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How do you film an unfilmable book? Well, you can either make it up as
you go along, as David Cronenberg did with Naked Lunch, or you take
this approach and make a film about a film crew making a film of an
unfilmable book. The tricky tome in question here is The Life and
Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen - a bawdy work of wit and
wonderment penned in 1760 by clergyman Laurence Sterne.
Steve Coogan plays Tristram - even though he's not born by the end of the book - as well as Tristram's father Walter... and himself. Or rather, a semi-fictional version of himself. Rob Brydon also stars as himself and Walter's brother - Tristram's Uncle Toby. There are lots of other familiar British TV actors either playing themselves playing other characters or simply playing characters who interact with the stars of the film-within-the-film (for example, Ian Hart plays the screenwriter but doesn't play Ian Hart). And Gillian Anderson makes an appearance. Confused? Don't worry, you won't be.
As the writer and director strive to retain the spirit of Shandy compromises have to be made to allow for star egos, historical accuracy (Mark Williams is excellent as a pain-in-the-arse military consultant), and a miniscule budget. In one cracking scene, the crew watch the 'rushes' of the underwhelming battle scene ("Look at that! There are, literally, tens of people..."), leaving the director in despair and the costume designer in tears.
The seemingly complicated set-up actually makes a lot of sense, with Coogan sending up the naughty-boy persona created for him by the British press and Brydon sending up Coogan, while the film itself sends up the movie-making process. Viewers will be frequently amused but never bewildered as Michael Winterbottom pulls it all together with panache.
Anyone unfamiliar with the novel won't learn much, but it matters not. Bawdy and barmy, A Cock And Bull Story embodies Sterne's work perfectly. Coogan gamely shows his vulnerable side (or maybe that's just good acting?) and shows terrific rapport with Brydon, who steals the show with marvellously mundane banter and spot-on impersonations of Coogan-as-Alan Partridge and Roger Moore. Give that man his own movie.
A film so post-post-postmodern that Steve Coogan steps out of the
screen and hits on your girlfriend in the theater lobby -- I won't say
if this is true or not -- Tristram Shandy is a meticulously controlled
work that, despite the film-within-a-film conceit, is very faithful to
its impenetrable source. Just like Sterne's book, the engine of
Winterbottom's film is bittersweet melancholy, but the engine noise,
drowning out what some might consider to be a nihilistic message, is
bawdy, music-hall, veddy veddy English humor.
For Americans to get anything out of this movie, you will need to understand a bit about both Tristram Shandy -- at least enough to know that Coogan is playing Shandy's FATHER and that Shandy himself is only the narrator -- and about Steve Coogan's mythology. For those who are too lazy, all you need to know is that Coogan doesn't have a reputation for being led around by his brain. I have briefly met him in person and found the experience uncanny. He is so fully what he is that he seems to have a force-field around him that separates him from the more amorphous mass of humanity. In the future, when you say the word "Coogan," it will instantly paint a picture of a certain type of male. A type that women are drawn to irresistibly, because he is both a child in need of mothering, a grown Linus Van Pelt perpetually clutching a security blanket, and aggressively sexual and dirty. He's the bad boy and the baby all rolled into one. And yet, far from being a jerk or a cad, he is intensely likable.
All of which goes to show that rarely has any actor been more perfect for a role than Coogan is here. Posing this hapless man-child next to a bull with a huge bazoing pretty much says it all. You see, Sterne is not a fan of the procreative arts ( and judging by his last few movies, neither is Winterbottom; "Everyone's kid is so special," says Samantha Morton in Code 46, "Makes you wonder where all the ordinary adults come from." ) The title character of Tristram Shandy remains famously unborn, and the only characters that Sterne truly loves, and who truly love each other, are a eunuch and a widow, all of which goes to show that Sterne considers death to be a blessing and human existence to be largely unnecessary, nothing but the byproduct of mindless sexual flare-ups that would be quickly forgotten except for the babies they produce, who in turn have more sexual flare-ups, and so on. In the film these flare-ups come courtesy of Steve Coogan, playing both himself as a father -- and constantly attempting to cheat on his wife, as he is famous for doing in real life; you may even recall the false alarm that he'd knocked up Courtney Love! -- and also the reluctant Shandy's paterfamilias. Between these two Johnny Appleseeds, both of whom look like Steve Coogan, entire planetary systems could be populated and repopulated.
