The man in "Control:" Jim Jarmusch interview

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By Erik Morse

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Poster for Jim Jarmusch's latest film, The Limits of Control.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: I was trying to think how to go about this interview and present something slightly different to you than the same old questions you've been asked a hundred times over. I kept going back to various anthropology texts I've been reading recently. Have you heard of James Clifford's essay “Traveling Cultures”?

Jim Jarmusch: No.

SFBG: Would you mind if I read a bit of it to you? I think it could be very relevant to our discussion.

JJ: Sure.

SFBG: “To begin, a quotation from C.L.R. James in Beyond a Boundary: 'Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place. The relations of classes had to change before I discovered that it's not quality of goods and utility that matter, but movement, not where you are or what you have, but where you come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.'”

“Or begin again with hotels: Joseph Conrad, in the pages of Victory: 'The age in which we are encamped like bewildered travelers in a garish, unrestful hotel.' In Tristes Tropiques, Levi-Strauss evokes an out-of-scale concrete cube sitting in the midst of the new Brazillian city of Goiania in 1937. It's his symbol of civilization's barbarity, 'a place of transit, not of residence.' The hotel as station, airport terminal, hospital: a place ou pass through, where the encouters are fleeting, arbitrary.”

It's a very long and incredible essay and I thought of it immediately after seeing your latest film.

JJ: Wow. That's beautiful.

SFBG: Watching The Limits of Control put me in this very anthropological mode. Even the cinematic reference points like Point Blank, Le Samourai and El Topo all share this common emphasis on travelers passing through strange lands, like an anthropologist surveying some exotic field-site.

JJ: Yeah, I would put Alphaville in there too in a way. I don't know that essay but do you know the book The Art of Travel by De Botton?

SFBG: No. What it is?

JJ: He wrote this book called How Proust Can Change Your Life and a couple of other books. But The Art of Travel, Chris Doyle [cinematographer for Limits of Control] actually gave me that book about six months before we started working on that film. It was quite a beautiful book about the experience of traveling and the mindset of being in transition like that. There were some very beautiful things in it. But this essay I don't know. I'd like to read it. Tristes Tropiques was a huge book for me when I was younger. I found a copy of it recently and meant to re-read it in the last few months but I haven't yet. It was an amazing revelation years ago when I read it.

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Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

SFBG: All of your films are very concerned with modes of travel and experiences of unique spaces. How do you think traveling has changed in the two generations between films like Point Blank and Le Samourai in the late 1960s and The Limits of Control in 2009?

JJ: I think there is a kind of psychological difference. It used to be a bit more of an adventure, the actual act of traveling. Now it seems to be a more frustrating exercise in waiting most of the time. Like today it's just so frustrating to travel, by plane especially. It's like you're on a flying Greyhound bus. It's interesting, when I was younger and traveled to Europe for the first time, at the airports people would dress up to travel. Even in the 70s. It was like a big event. It was like a special thing to travel. And now it's just a frustrating exercise in getting from one place to the next and the act of travel itself seems almost erasable. But I don't know if that's really true by car where you can still choose your own routes. This is still what I prefer to do when possible. Get lost, you know.

SFBG: I suppose it's comparable to how driving changed with the institution of the American interstate highway system in the 50s. Driving, like flying, became a more insular experience removed from the experiences of human contact and cultural detail.

JJ: Exactly yeah. Funny story. I was backstage at a show for Boris, the band whose music is in our film. They're Japanese and their English is quite limited. But they said they had been in Chicago and traveled by van to the West Coast. And I asked one of them “Was it an interesting trip?” And he said “Oh trip was like this: In van. Landscape – nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Then: Rocky Mountains!” It was just a beautiful summation. “Rocky mountains!” But that's all they saw.

SFBG: How do you see the differences in how you imagined landscape in The Limits of Control, which has a very futuristic, cosmopolitan aura as opposed to your last film Broken Flowers which was largely an investigation of insularity and the American suburbs?

JJ: There were something about the landscapes in Broken Flowers that were just the same. And people would ask where it took place, the joke of the crew was that it takes place in Generica. So it was a kind of undefined, generic America. Whereas in Limits of Control the parts of Spain where we were drawn to were very different. Madrid is a very metropolitan and interesting city but obviously we were avoiding the touristy places. Then once we got to Seville, it's such an amazingly beautiful city that you could almost put your camera anywhere and get something evocative. And then by the end of the film where it becomes a kind of western and he is traveling in those mountains outside of Almeria in the south of Andalucia, it's the place where all the Spaghetti westerns were filmed, all of Leone's films were made, all the American epic films like King of Kings were all filmed in that landscape. So for me the landscape at the end is kind of familiar in that I've received them from watching other types of films.

