July 2006

Arts & Letters

Every which way but forward

By Owen Richardson
Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story’

Published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemanmade a celebrity of its author, the obscure middle-aged clergyman Laurence Sterne, and has delighted and irritated readers in equal measure since. “Nothing odd will do long,” said Dr Johnson, “Tristram Shandy did not last.” But last it has, the shaggy-dog, cock-and-bull story that goes every which way but forward and in trying to tell the story of its hero’s life gets no further than his birth, so procrastinated is it, so hooked on narrative cockteasing and interruptus. The eighteenth century may have thought it a freak, but the twentieth and twenty-first have taken it to heart, and its quirks and tricks resurface in Rushdie and Kundera, Barthelme and Foster Wallace.

Unfilmable? Not so much, perhaps. The hi-jinks of Sterne’s novel give it things in common with recent filmic extravaganzas of tricksiness, with Pulp Fiction and Memento and Irreversible and The Player: stories told backwards, stories that loop back on themselves, films within films that know they are films. Self-referentiality and games have been part of the cinema repertoire for some time. Cinema and TV have become more and more comfortable with self-reflexivity; postmodernism has become pop, so there is no reason why an adventurous soul mightn’t have been able to make something of Sterne’s wayward masterpiece. It’s just that we expect adaptations of literary classics to be literal, windowpane filmmaking, subservient to the text they are trying to translate (an example of the approach at its worst is Polanski’s deadly version of Oliver Twist, which is currently playing). Perhaps the truly Shandean film is Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her, in which what starts out as an exposé of part-time prostitution among lower-middle-class housewives turns out to be about the cinema itself. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is another Shandyesque jeux d’esprit, which also suggests the fascination the Russian formalists had with Sterne.

It’s strange, then, that Michael Winterbottom’s movie should come across as square as it does. Winterbottom has made some excellent left-of-field movies: 24 Hour Party People, about the Manchester music scene from Joy Division to the Happy Mondays, channelled a cool contemporary version of the brio Richard Lester brought to the Beatles movies, and In This World, which followed two Afghan refugees as they re-enacted their journey from a Pakistani refugee camp to London, seemed a marvel of guerrilla-filmmaking-with-money-behind-it – immediate, angry, vibrant with reality. He can also be lazy and self-indulgent, as the depressingly “controversial” 9 Songs, about a love affair told solely through unsimulated sex and live band footage, disastrously proved. Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, co-written with long-time collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce (credited as Martin Hardy), is something of a letdown.

For the first half-hour or so we get the gifted English comic Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People, Around the World in 80 Days) striding around a country house addressing the camera as Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, and as Tristram himself. Around him swirls a romping account of some of the famous incidents from the book: the circumstances of Tristram’s conception; the breaking of his nose by the forceps wielded by Doctor Slop (played by Irish comic Dylan Moran, looking startlingly like a crapulous sheepdog); the disaster of his christening. The script goes outside the frame: not only does Tristram address us, but there are jokes about Groucho Marx and Pavlov’s dog and the like. Then, during Tristram’s birth scene, the rest of the movie goes outside the frame, too, and the following hour is the on-set circus of a bunch of people making a movie of Tristram Shandy: there are problems with the battle scenes, the talent is touchy, the script is redrafted to get some Hollywood star power involved and get the moneymen more interested.

At one point a TV crew appears, interviewing Coogan for the DVD. The interviewer is Tony Wilson, the promoter and manager whom Coogan played in 24 Hour Party People; and, of course, the voiceover tells us that we can see the whole interview on the DVD. This is neat enough, and Sternean enough, but we have gotten very used to these kinds of jokes livening up even fairly routine Hollywood product: think of Ocean’s Twelve, which has a plot crux depending on Julia Roberts playing a character who, briefly, impersonates Julia Roberts.

The Sternean atmosphere persists. Just like Tristram’s father and his Uncle Toby, the actors playing them – Coogan and Rob Brydon – also have their hobbyhorses. Coogan is obsessed with his shoes, and more specifically that he should be taller than Brydon (the film takes literally the phrase “costume drama” – there is a lot of drama about the costumes). Brydon is obsessed with Coogan’s vanity and self-importance, and parodies him and other actors ceaselessly through the film, which is bookended by improvised bickering between the two.

Just as the novel is a stew of influences – Montaigne, Cervantes, Rabelais – and revels in parodic learning, the movie steals shamelessly. The situation with Coogan torn between a pretty assistant and his wife mimics the mother of all making-of-a-movie movies, 8½, whose Nino Rota score Winterbottom also borrows (as he does the Michael Nyman score for A Draughtsman’s Contract).

It’s amusing, and the performers have a relaxed, easy vibe: that gamine Shirley Henderson has some neat moments as Mrs Shandy’s maid Susanna, and Jeremy Northam, released from heritage-cinema purgatory, looks pleasingly scruffy and bleary-eyed as the film’s director. But it’s not hugely satisfying. The loose-limbed, anything-can-happen flavour that made 24 Hour Party People so exhilarating here never quite leaves the ground, though there are some gallant tries: Coogan upside-down in an enormous plastic model womb, for example.

The film knows what it is doing, with its allusions and translations of meta-fiction on the page into meta-fiction on the screen; it just isn’t lively enough, and cutting the enterprise to the cloth of Steve Coogan’s self-parody – there are any number of jokes about how he is trying to escape from Alan Partridge, the character that made him famous in the late ’90s – gives it the wrong kind of cosy, home-movie feel. As the scenes of the crew sitting around watching the rushes for the day and making bitchy remarks about the soldiers’ uniforms unfold at a leisurely mockumentary pace, you start to wish you were back inside the film they’re making, where the people look as if they are having far more fun.

Owen Richardson
Owen Richardson is a Melbourne-based critic.

Cover: July 2006

July 2006

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