I recently watched Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, after an earlier and abandoned attempt, and loved it. Though somewhat panned for being boring and pretentious, I found it fascinating and quite humble, which surprised me because I had initially found it a little dull. So let me digress for a moment to puzzle this out and then we'll get to why I'm starting with fictional film to get at a few ideas about documentaries and the recent success of Searching For Sugar Man. (One caveat: I am not talking about journalistic docs in this piece.)
The Limits of Control is extremely slow and seemingly repetitious, not the foundation for a solid thriller, if this film even lays claim to that genre, and I'm not sure it does. There's no bristling tension to speak of and the intrigue that exists is so quietly executed that it feels more like a secret among friends than the cloak and dagger life of diamond smugglers. And this may be part of the point.
In the hands of a different director, the initial slickness of suits and sunglasses would raise expectations for a car chase, gun battle or heist. For Jarmusch, these tropes point in a different direction. His colors, sound design and formality give way to personal familiarity. For all the "strangeness" of the characters - they speak in code and wear unusual outfits - you'll notice that they do not feel strange at all. You begin to sense the familiarity of The Lone Man, which is the scripted name of the character played by the great Isaach de Bankolé, as if he were a friend of yours or even a stand-in for you in particular.
This challenge is where many critics and viewers stopped watching.
What makes it work is that Jarmusch flips the superficial storytelling of your Hollywood thriller and challenges us with what seems to be a mask of Isaach de Bankolé. This challenge is where many critics and viewers stopped watching. Some of them thought they caught a famous director in an cinematic error. He's gone too far. He's full of himself. It's artistic hubris. But if you watch the film more carefully and see the subtle and tremendous acting of Isaach De Bankolé, you will see a different film entirely. Watch The Lone Man's face and body gestures as the other actors talk at him and around him. In this light, The Limits of Control becomes quite an unusual and enjoyable film.
Now to my second point. I connected Jarmusch to documentaries because of an interview I read during which he said ".... at least as far as something that wasn't documentary talking heads nonsense." Documentaries have been in a state of becoming for a long time. For more than a decade, the form has both expanded in terms of the number of projects made and contracted to some degree in terms of our expectations of what a documentary should be. On the one hand, a lot of great films have been made. On the other hand, we see a lot of the nonsense Jarmusch is talking about.
That's right, we perceive acting in documentaries today.
There are many reasons for this, and I won't attempt a full explanation. Instead, I will take one: perception of truthfulness. Documentaries still hold the mantel of fact and truth, although perhaps to a lesser degree than before. There's still a sense that what we see in documentaries is somehow more true than what we see in fiction. The trouble is that we can't square that perception with the acting we see on the screen. That's right, we perceive acting in documentaries today. Perhaps one reason Jarmusch cries nonsense is that his talking heads are people in front of the camera presenting themselves, sometimes telling the truth, sometimes lying, but at least acting out a character to a certain degree and often without much dramatic success. You and me and they... we all act in front of the camera. And for the most part we are not good actors.
Partly in an effort to make up for this weakness, documentaries sometimes hype the music, increase the cuts, rearrange the story and so on. It's a natural tendency because you want the audience to watch the film.
One perceived solution to this cinematic problem, and one that has plagued documentaries lately, is the idea of a "character driven" documentary. In other words, make documentaries more like fiction so that we can get close to a person and try to imagine his or her life. Again, make truth more like fiction. To do this, place a clearer storyline structure over the facts. An ordinary person becomes "the hero" or "the villain." Institutions are more rotten or more virtuous than they really are. The tide of time and the rise and fall of events are positioned as epic or as tiny moments with great cultural effect. And the closer we get to a good story, the more we feel the story tells us something important about life, regardless of whether is sticks to the facts or not.
This year's super duper Searching For Sugar Man caused a mild dust-up in the documentary world for lying about the obscurity of Rodriguez, the main character. And it went on to be a huge success with audiences and critics. The filmmakers decided to raise the stakes of the story by crafting a cleaner storyline and by defining Rodriguez more starkly as an obscure talent who finally gets his due, in spite of the fact that this is not true.
Make truth more like fiction.
What The Limits of Control does for us, and this is what I find completely fascinating and amazing about it as an artistic achievement, is make a fantasy world, and the people in it, real. Or, to put it the way Jarmusch does through Gael García Bernal's character, "Sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected." The truths we discover in The Limits of Control are our own and come to us informally by suggestion and inference. This is the humble part of Jarmusch's work and, I would argue, this is also why Searching For Sugar Man is such an excellent film.