The film is short, but dense -- every scene has so many dimensions that the end result fans out like a peacock's tail. There are infinite details to sift through in its 90 minute running time, and there is a very beautifully done telescoping of time periods to match Tristram Shandy's 18th-century milieu with that of Steve Coogan's and our own modern day. When Coogan haggles over a script in the lobby of a trendily underlit London hotel, you feel somehow transported back to Shandy's father's palatial home and its elegant candlelight. The central scene of the film comes when Coogan, escaping from a costume party where the 21st century briefly crashes into the 18th, tells his wife: "I just had a nightmare." That nightmare is called our world, reality, human as opposed to divine love, the world controlled by time yet where nothing really changes except the clothes and the hairstyles, and that, despite its obvious wretchedness and pain, people are too afraid to give up; yes, the very same "cock and bull story" of the title. It is not every comedian who has something to say about the human comedy. But Coogan certainly does, under Michael Winterbottom's expert and disillusioned hand.
Just saw this at the New York Film Festival, where it was met with the
wild enthusiasm and raucous laughter it so fully deserves.
I intentionally avoided reading any reviews before I went, as I was so curious to see how Winterbottom (whose "24-Hour Party People" I had loved) would approach this bear of a book.
The film begins with the two stars getting made-up and chatting about the size of their roles and the color of their teeth (the actors, who appeared with Winterbottom in the post-screening Q&A at the festival, assured the audience that this opening scene, as well as their conversation over the end credits, was completely improvised). The scene shifts to Tristram Shandy beginning the narration of his life with an anecdote about Groucho Marx--and proceeds to go wild from there.
The cast is made up of some of the finest actors in British television--apart from the two leads, Dylan Moran of "Black Books" and David Walliams of "Little Britain" appear, as well as Stephen Fry, Shirley Henderson, and a host of others, including a splendid turn by Keeley Hawes in a role that consists of little more than labor pains and screaming--and one American: Gillian Anderson in a couple of wonderful scenes, one as herself and the other as the Widow Wadman.
As one of the actors observes in the film, Laurence Sterne had written "a post-modern novel before modernism had even been invented," and Winterbottom honors that admirably.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Has anyone ever truly read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,
Gentleman? Does anyone know what the hell it's supposed to be about?
For that matter, does this review have a spoiler? Does it make sense
that a scene depicting realism, for that matter, involve a man lodged
upside-down in a makeshift womb? I don't know. I've tried to get past
the first page of the book but I find that I go into brain-freeze, my
thumb seeks solace in my mouth, and I scrunch into a fetal position not
unlike Steve Coogan in the movie. I've come to the conclusion that when
a work is so far ahead in the future to be rendered the apex of
post-modernism, it's probably best to let it alone and have people
think you're an intellectual because there it stands in plain view, a
book with a handsome cover, in your bookshelf.
An unfilmable novel. Hell, an unreadable at that! But here it is, the first critical success of 2006: A COCK AND BULL STORY is the film to crack the shell and open the merry chaos that is Lawrence Sterne's crazy universe. Knowing that this novel is no walk in the park for anyone, Michael Winterbottom comes up with a mockumentary that details the creation of the movie we're watching which itself is about the adaptation of the book. This loop sets the stage for a flurry of events which transpire at a crazy pace parallel to the "events" of the book. Star and co-star clash on who's the bigger star, Tristram's own birth needs more and more takes, and then there's the "minor" issue that Widow Wadman, a major player of the novel, is nowhere to be seen in the screenplay and in walks Gillian Anderson who is cast as the Widow, who's scenes wind up in the cutting-room floor anyway.
