If there were a hall of fame for the super-cool and perpetually hip, Jim Jarmusch would most certainly have already been inducted. For more than 25 years, he has been making movies that function as travelogues through the cultural underground, and in many ways still sets the standard for American independent filmmaking.
"To me, independent film is just the people creating it being able to make it the way they want," Jarmusch said in his recognizable deadpan drawl during a recent telephone call from his office just off the Bowery in New York City. "There's a history of that in Europe. It's called 'filmmaking.' "
His career began with "Permanent Vacation" in 1980 but really gained attention with the broader breakthrough of the one-two of 1984's "Stranger Than Paradise" (winner of the Camera d'Or prize at Cannes) and "Down by Law" in 1986.
Over the years, Jarmusch has seen the indie film world expand, mutate, balloon, contract; meanwhile, he has continued to do his own thing behind the camera. "Sometimes I feel more sequestered than buffered from the prevailing winds of what is independent film," he said.
Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers," released in 2005, won the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Cannes Film Festival and went on to be his biggest box-office success by far, reportedly grossing more than $40 million worldwide. It starred Bill Murray in a gently comic tale of a man retracing his romantic life by visiting past paramours played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Tilda Swinton and Jessica Lange, and there was undoubtedly something in the film that felt, if not more commercial, at least more accessible.
His latest film, "The Limits of Control," opening in theaters on Friday, seems in some ways like the pendulum swinging back in the other direction -- a Jarmusch fan's Jarmusch film.
Starring Isaach De Bankole in his fourth outing with the director, it follows an inscrutably disciplined "Lone Man" (the only name his character is given) moving through a series of contacts in contemporary Spain. He may be a messenger, a bag man or an assassin, moving ruthlessly closer and closer to his final stop.
"The Limits of Control" may have the spine of an espionage thriller, but it also plays like a notebook of ideas and influences spilled to the wind. The film's production is credited to PointBlank Films, a nod to John Boorman's 1967 existential hit man picture starring Lee Marvin.
The soundtrack is dominated by droning pieces from the "doom metal" groups Boris and Sunn O))), while the Lone Man frequently drops into the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid to admire works by noted Spanish painters (all of which are lovingly photographed in the film by cinematographer Christopher Doyle).
Along his travels, the Lone Man meets characters played by a veritable United Nations of actors, including Swinton, John Hurt, Paz de la Huerta, Hiam Abbass, Youki Kudoh and Gael Garcia Bernal, with a final showdown with Murray.
Jarmusch was able to find financing for the film by showing Focus Features a 25-page prose story that outlined the film's characters and story but contained no dialogue. This allowed him to keep his "antennae," as he calls them, up throughout the production process, continuing to gather influences while writing the dialogue as he went, weaving and layering ideas and motifs.
"I work probably in an erratically backwards kind of way," Jarmusch said of his writing process. "I start with some actors I would like to create characters for, and I have some characters in mind, and then I just start collecting things that inspire me, and they come all over the place, from music, from poetry, from literature, from architecture, from just the design of things, from conversations I overhear, from the quality of light in a room that I notice. The story is often somewhat secondary to me, even in importance somehow. And this film certainly worked that way."
If the title of the film, "The Limits of Control" -- which comes from a 1975 essay by Beat writer William S. Burroughs -- may be thought of as a question, Jarmusch perhaps tips his hand to his answer with the title card at the end of the final credits that reads, "No Limits No Control."
The filmmaker is resistant to discussing the meaning of his films, and initially responds to a request to do so with a lighthearted, "Oh no, let me reach for my revolver." He prefers things be left open for each viewer to interpret, and delights at hearing what other people find in his works.
"In my films, I'm not trying to hit you over the head and say, 'Here's what it means,' " Jarmusch said. "I love cinema as a form so much because it incorporates all these other forms that I love. So when I make a film, what I want to say is what I put on the screen. It throws me when people say, 'Can you now talk about what you wanted to say, can you say it now with language?' And in a way, I can't."
Originally from Ohio, Jarmusch was a denizen of the legendary late-'70s scene around the New York City nightclub CBGB. In many ways, he is still living by the same ethos. "Back in those days, we all thought of ourselves philosophically as criminals," he recalled, "in that we weren't going to get a real job if we could avoid it, we were going to live our lives how we chose, and if we could, we were getting over. And I'm still getting over in a way.
"It's not necessarily a choice I made, like I despise the Hollywood system and therefore I reject it. It's not really like that. It's just that maybe I belong in the margins."