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February 22, 2006

Give us a real adaptation of Tristram Shandy rather than another film about film-making: A Cock and Bull Story - Michael Winterbottom

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

A Cock and Bull Story
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
certificate 15, 2005

Anyone with any literary pretensions has probably been tempted by it. Sitting down in front of the blank notebook or computer screen, determined to write something, anything. One's previous attempts at fiction have all seemed either banal or ridiculous, or both. The creative writing class dictum, write about what you know, lurks somewhere in the subconscious. What do I know, one wonders? The temptation is great to write about a would-be writer, not terribly dissimilar to oneself, sitting in front of a blank notebook or computer screen, wondering what to write about. One's tale continues with varying levels of originality; characters from real life and fiction intermingle, you, the author, co-mingle with your creations, and all the various tropes of magical realism and literary postmodernism.

A little sober reflection is enough to persuade oneself how futile all this is. Yet the temptation is still there. Novels about novelists, films about film-makers, plays about playwrights with a handful of exceptions, the genre of Narcissism is a sterile, self-indulgent one. It is the staple of novelists at a certain stage of their careers, and of directors overcome with self-indulgence. It is perhaps significant that the most successful explorations of the themes of writing and being written that this kind of genre raises are the short stories and fables of Borges; laconic, dense with allusion yet fresh, these stories perhaps prove that if writers must explore the theme of writing they should do so briefly and pungently if at all.

A Cock and Bull Story is a version of Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. For those unfamiliar with the novel, Dr Johnson later said of it that:

nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.
The Great Cham was wrong on this occasion, at least in terms of pure existence, as Tristram Shandy has been in print continuously since its initial publication between 1759 and 1767.

The Irish-born Sterne had the living of Sutton-on-the-Forest in Yorkshire, and lived the peaceful existence appropriate to that station until the publication of Tristram Shandy. The book was a roaring success: Thomas Jefferson (who, when his wife Martha was dying, copied lines from Tristram Shandy with her and kept them with a lock of her hair for the rest of his life) claiming that:

the writings of Sterne, particularly, form the best course of morality that ever was written.
It did not escape censure for its bawdiness and general unconventionality, even decades afterwards. Thackeray claimed that:
there is not a page in Sterne's writing but has something that were better away, a latent corruption a hint, as of an impure presence.
F. R. Leavis dismissed the book as:
irresponsible (and nasty) trifling.
What is the book that provoked such differing reactions? Steve Coogan in A Cock and Bull Story, playing Steve Coogan, tells an interviewer that:
it was a post modern book before there was anything modern to be post.
Tristram Shandy recounts his life with a kind of maniacal inclusiveness beginning from conception rather than birth. Famously, in the first two volumes, Tristram is not even born. There is a kind of hyper realist piling of detail, of digression, with characters apparently peripheral to the "action" taking centre stage, such as Uncle Toby, the veteran of the Siege of Namur who devotes himself endlessly to recreating the battle in the garden. We also have various postmodern avant la lettre touches, such as a completely blank page, various idiosyncrasies of typography and presentation, and the eccentricities of chronology. It is unsurprising that it appeals to the modern age, for while Coogan's soundbite is on one level the kind of lazy money quote destined to be blown up into large type in the body of an article (and the character Steve Coogan has fairly obviously never read the book), it is also true.

The film begins with Coogan and Rob Brydon in make-up. A recurrent motif of the movie is set; Brydon constantly seeks reassurance about his looks and general status, which the even more neurotic Coogan is reluctant to give. There is the cringe comedy of The Office at work here. We then have about half an hour of what could almost be called relatively straight adaptation of Tristram Shandy. Coogan's Shandy addresses the camera directly, Coogan plays Tristram's father Walter as well as his son, Coogan berates the child actor playing his younger self for inability to capture the real agony of a window frame slamming on his penis, Coogan refers to Pavlov in voiceover. All this is fitting for an adaptation of the notoriously tricksy Tristram Shandy.

Rob Brydon's Uncle Toby tries to deflect attention from just where, anatomically, he was wounded during the Siege of Namur by endlessly recreating the battle in the garden. We jump from Tristram's childhood to conception to birth and back again, in a manner that enjoyably echoes the great shaggy-dog style series of digressions and non-sequiters that characterise the novel. So far so good, and the opening with Coogan and Brydon sparring in a very passive-aggressive way suits the tone of the ostensible Sterne adaptation that followed. One wouldn't mind the film continuing in this vein.

