Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

– Louis MacNeice, ‘Prayer before Birth’.

“If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows – perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places”

– Carlo Levi, in an introduction to Tristram Shandy (quoted by Italo Calvino)

How do you make a movie out of a book that goes nowhere because it is about a life that goes nowhere? Simple. You make a movie that goes nowhere.

Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a book of (literally) unspeakable brilliance. A book that explores the way our lives get swallowed up by digression and triviality, so that in the end we have barely got started on what we had planned to make our central purpose, and our lives turn out to look very different from the way we had imagined them. A book that does this by being a book that get swallowed up in digression and triviality, a delightful romp of a book that finds, when the last volume is finished, that far from being an account of the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, it has barely managed to be an account of the narrator’s birth. A book that is, by any sane account, unfilmable.

Winterbottom’s great insight in Tristram Shandy: A cock and bull story is that he never even tries to film the book. Instead he films the making of a film that is trying to film the book, which turns out to be a film about how the film about the book that finally emerges turns out to be very different from the film about the book that the characters, in the film you’re actually watching, expected. Sound complicated? One of the chief delights of this glorious movie is the way, with true post-modernist aplomb, it blurs the line between narrator and narrative, creating a palimpsest of mirrors, and taking the idea of a film within a film (so wonderfully explored in Truffaut’s La nuit americaine) to a whole new level.

The other chief delight is simply how unbelievably funny the movie is, how willing to satirise itself. Steve Coogan plays Steve Coogan, an up and coming British actor playing what he constantly needs to be assured is the lead role in a film version of Tristram Shandy, a novel that he’s never read but gives confident interviews about, loudly extolling its virtues as being eighth on the Guardian’s list of great books of all times (“Wasn’t that a chronological list?” the interviewer asks.). Rob Brydon plays Rob Brydon, Gillian Anderson (the one from X-files, NOT the one from Baywatch) is called at the last minute and agrees (miraculously) to play Gillian Anderson and Stephen Fry puts in a cameo as a bemused and erudite professor. This is the making of a film at its chaotic best – budgets have to be balanced (how are we ever going to afford that final battle scene at the end?), producers impressed (even if this means putting a hot chestnut down your trousers), costumes made suitably authentic (no, Steve, that is exactly how low coat pockets were in those days), egos massaged, giant plastic wombs tried out (no, Steve, you have to climb in head first and naked – we want it to look realistic), script ideas tossed around and rewritten (“I still think we should have the part about the Widow Wadman”), girlfriends kept happy, affairs flirted with, newspaper men appeased and people who wax eloquent about German cinema listened to with due reverence, even though you have no clue what they’re blathering on about. And in the midst of all this, Rob Brydon will need to have his ego constantly massaged as he goes on about his bald spot, the colour of his teeth (“they’re not quite white, are they?”) his inability to act with Anderson, who has a huge sexual thing for. This is comedy at its British, tongue-and-cheek best, and a movie more shockingly true to Sterne’s book is hard to imagine.

Watch this film. If Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing, this is a movie about nothing too, except that it comes to that conclusion reluctantly, starting out with the intention of being about something (realising it can’t be about everything) and ending up wanting to be about anything, anything at all. Sterne would have laughed himself silly.

P.S. Oh, and don’t leave before the credits are done. You’ll miss the most hilarious exchange of Al Pacino impersonations ever. One minute you’re walking down the aisle on your way out. The next minute you’re rolling in it.

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