the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story




















I write film and TV reviews at DVDFanatic.com. Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

“The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” It’s the sort of book many of us own and hope others see on the bookshelf when they come over for dinner. Which is to say, none of us have ever read “Tristram Shandy” but we hold on to it because we keep telling ourselves that one of these days we will.

The odds are against it. Posited as a fictional autobiography of an English gentleman, Laurence Sterne's bawdy and untamable 18th-century novel is a meandering hodgepodge of digressions, narrative fractures and literary rabbit trails. “Tristram Shandy” is a singularly impossible and sprawling piece of literature that is almost unreadable, let alone unfilmable.

Don’t tell that to Michael Winterbottom.

No stranger to literary adaptation (having directed both Jude and The Claim from works by Thomas Hardy), Winterbottom must have known from the beginning that Tristram Shandy could not be approached in the same realistic, reverential way. His decision? Turn it into a post-modern romp with equal parts literature and lunacy.

Just as Sterne couldn’t fit his novel within the confines of a common book, neither does its adaption fit into the neat, tidy confines of a movie. Instead of trying to run from Sterne's innovative and often confounding use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, cross-cutting, and direct-address voice-over narration, Winterbottom embraces it, chucking a conventional narrative for something equally perplexing. He decides to make a movie about the making of movie based on incomprehensible book that was, in many ways, about the making of a book. Need me to run that by you again?

As it turns out, the movie-within-a-movie Tristram Shandy never really seems to get around to filming the book, leaving the Tristram Shandy that you have in your DVD player as an uproarious satire on the travails of modern movie-making. The film is a ceaseless volley of digressive, meandering subplots and glimpses at the undercarriage of the filmmaking process--dirt and all. The movie-within-a-movie conceit isn't new, and it often comes off sanctimonious and self-aggrandizing. But not here. Tristram Shandy is charming, witty and irresistibly playful.

Not satisfied with layering the simultaneous stories of Tristram’s tumultuous birth and frustrated adulthood, the film also interrupts the action to allow its principle character time to address the camera. And of course, the camera never really stops, because even when someone calls cut, it settles onto the actors as they dart about the set.

Tristram Shandy has several main characters, including British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. They are played by, respectively, British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Gillian Anderson even stops by. Yes, that Gillian Anderson. They do not play themselves exactly, of course. If they were, Coogan and Brydon would come off as insecure, pompous, preening maniacs, playing an egotistical tug-of-war for first billing on screen and on set. (Coogan demands that the costume department add an inch to his heels so he'll appear taller than his rival). That the leads play satirical versions of themselves is just one of many ways in which Tristram Shandy lets it be known that it is completely self-aware and in on the joke. Other actors include Stephen Fry, Jeremy Northam, Kelly MacDonald and Naomie Harris who are wonderful in that deliciously understated British way.

To read the full review, click here.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Nate said...

I loved this movie, truly. You forgot to mention a layer or two, I think. At some point, they cut away from the "making of the movie" scenes to show the real behind the scenes, the behind the scenes of the behind the scenes, if you will, as they discuss the script which includes lines of dialogue that the actors were just saying as themselves. It's all very confusing. But not as headache inducing as it sounds. It's just fun. Don't try to piece it together is what I tell people.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Yeah. The kind of move you just can't help smiling through because it's so damn witty and clever.

1:19 PM  

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