Suddenly, in the middle of the oft-delayed scene of Shandy's birth, a director yells cut. The camera pulls back from Tristam's mother in the agonies of labour to reveal an actress relievedly ceasing her screaming and a camera crew, sound team, and the general disorderliness of a modern film set congratulating themselves on a wrap for the day. Thus the main thrust of the action ensues; a long longeur. The film of Tristram Shandy, it turns out, is a film-within-a-film; the bulk of the film is about filmmaking.

More specifically, it is mainly about a fictionalised Steve Coogan. His wife and infant son have come to the set, in the midst of a flirtation with his PA, Jenny. A tabloid journalist has arrived to do a profile, with the threat of an expose of the night Coogan spent with a lap dancer looming in case of non-cooperation. Coogan is also preoccupied with making sure his shoes have an extra inch over Brydon:

It's not an ego thing, we need to establish that Walter is dominant in every scene.
There's lots of isolated laughs Jenny the PA is prone to long, intense flights of pretension that sound like Sight and Sound on a bad day, the leader of the historical re-enactors who provide extras for the battle scene is a pedantic bore fulminating against the inaccuracies of Cold Mountain, Brydon's blend of egotism and sweetness is a reliable source of humour but all these moments are mixed with a series of media in-jokes to the nth degree. We have Coogan interviewed by Tony Wilson, who of course was portrayed by Coogan in Twenty Four Hour Party People and a voiceover informs us that the full interview will be available on the DVD. There are script meetings and costume meetings and the screening of rushes, and tedium in a film barely an hour and a half long sets in for those not in on the joke.

But perhaps this is the point of self-referential films and books about films and books. The "media", as an entity, is not merely worthy of academic study in the form of "media studies" (if there isn't a rule that one should beware any discipline with the word "studies" in its name, there should be) or of a section devoted to itself in most newspapers that aspire to seriousness. It is an abiding interest for so many that a self-indulgent piece of movie-making like this, suffused in media in-jokes, will probably do very well.

Stephen Fry pops up twice at the very end as Parson Yorick, but also as an expert on Shandy who tells the camera that Tristram Shandy is about the vanity of human wishes; Walter Shandy plans his son's life down to the conception and delivery in every detail, but is thwarted, just as Tristram Shandy is himself. Jenny the PA says something similar, in her over-enthusiastic way. One can imagine Winterbottom and the other film-makers defending A Cock and Bull Story's shaggy-dog nature thus: this is what the novel is about, for this is what life is like messy, digressive, ultimately unsatisfying.

It all seems something of a cop-out. The mundane drama of the making of Tristram Shandy overwhelms the reasonably enjoyable Tristram Shandy we have glimpses of. I'd have no problem with hints of this, with the echoes of the themes of the novel that are undoubtedly there Brydon mirrors Uncle Toby just as Coogan mirrors Walter Shandy in his increasingly shambolic attempts to right the wrongs caused by his egotism.

At the end, we have a screening of the movie for the cast and crew, after which all involved are shown discussing what they've just seen in the lobby. All are baffled by the gap between the experience of making the film with watching the finished creation. There's some funny banter between Coogan and Brydon, but otherwise the self-indulgence is just too much.

At the start of this essay I alluded to the great temptation writing about writing can be for those attempting to embark on the literary life (or, I'd imagine, those who've managed to write one novel or short story collection and find the well of inspiration temporarily dry.) This is obviously based on personal experience when I was younger I had the brilliant idea of recycling all those fragments of stories and novels I'd tried to write. The trick would be to dress them up as extracts from the works of fictional writers, dolled up with footnotes and bibliographical impedimenta and all put together under the title Ten Great Writers or some such. This thrifty (or lazy) idea was as unreadable as it sounds.

One wonders if something vaguely similar has happened with A Cock And Bull Story. It has the feel of an attempted adaptation of Tristram Shandy which, whether through lowness of budget or slackness of motivation, all concerned decided to give up on. Ah sure what would be more postmodern than inflating what little of Tristram Shandy that was actually filmed into a feature, with lots of hilarious industry in-jokes and cod philosophising? What could be more Sterne-like?

What indeed. Perhaps the most damning thing you can say about this, or any comedy, is those involved seemed to have an awful lot more fun making it than the audience watching it.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a contributor to Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005).

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I'm not sure you've ever read Tristram Shandy. Or, if you have, I don't follow the comments--making an adaption of the novel in movie-form would simply be impossible. Also, I think talking about how the novel reflects disordered, amorphous life is moving further away from the text and assuming thematic elements that may or may not actually be in the book. This is, no doubt, a book on some type of drugs. Good book. Good movie.

Posted by: John at April 10, 2008 09:12 PM
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