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A Cock And Bull Story (2006) – this week’s best film on TV

July 16, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

One for English literature students and fans of Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon comedy The Trip.  Showing BBC2, Sunday 17th July, at 11:35pm.

A Cock And Bull Story Michael Winterbottom Steve Coogan Rob Brydon

A Cock and Bull Story
(Michael Winterbottom, GB, 2006)

Winterbottom’s deranged “filming of the filming of the unfilmable novel” is the intellectual equivalent of having your cake and eating it: self-indulgent, exhausting and delicious

Many filmmakers want to adapt supposedly ‘unfilmable’ classics of literature, as one character puts it here, “for the challenge.” And almost all directors want to turn their attention to their own profession at some point so they can join that most indulgent of genres, the movie-about-a-movie. Few would be cavalier enough to attempt both simultaneously (the only example I can think of off-hand is Karel Reisz’s version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman) but ‘cavalier’ is pretty much the definition of Michael Winterbottom’s unpredictable career, and at least he’s chosen the right material with which to attempt this high-wire act.

Lawrence Sterne’s 18th Century classic The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is a novel that is forever short-circuiting its narrative thrust to wander off in endless digressions. It’s effectively a postmodern classic written before there was any modernism to be post about – and, of course, A Cock and Bull Story is the kind of postmodern film that actually stops to tell you that. Adaptation proved that you could get away with showing both the fiction and the ‘fact,’ but Winterbottom already had his blueprint in the organic, organised chaos of 24 Hour Party People, to which this is a clear companion piece – Coogan plays Tristram in exactly the same way he did Tony Wilson, and the latter actually appears in a cameo.

A Cock And Bull Story Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on set

“In A Cock And Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom opts for the classic Day For Night narrative of a film set plagued by problems: funding battles, script issues, love affairs and actors’ egos…”

In mapping out the mad world of the film shoot, Winterbottom opts for the classic Day For Night narrative of a set plagued by problems: funding battles, script issues, love affairs and actors’ egos. Cheekily, Winterbottom also finds a uniquely British problem to add, in the question of whether the material warrants being made for the cinema when it would be perfectly serviceable on TV. It’s a solid, witty farce, impeccably acted (kudos especially to Ian Hart’s sardonic writer and Naomie Harris’ smart but impressionable runner) but any sense of overfamiliarity is constantly refreshed from its connection to the story of Tristram Shandy.

Clearly, there’s a correlation between the apparently disordered, non-linear way in which a film is made and the ‘cock and bull’ nature of the novel’s telling, and Winterbottom proves an astute judge of how one can illuminate the other. In particular, the emphasis on Steve Coogan’s insecurities (in a brilliant, self-mocking performance) is the perfect paradigm for the novel’s central point that Tristram is a bit-part player in his own life story. And Winterbottom neatly sidesteps the perennial problem of adaptation by dressing much of the action as an argument about what to include, so that huge swathes of the novel unsuitable for a conventional version of Shandy can be referred to obliquely in conversations or cutaways. You like the hot chestnut anecdote but can’t find room for it? Do it as a “rehearsal” routine shorn of its original context: the slapstick still emerges unscathed.

The only shame is that, on the evidence of the (relatively straight) first half hour, this could quite easily have been a bona fide adaptation of Shandy. Today’s audiences are so clued up to narrative tricks that Winterbottom can run at the material full-pelt armed with narration, flashbacks, flashforwards and ellipses, and carry us along with him. The novel as written, black pages and all, most likely is unfilmable, but these sections of the film demonstrate that everything is relative. In the homogenous world of the three-act motion picture, even the slightest narrative detour comes across as anarchy – and, compared to the structural timidity of most contemporary film comedies, this is as radical as Shandy was to 18th Century literature even without the extra layer of head-spinning complexity added by the meta-textual film shoot section.

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