The accidental tourist

Pub date May 6, 2009
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


Using dystopian prophet William Burroughs’ landmark essay The Limits of Control as his titular and narrative starting point, auteur Jim Jarmusch meditates on language and travel in his latest cinematic offering. While it’s undeniable that Jarmusch has always worn his Burroughsian influences on his black velvet sleeve, his own Limits of Control is less an explicit pastiche of Burroughs’ theories than a nod to his unique creative methodology.

"[Burroughs’] theories on language and the use of control are really fascinating," Jarmusch explained during a recent phone interview from his downtown New York City office. "But I would say more important for me from Burroughs were his notebooks and scrapbooks, in which he would cut up things from newspapers and magazines. That whole philosophy of the cut-up is very important to me in the construction of The Limits of Control."

Jarmusch’s Limits follows a laconic Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) as he travels through the extreme landscapes of Spain, seeking out unnamed contacts and cryptic ciphers that propel him toward some unforeseen climax. Lone Man wanders through the maze of clues with rarely a word spoken. This is not the garrulous Jarmusch of 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes. Rather, language exists here through an intimate series of picaresque exchanges. Soliloquies are eschewed for images of De Bankolé’s contoured face and the striking architectonic wonders of Madrid and Seville; dialogue is equally parsimonious, with moments of wiry, philosophical meandering and hip, pop-culture musings bubbling up spontaneously between visitors before retreating into long swathes of silence and static.

In their repetitions of catchphrases and rituals, these vignettes — staged by actors Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Paz de la Huerta, among others — become increasingly oracular, Rivette-inspired performances communicated in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Are these inexplicable codices part of an elaborate conspiracy through which Lone Man will complete his mission, or are they simply coincidental cut-ups leading him toward the lost horizon of the Spanish desert?

With a typically austere, Jarmuschian cool, The Limits of Control cites numerous French and American gangster-outlaw films of the 1960s and ’70s in its hermeneutic, almost mystical, field-study of the nomad. Despite its lack of conventional narrative action, The Limits of Control is largely about the postmodern experience of traveling and experiencing "foreign" lands and languages, a theme recounted in Jarmusch films from Stranger than Paradise (1984) to Mystery Train (1989) to Broken Flowers (2005).

Jarmusch points to Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques and Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel as two anthropological inspirations for his own recurring explorations of transition and translations. "[Traveling] used to be a bit more of an adventure," Jarmusch said. "When I was younger and traveled to Europe for the first time, at the airports people would dress up to travel. Now it’s just a frustrating exercise in getting from one place to the next, and the act of travel itself seems almost erasable." *

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL opens Fri/8 in San Francisco.


Pixel Vision: Erik Morse’s full interview with Jim Jarmusch.