Parallel to these events are others that mirror the ones in Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. Steve Coogan the actor in the movie is married to wife Jenny who has arrived to be with him during this filming with her infant son (who will play a part in the movie). Their relationship is not as strained as Guido and Luisa Anselmi but they are seen as on the cusp of being estranged. Carla's equivalent is her polar opposite, a film buff who's also part of the production crew, also named Jennie, who like Carla talks on and on about intricate, almost elaborate subtext of symbolisms that Steve succumbs to in one flirtatious scene when she comes on to him. He, like Guido, returns to his wife though, and despite the odds the movie becomes reality -- a very skewered one at best and one that leaves the audience saying, "Huh?" That is the main irony and in borrowing the original music score composed by Nino Rota it grounds A COCK AND BULL STORY in 8 1/2's sense of the absurd that continue even after the credits roll.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Went to see the premiere in North Yorkshire and it was absolutely
brilliant!!!Much better and much funnier than I ever expected as I had
anticipated quite a complex 'drama' type storyline based on my feeble
attempts to read the book. It was fantastic though and I will
definitely be getting the DVD. The DVD and it's extras were mentioned a
lot, but nothing was said about it being released at the cinema...so I
don't know if that's still happening? I was extremely surprised by the
whole thing actually, as I have tried several times to read the book
and I just don't understand it...so was expecting to not understand the
film either, but it was great...it did jump around a bit, but he told
you when he was getting ahead of himself so you always knew where you
were and it was easy to follow.
The blank page was discussed when they were talking about how to make the film longer...and they showed a blank screen for a few moments before deciding that the audience wouldn't find it that interesting...it was then that they decided that they would include the Widow Wadman scenes and talked about who should play her.
Rob Brydon then had quite a funny scene with Steve Coogan saying that he couldn't possibly do the love scenes with Gillian Anderson as he has posters of her and owns the entire XF collection and she is his absolute complete ideal woman and how he has sexual feelings for her which I found rather funny.
So yeah, it was incredibly funny! I have never laughed that much at a film in my entire life. The funniest parts were between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as themselves, and as Michael Winterbottom told us in the Q+A afterwards, they were pretty much ad-libbed. Also liked the scene in the barn where they lowered Steve Coogan upside down into massive fake womb...and then proceeded to have an argument with him about how realistic it was! :-)
In trying to film a movie based on the novel Tristam Shandy, it is
explained that this book is utterly unfilmable. modestly rather, they
show the actual process of trying to make this movie while discussing
the parts of the book that displayed meaning so they can decide what
scenes will be added/cut in the movie. Cleverly enough, this entire
process serves as a metaphor for the actual book and the digressive
nature of it. Maybe not the most interesting topic to watch, but it is
done well enough for you to be curious as to how everything is
resolved. If you don't get the metaphor, you will not like the movie.
If you do, you might be as delighted as ever that something quite
unique has just been viewed.
didn't i just sound ridiculous?
One of the funniest and strangest films about the film-making process, this is less an adaptation of the novel, more a focused and hilarious deconstruction on Winterbottom's working methods. Coogan and Brydon are fantastic. The scene with Coogan and a hot chestnut down his trousers is worth the price of admission alone! Although the film may not be to everyone's taste - it darts around and has little respect for narrative logic or continuity (as does the book), it is a freeform little gem that really does cement Winterbottom's reputation as the most exciting British director out there. Any person who can make In This World, Code 46, 9 Songs and then this in a row is worthy of respect.
Tristram Shandy, the complex novel, by Laurence Sterne, comes to the
screen thanks to the adaptation and direction of Micahel Winterbottom,
a man that likes to take risks. The idea of mixing the goings on of a
film being made based on the novel, and the people behind the project
presents some original ideas about what goes on behind the scenes.
This film within a film, showcases the talents of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two funny English comedians that haven't been seen much on this side of the Atlantic, but who are quite well known in the U.K.
The Sterne novel is just a pretext for making sense of the book, which presents tremendous challenge to the movie makers. On the one level we see the story of the birth of the hero of the novel, and on the other, we watch a somewhat conceited actor going through the process of the filming as he and the company socialize in a posh hotel.
The basic premise of the film presents a problem with American audiences drawn to the film by the good notices it received from the local critics. Judging the reaction of the audience the other day at the Angelika, one wonders if the film was understood as almost no laughter could be heard in response to some of the clever and funny things happening on the screen. In fact, it seems baffling to this viewer the response of what appeared to be an audience of mostly cool NYU students.
