Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Anton Corbijn's Control: portrait of a monster
I saw the film Control, by Anton Corbijn, a couple weeks ago. I enjoyed it, if only because I like watching moving images and being immersed in the great media spectacle. I'd recommend it to anyone who's in the mood for a troubling, introspective drama that pulls you into an artist's personal web of tragedy. I know, this doesn't sell very well on paper.
Still, if you're like me and welcome the chance to think a lot about a movie and a public persona, you'll probably find Control worth the watch. It brings up an old question that I find myself recycling every so often: how do I react to narratives wherein the protagonist is really a deplorable bastard? Are they 1) personally enriching and/or educational? or 2) even enjoyable? and if the answer to (2) is "Yes," is it an enjoyment I should be indulging in, or is it just the kind of pathetic voyeurism we get from watching a train wreck or a celebrity breakdown?
Quick backstory: Control is about Ian Curtis, the front-man to the goth/punk band Joy Division. Joy has earned a special place in music history, being the hybrid seed of a whole underground movement. They're the type of band that has resonated through the critical and historical consciousness of pop music, even though they've never surfaced in mainstream memory. They were categorically narcissistic and depressed, but they managed to avoid being a cliche because they were so damn sincere. This was no Brand New self-pity... this was genuinely troubled, sincere disaffected personal turmoil, born out for the eye of a thousand teenage fans.
Part of the reason for this sincerity, and for the fame that attended it, was that Curtis was such a pitiful case. His voice, and his songwriting, are the assets that carried the band to greatness. He was one of the rare people who is vulnerable to crushing emotional pain, and who knows how to express it intelligently and sensitively. The pressure of young marriage, fast fame, and medical issues were the engine behind his voice, but they were also the catalysts for his depression and suicide.
(spoiler warning... arg, too late.)
Unfortunately, he was also a dick. If Sam Riley's portrayal is to be believed, Curtis lived at an unfortunate crossroad between cynicism and sensitivity. He was chronically insecure, and yet he was thirsty to prove himself, so he ended up emotionally numb and vulnerable to self-indulgence. The film doesn't skimp on this point, either. Throughout Control, there seems to be a shadow across the characters and their city (dying industrial Manchester), and the discerning audience might realize that this pall is emanating from Ian Curtis himself, who seems to poison the lives and interactions of his friends and family.
So in a sad, vaguely sympathetic, but also frustrating journey, we see Curtis overflow and collapse. Have we learned anything from him? Have we enjoyed his downfall? Why the fuck did we see this movie?
As always, there's enlightenment to be found in any honest portrayal of a foreign psyche and experience. Even Curtis's flaws are part of the world we live in, and we may recognize some of them in ourselves... the dangerous human impulses of hubris and narcissism may be repressed, but there's a trace of them in each of us. This is a film that sheds some light on them in order that we may face them.
In this sense, Corbijn's Ian Curtis reminds me of John Gardner's Grendel. Grendel was a protagonist of sorts... the reader is placed behind his eyes and forced to see his flawed reasoning and his failure. However, in John Gardner's (totally amazing) novel, Grendel is also a monster through and through, willingly blind to the world so that he can feel justified in ravaging it. As an audience, we're supposed to be along for the ride, and we're supposed to give Grendel some face time for a while, but (as Gardner himself has pointed out) we're ultimately supposed to hate him and reject his nihilism in favor of the awesome humanistic strength of Beowulf.
With Curtis, we're not given this kind of alternative. There's no Eddie Vedder (or whoever) to stand up and be the success that Curtis couldn't become. Still, Ian Curtis's role in Control is directly analogous to Grendel's role in Grendel. As a sophisticated viewer, you can stick with Curtis and feel a sense of tragedy for his misfortunes, not because you like or respect him, but simply because he's human, and because ever human being is in danger of losing control. We're free to be angry at Curtis's abuse of his wife, family, friendships, and of his own talent, but perhaps Corbijn has allowed us to ride the line between rejection and sympathy, so that we can arrive at the end of Control and feel the tragedy of a life that could never find its own rhythm.