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What is the 21st Century?: The Quiet American

What is the 21st Century? is the weekly column where Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tries to find an answer to the titular question.


Above: Alex Descas and Jean-François Stévenin in The Limits of Control.

American cinema—two words that go together beautifully. Throughout the 20th century, there was one universal language: American movies. With their conventions, symbols and concerns, they invaded (for better or worse) the imagination of most of the world. It’s hard to find a filmmaker whose work doesn’t present either an embrace or a rebuke of at least one of the traditions of American cinema. And if you’d asked me a few days ago who the most American living director was, I’d have given you a different answer from the one I have now. Maybe I wouldn’t have even been able to name someone off the top of my head. But now I’ve seen The Limits of Control, and I can say with certainty that it’s Jim Jarmusch. The Limits of Control strikes you—it’s something like a blow to the side of the head, or one of those punches John Wayne would deliver to knock some sense into ya. It's not a direct descendant of the American tradition--really more like the bastard offspring of a European affair. But that bastard presents a possibility for the future.

There are the observations anyone can be made quickly about The Limits of Control. For instance, it's Jarmusch’s least dialogue-centered movie, but also his loudest. Loudest not in terms of the soundtrack (which sometimes gets quite loud), but in terms of the images, which abandon Jarmusch’s usual witty articulateness for a loudness worthy of Denis or Fuller: howls, shrieks, droning dirges. Maybe it’s the influence of Christopher Doyle, who, as a cinematographer, has always been an enabler; his willingness to chase after lights and shadows can have a liberating effect, but only on those directors who are willing to be liberated from their tastes (James Ivory and Gus Van Sant have steadfastly held on to theirs while working with him; maybe they’re teetotalers). But The Limits of Control is never hysterical; Jarmusch’s lack of hysterics has always been his calling card (another American, Abel Ferrara, has made an ability to channel malaise into controlled hysteria his mark).

In the American tradition, the night belongs to James Gray; his is a cinema of the sleepless, the combination of an insomniac’s worries and a few half-remembered dreams. The evening remains in the hands of Ernst Lubistch and Billy Wilder; the day’s work done, but with the possibilities of night still ahead—enough time to have a little fun or to sit back and reminisce. Jarmusch, like his Taiwanese contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien, has long been a director of daytime movies. Like Hou, he's constructed films almost entirely out of interludes—activities that draw attention to the fact that they are in the midst of larger activities, usually whole lives. It can be said that the difference between Hou’s red balloon and Albert Lamorisse’s is that while Lamorisse’s incites action, Hou’s is an instrument for intersecting with life and whatever action might be going on, even if it’s on the smallest scale. With Jarmusch, this tendency has given his work a sense of the terminal, as though it comes at the end of cinema—but with The Limits of Control, he’s directed a dawn film, one that's inevitably followed by the rest of a viewer’s life, like Sunrise or Playtime in miniature. It’s not a statement; it’s a beginning.

Above: Youki Kudoh in The Limits of Control.

There’s a desire to compare The Limits of Control to Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (because of the plot) or Dead Man (because of the sprawl), but really the movie is closest to Coffee and Cigarettes, a movie that's been underrated because of its patchwork production—as though a movie made piecemeal whenever the director had spare time is less of a statement than the one carefully scripted and financed. The mystery of language, and the way people communicate ideas to one another, has been one of Jarmusch’s key fascinations throughout his career. Though at first it seems like something typically post-national, it always seems to fascinate filmmakers who feel directly linked to a certain culture. If Jarmusch fills a movie with “foreigners” and shoots it in a “foreign” country, it’s always as an American. His other great concern, first articulated in Stranger Than Paradise, is what “American cinema” could be; this isn’t the tradition of American cinema, and all of the history and culture it entails, but the very idea of an “American movie.”

The Limits of Control belongs to a genre specific to the last decade. There are numerous other examples: Southland Tales, demonlover, The Intruder, Mulholland Dr., New Rose Hotel. We could almost call them “anti-thrillers,” not because they present an opposition to the thriller, but because they start with the basic idea of the film thriller and build it using none of the original parts. They aren’t thrillers of situation—just emotion. Not moodiness--just moods. They trade suspense in for suspicion, creating a form that negates the genre’s literary roots. If a traditional thriller’s social implications usually lay in its resolution (and there are plenty of these movies still being made, the best in recent memory being Verhoeven’s Black Book), the implications of these movies lie in their unresolvability. They are mysteries that ignore the possibility of solutions; the fact that a finger is never pointed at a specific culprit means that it could conceivably be pointed at anything. What these films and their filmmakers have done is create a new genre by starting with the idea of an old one, as cinema invented a new form by starting with the basic ideas of photography, literature, painting, opera and theater and creating them over again. What Jarmusch has hinted at, and finally reveals in this film, is that for American culture to survive in the present it’s gotta find itself again. So he isolates a notion: “What is an American film?” There’s a simple answer: “A movie that recognizes that it’s made by an American.”

Well, what’s an American? That’s a question that’s best answered by another question: what is America? America is something equally beautiful and ugly. It has an unprecedented ability to embrace and preserve the traditions and ideas of other cultures. It also has an unprecedented ability to disrupt other cultures and invade them with its ideas. So Jarmusch gives us beauty and ugliness. There are the notions of people from different cultures, voiced clearly to Isaach De Bankolé’s largely silent protagonist, and the sights, sounds and culture peculiar to the places he visits. There is also Bill Murray as Dick Cheney’s double and that sinking feeling of corporate dread he brings. And the result is probably the most honest film an American could’ve made in the present: it's We Can't Go Home Again with a hopeful ending.

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