Sunday, April 20, 2008


I was going to attempt to dismiss Control with one of the summary one-line putdowns I so childishly enjoy coming up with but it’s not really amenable to that (my initial thought was. “Can’t wait for the sequel. “Control 2." "He’s lost control….AGAIN!!!!!”) It’s not that “Control” really justifies much time or serious thought, it’s more that it gets it wrong in so many different ways that its badness resists simple summary.
First off I should acknowledge that I’m Curtis-neutral. I think Joy Division are alright, I only own one record by them (though trust me I’ve heard them plenty) “Unknown Pleasures” and I can’t remember the last time I listened to it. No, actually I can, it was about ten years ago. I can only imagine that if you are a “fan”, and not simply one who is going to be blown away by the mere fact that this is a film about Joy Division!!!! "Control" is even more disappointing.
Basically “Control” feels like a slick, unrisky, bet-hedging contribution to the ever-expanding Joy Division industry, falling (like a clumsy, sample-laden proctologist!) between several stools. Its take isn’t on the band themselves, there’s nothing at all about the (excuse my French) “creative process”, gigging, the economics and mechanics of the Biz, studio time with legendary producer Martin Hannett etc. In fact “Twenty four hour party people” spent more time on the process of recording and playing than “Control” does, and despite having much more time to devote to the other band members than TFHPP they come off as ciphers, largely on the same terms, Peter Hook’s a vulgarian, boyish Bernard’s the “nice” one, Tony Wilson (here also almost exactly modelled off the abysmally limited Steve Coogan’s very Partridge-esque and un-Wilsonian non-impersonation in TFHPP) is a ludicrous fop.
The central drama then is the tortuous double bind of Curtis’ marriage and affair, of trying to be a young, rock star dad, but the film doesn’t really work as a love triangle either. Given that it’s really only interested in Curtis it's a kind of triangle with only one side. Deborah Curtis (on whose book it’s based) gets less screen time than Rob Gretton and in trying to be all even-handed about the misery of Curtis’ married life can’t really portray her in any way at all, except as stoically “loving” (like any proper, decent Northern lass.) Neither she nor their daughter are granted an independent existence in the film. There’s no parallelisms drawn between her struggles as a working class wife and mother with an absentee father and husband having an affair and leaving her alone for long periods of time, as this would start to impinge on the Curtis' myth a little too much. Tortured genius, torn in all directions certainly, a prodigy of conscience and consciousness no doubt, bit of a selfish, sexist wanker off shagging Belgians while his missus scrimps and saves looking after the kid and has to get a part time job, dear me, no! While he might question his inability to be a good dad, it’s simply used as another way of dwelling on his almighty angst, the film offers no critique, no substantial attempt at a balance, Curtis isn’t seen from anyone’s perspective but his own. The tragedy is being an impulsive man who married and had kids too young as opposed to the tragedy of being a woman who married and had kids too young with an impulsive, unstable man. Curtis is the towering romantic artist,who achieved something with his life, so the film must be constructed entirely from his perspective, helping the Cannonization of Saint Ian to reach critical mass (hasn’t Morley just brought a book out on Joy Division? (don’t get me wrong I’m eager to read it, “Nothing” being one of my favourite books of the past ten years.) Isn't some lengthy documentary on the horizon, etc.)
In one of its clumsier moments, and there are plenty, Curtis comes home and looks at his daughter in her crib. A reverse point-of-view shot cages Curtis in the crib's bars, the prison that is fatherhood and domesticity. It’s unintentionally comic, but lacking any more subtle or elaborated sense of just why the role of father and husband is so awful, any concrete sense of the daily attrition and compromises, the expectations and urges on both sides it has to resort to Big Signifiers.
There are two moments of equally monumental semi-comical clunk: both of them revolve around the use of classic Joy Division tunes. The first is the moment when Ian confesses to Debs that he might not love her anymore, the lines on the road striking a symbolic divide between them. As she walks away “ Love will tear us apart” strikes up. See! Love really was tearing them apart. It’s tremendously unsubtle, as is the even more clich├ęd discovery of Curtis’ body, a shot that holds on the outside of the house as Deborah enters. We wait for the inevitable scream of recognition. How long will it be…..maybe she’s nipped upstairs for a piss, or worse, it could be ten minutes before she gets to the kitchen. AAAAGGGHHH!!!!!!. Ah, there we go. In comes “Atmosphere” with a resounding clunk as Morton emerges distraught into the street. Let’s not even get on to the final shot of Curtis’ ashes dispersing themselves into the sky as he achieves a kind of invisible, over-arching artistic immortality becoming somehow part of the very “Atmosphere” we breathe. “We are all Ian Curtis!” Or something. And while it seems mean- spirited to say so, much additional clunk is also added by the use of Curtis’ own letters and notes, none of which sound anything other than utterly banal, we know he really meant it, man, but it’s still doggerel.
Where the film’s good is in the band’s performances, the rawer, punkier kinetic kick of the live sound and at the other extreme, its depiction of depression as a slow implosion, a closing down of the idea of any possibility of movement or change, a draining away of the will. Cormac Mc Carthy’s apocalyptic “dimming away of the world” is really a description of depression's slow leeching of light and vital energy both from without and within, a trajectory you’ve found yourself on, pulling you out past the world of normal concerns and relations and into a paralysed no-man’s land. Curtis grows progressively more mute and sunken and in the final scenes of him watching TV and wandering round the house he’s already dead, inescapably entering a kind of negative velocity, a collapsing of linear time and forward momentum into a point of absolute density and stasis, the universe rushing back to a point of terminal contraction. His eyes half closed, words barely accessible to him, unreachably distant, he may as well be on the moon.
But, all in all it feels like a missed opportunity, one more hollow hagiography. Or maybe more of a marketing opportunity, my DVD came with a few adds for Cds and books before the film.
I ask you, is this what Sid died for? Or Ian for that matter?

