Thursday, November 1, 2007

Controlled Joy

Anton Corbijn's first film, Control, had its penultimate evening last night at the Film Forum, and winding our way there through the all-hallowed masses in Greenwich Village, it seemed like a damned appropriate thing to do - notwithstanding the fact that it was actually a birthday event for the plumed blogger. Punk, drugs, suicide, convulsions - what could be more fitting than to be here, while the throngs of devils, clowns and less describably costumed souls meandered the streets and made Sixth Avenue virtually impassable?

It is understandable, though not exactly mandatory, that a noted portrait photographer would break into cinema with a black and white film. The colorlessness is also reminiscent of the two-tone punk aesthetic that Joy Division, I suppose, had something to do with, though I don't think of them as being either specifically two-tone or musically in the center of the punk rock sound. In retrospect they seem very much a part of that late-70's British underground sound, regardless of their predilection for a more spare way of filling the sound space than the gritty 3-chord noise of the Clash or Sex Pistols. But the B/W choice for the film seems to have more to do with the emphasis on spiritual penetration and personae (indeed it occasionally reminded me of the Bergman film Persona) than on punk or new wave clothing styles.

Was it effective? Very. In fact, my guess is that the film would not have been half as powerful in color. There are moments of extremely bare emotion, where every shadow (especially those under the eyes of Sam Riley's Ian Curtis character) counts towards the intimacy of the frame. In an odd way, the film's colorlessness also reminded me a bit of A Hard Day's Night, which has moments, at least, that also resemble a blank stare into the eyes of youths whose extraordinary creative energy only partly masks their troubled souls. Not that I think the soul of the young Paul McCartney was half as troubled as that of Ian Curtis, whose suicide at the age of 23 puts an expectedly somber ending on this bit of musical history. But you know, British band, coming up from the underground club scene, Liverpool accent sounds a lot like Manchester accent... whatever. In any case, Corbijn makes full use of his photographic skills here, setting up virtually every frame in a poetic and meaningful way, using still shots to great effect, and generally giving us a bit of an arthouse experience.

And he gets an extraordinary performance from his actors - the appropriate angst from Curtis, industry-specific deadpan from his band, and an outrageously cocky and very funny managerial sideshow from Tony Kebbell as Rob Gretton. I'm surprised he hasn't received more notice for his performance in this film; his perfectly timed delivery made for some major laugh-out-loud moments as well as serving as a kind of - well, control - on the band's (and the film's) constant tendency to slide off into despair and self-negation. Not that his wit or resourcefulness alone can prevent that, but without it there would have been no film - and possibly no band. Samantha Morton has gotten a lot more recognition for her excellent portrait of Curtis's wife Deborah, whose memoir about him indirectly led to this and other recent attention to the Joy Division episode in British rock. Her plain prettiness and working class innocence makes an excellent foil for the tortured self-indulgence of her ascending rock star husband.

In the end, though, this was a film whose individual aspects are somewhat more impressive than the whole. The film's story line attempts to juxtapose the meteoric rise of Joy Division, at least within the world of underground rock (hmmmm, meteor.... underground rock... must be a way to abuse this metaphor a bit more, but I haven't got the time) with the love triangle between Deborah, Ian and his new flame Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), and to paint a picture of his decline centering around the emotional difficulty he faced in dealing with his early marriage and fatherhood. Or rather, it tries to negotiate that duality and at the same time throw in his battle with epilepsy and the pressures of fame, touring and all that (see my previous post, "Cinema Rocks"). The key shots are all there, the themes are competently articulated, the acting is good - yet it all seems to come down to an excess of sympathy for someone who largely faced the kinds of difficulties that millions of other young men face without hanging themselves from a ceiling rack. What kills Ian Curtis, according to this film, is quite clearly not the pressure of the rock lifestyle or his drug abuse or epilepsy (though that is strongly emphasized in the film) but his torn heart, which cannot completely abandon Deb or their daughter nor break up with the comely Annik. And that is just a bit too pathetic. Get over it, you want to say - you screwed up having a baby too early, now do the best you can for the wife and child and get on with your life. Also, try to stay off the booze and keep working on finding the right epilepsy medication, like the doctor suggested. Can't handle that? Maybe there's something deeper going on. But the superficial emotional situation is not quite up to the climax of suicide.

We do get a bit more, though, and that returns us to one of the film's more commendable features, the on-stage movements of Sam Riley, which more or less perfectly counter-exemplify the title. For Curtis's mock-dancing is so clearly out of control, yet gives you the sense of someone who thinks he is in control, or at least does not quite know that he's out of control, but has in effect so totally merged with both the rhythm and mood of the music he has written that he no longer has much of a self to distinguish from the utterer of the lyrics. This, and its contrast with the normally staid and measured, if someone spaced-out individual off stage, makes for the film's deepest insight into the character and his dilemma; and the epilepsy serves as a kind of metaphor for the inability to separate the ordinary person who ha to deal with the common difficulties of life from the artist and musician who is completely absorbed in the music. So the fits at home remind us that the person is, at bottom, the man on stage, only offstage, and that he cannot control who o what he is even if it means collapse. And when the fits move onstage, and he has to be carried off by band members, this similarly tells us that the cracks in his personal life cannot fail to intrude into the realm of artistic expression.

Finally, then, the movie succeeds in being at least as schizophrenic as its subject was epileptic: succeeding, failing, but succeeding again. If it does not get a perfect score (on the Tomatometer or elsewhere) it is nevertheless likely to be the best biopic we get about this relatively minor band. All in all, a pretty good addition to the annals of rock cinema, and one worth catching if it comes o your town. Especially if it shows on Halloween.