in media res

Control by giantinsect
May 11, 2008, 1:51 pm
Filed under: cinema, film, music, Patrick, photography


On Friday (9th May) I went to see Control at the Duke of York’s cinema in Brighton. I went with a keen movie-going friend of mine. My interest in the film was piqued by the fact that I’ve been impressed with some photography I’ve seen by the director Anton Corbijn. I’ve also seen one video by Anton Corbijn which I really liked. This was not a music video but rather an artistic video build around an interview with the alternative pop/rock icon Captain Beefheart. Anyway this was Anton Corbijn’s first feature film and is focussed on the short life of Ian Curtis, lead singer with the late seventies group Joy Division.

I was a teenager during the time that Joy Division was releasing records. I never became interested in them although I was well aware it was very a cool group to be into.

There were great things about this movie but for me some things prevented it from being a great movie.

I loved the depiction of Manchester. The whole feel of Manchester and the understanding of that which Manchester represents in the culture of the UK is central to the story. I was in Manchester in the early eighties, a few years after Ian Curtis had taken his life. Manchester has a very distinct and rather likeable identity in the UK. It is the second largest city but unlike London it forms one society, whereas London of course is made up of many smaller societies. So, I feel that the society of Manchester is the biggest in the UK. There is a comment in Control made by Factory record label owner Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) to the group that ‘this is the republic of Manchester’.

The sets and props were very enjoyable for me. I remember those plates they had, the ashtrays seen in the pubs, many of the ornaments and general decoration in the houses are ones that formed the real life backdrop of that period. Anton Corbijn captured the late seventies very well indeed. The seventies that we love to hate ‘the decade that taste forgot’ actually ended in about 1977. 1977 to 1980, the period of Joy Division, was not one in which taste was once again remembered but rather a time, I think, when beige and mediocrity ruled. It was as if the vivid designs of the early half of the seventies had such a glare that people needed to recover at the end of the decade. They did this by purchasing items for their household that made no statement whatsoever. The vast city of Manchester became extraordinarily beige in the late seventies. My own feeling is that groups like Joy Division arose out of the desire to not be beige as much as a rejection of the forms of popular music that preceded them.

I wouldn’t have thought late seventies Manchester a particularly photogenic subject but the imagery in Control is quite superb, it is an undivided joy to the eyes.

Ian Curtis is depicted as a very complicated character and difficult to unravel. The other group members appear quite basic in comparison and their lack of sophistication is used as a springboard for humour. They are simply adolescents and they misunderstand the world in adolescent ways. One of them talks about love, he tells us that you can love a car as much as a girl. If someone were to kick his car he would react as strongly as if they’d kicked his girl.

My primary criticism of the film is that it has been made by someone caught up in the aura of Joy Division. Anton Corbijn is a fan of the group and so wants the Joy Division phenomenon to spring from them, to have been created by them. It is true Ian Curtis apparently fulfils the requirements of a highly creative type, he is troubled and difficult, he has epileptic fits and very tragically he commits suicide. However there are many troubled and difficult adolescents. Many people have epileptic fits and terribly many commit suicide. Corbijn doesn’t do anything so crude as to suggest: troubled + fits + suicide = tortured artist, however some aggrandisement is performed in the story telling. Tony Wilson, Factory manager, is shown literally signing the contract in blood for this group. It’s a funny scene but it isn’t true. In the film Ian Curtis is depicted as the force that propels the group into fame. I think he is one of the players in their rise, but, just say Ian Curtis had never existed and in his place is another. Well I think that had that group fulfilled the look and feel that Tony Wilson was after they might will have still shot to fame. However if Tony Wilson hadn’t existed I doubt Joy Division would be known about today.

Tony Wilson is entertainingly a bit old and out of place amongst these post-punks. His TV appearance looks very cheesy today but his role in this story in reality was much greater than depicted in this film I feel. In this film he is a conduit, in reality he was doing it.

I think that a group like this one is elevated by its fans. It is the fans that fuel the thing. They have a desire for a group that will be a mascot for their identity. They project onto the group their wishes. The do love the group but like all lovers they create the thing they love and place it upon the subject. The emotionally frail Ian Curtis wasn’t suited to this attention.

Today Amy Winehouse is in the news a lot for excessive drug abuse and other misbehaviours. Her fans love her, they tell her she is a very talented individual. She ‘sings those songs like no other can’. However Amy Winehouse is in reality a pretty average person. I don’t wish to insult her, I am a pretty average type as well. She might be under the misapprehension that she has some great talent but this is because her adoring fans keep telling her this is so, so she has made an understandable mistake.

There is a parallel between Amy Winehouse and Ian Curtis. Amy Winehouse is heralded as a brilliant singer with a superb voice whereas in reality she is, I guess, okay at singing with a voice that is reasonably well suited to it. Ian Curtis was felt to be a tremendously creative individual, whereas in reality he was I feel probably just a bit more creative than his peers.

In their respective spheres Amy and Ian are people who are/were perhaps just a bit better than average. It is their fans that build/built them into idols with supposed great skills.

I don’t think pop music record company ‘talent scouts’ actually look for talent but rather for individuals that look like they will fill the current pop industry’s demand whatever that may be. There is something a bit pimp-ish about these ‘talent scouts’ and I thought there was something a bit pimpish about Tony Wilson.

My hope is that for her own good Amy Winehouse will see through the bogus world of the pop music industry and get out of it before it gets her.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I can’t really see the parallel you draw between a living person and a dead persona who lived in quite different media contexts. First of all, in the late 70s, construction of celebrities was done with considerably less mediated ways than nowadays (not even MTV yet). Secondly and most important, Ian Curtis’ fame(at a non-local level) is a post-mortum one. Finally, Amy Winehouse I believe is a drug addict and this in social perception falls better in the ‘rebel’ category than an illness such as epilepsy and depression.
And as far as creativity is concerned, the surviving members of joy division certainly lost it with new order.

Comment by geonorton

Nevermind the bleeding props. What about the amazing and uncanny performance by Sam Riley as Ian Curtis. Obviously it worked on you, because this review of a film turned into a critique of Curtis’s character and suitability as a rock idol. Credit where credit is due?

Comment by calx

Hi Calx

Yes you are absolutely right, the acting of Sam Riley was really first class. I also loved Samantha Morton as Deborah Curtis.

Craig Parkinson was quite superb as Tony Wilson.

LOL about the props 🙂

Comment by giantinsect

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