‘The Limits of Control’ as Globalization Parable

I just saw the latest Jim Jarmusch movie, “The Limits of Control,” last night. And though I can understand why it seems to have been poorly received, I found it to be a visually beautiful film with a masterful use of tension, even if it suffered from a failure of nerve in the climactic scene.

There are a lot of subthemes in the movie, including art (the reflection) vs. reality (the thing being reflected), the screen as canvas (both the museum subplot, but also the way in which crucial scenes played out in front of train windows looking out over the Spanish countryside passing by), as well as some mystical references (the lead character’s Chi Gung exercises, the Gael Garcia Bernal character’s reference to peyote, and the “Life is worth nothing” recurring tagline).

But I mention it here because for me, the movie played out as a very effective parable of globalization. To begin with, it speaks to anyone who has wandered through an unfamiliar foreign city, stopping to admire torn posters in the fading sun, or who has sat in a courtyard cafe, listening to undecipherable words ringing out and imagining tales of intrigue in every passerby. But more importantly, by portraying the cinema as the inheritor of music and the canvas, it presents film as a new globalized imagination. And through its use of travel and language, it presents globalization as a new filmic imagination.

The control referenced in the title refers in part to the strictly coded language used between the co-conspirators, whose limits are revealed by the need of each one — with the exception of the lead character — to explain some part of themselves. But it also refers to the control represented by globalization’s masters, whose limits are revealed by the lead character’s twisting journey — which paradoxically leads him away from the modern urban center, back to the outlying and undeveloped periphery.

I imagine part of the film’s poor reception has to do with it expressing itself, not in the narrative language of real life, but in the narrative language of film, to a greater degree than any I’ve seen recently. The building tension is entirely unexplained, but simply visually represented by overhead helicopters, and some stock “danger” scenes that pop up here and there to great effect. Its humor is therefore easy to miss. For instance, I was the only one in the theater who cracked up when the Tilda Swinton character’s remark, “I love movies where the people sit still and say nothing,” was followed by the two characters sitting still and saying nothing.

If there was one shortcoming, it was the failure of nerve at the end, represented by the few short sentences uttered in an effort to explain, as if everything wasn’t already clear enough.

In Jarmusch’s vision, those left on the outside of globalization perceive not the “reality” of power, but the reality of its reflection, art. In a narrative expressed in the language of film, of course, art is much closer to the reality of life. It’s a debatable point, but one beautifully transmitted.

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