Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Limits of Control and the Limits of Film Review Aggregation

The little-known 2009 film The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch's most recent directorial work, is mostly just a collection of beautifully shot, slow-moving landscapes and silent portraits through the stylish cities and pastoral countryside of Spain. Visually, the film is nearly inarguably gorgeous. Even more inarguable, it received a "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the popular film review aggregation site. The site essentially collects, evaluates, and aggregates large quantities of movie reviews to arrive at a single, final rating. The Limits of Control received a 42%. That is not good.

The negative reviews, which safely outnumber the positive ones, are fairly unanimous in their criticisms: the film is "tedious," "pretentious," and lacks a "coherent story." Rather than taking issue with the accuracy of those assessments -- I think the "pretentious" and no "coherent story" complaints are fair, while "tedious" is a subjective valuation that depends on the importance placed by the viewer on the more objective features of the film, such as tone (pretentious) or plot (none) -- I think they fundamentally miss the point. The film is pretentious in that it's not even a remotely honest or true depiction of things that people do; in fact, it's mostly just scenes of protagonist Isaach de Bankol sitting around cafes, sipping two espressos ("my, what a cute affectation, it must mean something!"), and waiting for strangers to approach him and engage in very cryptic, one-sided, pseudo-philosophical conversations before exchanging matchbooks, with each new one containing the location of his next rendezvous. Of course a movie based around that is going to be necessarily if not tautologically over-loaded with pretension. And there is no coherent story, insofar as the "story" is a series of these rendezvous, interspersed lightly with Paz de la Huerta alternately wearing nothing or a transparent raincoat, all of it inevitably leading to a penultimate scene involving a wig-coiffed and bespectacled Bill Murray inside a heavily fortified compound somewhere in the desert. Of course. Needless to say, the importance if not existence of a story in The Limits of Control is minimal. Jarmusch seems to have learned a valuable lesson from his previous work in Ghost Dog, an otherwise effective film that was completely ruined by its slavery to the plot and the comically terrible ending it required. Critical observations regarding The Limits of Control's tone and story seem akin to disparaging films that display 24 frames per second, or that criticisms Buster Keaton's early work was silent; that is, they are obvious features of the subject work, and evaluation based on those features alone is narrow-minded and practically useless.

What The Limits of Control does actually attempt to do (rather than be honest or tell a story), and what it does really well, is provide an varied mix of beautifully composed shots, center those shots around the mysterious voyage of a compelling figure (de Bankol gives a wonderfully subdued performance), layer the droning sound of experimental Japanese rock band Boris over the landscapes, which gives the slow movement an even more laborious and ominous feel, and sprinkle in some interesting performances from well-regarded actors (John Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal are particularly good). It does this while keeping the momentum and arc going forward. It is a successful and enjoyable film, even if it does border closely on tedium before the dilemma of how will this will all end surfaces.

The Rotten Tomatoes reviews of The Limits of Control are particularly divisive; there was a bifurcation of the audience into those that really enjoyed the film and those that hated it. Splitting the difference to arrive at a single rating tells the potential viewer nothing about which group she will fall into. As is the case with advanced hockey statistics, the broader context of the data is key. Another problem with Rotten Tomatoes is that it does not differentiate between reviewers or the reviews themselves. Reviews are given only a binary metric - positive or negative. Each reviewer is treated equally - a glowing review from A. O. Scott counts just the same as a lukewarm review from a hack in the Palookaville Post. While there's an argument to be made that differentiating between reviewers introduces a problematic subjective element to the endeavor, it would seem that treating them the same imposes a similar value judgment on the analysis.