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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

©2006 Picturehouse
Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan & Director Michael Winterbottom in
Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story. Photo credit: Revolution Films/Picturehouse.

“Tuscan Sunset,” says actor Rob Brydon as he’s describing the color of the make-up being applied to Steve Coogan’s teeth. This is the story of Tristram Shandy (sort of) based on the nine-volume novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Actually, it’s the (apparently fictional) back-story of how Michael Winterbottom and company attempted to make a movie based on Sterne’s novel.

The film proceeds with the attempted re-creation of a battle. Instead of seeing the re-creation itself, we get the behind-the-scenes point of view. Keeping in mind that it’s all a fiction, what we see instead is the actors arguing about what kind of weapon fit the period for the scene. Coogan plays both Tristram and Walter Shandy, his father. Rob Brydon plays his brother Toby. The story is essentially that the novel is so far from any sense of conventional structure it could not possibly be filmed.

All manner of bizarre things occur when trying to elaborate upon Tristram’s origin and early years. Picture, if you will, the emergence from the womb. In the movie, the cast and crew try to determine precisely how to show Shandy’s moment of birth — as if it was necessary. But it’s perhaps mockery of certain types of filmmaking that involve telling the story rather than implying it. Sometimes implication is more powerful, but here the explicitness of the womb scene, right down to “bench testing” Coogan’s residence in a terribly-constructed womb large enough to house him, is used to comic effect. Coogan repeats throughout the first quarter of the film, “But I am not born yet,” backpedaling away from the moment of his birth to give us yet more back story. This is, I suppose, a means to illustrate just how excruciatingly convoluted and overcome with digression Sterne’s original novel was. It’s impossible to fit a coherent narrative into two or three hours from such a voluminous work, and especially one that’s noted for its abandonment of conventional narrative. Questioning the method, Coogan suggests, “Can’t we just film it right side up and flip the image?” The director, who may or may not be doing this for the sake of sadism, rationalizes all the usual nonsense about achieving realism — hilarious in context when you see what the womb mock-up actually looks like.

We get an interesting exchange between Coogan, Gillian Anderson and her agent pitching her for the part of the Widow Wadman. Anderson and the agent explain they’re currently receiving many television scripts, “An Englishman loses his memory and falls in love with his own daughter.” Anderson’s booking agent is a funny contrast to the Brits on the production. She reminds me of the hooker-turned-business-manager near the end of “Hustle & Flow,” though I’m not sure which is as funny as it is depressing: The business agent who represents a conscious effort to act the part of the jaded, self-interested jerk, or the hooker who acts the part without needing to try.

The musings coninue, seeming almost like third-person perpective because of the overall production that’s run away and being complained about. Watching the producers, crew and actors sit through daily rushes reminds me of Mystery Science Theater 3000 — various reactions ranging from puzzlement over the inclusion of the battle scene to germinating expectations on the part of the backers to, naturally, see more action. They don’t know how they’ll depict the infamous blank page (think “Spaceballs”), “I don’t think a black screen’s going to be interesting to the audience,” says Brydon.

The film’s intent and many of the tangential dialogues seem very similar to Rob Reiner’s brilliant mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap,” in that we see around and behind and underneath the stage, so to speak — peering into the intertwined lives of the people who are caught up in the maelstrom of an untenable subject for film adaptation. However, “Tristram Shandy” lacks “Spinal Tap’s” structure and finesse. The appearance of spontaneity requires, ironically, a great deal of preparation which this film lacks. It never entirely seems to get itself together, but how it ever could I don’t know — disarray is the point.

Also packed into this rather bizarre outing are several subplots: One involving the tenuous relationship between Coogan and his girlfriend, Jenny (portrayed by Kelly Macdonald), who comes to visit him on location—pregnant with his child—though Coogan’s mind is elsewhere; another concerns a news reporter who keeps trying to land an interview slot with Coogan, in exchange for not printing a scoop about a female stripper who claims to have had an affair with the actor; and yet another subplot, though a minor one, involves Brydon’s obsessive infatuation with Anderson.

Coogan doesn’t strike you as much of a womanizer but there is something in him that reminds me of Jack Davenport, whereas Brydon seems like a Hugh Grant with a more angular, chiseled appearance, yet considerably less dignified in behavior. However, it is Coogan who has the near-affair with his production assistant Jennie (Naomie Harris), who works on the business side of movies but is fascinated by the art end of it. Jennie compares the unwieldy, and extraneous, battle scene to Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac,” to which Coogan remarks, “You should hear her go on about Fassbinder.”

I was slightly reminded of Fellini, particularly “8 1/2″; Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is wrought with anxiety over his creative stall — making a science-fiction film in which he has lost all interest. In fact, a number of the more whimsical scenes of this film are scored with the original recording of Rota’s procession theme, “L’illusionista,” from Fellini’s masterpiece. Though, one could also consider Robert Altman’s “The Player” which contains a nearly-doomed film-within-a-film vetted by the studio’s VP in charge of production, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). Incidentally, the solution that saves the film from, well, at least financial disaster, is to milk the action. The director, played by Richard E. Grant, is none too happy to accept the success at the cost of his integrity. Roger Ebert, however, was also right to compare this movie to Truffaut’s “Day for Night,” in which the director, Ferrand (played by Truffaut), observes how the crew and cast of these films are like families that materialize when a film goes into production. They live for the process of making the film more so than the end product.

There is a comical afterthought in a sequence that runs almost the entire length of the end credits, during which Brydon and Coogan debate the proper imitation of Al Pacino. They continue their banter, comparing startlingly accurate imitations — one of a younger Pacino (e.g. Michael Corleone), and the other of the perpetually screaming Pacino of present day. I’m not sure that it has anything to do with Tristram Shandy or his Opinions thereof… but then neither does most of the preceding 94 minutes. Considering the oblateness and hulking mass of the novel, I’m not sure that following it would have made any sense at all.

Tristram Shandy • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 94 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content. • Distributed by Picturehouse

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