But it's very different from the kind of sameness of Broken Flowers where it is kind of generic America. Spain is so different. The landscapes shift. On the train you'll see olive groves and almond groves and then barren mountain landscapes in the south and little bits of industry here and there. They had this beautiful bullet train between Madrid and Sevilla and it takes only two hours and twenty minutes. And the landscapes are beautiful and changing all the time. So we were just drawn to Spain and those different locations for different reasons.

SFBG: Do you think there is a qualitative difference in the way you imagine America in your films, like in Mystery Train or Down by Law, and the way you imagine Europe in Night on Earth or Limits of Control?

JJ: It's an interesting question and one that I can't answer very analytically because a lot of the things that draw me to these places are ephemereal. Like when I wrote the script for Down By Law that was set in New Orleans, I had never been to New Orleans. I knew a lot about the music history of New Orleans so I was being pulled there by my love for the musical history here. And then I did the same thing for Mystery Train. I had never been to Memphis and yet I wrote it from a Memphis of my imagination that was built on my knowledge of the musical culture there. Then when I got to those places, my intuitive reaction to the cities ... like with Down By Law I knew the film would be black and white before I went to New Orleans. So then we found locations that were evocative of that somehow. Memphis was similar again but in color so when I got there I started to wonder what the difference between what was in my mind and what I found and this was very exciting to me.

Something I wanted to mention about traveling: when I get to where I'm going, I like to get lost without a map and follow my instincts. And this is not for the preparation of a film. This is just for personal amusement I guess. I like to follow things that visually interest me. And then when I get tired after an hour or two I have to figure out how to get back to where the hell I am staying. But I love getting lost and being pulled along by things that are alluring without having any sense of where I have to go. But then when we were shooting Dead Man we scouted all over the place for locations that would evoke America in the 1870s where this man took a journey. But we were also trying to avoid this Ansel Adams or John Ford dramatic look. We were looking away from the calendar landscape. We'd find striking, beautiful things and turn our backs on them and look in a different direction to find our location for the world of our film.

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Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control.

SFBG: How did you choose Spain for The Limits of Control?

JJ: Limits of Control could have been shot anywhere. It could have been shot in Turkey, Mexico, a lot of places. The basic elements of the story would still have worked. But I was drawn to Spain in some particular way I can't analyze, but certain things were pulling me there. My knowledge of this building Torres Blancas, the round apartment building in Madrid where the main character stays when he gets there. And my love of Seville, I always wanted to film there someday, and my love of those obscure landscapes of the South and their use in all of the 50s, 60s and 70s films. So it kind of had those things pulling me and therefore it became Spain. So, of course, elements of Spanish culture entered the film. The flamenco and certain types of Moorish architecture in Sevilla, but it's not as if I had a real calculated plan of anything. And at least with Spain I was familiar with those places unlike in New Orleans and Memphis where I'd never been before I wrote the script. So here I had very specific things that I had in my head that I wanted to include or incorporate in the film.

SFBG: You definitely seem to be playing a lot with Spain's visual palette throughout the film. You begin in Madrid and concentrate on this bizarre tower as the center of action and you progressively move to more and more horizontal spaces until you have moved to the desert by the end of the film. It is an interesting counterpoint to the “planar” or horizontal photography in films like Mystery Train and Broken Flowers which focus on the sprawl of America.

JJ: Do you know the film Los Angeles Plays Itself?

SFBG: No, what is it?

JJ: Oh, you've got to see this film. It's fantastic. It's this guy Thom Andersen. He made this amazing film two or three years ago called Los Angeles Plays Itself and he wasn't able to release it because he used clips from all kinds of films that he couldn't clear the rights for. You can get the film on DVD, two discs, maybe 4 hours long. But it is incredible, showing the architecture of Los Angeles and how it's changed throughout the history of filmmaking. I've seen it like three times -- it's remarkable. You would love it because it really addresses how a sense of place affects things psychologically, aesthetically, philosophically, politically. You should find this film.

SFBG: That sounds incredible. It vaguely sounds like that experimental film made inside the Ambassador Hotel by Pat O'Neill shortly before the building was torn down. He took all of this video footage inside of the lobby, various rooms, the ballroom, the pool, and then digitally layered images of people on this footage as if they were ghosts of the hotel.

JJ: Yeah, I didn't see it but I read about it.

SFBG: It's like an entire visual encyclopedia of the hotel.

