Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Delicate World

True Shandeism, think what you will against it, opens the heart and lungs, and like all those affections which partake of its nature, it forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely through its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and cheerfully round.
- Laurence Sterne

Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.
- Samuel Johnson

I’ve long believed that the best and most accomplished works of literature make for very poor films.

Pick any of the adaptations of Joyce. Or think of John Huston’s game attempt to film Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano. There’s a 1976 documentary on Lowry called Volcano, featuring Richard Burton reading sections of the book, that is far more successful at conveying the flavor of the novel.

That’s the trouble. A novel uses words, so the filmmaker is already at a disadvantage. Which is why Michael Winterbottom decided going in that there was no point in trying to bring Laurence Sterne’s The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to the screen in any sort of normal fashion.

The critical commonplace about this film has been that since Sterne wrote a book about writing a book, Winterbottom has made a film about making a film, which, indeed, he has.

You have to admire anyone who tackles these kinds of forbidding literary monuments. David Cronenberg had varying degrees of success with his adaptations of Naked Lunch and Crash, both of which owed as much to Cronenberg as they did to their original creators.

As a fan of the novel, I’ve often wondered what the results of a filmed Shandy might be like. I’d fantasize about Terry Gilliam taking it on and decided that the best course of action would be a film that traveled between the book and Sterne’s own life. Get John Neville, from Gilliam’s Munchausen, in there and you’ve got a movie.

What Winterbottom has done is extremely clever, well-done, and witty. But in the end, it’s not Shandy and it’s not Sterne, although I think he would have approved of the results.

If you’ve read any of the reviews, you know by now that the film begins rather straightforwardly by recounting the events surrounding Tristram’s birth, the credits gloriously accompanied by music from Michael Nyman, whose work the director hasn’t been able to leave alone since Wonderland. It's appropriate, too, as Nyman has long threatened to produce an opera based on the book. It takes a sharp turn, however, into telling the story of the people making the film. Indeed, at the end there’s yet another layer involved as the same people critique the scenes in the film that didn’t seem like “scenes” at all, but rather fly-on-the-wall documentary.

British actor/comedian Steve Coogan, who portrayed Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, plays himself as well as the title role. There’s a real hall-of-mirrors feel when the real Tony Wilson shows up to interview him, in fact. Coogan is hysterically funny, adapting his Alan Partridge persona here to wonderful effect. He’s an inflated out-of-control ego, staggering from room to room in search of vodka tonics, newspaper reporters, and members of the film crew.

There are certainly enough hints in the film that Winterbottom knows exactly what he’s doing. If one of the integral parts of Shandy the book is the idea that we all see the world through the prism of our own personalities, he gives us actors who can’t see anything beyond their own noses. If the main narrative drive of the book involves digressions that reflect how the mind travels and expands time by associating ideas, the film similarly wanders. In fairness to Sterne, though, I think his "artless" plotting was much more deliberate than the film’s. In fact, just in case there's any chance the reader doesn’t appreciate the deftness of this sleight of hand, Sterne halts occasionally to explain what he’s done so that the reader can admire it.

There’s also no less than two characters in the film named Jenny, no doubt to reflect the mysterious Jenny that Sterne would occasionally address throughout the book. But even with all of this, the film doesn’t seem to capture something essential about the novel and its eccentric author.

At its most successful, the film delivers on Sterne’s conviction that “every time a man smiles, - but much more so when he laughs…it adds something to this Fragment of Life.” And perhaps in Coogan’s simultaneous flirting and faithfulness to his girlfriend and their new son, there is something of the book’s combination of sentiment and bawdy double-entendre, not to mention the split personality of the cleric who felt the need to always have some urgent ongoing affair of the heart in his life, even if these affairs existed mainly in his own mind.

In the end, though, one feels that something of the book’s sweetness, its human comedy, is missing. If Shandy is known for its editorial oddities, its black and marbled pages and its empty chapters, it continues to be loved for its sly and knowing commentary on human nature, which stubbornly refuses to change.


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