Jim Jarmusch: A Trip down the Rabbit Hole

In an exclusive interview with The Skinny, cult filmmaker Jim Jarmusch discusses his mysterious new film The Limits of Control, his latest musical project Bad Rabbit, and why exploring our consciousness is an 'inalienable right'

Feature by Gail Tolley | 01 Dec 2009

Tom Waits famously said in an interview with the New York Times that ''The key… to Jim [Jarmusch], is that he went gray when he was 15. As a result, he always felt like an immigrant in the teenage world. He's been an immigrant … ever since. And all his films are about that.'' From his debut feature Permanent Vacation (1980) to his latest unexplained creation The Limits of Control, there’s no denying that Jarmusch has always shown sympathy for the outsider. Taking up an unwavering position on the margins of American cinema the filmmaker has made some of the most distinctive features of the last 30 years. He has fused his appreciation of European arthouse with a love of American counter-culture to produce such memorable films as Down By Law (1986) featuring the aforementioned Mr Waits and musician John Lurie; the Memphis-set Mystery Train (1989) that follows three interconnected stories imbued with the spirit of Elvis; the gangster-samurai feature Ghost Dog (1999), and most recently Broken Flowers (2005) where a ‘Don Juan’ Bill Murray takes a look back at his failed love life.

The Limits of Control shows Jarmusch at his most daring yet and is without doubt a departure from his last feature (although Bill Murray again makes an appearance). Ostensibly a thriller, the film is far less interested in plot details than in creating a specific atmosphere, rhythm and aesthetic. We are taken on a journey across Spain with an unnamed man (Isaach De Bankolé) who meets with various characters (played by Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal) who provide him with cryptic instructions to progress his mission. Not all critics have applauded the film, perhaps because it is a deliberate attempt on Jarmusch’s part to challenge the usual expectations that cinemagoers have. For this reason The Limits of Control is more comprehensible when embraced as an experience, akin to the works of David Lynch. For this reason Jarmusch believes that one of the most important elements to the film is its soundtrack and, giving an insight into both the nature of the film and the role of the music, he refers to it as “a mix-tape to take you through the mirror and down the rabbit hole”. Expect to be plunged head-first into Wonderland.

You’ve described The Limits of Control as a puzzle: how much should we be looking for some sort of narrative explanation from this film?

We’re trying to remove certain expectations that people have. I got discouraged recently by people trying to deliver expectations to the audience. Christopher Doyle [the cinematographer] and I were like: ‘What if Tarkovsky or Antonioni released one of their films now, would anyone even release it?’ And we thought most likely not. So we were trying to make a film that’s not an intellectual exercise, that’s entertaining, but it’s very open and not formulaic. We had the map of the story from a very minimal text that I wrote, more like a prose story with no dialogue. That was our map, but it was very open so we could create the film partly as it went along, which was very important to our approach.

Do you see The Limits of Control as a challenge to the overriding passiveness of many audiences?

I guess in a way, although again I think it’s like a trance or a trip that they can take. They don’t have to bring anything, you don’t have to bring a thinking cap, you know. But if the film works on them then I think they’ll start appreciating the details and all the layers we put in there, but tried to put in in an off-hand way, not pointedly. There’s a lot of layers in there and unfortunately for our distributors I think it’s a better experience if you’ve seen it more than once. [Although] it’s hard enough to get [people] to see it at all!

When I was watching this film at one point it suddenly occurred to me that so much of it seemed to be about architecture.

[It’s] not particularly about architecture but about the things around one that form your consciousness or that feed your consciousness. So that’s visual things, architecture, the way cities are designed, spaces and interiors. But it’s also music and sound and motion and textual things that you receive. So architecture is a part of it but I don’t think it’s any more important than other elements of the film, [such as] the rhythm of it musically [or] how shots move together.

The reason I picked up the thing about the architecture was because of the way you shoot buildings, in particular there’s one scene of a staircase (and it’s repeated a couple of times) in the Madrid apartment block. It’s shot from a very unusual angle, it’s almost like you can’t figure it out when you first see it and suddenly you pan around and you sort of get your bearings… I thought it was a fantastic shot. Something that I really appreciated from the film was these shots which were unexpected where we suddenly get a new angle on things. I know some critics have picked up on an almost iconoclastic aspect to the film and I wondered how much it was your intention to deliberately create images which challenge the way we normally look at things.

Well in a way we were. One inspiration for us was the film Point Blank by John Boorman which is also very architectural in a funny way, now that you say it, although I’m not sure I really saw it in that way before. But every shot in that film is very striking and yet some of them are confusing in terms of reflection and dreams within dreams. And we were really inspired by that… we were thinking, that’s an interesting approach, let’s try and make every shot in the film somehow interesting. And Christopher Doyle is really the best guy I know on the planet to do that kind of thing; he thinks in the moment, he wants every shot to be dynamic, he cringes at visual clichés. So we’re like brothers in a certain way and our inspirations come not just from cinema but from poetry and painting and books and music and architecture and experiences and dialogue and language: we were very connected in that way so we were looking for a kind of style in the film that would not be clichéd.

