Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Only Mistake

Quite why I don’t know but I thought I should make some sort of a defence of Control, despite The Impostume’s near definitive demolition job, not to mention this eloquent undermining of what both writers see as the underlying misogyny of the film,

It’s hard to disagree with much said to be honest but….but….I liked it! So, much as I don’t like to defend anything done by anyone who had anything to do with photographing men in the desert wearing waistcoats…….here goes.

Well first I have to concede a few points. The film is indeed clunky in places, suffering from the perils of all bio-pics in trying to bring to life events that have passed into popular folklore. And yes, the off screen scream of Deborah Curtis is pretty funny. It reminded me of Lust for Life, the histrionic 1950’s film about Van Gogh, where the camera pans away from a wild eyed Kirk Douglas shaving, to pause before we hear the pay off: “Ouch”!

That the film falls between the fantastical artifice of a Velvet Goldmine and a more realist debunking of rock’s aura is also true. But, it does have a visual poetry that lifts it out of the workmanlike storytelling of a film like Walk the Line. And, like that film it too struggles to convey anything much about the, ahem, creative process. Curtis goes from listening to Gean Jeany to appearing fully formed, on stage doing his strange demonically possessed Mr Bean-like dance. Not much is communicated of Curtis’ artistic reference points either, save perhaps for his penchant for reciting Romantic poetry.

But Control has some great moments and, crucially, perhaps more emotional complexity than it has been given credit for. The main criticism seems to be the films perpetuation of the male myth of madness/genius as well as rock’s indigenous sexism. Well, yes, but its hard to make a film about a male rock star and avoid that accusation isn’t it? I mean, if you buy into the idea of Ian Curtis as a character worthy of biography, then its difficult to avoid his own role in the perpetuation of the doomed romantic myth as well as the particular version of it that has grown up around him since. Also, the film tries hard to deconstruct some of those myths.

There is a moment for example where Deborah Curtis effectively grants Curtis permission to leave her, offering him exactly what he appears to want (The word permission is the right one here because he has effectively ASKED if he can leave). But her answer is still not good enough for him. There’s a dull resignation on her part that he’s just no longer worth hanging onto, that their relationship is effectively dead. I’d even say that the film grants her a quiet dignity at this point were it not likely to invite the obvious criticism that quiet dignity is the lot of all the other understanding but passive women in rock. But more importantly, Curtis doesn’t walk away because he recognises that this won’t make him happy either. She has to want it too. But she will never want it so he can never leave. Her stoic dignity is not enough, not what he wants either.

This is not so much a; “Women! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em!” moment as a recognition of genuine conflict. As much as he has bought into the romantic myths of rock’n’roll he’s also bought into the romantic myths of, well, romance too. The film makes clear that Curtis is drawn equally to both in a way that seems to reflect less the trauma of some pampered rock star than the genuine tensions between two kinds of obligation, two competing fantasies. It also effectively communicates his genuine idealism, which is exactly NOT to live out some corny Jim Morrison fantasy.

Perversely it is Curtis’ idealism that drove his decision to marry young and it is this that makes him commit suicide, not his sense of being trapped in some kind of domestic prison. If he is trapped it is in his inability to compromise. Like Kurt Cobain, as much as he conforms to the stereotype of joining what Syd Vicious’ mum called ‘that stupid club’, he contradicts it.

Curtis is far from the regular philandering bastard, or even the irregular one, and I’m not sure the film lets him off the hook either. Sure, it romanticises, but it also seems more nuanced, more aware of the contradictions and less enamoured of the clichés of rock’n’roll. Maybe these are simply the bits of Deborah Curtis’ book slipping through what might have been a more standard hagiography. Certainly Corbijn self-consciously recreates the myth making photographs he took of the band back then, a kind of double narcissism for sure, but also a poignant gesture. There is something intriguing about the same person recreating these images, something less distanced, less routine than the normal stuff of biography.

Finally, and there seems to be some agreement on this, the live music scenes are phenomenal, communicating Joy Division’s perverse mix of feral energy, primal dirge and baroque magnificence. The utterly un-rock’n’roll nature of Curtis’ elegantly mannered baritone, its lack of grit, grunt or any of the conventional signifiers of passion was part of his charisma, and his contradictions.

It’s true though about the clothes. They all look too cool.

(With acknowledgments to Mr Nigel Mapp for his insights.)

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