June 25, 2008

What’s missed is mystery: Ian Curtis and Control

The Ian Curtis biopic Control begins in the bedroom and ends in the kitchen. It’s a rock film that locates its drama in dull domestic spaces, or sometimes dull communal spaces (the dole office, the pub, the hospital). In something like Velvet Goldmine – which also featured an outsider teen who worshipped at the altar of Bowie, as so many did in Britain in the early ‘70s – the bedroom was the place to escape from, and you don’t look back. You want to get to airports, stadiums, arenas of the gods – all those rock-glory sites in such predictable representations as Almost Famous and Rock Star. There are no airports or stadiums in Control. This isn’t to say that the Joy Division story didn’t have its moments of conventional success, even during Curtis’ lifetime – they made magazine covers, drew bigger and bigger crowds, toured the continent – it’s more that this isn’t the story that photographer and promo-clip-maker turned director, Anton Corbijn, is giving us. This is the quotidian rock movie, shot in the style of a ‘50s kitchen sink drama – deliberate low-expectations realism.
For realism mimicked as carefully as this is an aesthetic choice. On the director’s commentary on the recently-released Control DVD, Corbijn says that he remembers Joy Division in black and white. They were shot that way of course – and Corbijn was among those who shot them – but also, for him, coming from Holland to England at the end of the '70s, the starving, miserable country itself was black and white. But the Manchester of this film doesn’t feel like the Manchester described as a dark, industrial, ruined environment by the likes of Jon Savage – and it’s widely assumed that the environment shaped their sound, seeped into it, rattled around in it. Even Natalie Curtis, the daughter of the dead singer, agrees that Corbijn has failed to get the real Manchester – the one, for instance, that WG Sebald described in The Emigrants: soot-coloured urban valleys, derelict buildings and blasted quarters, silent and empty streets, dark in the afternoon.
The reason for this is pretty simple: he shot a lot of it in Nottingham as Manchester has changed so much. But the weather is all wrong too – it’s sunny throughout. Where’s Manchester’s infamous dampness? The British summer of 2006, when this was shot, was apparently one of the hottest and brightest on record. Bad luck – they got good weather. And as for the quotidian quality, Corbijn has a manifesto, again related on the DVD commentary: “People’s lives are not a collection of highlights. I focus on the normal things.”
But the smartest moments of Control are when he chooses not to. In the opening scene, Sam Riley as Curtis (he’s good, but too pretty: cast him in the Pete Doherty story) recites some “Heart and Soul” lyrics. “Existence, well, what does it matter?” is the line we’re supposed to ponder, but the one that really matters comes a few seconds later: “The past is now part of my future.” This might be a reference to the Ian Curtis mythology that was to start growing within days of this scene, as soon as the suicide became news: his future is to always be this Ian Curtis, the man who exists only inside the sound of those amazing records, endlessly replaying his steps towards his own death. This doesn't mean that Curtis planned his entire career, including his death, as a kind of romantic, sub-Jim Morrison rock stunt – but there are often strange ways in which the details and impressions of what happened are caught by him in advance. There is a supernatural edge to the Joy Division records; there is very little that’s normal about them.
At other times, Corbijn departs from the historical record to show the myth gaining life. A rehearsal of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is set up as though the band were shooting the video (in other words, to give us their normal life, he mimics their most famous performance). At the end, as the inevitable “Atmosphere” plays over a long shot of a crematorium, black smoke pours from the chimney as though this were a Papal election – his death is that momentous.
So what is normal life? He marries his girlfriend when they’re both teens. Corbijn might not know it, but there was nothing unusual about that in a working-class city in the 1970s. They have a baby, he has a job, but he also harbours ambitions to be in a band. The band does well. He develops epilepsy. He meets another woman. Depressed by the epilepsy drugs, his situation, the demands on him, he hangs himself.
Nothing in that sypnosis tells you why you want to see this movie. Why did I want to see it? Because I’ve been listening to Joy Division on and off for more than 20 years. Because I thought that a biopic of Ian Curtis was a good idea. Because it seemed interesting that something so private – Joy Division was never party music, you didn’t listen to it in groups – was about to become so public. When I first saw it, last July at the Auckland International Film Festival, only weeks after it had played Cannes, I thoroughly enjoyed it, largely for the band scenes, as the group play “Leaders of Men”, “Transmission”, “Dead Souls” and so on. It seemed like a serious, sombre, quiet, artful response to 24 Hour Party People, which contained a truncated version of the same story, but done with more rowdiness and sarcasm.
In the band scenes, Riley seems to get the switch that Curtis made if you watch those old live TV clips of “Shadowplay”, “Transmission” and “She’s Lost Control” – that moment when the look in his eye changed, when something gripped him or possessed him, that look of … what is it? Desperation, fear, awe, terror, rapture? A look into some kind of beyond. There’s a lovely moment when Debbie Curtis (well played by Samantha Morton) is watching the band on TV and she has a look of obvious concern on her face, as though she is seeing what is happening and going to happen. It’s her concern about the sudden and frightening transformations that grip him and drain him.
The story of Control is based on Debbie Curtis’ book, Touching from a Distance. That memoir was part of the posthumous Joy Division industry – it was the first official publication of the lyrics and it coincided with a new compilation – but the story that she creates is about exclusion. As usual, the girls were barred from the rock club. So in Control, the excluded wife gets the last word and gets to dictate the terms of his memory, but both she and Annik (the singer’s girlfriend) still get a raw deal. Annik is presented as some kind of mega-groupie, although Corbijn says on the commentary track that she and Curtis never actually slept together (and if that’s true, why wasn’t it in the script?).
That use of “Heart and Soul” above might have been a smart move but at other times, there is a thudding obviousness to the way that the songs are presented – they’re journal entries set to music, descriptions of the trials and tribulations of Ian Curtis. Actually, in a curious way, there was something dehumanised, impersonal, incorporeal about Joy Division – partly because there were no pictures of people on the covers and so little information available, but mostly because Curtis had, for the majority of us, always been dead. I started listening to Joy Division in about 1986 – six years after his death, but it could have been 96 years for all the difference it made to how you approached him. Watching Control the second time, it struck me: in more than 20 years, I had never once thought about the suicide of Ian Curtis. It had never seemed like an event that had happened in historical time to a real person. So who was that on the record? Whose voice was that? The voice sounded ancient. “Yeah, we wasted our time, didn’t really have time/But I remember when we were young.” When we were young? He was 21 when he wrote that, but he sounded like a dead man already, reflecting on the life he has left. “I never realised the lengths I had to go …” – all these events in past tense. Deborah Curtis used to say that he sounded old; Barney Hoskyns wrote, in 1985, that the voice was “so old and grave and shadowy”.
I’m not getting that sense from Control, that strange sense that Joy Division gave me – not a chronicle of a death foretold, but a description of death, the anticipation of it and the mythology that grew around it, all simultaneously. And, again and again, that sense of someone talking to you from beyond: “If you could just see the beauty/These things I could never describe.” Where is he when he says that? And, again and again, the sense that he was cursed with some greater vision: “Someone take these dreams away.” So it’s reductive to think that the songs reflect everyday life, are written in response to it, as comments on it. Yes, the “you” in a line like “I tried to get to you, you treat me like this…” might well have been Debbie, as Corbijn implies, but it cannot be the same “you” in “People like you find it easy”. In fact, I’ve long felt that the last one, from the brilliant and stately “Atmosphere”, was the dead man pleading with us, his listeners (“Don’t walk away”), which makes it a perfectly bittersweet closing song, as we get up from our seats and turn our backs on the screen.