Jan 30, 2006

Tristram Shandy Vol. 2

When I was in college, I took a course in 18th Century English Literature. Not because it was my favorite period, but because the 19th and 20th were already fully booked and I had no choice. It was a bummer. All the students whose last names started with M to Z, had to take this course; a stupid, arbitrary way of making anybody take the class, because nobody would. Our teacher, Mrs. Violet Khazoum, was an eccentric woman who looked like Mahatma Gandhi in drag. Her classes were monumentally boring, except when she'd tell us personal gossip about the writers: Fielding, Richardson, Defoe. Except for Tom Jones, I hated everything I read in that class. The Spanish-speaking contingent, my friend Sonia from Barcelona, Henry from Bogotá and yours truly had a fierce argument with Khazoum because she claimed, in a self-assured, imperial way, that the English invented the novel. We were outraged. Cervantes had written Don Quixote about at least fifty if not a hundred years before Daniel Dafoe put his clunky prose on paper. Khazoum was regally uninterested in revising her views.
We were supposed to read Tristam Shandy, by Laurence Sterne, which was rumored to be a very funny book, ahead of its time. Well, I tried my best but it was a crazy, maddening book, and I was bent on hating my forced 18th Century literary experience, (which also led me to despise Jane Austen, quite unfairly, I might add).
Recently I went to see Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story in the same way that I watch all the film adaptations of Jane Austen, so I don't have to read the books. I was also curious to see if the film would be as unwatchable as the novel was unreadable to me, or if in fact it would persuade me to give the book another try. My moviegoing companion could only take about 15 minutes of the story jumping up and down in time, announced she didn't like it, and promptly fell asleep. But I stuck it out and had a delightful time. I have never been a fan of director Michael Winterbottom. His movies strike me as dried out affairs, correctly put out, but entirely dispassionate. Yet A Cock and Bull Story is quite fun. It manages to evoke the mischievous spirit of the original, which I, like Steve Coogan, who plays himself and Tristram Shandy in the film, have not really read. As Steve Coogan explains in the movie, Tristram Shandy was the first post-modern book long before there was anything to be "post" about. And the movie, written by Frank Cotrell Boyce and Winterbottom, is a clever, airy exercise in postmodern screenwriting. I know this sounds like the kiss of death, but actually, the idea of filming a film of the filming of Tristram Shandy is lovingly executed, cleverly written, and above all fantastically populated by a bunch of extremely funny actors. Steve Coogan plays a self-absorbed, quite insufferable star named Steve Coogan, and he is hilarious in a deadpan, dry as a deadly martini, kind of way. His sidekick, the amazingly funny Rob Bryden, plays himself, another self-absorbed, clueless actor, but without Coogan's mean streak. The way they riff off each other is a marvel of comedic partnership (don't miss the end credits; they are a delightful surprise). Dylan Moran is also excellent as Dr. Slop, perhaps the world's least sympathetic obstetrician.
A Cock and Bull Story horses around a lot with what's real and what's fiction, but there is a sweet, playful nature to the whole endeavor, and the characters, even when they are grossly narcissistic, are funny, vulnerable and real. By the way, Tristram Shandy, the novel, is now on my reading list.

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