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Film: Tristram Shandy

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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom (released on July 11, 2006)
Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) first came to my attention in a seminar on Enlightenment literature, where we were reading Denis Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste. Tristram Shandy is a sprawling, nutty book that plays with narrative in ways owing much to Cervantes' Don Quixote. True, Samuel Johnson may have disparaged Tristram Shandy as a flash in the pan, but the book has been favored reading of Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Woolf, and John Updike (who has called the book a "gabby proto-modernist masterpiece of self-inquisition, a merry challenge to the conventions of the realistic novel"). It is fascinating and obscure in equal parts. Anyone who would try to make it into a movie must be crazy.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story adds another layer of complexity, by making a book about nothing into a movie about making a movie about a book about nothing. It may well be the oddest movie made in 2006, and not surprisingly it has been overlooked at award time. This is due at least partially to the time of the film's U.S. release, which was last January, meaning that it is long forgotten. Only one critic, to my knowledge, put this film on his Top 10 list for 2006: once again, Desson Thomson at the Washington Post proves himself the movie critic closest to my own tastes. We usually like the same movies, and when he hates something, he writes hilariously venomous take-downs (e.g., "Just a few more tweaks and Crossover could have been something special -- a truly terrible movie to savor for the ages. But nooo, this street ball movie has to settle for middle-of-the-road badness"). [NB: Tristram Shandy was in Reel Fanatic's Top 11 of 2006, too.]

Other Reviews:

A. O. Scott | David Denby | Village Voice | Slate | Variety | Washington Post | Rotten Tomatoes

It would be impossible to make a film that could contain even a small portion of what is in Tristram Shandy's nine volumes. By following a film crew trying to do just that, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story can pick and choose: some parts of the story are mentioned only in passing, as plot lines that are being considered or that have already been cut. Most of the script is faithful to the book, although some things have been conflated or simplified. This is reportedly the final collaboration between screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (writing under the pseudonym Martin Hardy) and director Michael Winterbottom, and arguably the best parts of the movie are outside of the film within a film. With the help of fine improvisation from the actors (lead actor Steve Coogan reportedly signed on to the film without even seeing a complete script -- there was none), we see how the movie is continually being shaped by the egos and personal battles of the creative team.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom
This includes not only Steve Coogan (who plays Tristram Shandy and his father, Walter Shandy) and Rob Brydon (Uncle Toby) -- who have extensive scenes as caricatures of themselves, shooting the shit about their teeth, their billing, their dueling impersonations of Al Pacino -- and the other actors. Coogan's dressing room rehearsal of a scene, ultimately cut before shooting, in which a hot chestnut falls down his pants, is a sly vivisection of actors' methods. Only when an assistant actually drops a hot chestnut down Coogan's pants does he get the tone quite right. Because of the film within a film conceit, the irony is that we know all of these "takes," false and real, are acted, Coogan playing "Coogan." They are also hysterically funny.

Just as entertaining, the director, screenwriter, and producer (another longtime collaborator, Andrew Eaton) have appearances, played by Jeremy Northam (Mark), Ian Hart (Joe), and James Fleet (Simon), respectively. From what I know of Winterbottom, Boyce, and Eaton, these scenes are an examination of their own working relationships, down to personal details like Boyce's seven children (yes, true).

On one level, Sterne's novel is about how not to write a novel -- the narrator takes us through a couple volumes worth of digressions before finally getting around to describing how he was born. In a parallel way, the movie dissects the foibles of the movie industry, as a vast committee of competing egos is massaged and compromised with. The person who seems to know the Laurence Sterne novel the best and has the most profound understanding of the history of film -- Coogan's personal assistant, Jennie (Naomie Harris) -- has the least influence on how the film gets made. It is not by chance that Coogan's girlfriend is also named Jenny (Kelly Macdonald): Sterne's narrator addresses one "dear, dear Jenny" as if she is is a lover or confidante, someone who knows his story. She has not made the cut into the film within the film, but her dual presence (Jennie/Jenny) dominates the shoot.

It is no use pretending that a film like Tristram Shandy could or even should be nominated for an Academy Award. It is too esoteric and odd to please widely enough for that to be appropriate. According to the figures I have read, the movie has only just managed to make back enough money to cover its estimated $3 million budget. Having watched it several times, I'm with Desson Thomson: this film is odd but among the best of 2006.

A kind message from the curator of Shandy Hall reminds me that I need to visit Sterne's home in the village of Coxwold, in north Yorkshire.


Reel Fanatic said...

Though I'm not a paid critic, I did include this one in my top 10 (well, actually top 11 because I just couldn't make up my mind ... It's just so witty, but you're right that it's far too odd to ever reach a broad audience

Charles T. Downey said...

A regrettable oversight. I have only recently added Reel Fanatic to my RSS reader subscription list. Thanks!