Thu 18 Oct
Speaking of control, it’s only a funny coincidence that I gave a new talk with that title the same week that Anton Corbijn’s biopic about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis was released. That film is also called “Control,” and while it has nothing to do with design, it’s neverthelesss an entertaining if imperfect movie. I saw it on Monday night at New York’s Film Forum theater.
I’m a big fan of Joy Division as well as the post-Joy Division work of New Order, who formed in the aftermath of Curtis’ untimely suicide. But I’ve always been skeptical of the cultish fascination with Curtis’ demise, which has always seemed to add an uneasily pat bookend to his briefly prolific career. The facts of his death, while undeniably tragic, have always veered too far into the territory of convenient mythology for me.
Anton Corbijn seems to understand this basic tension between person and legend; though “Control” is his first feature, he grasps with great acuity that the Joy Division catalog continues to be affecting and powerful in spite of Curtis’ suicide, not because of it. A lesser director would have misunderstood that premise entirely. With great care and more or less sound judgment, the director sets about de-mythologizing his subject. In that his final product adds to the legend in a way that Joy Division fans will probably appreciate, Corbijn manages to have have it both ways. His deconstruction is effective without betraying the mythology altogether; it’s a tricky balancing act.
There’s a scene halfway through “Control” that encapsulates this duality perfectly: the Curtis character, played by Sam Riley, is sharing an intimate moment with his groupie mistress, played by Alexandra Maria Lara. The mistress asks Curtis what his favorite movie is and he replies with a deadpan expression, “The Sound of Music.”
This obviously fictionalized intimation is not particularly imaginative but it is beautifully, affectingly played by Riley, who treats it with seriousness and humor at once. It offers a throwaway glimpse into a side of Curtis that isn’t stereotypically morose, even as he’s peppered with soul-searching clichés by Lara’s woefully underwritten character. With just the right-sized dollop of lightheartedness and attention to his leading man, Corbijn manages to snatch humility from the jaws of bombast. It’s also worth mentioning that, though the scene takes place in a spare and visually unremarkable bedroom, it’s nevertheless rendered with gorgeous detail and expertly photographed by Corbijn’s unfailing aesthete’s eye.
As much as popular music entertains me, I resist its easy self-mythologizing; I learned a long time ago that what rock stars have to offer us in the way of wisdom and life lessons is vanishingly small in the grand scheme of things. Given that, I expected to have a much harder time watching “Control” than I did; rather than being a cartoonish canonization of a romantic suicide victim, its frequently delicate humility and disciplined dramatization is quite touching.
At the end of the film, a lot of the unbecoming vestiges of rock star hyperbole surrounding Curtis evaporated for me; I was left feeling quite sorry for him as a person, in a way I hadn’t in years and years of listening to his music. That lingered with me for a bit as I watched the credits roll… and then, in an inexplicably ill-advised decision, Joy Division’s “Shadowplay” came through the speakers — as played by The Killers; I’m not sure I have much against them as a band, but I’d heard that particular cover before and it’s among the most soulless and commercially calculated recordings I’ve ever played. It reminded me: everything about rock music is all mythology… or bullshit.