How does being cool work? It seems pretty axiomatic to cite the old Louis Armstrong line, "If you have to ask, you'll never know." But since I've asked, let's say that, second, hipness is typically exuded by making things appear effortless: by seeming not to care, not screwing up — as the old deodorant commercial advised, never letting them see you sweat.
In film-world terms, hipsters don't come much hipper than Jim Jarmusch, the downtown NYC post-punk auteur of new wave indie classics like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Jarmusch, he of the gaunt Sid Vicious cheeks and towering white hair, is the very picture of the urban cool guy, and he populates his films with the likes of Johnny Depp, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. Dead Man even featured the last screen appearance of Robert freakin' Mitchum. Bad ass!
Which brings us to The Limits of Control, Jarmusch's latest film. First off, this is kind of an old film, having been released in May. The fact that it is only now receiving its Nashville premiere should tell you something about its relative standing with certain segments of the arthouse audience and possibly its studio. I will say right off the bat that Limits is an extremely divisive Jarmusch film, one that even many of the director's longtime fans (a loyal bunch, and generally willing to bend their minds around the abstruse) rejected as pretentious twaddle.
They are dead wrong, though. Limits of Control happens to be one of Jarmusch's very best films. It is, however, deeply uncool.
It certainly looks cool on the surface. The film follows the itinerary of an unnamed agent or assassin (Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé), listed in the credits only as Lone Man. He is on assignment in Barcelona, although he appears to speak no Spanish. He never smiles. He is a man of few words. He cuts a distinctive figure in his purple shirt and blue-gray, iridescent sharkskin suit. For movie buffs, Lone Man is an ice-cold blend of Lee Marvin's Walker in Point Blank and Portuguese avant-gardist Pedro Costa's human objet trouvé Ventura. He meets his contacts with a ritualized pass phrase ("¿Usted no habla español, verdad?"), gets his orders on tiny slips of paper which he then consumes, and always – always – demands not a double espresso, but two single espressos, in two separate cups.
Each of Lone Man's contacts delivers a brief monologue about some specified topic, beginning with the phrase, "You wouldn't happen to be interested in ___, by any chance?" And although Jarmusch offers his usual array of all-star hipster cameos, these scenes have been lambasted as pointless and ham-fisted by Control's harshest critics. But really, the problem is that they break "cool" down. They find Jarmusch offering variations on ideas concerning infinitude, uncertainty and multiplicity in the universe, as well as the power of art, all in rather frank and sometimes even corny ways. Tilda Swinton in a ridiculous wig and cowgirl get-up talks about old movies. John Hurt discusses the idea of "bohemia." Youki Kudoh talks about science and the rejuvenation of molecules. And so on.
By the end, all pretense of hip detachment has evaporated, as Lone Man achieves his final target. He breaks into the inner sanctum of some ill-defined Bush 43 operative (Bill Murray, channeling Cheney, Rumsfeld, or both). This, the film's only "action sequence," is a non-starter; it functions on a purely symbolic level, as does everything else in Jarmusch's film. Murray's character, listed only (a la George Clooney) as The American, may just represent the ugly side of America, trapped inside its own echo chamber and remaking its soundproof bunker of ideology wherever it goes. Nevertheless, when The American asks Lone Man, "How the fuck did you get in here?" the agent simply replies, "I used my imagination."
And so, much to the chagrin of so many of Jarmusch's acolytes, the artist has fallen into an unfashionable sincerity, practically illustrating his film's own title as a kind of hopeful proposition. We can control our own destiny by envisioning a different kind of world. How uncool is that?