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'Tristram Shandy' Is a Cock and Bull Story

With laughter to soothe the unbearable darkness of being.

Dorothy Woodend 10 Feb

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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Films where you suddenly hear yourself laughing, where you leave the theatre a little weakened by the violence of your own hilarity, are extremely rare. So when one comes along, don't waste any time, run as fast as your stubby little legs will carry you down to the movie theatre. Go! Now! Hurry!

I know I have gone on about this film already, and yes, it doesn't open until next week, but it's one of the few in recent memory where I felt much better after leaving the theatre than when I entered. There are simply very few truly funny things around lately. Even things that are meant to be funny are not. Every time I catch a glimpse of the new version of The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin, part of me dies a little inside. Not funny. But then, the world isn't that funny a place, lately. Or more correctly, it's so maniacally gonzo, it went right over the edge and fell into tragedy. But if it's our time to exit stage left, then we might as well leave laughing.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is the film version of Laurence Sterne's novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The film stars two British stalwarts, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. They may be well known quantities in England, but in North America, they're still relatively freshly minted; although you couldn't tell that from looking at their teeth. British dentistry doesn't seem much improved from Sterne's time when the notion of using forceps to help aid in difficult births was the latest thing. Birth is a rather large motif in the film; the first half is roughly concerned with young Tristram's entry into the world. While his mother grunts and screams like a wild beast, downstairs, the men converse loquaciously in a series of increasing elegant rooms. As if in revenge, Mr. Coogan is later hung upside down by his heels, naked, in a giant uterus. (All men should be thus treated I think, it might give them a greater depth of empathy for the entire female sex.)

Postmodern sex

Although, if current accounts are to be believed, Mr. Coogan has rather too much female sex. There's the Steve Coogan in the movie, who is getting it on with a girlfriend, a couple of lapdancers and a overly enthusiastic PA with a thing for Fassbinder. And the Steve Coogan who reportedly impregnated Courtney Love; in rehab of all places? (Well, where else would it happen, you quite rightly ask?) Are they one and the same, or is one version of Coogan the real deal and the other merely a fevered dream of celebrity run amuck? It's a little hard to say, although elements of both are probably true. Truth is such a slippery beast, the moment you think you have it, it squirts out of your hands and runs off laughing. So, give up, give in, and let the film have its way with you, since the entire post-modern thingy is all about the impossibility of subjectivity. "Film is 24 lies per second," in the words of director Michael Haneke, and in this case, there may be even more than that.

From the opening shot, things are not always as they appear -- although sometimes they are exactly that and no more. The two actors are getting makeup put on for their scene, and Brydon is concerned about the colour of his teeth: are they are leading man teeth, or character actor teeth, he wonders. "You needn't worry about the leading man stuff," Coogan, generous with acidity, tells him. Their actorly exchanges, ego to ego, are a running gag throughout the film, and they are as effortlessly hilarious as they are mean and somewhat bitterly true.

Coogan has already been consecrated in the comedy hall of fame for his character Alan Partridge: a smarmy TV personality whose clutches are difficult to escape from. To be true to one's self is very tiresome, as Coogan, watching himself play himself, soon finds out. He is quick to offer advice to the child actor playing a younger version of his character, to which the said child evenly informs him, "I'm playing it for comedy, not as a pantomime." Everyone is an actor, and a critic.

Immodest delicacy

The opening section of the film also introduces us to the principal characters: Tristram, his father Walter, his mother, the doctor, and dear old uncle Toby with his mysterious wound in a place so delicate he cannot even speak the words and so is forced to whistle in order to distract himself from such immodesty. While Coogan, or is it Tristram, no, it's Walter, tracks through the stately home recounting the events of his birth, the camera pans out out to reveal the film crew at work, and an entire new chapter begins to unfold. This is the story of Coogan, the actor, in modern day dress, on a film set, and all the travails and trials that entails. Even this updated version is in keeping in the spirit of Sterne's novel, if not strictly with every aspect of it, the blank pages, or the other pages devoted merely to punctuation. Isn't that what do you on a film set, anyway, sit around and punctuate for eight hours straight?

What was that thing that wee Willy Shakespeare was always on about? That all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players? Willy got it right, like he got most things, and truer now, even, than they were back then. Reality, that old elastic, spastic, fantastic gets the full treatment here, and occasionally, you lose track of just which level you're supposed to be inhabiting. But that's okay. One is unreal as the other. If the world is a giant movie set, and we're all desperately trying to get more financing, it all comes together in the end. The lights come up, and you go home. Fin as the French say. Director Michael Winterbottom, played here by actor Jeremy Northam, must be delivered of the credit that is due him. Laughter, if only for a moment, is enough, and what else can you do, really, life is so utterly ridiculous, even at the darkest, grimmest moments, which is something that all great comedies know: darkness lurks, the catch in the throat, at the end of a belly laugh the bitter tinge of bile. (But if Big Mama's House 2 is what passes for comedy, I think I may well cry.)

And there are so many things to cry over. The end of the world, for one.

The other day, my mother sent me a link to James Lovelock's article in the Observer about the revenge of planet Earth on its people pestilence problem. Maybe we humans really do have to go. Kurt Vonnegut, in a recent interview with CBC's Anna Marie Tremonti on The Current, said pretty much the same thing.

Then he laughed like a madman.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.  [Tyee]

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