M a r c h   2 0 0 6

Steve Coogan as Walter Shandy (left), Rob Brydon as Uncle Toby.
Critical i

What's it all about, Alfie Barr?
'Tristram Shandy'
by Jeff Jahn

he movie "Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story" is brought to us with the sly distinction of being based on the classic story and/or extended digression by Laurence Sterne.

Sterne's work is a satire of pure gentlemanly dalliance, the sort of thing that proclaims: This was written because the upper crust used to have this much time on their hands. Unfortunately, Playstation, lawyers, the Internet, Art Forum magazine and Diesel stores have filled the void this sort of court life left. In fact, the middle class is now invited. Yes, Sterne wrote existentialist farces about 18th century aristocracy, probably because he was clergy.

The movie is sly because "Tristram Shandy" is supposed to be unfilmable due to its nonlinear and generally complicated structure ... it's as unreadable as this review on purpose. It's also sly because the book is now more of an excuse to do a movie about doing a movie based on the "unfilmable" book. In short, it is all about reputations, but without all the vicars' benedictions one gets in Merchant and Ivory films.

The results are amusing, as Sterne's inside jokes about class and male dominance are given parallels in the film world's pecking order. The resulting parallels make the film a sort of study in pathetic male posturing from both the 18th and 21st centuries.

I suppose the details might be important here; that's kinda expected in a review. Steve Coogan ("The Office," "24 Hour Party People") plays Tristram Shandy, Shandy's father Walter and himself, of course, but is clearly annoyed that he can't play himself as a baby and as a boy. He does get to play himself as a fetus in his mother's womb, though, a scene which provides plenty of laughs.

Coogan's constant jockeying for alpha-actor dominance with Rob Brydon as Tristram's Uncle Toby is also amusing, misguided and totally relevant, as Tristram's uncle arguably dominates the actual book. Furthermore, Brydon as a supporting actor does steal most of the scenes he has, both in the roles of Toby and Brydon.

Coogan as Coogan playing Walter Shandy (left), Brydon as Brydon playing Uncle Toby.

A question keeps coming up in the film: Is Coogan leading man material?

Well, in "24 Hour Party People" he was and in "The Office" he did make a fine ass of himself (the American version of the TV show lacks his impeccable timing). The addition of Gillian Anderson completely upstages both Coogan and Brydon, as the former "X-Files" star does some wonderful things with subtle eye movement in her closeups as Widow Wadman.

The film is not laugh-out-loud so much as it produces laughs from discomfort. If you have a sadistic sense of humor this is a film for you.

Now here's the interesting part: How did they ever get to produce this very intelligent but meandering farce? Did Werner Herzog's recent film, "Incident at Loch Ness," with its constant shifting of "staged" behind-the-scenes moments and "in the film" moments make this viable?

Or was it that the nonlinear, arch odd art films of Matthew Barney made it necessary to resurrect an earlier nonlinear precedent? Coogans' film-geek runner, Jennie, might have asked the question but didn't.

The truth is that people have called "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-67)" the first postmodern novel, conveniently before modernism came into existence so now that Postmodernism has fallen out of meaningful use and into the vernacular of local news anchormen, it was important to bring the intellectual farce to the big screen.

Modernism was a reaction of dread (I challenge anyone to find anything cheery about Manet's "Olympia" or "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon") and joy (Delaunay, Chagall) to rapid technological change. Postmodernism was just a repackaging of the dread and joy to keep it fresh because it's all just one big existential feedback loop (tell me how analytical cubism was utopian and linear, as is how many describe modernism).

Now, we need a new term for our challenging times and farce itself never goes out of vogue (unless you have a dictator like Stalin, Hitler, Saddam, etc.). Even the ancient Greeks had Aristophanes. Just like the Greek farce-meister himself, we are creating farces about our farces. Some years ago "meta" came into popular use but that's nothing new, either.

"Tristram Shandy" the movie is like the book that spawned it – a litmus test posing as entertainment for anyone with the patience and mental acuity to stomach it. I recommend it.

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don't miss his recent columns, be sure to see his April 2002 essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism., and don't miss the art-blog, PORT.

site design / management / host: ae
© 2001-2006 nwdrizzle.com / all rights reserved.