Flooded with references to art and art forms, Eccentricities is such a dense and intricate fabric of the arts that even the past is treated in a detached manner like a piece of art, where each image looks like a painting, each sound feels like a melody and each movement cries out: “cinema!”.

4. The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru/Spain)


Of all the recent movies that have attempted to acknowledge dark chapters in national histories and advocated looking forward to the future instead of crying over what is lost, perhaps, none is as sober, ethical and uncompromising as Claudia Llosa’s Golden Bear winner. Llosa inherits her tale from the terrorist atrocities that plagued Peru two decades ago (Inheritance being the prime motif of the film) but, subsequently, discards every possible opportunity for sensationalism or propaganda. Tightly framing the lead character, Fausta (Magaly Solier), within and against claustrophobic structures, doorways, photographs, windows, paintings, mirrors and walls, gradually varying the depth of focus along the movie to detach the protagonist and integrate her with her surroundings and using extremely long shots to dwarf her in vast opens spaces of the tranquil town, Llosa concocts a film of utmost narrative austerity and aesthetic rigor. Punctuating and contrasting these downbeat images of Fausta’s life are slice-of-life sequences from the town depicting various wedding rituals and parties which tenderly highlight Peruvian people’s open-hearted embracing of capitalism and their resolve to come out of the trauma of the past and move on with life.

5. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Japan/Spain)


If Inglourious Basterds was a coup from within the system, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is an out-and-out war against the machine. The essential piece of cinema of resistance, The Limits of Control eschews simple genre classification and flips every ingredient of Hollywood’s conveyor belt products to surprise, appall, irritate and provoke us with each one of its moves. The complete absence of Jarmuschian brand of deadpan humour announces the film’s seriousness of intent. It is as if Jarmusch wants to establish once and for all that Hollywood does not equal American cinema and that the cinema that the former school marginalizes is truly alive and kicking. The Limits of Control is a film that can easily get on your nerves but, eventually, it succeeds in getting under your skin and evolving gradually to reveal how meticulously crafted it is. Using Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, production designer Eugenio Caballero and editor Jay Rabinowitz masterfully, Jarmusch creates a movie so meditative and relaxing that one feels exactly how William Blake (Johnny Depp) would have at the end of Dead Man (1995).

6. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)


Porumboiu’s follow-up to one of the most hilarious comedies of the decade, 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), is a companion of sorts to Jarmusch’s film not only in the sense that both of them negate the function of the genre they are supposed to belong to, by completely de-dramatizing their narratives, but also because Porumboiu’s film, too, is a conflict between two types of cinema – the cinema of analytical contemplation represented by the detective-protagonist of the film (Dragos Bucur) and the cinema of thoughtless action represented by his ready-for-ambush boss (Vlad Ivanov). However, more concretely, Police, Adjective is an examination of how our own political and social systems, partly due to the rigidity of our written languages, end up dominating us and how individual conscience and social anomalies are effaced clinically in order to have the bureaucratic clockwork running smoothly. Like Bucharest, Porumboiu, often self-reflexively, sketches the portrait of a bland and pacific city that tries to ape the far west and project itself as more dynamic than it actually is. The film’s disparate themes crystallize deliciously in the final, side-splitting, Tarantino-esque set piece where we witness the police chief urging his subordinates to act by the book, literally.

7. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, Italy/Argentina/USA/Spain)


Tetro is a beautiful film. Not just in the way it looks, but in the sheer romance it has for a lost world. The only worthy B&W film of this year out of the four I saw (the other three being Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Villeneuve’s Polytechnique and Lu’s City of Life and Death, the last one being my candidate for the worst film of the year), Tetro is a wonderful expressionistic melodrama in the vein of Powell and Pressburger – figures whose films form the thematic and narrative focal point of this movie. Like many of the films mentioned in this list, but with more optimism, Coppola investigates the possibility of revival of the past and revelation of the obscured using art – movies, theatre and literature, in this case – employing a number of experiments with the film’s aspect ratio, colour and sound. Coppola also comments upon, nostalgically, the filmic medium’s ability to influence people to see cinema as a reflection of personal histories. But most importantly, Tetro is Coppola’s ritual of killing his patron-turned-authoritarian father (like his mentor Bertolucci did in The Conformist (1970)) – Hollywood – as his decisive farewell to industrial cinema and an autobiographical allegory about the obliteration of artistic vision by the alluring yet dangerous, powerful yet ephemeral flash of light called fame.

8. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy/France)


Writer-director Marco Bellocchio’s ballad, based on a nebulous part of fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s life, can teach those so-called historical dramas a thing or two about locating personal ideologies within collective history without being exploitative or pandering to pop demands. Bellocchio’s film is far from a detailed recreation of Mussolini’s political life. It is, in fact, a commentary upon such “detailed recreations” of history based on documents written by winners. Bellocchio’s formidable script and mise en scène keep probing and remarking upon the tendency of fascist systems to suppress histories – personal and national – and exploit popular media, especially the relatively young and emotionally powerful cinema, to blind people of truth and forge a faux reality – a theme underscored in Tarantino’s film too. What more? Bellocchio constructs the film exactly like one of those Soviet agitprop films – not by easy spoofing, but by retaining their spirit and rhythm – using rapid montage, expressionistic performances and operatic sounds. Be it common folk fighting in a cinema hall over a news reel or a bereaved mother breaking down during the screening of The Kid (1921), cinema registers its omnipresence and omnipotence in Bellocchio’s film.

9. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)


The perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah is an extremely assured and undeniably moving piece of cinema that arrives, appositely, as the golden jubilee reboot to Herzog’s thematically kindred movie, Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). Cleverly relegating specific issues such as the Australian government’s intervention and relocation policies for the Aborigines to the background, Thornton frees his films of broad, propagandist political agendas, without ever making the film lack social exploration. With an extraordinary sound design, Thornton keeps the word count in the film to an absolute minimum, letting the stretches of silence shared by his lead characters speak for themselves. The film’s observations about banality of racism in contemporary Australia, exploitation of tribal art and its consequences, the effect of colonialism, especially due to Christian missionaries, on the Aboriginal culture and the ever growing chasm between the tribal and white life styles themselves are fittingly subordinated to the beautiful, unspoken love story that, essentially, forms the heart of the film.

10. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France/Italy)


Let me dare to say this: Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is either the most profound or the most pretentious movie of the year. For now, I choose the former. Audiard’s decidedly unflinching feature breaks free from the limitations of a generic prison drama and takes on multiple dimensions as the apolitical and irreligious protagonist of the film, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim), finds himself irreversibly entangled in ethnic gang wars within and outside the prison. A trenchant examination of religion as both a tool of oppression and a vehicle for political escalation, A Prophet is an audacious exploration of Muslim identity in the western world post-9/11. Although the plot developments may leave the viewer dizzy, it is easy to acknowledge how Audiard confronts the issues instead of working his way around it or making cheeky and superficial political statements. Strikingly juxtaposing and counterpointing Sufism and Darwinism in Malik’s search for identity, Audiard creates an immensely confident and nonjudgmental film that trusts its audience to work with the rich ambiguity it offers.

(Images Courtesy: IMDb, The Auteurs, Screen Daily)

[EDIT: 7 Jan: Since it seems like The Beaches of Agnes had its premiere in 2008, I’m removing it from this list. That leaves exactly 10 movies on the list]

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!