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What Do You Do with Challenging Films?

I recently watched two films that were challenging in different ways. I almost always enjoy viewing movies that require some effort because the effort is usually worth any amount of work I have to put forth. I recently watched The Limits of Control (2009) and Transit (2018) back-to-back, but then was faced with a real problem. Perhaps you have the same problem, perhaps not.


So what you do after watching any challenging film? Do you like to think about it for awhile? Read reviews? Read/watch interviews? Talk it over with a friend? Back in the ‘80s, my best friend Terry and I would watch films and discuss them late into the night. “What did the ending mean?” “What was that scene supposed to convey?” “Why was the director obsessed with the color red?” It could be any question. We argued a lot, but we also tried to struggle through our questions by bouncing ideas off each other. This was pre-internet, so it wasn’t easy to find reviews, interviews, etc., at least not quickly. If you have such a person you can talk with about films - difficult ones or otherwise - consider yourself extremely fortunate.

Since it’s usually just me (since my wife isn’t a big movie fan), I will usually contemplate what I’ve just seen, trying to find patterns, recurring motifs, connections, or even clues in movies I can’t quite grasp the first time through. That happened with The Limits of Control, which sounds like a title you’ll probably have to think about a bit (unless it’s a film about an extremely violent person whose buttons get pushed easily).

Although I’ve seen a few films by Jim Jarmusch (and have enjoyed them all), I’d never heard of The Limits of Control. I hadn’t seen a Jarmusch film in awhile, so I decided to give it a go. Simply credited as “Lone Man,” Isaach De Bankolé’s character has so little dialogue you could write it all on those tiny pieces of paper inside the various matchboxes he acquires during the film. Lone Man is essentially a hit man carrying out a job in Spain. Much of the film is cryptic, yet beautiful, as Lone Man traverses Madrid (and later Seville), visiting art museums, cafés, hotel rooms, trains, etc. I think the film touches on many themes, but seems to be a takeoff on the hit man movie, yet having fun with several of its conventions at the same time, all the while reaching for something else I’m not quite sure it succeeds in grasping. I watched some of the extras on the Blu-ray, which answered some of the questions I wish I’d spent more time trying to work out for myself. I think Terry and I would’ve had a great time arguing over this one. The Limits of Control seems to be a film people either love or hate. I enjoyed it, but don’t know if it would stand up to more than one rewatch.

I can’t say the same for Transit, which I believe I could watch for years and still not pick up everything in it. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014) is one of my favorite films from the last 10 years, and although I’ve wanted to explore more of his work, Transit is the first of his movies I’ve seen since watching Phoenix.

A young man named Georg (Franz Rogowski) is seeking to flee occupied present-day Paris. (Questions immediately arise right there…) Georg is tasked to deliver letters to a writer, only to discover that the writer is dead. There’s more to this, which I won’t disclose, but Georg soon travels to Marseille to convey another piece of information. This leads to an impersonation, evading an oppressive regime, and trying to discover the truth about a mysterious woman. That’s a very general encapsulation of the bare basics of Transit. I believe there’s far more to Transit than there is to The Limits of Control, requiring multiple viewings. Even though Transit shares some of the same themes as Phoenix, it isn’t simply a variation on a theme. Its rewards, no doubt, will keep delivering for many subsequent rewatches over many years. It’s a film I have read little about, wishing to reflect on it myself. Or with someone else.

Another question: What do you watch next after a challenging movie? Something light and breezy? Another complex film? Does it matter? I think it does.

I watched The Limits of Control and Transit back-to-back, but on two different days. My next film to watch after those two was Bedazzled (1967), a comedy with Dudley Moore as a short-order cook who asks the devil (Peter Cook) to grant him seven wishes in order to make waitress Margaret (Eleanor Bron) fall in love with him. I think it was perhaps unfair for me to watch the film at the time I did. Although much of the movie was very clever (especially in the handling of some of its theology), I didn’t care for it as a whole. Yet I know many people love the film. (Roger Ebert gave it four stars.) I’ll probably revisit it, but I believe it was the wrong film at the wrong time.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what we watch or when we watch it. We should judge a film on its own merits, but sometimes certain movies leave an impression that seems to want to force you to come to grips with it. We could as the same question of genre pictures. How many film noir (or westerns, musicals, comedies, etc.) titles can you watch in a row before you want something else?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Photos: Moria, IMDb, The Film Stage, Film Comment, Mubi, Film Junk

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