Yeah, because I think that there aren’t visual clichés but there are elements of cinematic reference… I’m thinking of the naked girl with the glasses.

Yeah, certainly. In a way her nudity is almost her uniform. There’s even a quote from Le Mepris by Godard where she says “do you like my arse” which is said by Brigitte Bardot. There are certainly references in a way to films by Jean-Pierre Melville, like The Samourai, where a lone warrior is an outsider who has a code that doesn’t fit his surroundings anymore: we see him alone in rooms, things like that were definitely references. In a way we were trying to embrace the artifice of cinema. It’s a beautiful thing and as much as I like these new neo-realist kind of styles, we were going the other way. We were making something embracing [the] artifice of cinema as something weird or beautiful.

There’s also that very memorable quotation which Gael Garcia Bernal delivers about ‘the reflection being far more present than the thing being reflected’ and I guess you can say the same for cinema…

Cinema really is sort of like Plato’s Cave, you know, you go in a dark room you see these constructed images projected. We’re celebrating that rather than trying to trick you into thinking you were in some other world or some sort of realistic place.

There is a very distinct use of space: there’s a strong sense that this is in Spain; there’s a strong sense of being abroad. Do you see this as an extension of your exploration of outsiders and alienation?

Certainly he’s an outsider and he’s in a place that he doesn’t know. There’s also a very traditional structure in the film which is three acts of the three places with a kind of coda on the end. He starts in Madrid which is very cosmopolitan, a modern city; we tried to film it, not like tourists, but show the mundane feeling of Madrid. But then of course we have that very bizarre building he stays in. Then he goes to Sevilla which is a place halfway between the past and the present somehow. It was the heart of colonial Spain, it’s where they have that tower of gold that he looks at and that he finds a postcard of, and is where Queen Isabella kept all the gold they had pillaged from the New World. And then the final step of the film for me was like a kind of Western, he goes to Almeria and he’s really removed from civilisation and those landscapes are very familiar at least semi-consciously to all us film fans from all the Spaghetti Westerns and even the big Hollywood epic films from the 50s [which] were shot at the site of Almeria. There’s something in there that’s strangely familiar so he’s making this progress away from civilisation. Visually that’s what we were doing.

Let’s talk about the soundtrack because you see it as an integral part of the film. For me it succeeds so well because it’s not manipulative which so many directors seem to use music to do. Could you talk a little bit about the role of music in the film?

For me, always when I start writing, I start listening to music that is opening my imagination for that particular world or thing that I’m imagining. So I start eliminating music that doesn’t open that up to me and just flood myself with music that does. In this case it was Boris, Sunn O))), Earth, those very slow, heavy rock kind of landscapes were really inspiring to me. So then they led me to the feeling of this film and of course it re-entered as the score for the film. They’re very atmospheric and evocative for me. I don’t like music that cues you or tells you - I mean sometimes it’s great, in other people’s films - but it’s not my thing to have the music try to tell you what to feel. So instead I like it as part of the fabric of everything else. And then there are two other elements, the adagio from Schubert’s string quartet and some flamenco, but a very particular form, a peternera. So those things ended up being the musical fabric.

And Bad Rabbit, your own band, contribute a lot to the soundtrack. How did that come about?

The real problem came when I was cutting the music in the film and I found that I didn’t have pieces like Boris or Earth or Sunn O))) that were working right for the scenes where he goes to the gallery. So I thought, we’ll make our own with our band. So we did and we made some pieces for the film and since then we’re almost done with our album and we’ve been continuing making more music which for me is a great release. Our style, it’s slow, psychedelic, a little bit hippy, electric, a little dirtier than say Mogwai but atmospheric too in that way.

I guess a final topic to touch upon is the politics of the film. All films are probably political to a certain extent but there’s a feeling that maybe this film is quite reflective of our time, do you feel that? Especially given the title – The Limits of Control.

Well it’s not for no reason that the authoritarian figure is the American, you know? We’ve been embarrassed for years by the Bush administration, when I travelled I would tell cab drivers I was Canadian. Now we don’t have to still do that but… I’m suspicious of all politicians and politics. I’m suspicious of authorities that tell you what is reality. I wasn’t trying to make a film that was didactic but there’s certainly a metaphorical thing in there about arrogance and power controlling our consciousness which is our own, you know, it doesn’t belong to them (whoever they may be). I think altering and exploring one’s consciousness is an inalienable right, you know? I think it should be a crime to tell anyone else what they should believe, whether it’s me telling them that or Dick Cheney.

The Limits of Control is released on the 11 December 2009.