8 comments:

Dominic said...

It was the pram in the hall wot dun it.

As a matter of fact, at just this very moment as I sit here trying to think of something simultaneously witty and illuminating to say about this typically excellent post, there's a 7-year-old boy standing at my shoulder repeatedly saying "what can I do now? What can I do? I'm bored, what can I do?". Now he's taken to throwing bits of paper at me. I really should get off the computer and pay him some attention...

Dominic said...

He's told me to tell you that I am an idiot. I shall have to distract him by doing pig impressions, as per usual.

Anonymous said...

tell him i say HE is an idiot, that i'm the size of a mountain and that if he doesn't stop it now i'll come round and sit on him till he cries and swears to never again enemy your promise.

carl

owen hatherley said...

Well, now that I've finally seen it, and though I'll never cease to be amazed that a man could prefer Cop Shoot Cop to Joy Division...well, you're right, aren't you old chap. The moments of clunkiness you mention ('Love is actually tearing us apart' moment esp) are indeed utterly clunky, and I think you're right about the near-saving graces such as the 'already-dead' last few days (Sam Riley is very good in the same way that Sheryl Lee was in Fire Walk with Me - someone who clearly isn't a great actor nevertheless having a total commitment to a ridiculously difficult part - but the wide-eyed innocence is a tad overplayed).

Other things that irritated me, then:
- it struck me as a failed myth, and there's little more pathetic - it could have just gone the whole hog and made a totally over-stylised film - approached it like Hannett might have done, as total myth and artifice. It made gestures at that but didn't have the tastelessness or the cojones to do it in the way that, say, Todd Haynes would have done, as something entirely fantastical. So it fell between the stools of a totally unconvincing slice of social realism and a not-quite-hagiography (because you do get flashes of the essential selfishness and misogyny of the whole affair...)
- also, the audience looked like Hoxton hipsters, which got in the way rather. Everyone was too good looking throughout, really. It was never hard enough. I mean look at this and then at Corbijn, and the difference is immense. Stylisation isn't the problem, but a failed stylisation.
It did irritate me a little less than 24 Hour... though. Incidentally, I presume you've read the Fangirl takeon the rather dubious sexual politics?

Anonymous said...

yeah... but i suppose it was lumbered with fidelity-to-the-book concerns, hence the "realism".. thing is, i have no particular interest in listening to JD but I am extremely interested IN them, if you know what i mean...partly that trying to work out why so many people like them.. then again i was never really into the whole Ballard continuum stuff so it's not in my dna, somehow.. but i do think they risk overkill/normalization at this stage.....just another Mojo cover-friendly great Rock band..i hadn't read the Fangirl take as it happens...but it's VERY good, isn't it....

owen hatherley said...

Well it is in my DNA, sure...The funny thing is it's not a Ballard-continuum at all: I read Ballard precisely because of the references in the things that grabbed me in that 14-18 person(a)-forming period (mainly Joy Division, but also England's Dreaming and The Holy Bible) as did many other people I know...In fact, pretty much all of my obsessions derive ultimately from those particular things. More perhaps that they were in the Ballard-continuum, dragging others into it unknowingly and ruining them henceforth...

What I would prefer would be a film that was of Joy Division rather than about them - as in the way that Velvet Goldmine doesn't need a single Bowie song to make clear that it understands glam perfectly. A trickier idea to sell, I imagine.

Anonymous said...

point taken...i partly had a similar experience of music taking me on to other related things.. though i was always more into film and got into it very young...so i wanted the soundtrack to "suspiria" quite a few years before i wanted to read the Naked Lunch 'cos it was so name checked by bands etc


you're right in the of/about thing too...but velvet goldmine got made, so...

Of course, shudder to think wrote the best songs on that Velvet Goldmine soundtrack.....

owen hatherley said...

indeed they did! 'The Whole Shebang' in particular is a charmer. Better than Placebo, anyway...