Monday, August 14, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

I've never actually read Sterne's novel: it is another of those much talked about but never read novels, like Ulysses. Unlike most people who might talk about the novel, I did make a start and got well through it, but I was reading it in the context of a single semester course, where there were about a dozen possible novels to read and the time to do this one justice was simply not available. In light of this movie, I will definitely be making a solid effort to read The Life and Opinions of Trstram Shandy, Gentleman. In fact, I have just bid on a copy on trademe, so I won't even have the excuse of not being able to find it.

I do know a little about the novel: that is only peripherally about its titular character and not really about his opinons at all, as the time line of the novel ceases shortly after his birth. More importantly, I know that Sterne had a lot of fun with form, creating one of the earliest metafictions, in which various things bleed into and subvert the narrative. The orthodoxies of the realist novel are thrown out the window.
It is said within the movie to be a post modern classic before there was any modernism to be post about. As Stephen Fry, doing a cameo as one "Patrick Curator" tells us, the novel is not at all filmable. Winterbottom doesn't even try, not really. Sure, he gets off to a good start: we have Steve Coogan as Tristram parading about, telling us just why this is a "cock and bull" story, giving an account of his birth. Some of the fun and games of the novel start early: Tristram tells us that since he looks like his father, he may as well play him in the birth scenes. He then meets himself, aged about 8, after the kid has had an unfortunate incident with a window. Of this actor, Tristram tells us
That is a child actor, pretending to be me. I'll be able to play myself later. I think I could probably get away with being eighteen, nineteen. Until then, I'll be played by a series of child actors. This was the best of a bad bunch.
Progression of the storyline is frequently
interrupted by Tristram telling us he's getting ahead of himself and going back to an early part of the story. Things we do see here are how the father is more concerned with things like his name (he wanted to inflict Trismegistus on him) and the kind of knowledge the kid should have than Tristram himself.

One comment I've read is that in the novel, we get to know the narrator very well: the same is true of the movie. Being a movie, of course, you don't have narrators so much as actors - about 20 - 30 minutes into the movie, we're in Tristram's mother's bedroom, have been within the possible confines of a movie about Tristram all along. This frame is now broken, however: the camera shows us the sound man packing up after a successful shot. From this point on, the focus shifts out of the movie into the making of the movie, and most particularly onto Steve Coogan. Insofar as we see any more of the Trstram Shandy movie, it is from this external perspective - we don't see it as product so much as a production. And it truly would have been an awful film! The decision has been made to make a battle scene the major focus of the movie - the bits of it we get to see are obviously lame, poorly enacted, under-staffed ("look - tens of people") and badly costumed "I think I saw a Roman Centurion"). Of course, we get to see the crew discuss all of these problems.

It soon becomes clear that Steve Coogan, at least in his character of the actor playing Tristram, has not read the novel, and can't read the novel: there's one scene towards the end where he promises to, but is soon asleep. There's no index! How can you have a book this big without an index? Instead, his own story leaks in, so that we're wondering if the story is about Tristram, Coogan or, indeed, Rob Brydon (who is playing his Uncle Toby, who had a major role in the novel) - the movie opens with the two of them in the dressing room arguing about who is more important to the movie. Toby, of course, has a hundred page love scene with the Widow Wadman - this creates a problem for Rob Brydon, as Coogan has managed to sign Gillian Anderson on to play the good widow at the last minute, as a way of getting round the battle scene: Brydon has the hots for Anderson, so doesn't think he can play someone engaging in an affair with her character.

There is lots of other similar fun and games - including Coogan playing himself in his family role with his wife and kid, but having Kelly McDonald play his wife, Jennie; having Coogan develop the hots for another Jennie (the one person on set who seems to have any sort of serious knowledge about the book or, indeed, film; lots of fun with Coogan in his former role of Andy Partridge (is Coogan really just the pompous idiot that Partridge was?); and a real reporter who has come over from the USA to interview Coogan but gets put into the film as a reporter who has come over from the USA to interview Coogan. One mind-frizzling scene involves a plastic womb being made for Coogan, in which he is to hang upside down. It is never, as far as we know, actually used in the film. Instead, Coogan then has a dream in which he is trapped in it, but in miniature, not much bigger than a real womb, hanging upside down and yelling for help in the garden, while Toby and the Widow Wadman do their scene.

All of this is fine, in the sense that I think most people can accept and follow these sorts of games these days, but the end of the movie still has me puzzled. There is no spoiler involved in saying the movie ends with us seeing the crew watching the closing credits of the Tristram Shandy movie: I just wonder what movie they were in fact watching, as we've just seen them not make it. Cute. I think Steren would have approved.

Over on IMDB land, it has received a mixed bag of commentary: according to one denizen, anyone who suggests that enjoyment of the movie might be enhanced by some knowledge of the book is a "pretentious moron who obviously thinks too highly of themselves - even though with no IQ are entitled to enjoy a moving picture." In parlance which is common round these parts, "Yeah right". Actually, reading the IMDB comments is as much fun as the movie itself was.

2 Comments:

Blogger Dorothy W. said...

I loved the movie, and I love the book too -- I think it's a much easier read than Ulysses. There's something about Sterne's sense of humor and his openness to writing about all kinds of things, including embarrassing things, that I like. And I like that it was written before the realist novel got really well established, so there's a sense of freedom -- the novel can do anything!

1:56 PM  
Blogger litlove said...

I've never read the book (or seen this film) but I think both Rob Bryden and Steve Coogan are very talented actors, and you make it sound like a lot of (postmodern) fun. I'll bet those other reviews are a blast...

5:28 AM  

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