What Mr. Winterbottom gets is excellent acting from most of this multi talented cast. Steve Coogan, with his deadpan delivery, and Rob Brydon, his sidekick, come out as the winners. Their timing is impeccable and their chemistry is real. Some of the other people in the cast include Shirley Henderson, Stephen Fry, Kelly MacDonald, Ian Hart, Jeremy Northam, Naomie Harris, Gillian Anderson and some other talented English actors, too many to mention all.
The excellent musical score by Michael Nyman enhances all what we are watching. Marcel Zyskind's cinematography gives the right look to the film. Ultimately, all credit for making the film the fun it is goes to Michael Winterbottom.
Smart, funny, original. I just saw this at the Toronto Film Festival
tonight, and was really impressed. Great and hilarious performances,
especially by Steve Coogan, who is SO funny. But Rob Brydon is almost
as great, and the two of them have a great rapport.
The film really captures the anarchistic spirit of the book. Hard to imagine that anyone could come up with an idea to bring this unusual book to the screen, and Michael Winterbottom hasn't been the most consistent of directors lately (or ever, really) but this is a winner. The story is told in several layers: a film is being made of the novel "Tristram Shandy", starring Steve Coogan as both Tristram and his father Walter Shandy, but the behind the scenes drama of the making of the film is an important component. And lots of parallels with the various players real lives (Steve Coogan and lap dancers, etc.) Incredibly clever. Definitely check it out.
Michael Winterbottom's movie is an Altmanesque production depicting an
English crew shooting Laurence's Sterne's eccentric eighteenth-century
literary classic. It begins wittily and appropriately with Steve Coogan
exchanging mocking banter with costar Rob Bryden, and then Coogan, with
cosmetically enlarged and crooked nose and proper costume, becomes
Shandy introducing himself. The essentials of the book are sketched in
-- first of all, Tristram's meandering account of his childhood and
birth (not in any logical order -- nor should they be -- and
intersperced with Coogan's caustic comments on the child actors playing
him at earlier stages -- which perfectly fits in with Sterne's tendency
to interrupt himself on the slightest pretext); then, Uncle Toby (Rob
Briden) and his obsession with his exploits at the Battle of Naumur,
which include an injury whose location he studiously avoids
explicating. The mishaps surrounding Tristram's birth start with his
name and move on to the forceps -- then a new device -- whose clumsy
use by Dr. Slop cause the altered nose. A falling window caused even
more crucial damage.
The moment of birth is dwelt upon -- then the camera cuts back to the crew and the focus shifts to the Coogan-Bryden rivalry again, Steve's girlfriend and their baby, his own problems in bed, his flirtation with a pale-coffee-colored lady crew member who's a great film buff. Coogan wants his shoes made with higher heels so he's taller than Bryden. The filmmakers hold endless confabs over how to do a battle scene and whether to bring in the romance with Widow Wadham (to be played by Gillian Anderson, who agrees from Los Angeles with comic alacrity). Anderson's presence brings in more money for the battle, and then both the battle and the romance are left out of the final cut. Much hilarity accompanies these details, though the main focus is on Coogan's stardom and inability to have a minute to himself.
Unfortunately once Winterbottom pulls away from the birth scene, the Sterne novel, which pretty much ranks with Fielding's "Tom Jones" for brilliance and humor, somewhat falls by the wayside never to be recovered till just before the end, when it seems tacked back in as a hasty afterthought. And hasty is one thing Sterne never is: impulsive and quirky, but never, never, never -- oh, my Heavens No! -- not rushed. At novel's end, his main character, after all, has still not been born.
Maybe it means something that only one member of the cast is reported to have ever actually read "Tristram Shandy" through to the end. Neither Coogan nor Bryden seems particularly eighteenth-century in their role, and Bryden's isn't a particularly inspired recreation of Uncle Toby. Nobody is amiably eccentric to the right degree.
Winterbottom has made an intermittently quite funny movie that never loses its pace, but he has recreated Robert Altman rather than Laurence Sterne, and when you realize this, if you care at all about the novel, the whole enterprise, despite its frantic energy, becomes, for all its wit and good humor, a little bit of a drag. This is an enormously clever film, but what seems brilliant on paper doesn't always play for keeps.
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