Cock and Bull Story - Michael Winterbottom UK 2005 - Steve Coogan Rob Brydon
Viewed - Tyneside Cinema - Newcastle-upon-Tyne - Gala screening for Northern Lights Film Festival - 24 Nov 05 - complementary ticket.
A Cock and Bull Story(C and B) is Michael Winterbottom’s(MW) film rendition of Tristram Shandy, an eccentric eighteenth century English litterary work written by Rev. Laurence Sterne as a notional autobiography. The driving concept of MW’s piece as it appears on screen is to produce a filmic approximation of this work by thematically shooting it as a film about the making of a film. This genre is typically exemplified by films that use their own original material rather than movies deriving from book adaptations as is the case with C and B.
The ‘We’re making a movie theme’ was possibly derived from a reading of the book that picked up its detached language when describing intimate and close details, Tristram Shandy’s consciousness of itself as a literary product, and its persistent wanton determination to disregard the rules of sequential prose by inventing itself as a form of long digressions, lists, asides and punctuation’s in time. Tristram Shandy deconstructs long before Derrida coined the phrase.
But Tristram Shandy is more than an exercise in style. Its style is always secondary to its voice, and it is this voice that one can hear over the two centuries since it was writtten, and it is this voice that as a reader, you come to love. Because it is a brave voice, a brave voice that is committed to truth. A voice that tells the truth. It is an intelligent voice that faced with the chaos and pain of life has discernment awareness and discrimination. If this were not the case Tristram Shandy would long ago have been discarded.
It is this voice, the central character striving with humour. for truth, that is the defining core of Tristram Shandy, not its style. Its style defines its superficial form. This superficial form is critical, artful and necessary for its success, but not sufficient. If Tristram Shandy had been all form and no voice, it would have gone the way of a million magazine articles and films.
A voice seeking to express truth is what is missing from a Cock and Bull Story. It feels from beginning to end that the director, MW, is absent. MW has nothing to say either in or through the characters that people his film. And having nothing to say MW as a compensation has recourse to a purely stylistic rendition of his Tristram. But A Cock and Bull Story is not even superficially in style a coherent film. It looks and sounds like a mish mash of different influences: Fellini’s 8 ½; Hopper’s the Last Movie; the Office; and sketch driven Python derivative TV. C and B fails to exert over its disparate elements any form of stylistic unity; which is of course precisely Sterne’s achievement.
C and B opens with a sequence in which the two male leads exchange persiflage about actor stuff. In the opening sequence the subject of their talk is Rob Brydon’s yellow teeth, which conversation sets up a recurring motif of actor rivalry that is intercut through the film. But the trouble with actors talking actor stuff is that a little goes a long way. The egotistical concerns of actors without any anchoring in plot or structure or character, are vacuous and fail to hold audience interest. Another ingredient in C and B pudding, are sequences from the production script meetings. These like the actor sequences tend to use hand held roving camera to sign that they are unscripted impro. These production group inserts like the actor sequences are uninspired and ultimately uninteresting(why should the audience be interested in the minutiae of an uninteresting film). It is during one of these sequences, a discussion about the why and the how to film the sequence of the Siege of Namur, that the film finally gets bogged down and lost.
Interstitially placed between the actor and production crew sections, MW films pieces to camera by Tristram( with picture inserts), sections of filming the film itself and the filming of sequences of the book mainly dominated by the funny sexy bits and the birth of Tristram. These sections look to have been shot by MW without resolve as to what kind of film he is making. He seems to be trapped by the otherness of eighteenth century prose and a demand to play the book for laughs: the result is an uneven unconvincing farrago of slapstick and formality.
Without a strong clear concept and ideas about how to film Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story is a movie adrift. It is hard to see why Michael Winterbottom took it from project to realisation. It is possibly a measure of the paucity of directorial talent in UK feature film production that he was able to get backing for a film that turns a literary conceit into an act of filmic arrogance.