JJ: Wow. I'd like to see that.

SFBG: I wanted to ask you about the Burroughs reference as well. The Limits of Control is a mid-70s essay by Burroughs on control systems and I know his work has been a huge influence on you throughout your career. How important is this particular essay in understanding your film?

JJ: Well, the title was more about listing a title I really loved and referencing Burroughs. The essay itself, although really interesting itself -- his theories on language and the use of control -- are really fascinating but also outdated because of the way we now receive information. But I would say more important for me from Burroughs were his notebooks and scrapbooks. He was always making them. He had this large stack of notebooks in which he would cut up things from newspapers and magazines and things he would write as well. So he was always looking for coincidental juxtapositions of things. And he would find odd things on the same page from articles that were seemingly unrelated but then somehow circularly came back in upon each other. I don't exactly how to explain it.

SFBG: Do you mean the cut-up experiments he was using to write his novels in the early 60s?

JJ: Yes, although these notebooks were literally things that he would cut out, like images and things from the newspaper. But yes, that whole philosophy of the cut-up is very important to me in the construciton of Limits of Control. That idea of finding things that relate to each other by chance, by circumstance, by juxtaposition. Burroughs would also use the I Ching a lot which also uses a similar form of randomness to form some kind of order. I don't know if you know that Brain Eno has these beautiful cards called Oblique Strategies and that's very similar to the I Ching?

SFBG: Yeah, I've heard of them. I know they have a big influence on the way he works.

JJ: Recently I picked out a card from his deck of cards and it said something like “Look closely at the smallest details and amplify them.” But that whole approach is very interesting to me. The French poets, OuLiPo, like Raymond Queneau and those guys had this idea of creating poems through a similar structure as the cut-up procedure. Queneau had this beautiful book called One Hundred Million Poems and they come as little strips in a book that you could arrange and ultimately create millions of poems out of. But those things were really important in the structure of the film because I had a 25 page prose story to start with but I did not want a traditional script. So we just took it from there and started building, allowing things that we found along the way or juxtapositions to enter the film. And somehow it comes back to Burroughs because that idea of cutting up all of these things and finding things through what is seemingly random was really interesting to me. So I'm always happy to have Burroughs referred to because he was a big inspiration for this particular film as he's always been. The more I read Burroughs, the more prophetic he seems to me.

SFBG: It's funny that you mention OuLiPo because I'm sure you're familiar with Raymond Roussel. His work on travel and language is very similar in many ways.

JJ: Yes, absolutely, like Impressions of Africa and Nouvelle Impressions d'Afrique. In fact, I have an eight page prose thing that he wrote that's one large palindrome. So it's an eight page long palindrome. The guy was incredible.

SFBG: That sounds amazing.

JJ: And he was a huge influence on the Surrealists and the OuLiPo. And he was one of the first to use that kind of game structure. That's amazing. I haven't thought about him a while. I love Roussel.

SFBG: He really was on the cusp of this literary change but he never had the comfort of an artistic group like the Surrealists or OuLiPo. He was a real renegade outsider roaming on the borders, wasn't he?

JJ: Yeah, he was lone-wolf kind of guy. Unfortunately It's hard to translate him, although John Ashbery did a nice job I think.

SFBG: The story I heard about Ashbery was that he purposely learned to speak French just so he could translate and read Roussel.

JJ: Wow. There's another link here that I hadn't thought of. John Ashbery also translated those Fantomas books that the Feuillade films were based on. The character of Fantomas was another unconscious influence on me I think.

SFBG: I always thought there should be some kind of secret society of Rousselians because he's such a unique and obscure artistic figure. Maybe there is already a society. And John Ashcroft is the head...I mean....

JJ: Paging Doctor Freud! You mean John Ashbery.

SFBG: Yeah, right.

JJ: And Ron Padgett. He was a big fan and translator of Roussel and others like Pierre Reverdy -- I keep a very strong connection to the New York School of poets. They were huge for me in life and were my teachers. Like Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro. So I like to maintain the spirit of their work in all of my films by not taking myself too seriously, trying to make my films like poems that are delievered to a single person. So they have been really important to me and taught me so much about Roussel and Rimbaud and Mallarme and all of those people. So they are like my mentors.

SFBG: Limits of Control presents all of these cryptic ciphers and strange, ritualistic tableaus as if they were the signals of a larger conspiracy or of some secret society. I've heard you instituted your own secret society called the Sons of Lee Marvin. Where do you think your interests in this phenomenon of hermeticism or secret organizations come from? It has a fascinating lineage in cinema. Films like Eyes Wide Shut for instance come to mind.

