The Cybernetics of Cool

Cyberneticists see the world as composed of systems of information transfer; within this approach, all such systems tend not toward chaos but toward equilibrium. Given a limited number of inputs and outputs, any system will eventually settle into a routine where inputs are always dealt with in the same way. In these “homeostatic” systems, there are eventually no surprises. Only rarely will there be any unexpected outcomes – and if so, they appear as a sort of blessing, an autopoetic incarnation of some new outcome that no input could have ever produced. (Sometimes there appears a ghost in the machine.)

A desire for control is central to this way of thinking and seeing. (Is there any other reason for analyzing the whole world as composed of information?) It’s easy to imagine the application of cybernetics in management theory and finance, but for some the leap to understanding human consciousness and social interaction in terms of information transfer is too much. Yet the desire for control is certainly not limited to political spheres.

Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, The Limits of Control, offers an unexpected and welcome examination of the failure of cybernetic theory to account for one man’s social and political being in the world. The film’s protagonist/hero – named only Lone Man in the credits – is the very picture of homeostatic equilibrium – through his silence, his physical precision, his remove, his COOL, he tightly controls what goes in or out of his life. The result is predictability. Even where he faces the possibly unpredictable (he is an assassin after all) Lone Man uses chance to reduce the possible variables to a controllable quantity.

(Say someone was to try and slip poison into the dark recesses of your espresso, for example – why not always order two espressos, to present the potential poisoner with a choice? One’s chances of being poisoned are halved. Why stop at two? Because one only has two hands.)

Only a man alone, a man “among no one”, can afford to be cool, no? Jim Jarmusch’s solitary characters are the most seductive kind of cool for me. The main characters of Ghost Dog and The Limits of Control are instantly attractive. I fold into their gait so quickly. Cut off from everyone, these monk-like beings are hyper-disciplined, and observant of every detail, every possible sign and portent.

But I know this to be fantasy, and not a desirable reality. I know that to depend on people, to be tied to others, is the way to life. To pursue the sort of holy apartness of these characters is to corroborate with death.

I wonder if Jarmusch might feel the same way. Ghost Dog ends with cracks in the edifice, when the one interdependent relationship the protagonist allows himself leads to his own downfall. (A classic tale of the loner’s folly.) The new film reveals less cracks in the cool facade of solitary male mobility, but that might just make it more interesting, more potent.

In light of cybernetics, most films – at least the ones about men – are either comedies of the desire for control thwarted, or tragedies of the right to control stolen (and possibly taken back through revenge.) Ghost Dog seems somewhat traditional in this regard (it is a remake, after all). The Limits of Control presents a new variation on this theme, as the desire for control is neither dramatically stolen nor cheeringly restored. Instead, it’s simply ineffective, irrelevant within the plot’s turns.

The new story is essentially about a man traversing a network. With the exchange of matchboxes as a protocol, our hero makes his way from one person to the next in a series of obscure negotiations and labors. Through airplane, train, taxi, bar, hotel, art museum, and street cafe, this hero of mobility has keys to places he’s never been. He moves with expertise, even as an outsider, a tourist.

A man of some power sends our hero off in search of diamonds. He finds them, passes them off to a woman whom we assume is the intended recipient, our man the mere messenger. On to the next assignment – or maybe part of the same? – he finds his way to an old black guitar, through another such exchange, or series of exchanges, of matchboxes. The guitar he trades for passage to a remote and guarded compound, where the Lone Man sneaks in and kills something like Dick Cheney, one of only two Americans we hear from in the film. The assassin then trades in his tailored cosmopolitan suit for a bright green jogging jacket – one bearing an Africa logo on the breast and some embroidered “slashes” on the back. He abandons the last matchbox with seeming satisfaction, leaves the train station for a walk into the sun, camera suddenly askew, edit abrupt.

This sequence plays out with clock-like regularity – something like a cycle or rhythm is in place, and the scenes progress not through dialogue (there is little), but through a sort of algorithm. I can imagine the edited shots laid out in a Final Cut Pro timeline, a series of regularly cut segments, like the tines on a music box cylinder.

What’s the melody of this regular tune?

We’re told several times that if a man thinks he is big, he should go to the cemetery and consider the dust.

We’re told that reality is arbitrary, that the universe has no edges and no center.

And at the conclusion of this song, the end of our character’s journey, we see a penultimate violent act rendered meaningless. The hero escapes after his assassination job, but the body of the Cheney-character is barely cold when another, identically-suited white man is being readied at the same desk.

