i was told it was a comedy, not a pantomime

I buy movies on DVD somewhat rarely — in large part because there are very few movies I think I’ll watch more than once, fewer still that I’ll watch more than two or three times. But almost from the moment I walked out of the Grand Cinema last year I’ve been looking forward to, fantasizing about, getting Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story on DVD and watching it again.

It is, of course, based on the Laurence Sterne novel, but just as the novel is a series of endless digressions, some of them into the problem of writing one’s own tale, so, too, the film is constantly leaping away from its telling of Tristram Shandy’s tale to explore the lives of filmmakers making a film of the novel.

This all sounds rather coy, and therefore entirely in keeping with the assessment of lead actor Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan) that the novel “was post-modern before there was any modern to be post of.” But in fact, Steve Coogan is a bit of a pompous and insecure twit who can’t admit that he hasn’t read the book, and we understand that his description, while it makes a great pull quote, is superficial and probably culled from other people’s discussions, overheard in passing and poorly understood. Far truer to the spirit of the film is the commentary by Shandy scholar Patrick (Stephen Fry, who as Pastor Yorick also gets the titular line): “Tristram himself is trying to tell his life story, but it escapes him, because life is too full, too rich, to be captured by art.”

Briefly, then, the two stories. In the film-within-a-film, Tristram Shandy is trying to tell the story of his life, but is constantly leaping about in time on various tangents trying to get in all the pertinent details, so that, by the end, he hasn’t gotten past the day of his birth. (In fact, of course, he’s given scenes from a period encompassing probably twenty or thirty years, not counting references to Groucho Marx and Pavlov’s dogs.) Meanwhile the story of the filmmakers is rather linear and straightforward — it follows actor Steve Coogan through a day and night in which he acts on camera, argues with and shows sullen affection for costar and rival Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon), tends to his girlfriend and infant son, who are visiting the set, almost has an affair with a brilliant young production assistant, attends endless story and production meetings, gives an interview, tries to forestall career-damaging rumors, and even tries to read the book.

Handled badly, this second story could be nothing but a series of zaps designed to take vapid actors down a peg, the kind of thing that Christopher Guest has been doing for years and that it would be nearly impossible to make yield new fruit. And, indeed, on my first viewing, I enjoyed the adapted parts of the film more, and wondered irritably whether writer Frank Cottrell Boyce and director Michael Winterbottom wouldn’t have been better off playing it straight and simply adapting the whole book, rather than introducing this other, and seemingly more banal, behind-the-lens comedy.

If Sterne’s novel is a somewhat unreadable one, whose dialogue, even, is a constant series of interruptions and backtrackings, it lends itself surprisingly well to today’s style of comic performance, which, following “realistic” and partly improvised models like The Larry Sanders Show, tends to be most at home in the gaps where people are unable to express themselves directly. When Uncle Toby (Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon)) tries and fails to mention a woman’s genitals and instead resorts to a bizarre squatting charade to make his point, we feel Winterbottom and the actors finding the perfect fusing point of 18th century satire and modern observational humor.

But on a second viewing, I find it’s difficult to separate the pleasures of the adaptation from the frame story which comments on it and gives it needed context. It is, after all, entirely possible to make a very funny and successful adaptation of Sterne’s novel which nonetheless fails to entirely connect us with this notion of the richness of life. It’s entirely possible to make a film which, while entertaining, comes across as pantomiming “postmodern” purely for the sake of seeming clever.

So Winterbottom has somewhat bravely chosen to ground his adaptation in another story, a deliberately small story. Some critics have claimed that Winterbottom is merely drafting Fellini, but despite the good-humored appropriation of Nino Rota’s infectious musical theme, this film is the very opposite of a grandiose opera of failure like 81/2. Catastrophe does not hang over our characters; we are fairly sure they will all go on to make other movies. The stakes here are not the sanity and career of a godlike director of art films; they are the everyday concerns of comedians. Certainly the possibility of artistic failure exists, and indeed the end of this film is a little braver than Fellini’s, which never really deals with audience reaction, that most absolute and crushing metric of success. But there is no outlandish sense of the importance of this success or failure. Things are, instead, valued at almost exactly the right level, and hence are always open to little comic jabs, free of clowns or rocket ships, but telling and often moving.

One of Winterbottom’s great strengths in this film is the ability to move back and forth between tones effortlessly and instantaneously. We see this in the several versions of Tristram’s birth, which are always interrupted by, or else led into by, the quiet, businesslike hubbub of a film set. As Adam Kempenaar points out on Filmspotting, you believe the birth scene, the grunts and screams of pain and the worried fussing of the doctor and the midwife, even having seen just a moment before that these are actors, that this is a fake tummy and a fake baby. That’s quite a moment and an incredible gamble for Winterbottom and his cast, but one which yields an extraordinary return for the audience: it brings us to two complementary and yet contradictory views of the film’s reality at the same time.

These shifts of tone and their subsequent melding of art and reality occur often in Tristram Shandy, not only in the breaks between the adapted narrative and the original one, but also in moments of real character interaction. The climax of the film, so understated you might not recognize it, occurs during a midnight free-for-all which may or may not be the filming of a battle scene. Steve Coogan and the production assistant (Naomie Harris) are wandering through crowds of crazed war re-enactors, discussing the progress of the film. In an obvious attempt to flirt with her, Coogan name-drops Fassbinder, her favorite, and then bluffs past his total ignorance of the filmmaker’s work (“Is that the one with all the sex in it?”) This is broad guys-are-dogs comedy, Seinfeld stuff, but without dropping a pin Winterbottom turns it around on us completely, as the PA breathlessly and beautifully describes her favorite Fassbinder film, making us love it, too, and making Coogan suddenly, very seriously in danger of loving her. The flirtation was harmless — maybe even sleeping with her would have been harmless — but now he sees her for who she really is. They kiss, but Coogan shakes it off, rejects her gently, and goes back to his sleeping girlfriend.

These kinds of reversals help keep Coogan from becoming a caricature, in turn keeping us from disengaging from him. He’s insecure and often woefully intellectually inadequate, but just as we’re beginning to believe he’s only a cartoon, the script will give him a facet we hadn’t seen before. In another of these great moments, someone enthuses that if Gillian Anderson came on board, it would be “a real movie, with a real star!” Coogan shrugs this off with obviously false modesty: “I don’t consider myself a star. I’m a craftsman. Like a medieval craftsman.”

“A medieval craftsman with a Porsche,” mutters the screenwriter.

And to his credit, Coogan gets the joke. He smiles genuinely and nods and takes another sip of his drink. “That’s right. I’m a medieval craftsman with a Porsche.”

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