Even if he didn’t like Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, which I found immensely pleasurable and mesmerizing, I’m glad that Hollywood Reporter’s Michael Rechtshaffen at least picked up on the fact that Bill Murray, who turns up very late in the film, is “channeling” Dick Cheney when he does. This is by no means a gratuitous detail. Trust a minimalist to make absences as important as presences. None of the characters in this movie is named, all of them are assigned labels in the cast list, and the only label assigned to Murray is “American”. Furthermore, unless I missed something, the European (specifically Spanish) landscape that Jarmusch and his cinematographer Chris Doyle capture so beautifully and variously, in diverse corners of Madrid and Seville, is otherwise utterly devoid of Americans of any kind — a significant statement in itself — until a foul-mouthed Murray makes his belated experience in a bunker, as ill-tempered as the American trade press is already being about this entrancing movie. Prior to that, we’re told repeatedly, in Spanish, by a good many others in the film, that he who tries to be bigger than all the others should go to the cemetery to understand a little bit better what life is: a handful of dust.
It’s no less pertinent that a Spanish boy on the street previously asks Isaach De Bankolé — who’s channeling Lee Marvin in Point Blank, and is called “Lone Man” in the cast list — if he’s an American gangster and De Bankolé replies, “No.” It seems like an act of prophecy that an American gangster like Chaney should meet his symbolic comeuppance in the same country that might now arrest him for war crimes if he should ever make an actual appearance there. It also seems relevant that the boy and his street pals are reluctant to believe what the Lone Man says. After all, American gangsterism is a style that seems designed for export. In Point Blank, directed by an Englishman, the terrain is supposedly Los Angeles, but Lee Marvin might as well be trekking across Mars; and in Le samourai, directed by a Frenchman — another obvious source for The Limits of Control — the terrain is supposedly Paris, but Alain Delon might as well be holing up somewhere in Tokyo.
I was originally going to wait until The Limits of Control opened in early May before posting anything on this site about it, but I figure that if the trade press can sound off about it, so can I. Or at least offer a couple of first impressions of why I mainly prefer this movie to Broken Flowers.
For one thing, De Bankolé is a magnificent camera subject –a lot more fascinating to follow in his lonely rounds than Murray is in Broken Flowers, at least to me — and the urban and rural landscapes here do more for my imagination than the various American suburban stretches of Jarmusch’s previous feature.
Another thing: Tilda Swinton (identified as “Blonde,” and lightly suggesting to me Bulle Ogier in Rivette’s Duelle) observes to the Lone Man at one point that she likes films even when people are just sitting around in them and not saying anything — a declaration followed by a long pause.
“There are limits to artistic self-indulgence,” begins Todd McCarthy’s review in Variety. I disagree. And there are no limits to the pleasures that can be afforded from this kind of freedom.
I can’t wait to see this movie again. [4/24/09]
I had a very pleasant time this past weekend in Little Rock attending the Arkansas Literary Festival and promoting my collection Essential Cinema there, at a very well-attended session hosted by the editor-in-chief of the Oxford American, Marc Smirnoff. I also enjoyed gobbling a good many hush puppies at Flying Fish, a hangout not far from my hotel on the river front. There was even an hour or two on Sunday, after the rain slackened, when I could take an old-fashioned streetcar ride across the Arkansas River to North Little Rock and back. This is where my grandfather, Louis Rosenbaum, once operated a movie theater called the Princess, roughly between 1916 and 1918, before he moved with his wife and son to Florence, Alabama and continued his career in movie exhibition there for another four decades. (My father had a dim memory of taking a streetcar from North Little Rock to Little Rock to see Intolerance when he was in the first grade.)
The only sour note I can recall during the weekend was making the mistake of opening a local newspaper while having breakfast Saturday morning and reading the lead letter to the editor, opposite the editorial page. This letter maintained that (1) hallucinogenic drugs were and should be illegal and (2) the worst of these drugs was socialized medicine, which, in spite of the wistfully misplaced idealism and delusions of people who believed in it, never worked and couldn’t work.
Having lived for almost eight years under socialized medicine in two separate countries, France and the U.K., mainly during the 1970s, I could only ponder whether the confident author of this letter assumed that I and the 125 million or so other individuals in these countries who foolishly thought we were benefiting from this blighted system were all actually suffering from acid trips. And what about all the other countries in the world, then and now, afflicted with the curse of National Health? (And did the same author assume that alcohol, unlike hallucinogenic drugs, was some kind of truth serum?)
When I reflect on what led me to leave Alabama at the age of 16 and never return except for holidays, family reunions, and the like, I suspect that the impulse that goaded me into sharing LSD visions about socialized medicine with most of the other people on the planet must have played a small but significant role. [4/21/09]
Full disclosure: Gerald Peary’s 80-minute documentary accords me two sound bites — one near the beginning (about Manny Farber), the other towards the end (about internet criticism) — and one lingering look at this web site (specifically, my 2005 essay about Susan Sontag).
Overall I’m fundamentally in agreement with David Bordwell’s verdict about this film on his own web site, after seeing it recently in Hong Kong: “In all, For the Love of Movies offers a concise, entertaining account of mass-market movie criticism, and I think a lot of universities would want to use it in film and journalism courses.”
I’m writing this in one-sentence paragraphs because that’s pretty much Gerry’s discursive style and manner here, largely carried by the narration (delivered by Patricia Clarkson), for better and for worse. So — to expand my own discursive style here into two sentences, one of them fairly long — in the two or three minutes devoted to Manny Farber, unless you’ve already read and digested a couple of his key articles, you might wind up concluding that “termite art” has something directly to do with “low-budget crime melodrama,” even though snippets of Farber’s prose and a couple of lines from a late onstage interview are also included.
My biggest single objection is to one chapter heading — “When Criticism Mattered (1968-1980)” — which I read as a generational marker of sorts (even though it’s worth stressing that Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema and Pauline Kael’s I Lost it at the Movies, unlike Farber’s Negative Space, both made their first appearances before 1968). Gerry belongs to the same generation as me, but there’s a world of difference in how the two of us relate to this fact.
My own experience, for whatever it’s worth, is that criticism matters a great deal to some young hard-core cinephiles today, and in very much the same way that criticism mattered to some young hard-core cinephiles between 1968 and 1980. Among the key differences are the facts that this criticism is often found today in different places (i.e., on the Internet and much less often in libraries), that there’s considerably more of it (including academic stuff, omitted from Peary’s survey), that whether or not it’s American is of little consequence (though whether or not it’s in English is vital), and that it’s about many more films than anyone could have possibly had access to between 1968 and 1980.
Most mainstream moviegoers tend to think that film criticism is basically a matter of telling you which movies you should see, not trying to direct or redirect how you think about them. There’s a little in this documentary that contradicts this premise, but not a lot.
That said, this movie is a lot of fun. And you should see it. [4/16/09]
In Time magazine, no less. And it’s nice to see Hendrik Hertzberg linking and endorsing this argument. Let’s see if we can create a groundswell.
P.S. I stole the photo of Klein from Russ Limbaugh. Thanks for the help, man. [4/4/08]