Even our hero’s one potential social connection is cut short without meaning. A woman who seems to follow the man across cities – usually appearing to him (and us) in the nude – is found dead in his bed. Our stoic hero, who sleeps in his clothes and, monk-like, never bends to her advances, had withheld himself for nothing. Where popular cinema might allow the chaste hero to eventually benefit from his sacrifices, here there is not only no reward, there is never even a name given for this woman.

(I see the ridiculous role this woman plays, the stupid male-fantasy temptress who is content to simply sleep naked beside our hero, as related to the over-the-top violence of Jarmusch’s Dead Man – how can it not be parody? The actress is credited only as the character “Nude.”)

At a time when theaters are full of solitary male heroes, blasting their way through revenge scenarios, Jarmusch’s hero in Limits of Control is a story of purposeless single-minded movement and futile solitude. There is no attempt to gratify the audience through the granting of revenge or even motive. We see all the macho repression, but with all the release of an old helium balloon that simply shrivels and drifts to the ground.

So what’s left? Only fantasy and artifice – perhaps the only information a cybernetic machine cannot digest.

The film is full of artifice – Lone Man visits the art museum several times, where he walks directly to specific paintings in Spain’s Reina Sofia, pursues them to epiphany and transport. These sequences flip the hero between art and life – the painting becomes the world, the world the painting. They play no key role in his story, unlike the various clues in the street that direct him to his bounty. Yet he pivots around these pictures, projects into them, returns from them somehow moved? charged? They function like clues in a scavenger hunt, yet we never see how he uses them. The rhythm of the film hangs on these, like bridges in the song structure, yet these images hold no narrative force.

We also meditate on artifice for a bit with Tilda Swinton’s character, who waxes nostalgic with Lone Man about films where nothing happens, the dreamlike “actualities” of early cinema. (Lone Man flies to Spain on Lumiere Airlines.)

Those early films, plotless, display something of the anti-hierarchy of the present film’s tune. If the universe has no center, no edges – if everything is arbitrary – then there is no direction more deserving of the camera’s eye. Anything is worth recording and looking at, regardless of its role in anyone’s story or machine.

The arbitrariness of early cinema’s actualities, the ways in which everything is worthy of consideration, is a refutation of the cybernetic gaze. Things are worth watching not as information in transfer, but as things. And not everything has to be watched to be known. It is enough to film a few things.

For these early films, artifice is the way to show how events happen despite us, rather than because of us. Not everything bends to our will, but nor does it defy us just to provide hubristic solace. We might say the same of the anti-event music of Jarmusch’s soundtrack, filled with the beautiful noise of Earth, Sunn O))) and other drone artists.

The words “No Limits, No Control” appear on the screen after the credits roll for Jarmusch’s film. There are still plenty of loose ends here – why are all Jarmusch’s white protagonists bumbly, his protagonists-of-color masterful? – and the koanlike phrase doesn’t help tie things up. Does it mean that there is no control without limits? Or that we can hope for neither?

I keep thinking about how this new film manages to neutralize the desire for control without reinforcing that same desire through repression. I escape to the fantasy of Lone Man’s solitary life just as he escapes to his paintings – but they push him back into the world, as the film pushes me back into mine. Like a Borgesian map, representation bleeds into reality for the Lone Man, but reality isn’t the better for it. Reality just breaks, but there have been some pauses within it, moments of boomerang flight into the world of subjective, controlled fantasy. The Politically Correct in me suggests that I avoid fantasies that reflect an incomplete or destructive life. Jarmusch’s films, with their wry and quiet way of embracing artifice in the name of realism, keep me coming back.

The function of fantasy isn’t always to present a more desirable world – sometimes fantasy is a way to escape one’s desires, not to fulfill them. It may be that of Jarmusch’s work, The Limits of Control speaks best to this. It’s a film in part about the role of artifice in our pursuit of self-sufficiency – and in our inescapable interdependence with things and people.

2 Responses to The Cybernetics of Cool

  1. Kevin,
    Your writing is so lucid — and your insights are crisp and yet also allusive. One of the best film “reviews” I’ve ever read. You could make a living at this! (I realize of course that your larger point in this piece is not a film review — but cinema being what it is, a lingua franca of sorts, you could not only make a little cash from film reviewing, but you might also enlighten those of us who watch a Jarmusch film and walk away bewildered. Cheers, Bruce

  2. kham

    Thanks Bruce! I’m still learning about where I’d like my writing to live, and how attached it should be to my living. We’ll see…

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