JJ: Which I absolutely loved. A lot of people didn't, but I did and I had my own kind of analysis of it. I thought it was largely about Scientology in a lot of ways. Even in the casting choices. I think there were a lot of amazing things in the film that Kubrick refused to explain. I thought it was hilarious that in the US release there was this really sexy image used in the poster but then fuzzed out the sex acts which weren't even passionate, they were tableaus. So emblematic of the US film industry -- we'll use it to sell it but then we'll censor the thing itself. And I love that the origins of that film was from Schnitzler.

SFBG: Yeah, Arthur Schniztler seemed to have a similar fascination with secret societies. How did your interests in these kinds of societies contribute to the way you developed the cryptic exchanges and secret languages in The Limits of Control? Was it primarily as a way to discuss political power structures or maybe these hidden artistic communes that have their own secretive histories?

JJ: Again, I'm not so calculating about those things but it's always been a great interest to me, that kind of subterranean power culture that all these groups have. Like the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Skull and Bones. And the secret administration we are emerging from is kind of a descendant of all of that. In a more aesthetic way, I would think of Balzac's Story of the Thirteen which was a secret society that Balzac imagined in his novel. And Rivette used that book as the basis of Out 1. And I'm a big Rivette fan and Balzac fan. But, on a larger scale, the meaning of Limits of Control is that ideas and imagination are a lot more powerful than these physical power structures of money, police and military power. Their powers are so weak compared to the power of ideas.

An example, and this goes back to the interests in secret societies, is Pythagoras who in around 480 BC founded his own secret commune where women were were equal, animals were treated as if they had souls and they did this incredible amount of research. Pythagoras actually postulated that the earth moved around the sun rather than vice versa, which Galileo or Copernicus was reprimanded and imprisoned for but, of course, this was around 480 BC when Pythagoras theorized this. And he also figured out how musical intervals were mathematical. He was doing all of these amazing things. And then he and his entire village were slaughtered in an attempt to erase all of his ideas. And I'm sure a number of his writings were destroyed so we don't have access to them now. And yet we still have so many ideas from Pythagoras because they couldn't eliminate his work. They still influence our ideas, our scientific thought, all kinds of stuff. So no matter what they do with this physical power, the power of imagination is still so much stronger. You can imprison people, you can kill them but that doesn't destory the ideas.

And now we're on some kind of apocalyptic cusp, rethinking our perceptions. All these old models are crumbling and we have to consider new ways of thinking if we are going to survive. The internet, the genome project, stem-cell regeneration, all of these new phenomenon that will completely change how we view things. And if we don't change, we're just to continue to follow the same old thugs. Maybe it's already too late for the planet. I don't know. But again, I'm going back to the idea that the imagination is much stronger than any of these forms of power that are imposed on us. And I definitely think that's a theme somewhere in the film. And this relates somehow to these secret organizations that existed either to maintain their physical power over things or these organizations that were preserving ideas and imagination that were not fitting in with the power structures so they had to do it secretly.

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Tilda Swinton in The Limits of Control.

SFBG: So it's both a political and aesthetic interest?

JJ: Look at the modern models of nationalism that govern by dividing and controlling the State and the modern forms of terrorism that attempt to circumvent sovereign states. So these groups adapt to existing models of control. I'm certainly not condoning them but just observing how those things can be stronger than the colonial model that we are still subject to in a lot of ways.

SFBG: But it's a difficult process that's not without its problems. The increasing dependence on technology does not always guarantee a democratizing or utopian end. And it doesn't always guarantee a transparency of power or knowledge. In fact, often times it complicates or hides more frightening possibilities for control, doesn't it?

JJ: There is a contradiction built into it so I don't know how to really respond. But I think technology is ultimately a tool and it's how you use the tool. Do you use it as a weapon or do you use it to build something? But for me the beauty of cultures that exist on this planet and the way they differentiate themselves, I just find them so beautiful and yet I find it so beautiful when cultures become synthesized and they overlap and something comes out of this overlap. And it's always been a contradiction to me. I have a lot of Native American friends, for instance, and I know how much they fight to maintain the identity of their own culture from being erased by genocide and whatever else. And at the same time when other cultures merge with it, there is something so beautiful that comes out of it. There is kind of an inherent contradiction in there. But I don't know, I'm optimistic and pessimistic at the same time about the future of humans and life on earth.

The Limits of Control opens Fri/8 in San Francisco. For Erik Morse's review of the film, go here.