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November 22, 2007

DVD Journal: "Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Michael Winterbottom's take on the legendary 18th century Laurence Sterne novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy" is nothing if not playful and spirited, and complicated in a fun way. Sadly, it's also not very compelling; it comes up short on the buccaneering exuberance and audacity you might expect from such a project. Some friends I was watching the DVD with had a perfectly fine time, then turned it off midway through and never gave the film a second thought.

If I went back the following night and finished watching it without them, it's probably because the film is like catnip for filmbuffs. Thoroughgoingly silly and prankish, the film is both a film of "Tristram Shandy" and a film about a cast and crew making a film of "Tristram Shandy" -- it's "Day for Night" as remade by a cheery and loose version of Jean-Luc Godard, in other words. Where the novel starts with Tristram's birth and then nearly fails to work its way back up to that moment, the Winterbottom film starts with Tristram's birth and works its way backwards, right into the story of the people making the film in front of you. "Birth" and "creation" are major themes (and major jokes) in the film.

Two examples of the film's humor, both of which you should imagine being tossed-off in the most casual of ways. In one, Steve Coogan (playing a character named "Steve Coogan," but also in costume as Tristram Shandy) is interviewed by a journalist, who is played by the real-life model for the character the real Steve Coogan played in Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People." In the other example, Coogan's "Coogan" character is hugged and kissed by a pretentious young female film buff who is overcome by lust because Coogan recognized the name of the German filmmaker Fassbinder. Coogan declines her advance with a line beginning like this, "You're incredibly attractive, and your knowledge of the German cinema is second to none, but ..." If moments like that give you a giggle, well, don't expect the film to deliver much that's better, but you might find the DVD worth a rent.

The hyper-talented Michael Winterbottom is by far my favorite of the neo-'70s filmmakers who are around these days. I like his work sooooo much better than P.T. Anderson's, for instance. And he certainly keeps this film on the move, cheerily semi-parodic, beautiful to look at, and breezily postmodern. Postmodernism becomes a meta-joke in its own right, in fact: "Tristram Shandy" the novel is often celebrated as the first postmodern novel, though historically it was of course premodernist. Which means that this film is a postmodern game that's being played with a postmodern/premodern novel. "Tristram Shandy"the film throws off more involuted, spiraling jokes-about-jokes in a minute than Spike Jonze and Charlie Kauffman come up with in 90.

But the film also falls into the trap of much postmodernism. Cut free from tradition on the one hand and from stringent modernist requirements on the other, it galumphs around, self-bemusedly chortling at its own inside jokes. Nothing seems to matter. You're either amused or you aren't.

A small confession: Despite the novel's reputation, and despite my own fondness for 18th century novels and for certain kinds of lyrical meta-style playfulness -- I do love me a good Machado de Assis novel -- I have never made it all the way through the novel "Tristram Shandy." I didn't have any trouble following the book, and I could keep up with the classroom raptures about its brilliance. I didn't crap out on the book because I didn't "get" it, in other words. I just thought the book's joke wore thin awfully fast. What can I say? I found "Tristram Shandy" tedious.

You'd think the DVD extras on a movie like this would be a cornucopia of hall-of-mirrors gamesmanship, but they're in fact somewhat limited.

Semi-related: I wrote about Michael Winterbottom's daring "9 Songs" here and here; about P.T. Anderson's infuriating "Punch Drunk Love" here; about Jean-Luc Godard's morose yet beautiful "In Praise of Love" here; and about the glories of 18th century coffeehouse culture here. For my money, Winterbottom's sensational "24 Hour Party People" is the best film ever made about the punk years. You can buy a copy of it for $8.49 here.



posted by Michael at November 22, 2007


The film is very amusing in parts, but eventually just seems to disappear up its own orifice. I certainly left the theater scratching my head thinking, "How could anyone have gone through all the work necessary to make a feature film and been content with putting out something so cobwebby-light?"

"Tristam Shandy" made Caddyshack seem like a Major Statement.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 23, 2007 2:33 AM

the only winterbottom film i've seen that i liked was "the claim" with wes bently, sarah polley, milla jovovich and nastassja kinski. but then i was drunk and in a weird mood at the time. should probably revisit it to see if i still feel the same. i'm mildly curious about "a mighty heart".
i hated "24 hour party people" though. for one thing i generally find steve coogan's screen presence grating to my nerves and i thought the real guy he was playing to not be interesting enough to bother making a movie about. i particularly hated that scene where they showed joy division's ian curtis' suicide. it was like if you ever read what he was doing at the time he decided to hang himself, you get to see it materialized very bluntly and unimaginatively in that scene. i also though all the scene that were supposed to more tender or meaning to fall flat just cause the rest of the film and the main character were so shallow. just nothing about that film worked for me. but i may see tristam shady at some point, i might feel differently.

Posted by: t. j. on November 23, 2007 9:48 AM

btw, michael, reading here that coogan plays himself i was reminded of albert brooks' work for some reason. do you like brooke's films?

completely unrelated, did you ever see alan rudolph's "trouble in mind"? rudolph had a nice run in the 80s but his works is so pretencious and overly romantic in a weird way that i almost don't want to like it. his work doesn't really interest me after he stopped working with keith carradine and genevieve bujold for some reason. he's also definately not in the same league as his mentor altman to say the least. but "trouble in mind" kinda stands out. everything that's annoying in other rudolph films works in that one. kris kristofferson and divine really stand out in that one too. one of the better neo-noir films i've seen cause it's not trying to be just like the old ones.

also i understand you're a big blier fan, i just found out "how much do you love me?'' is coming out on dvd in the u.s. which is pretty cool. i just saw "my best friend's girl" on an old tape the other day which is probably my least favorite blier film i've seen thus far but i still really enjoyed it.

Posted by: t. j. on November 23, 2007 10:13 AM

I don't think the film comes up short at all. It does what the book does -- as much a film about film as a book about books. It does not mind falling apart and holding up mirrors. We don't want Tristram's story just retold in film After all, Tristram's story isn't really what Sterne's novel is about. It digresses -- to say the least. And it's one of those meta-books, like Don Q and Moby Dick and The Recognitions. No other way to film it except for upside down, and inside out, and with the story of Tristram being almost, well, besides the point.

Posted by: Jackie Bennett on November 23, 2007 7:54 PM

This is one of my favorite films of the last few years but I think it really helps when watching this movie to know who Steve Coogan is and what he is famous for in Great Britain.

He is really just starting to show up in the United States (he was great in a recent 'Curb Your Enthusiam') but over in GB he is a household name as is he most famous character, Alan Partrdige. Many of the jokes in the film are based on Partridge as well as Coogan's penchant for turning up in the tabloids. Add to that his interactions with Brydon, who is a TV star in GB as well and something of a Coogan protege, and I can see why some people would just think the film amusing but nothing more.

Posted by: grandcosmo on November 26, 2007 4:16 PM

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