Known Pleasures

ControlSpeaking 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.

I Like Their Early Stuff

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.

Still from “Control”

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.

Hit or Myth

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.

  1. The music of Joy Division is quite brilliant, and touching from a Distance is a great book on the subject. Yet, I have very low expectations for the film. On the other hand, it’s good to know that the 24 Hour Party People wasn’t the only attempt at telling the story.

    Here are the Young Men would be a great find on DVD, which I hope to come across some day.

  2. I saw the sublime Control at the Toronto International Film Fest debut back in September and I can concur that the audience audibly groaned when The Killers cover came on the speakers. At the end of a haunting film, that one moment came off as commercial and crude.

  3. re:”everything about rock music is all mythologyЁ or bullshit.”

    hmm id beg to differ on this a bit.

    i think a better wrap up to this piece might be “everything about what rock music has become is all mythologyЁ or bullshit.”

    and Im not one to piss all over “those kids these days” either.

    I think its just a general freak out by the Recording Industry as a whole, now that bands are signed on ring-tone and movie placement residuals potential (see above) because the old profit model is now basically over.

    If the industry as a whole (more “established” lets say, and, yes, i know these are incredibly broad terms im using and Im not giving much context) took a nice deep breath, sat down, patted itself on the back and said “hey everything’s gonna to work out just fine”, they might get back to doing what they once did very well: putting out great music and let the chips fall.

  4. I beg to differ on your interpretation of ‘The Sound of Music’ as just a aside. Yes, it did reveal a lighter side of the man, which was certainly the function of the dialogue — as New Order said when they performed the song for the Brit’s world Cup attempts in I-don’t-quite-remember-which-year, Ian wasn’t all gloom and doom, and loved his foot as much as the next mancurian. But the choice of ‘The Sound of Music’ was not random. As I was born the same year as Curtis [and most of JD/NO] and in Britain, I see this in a different light: ‘The Sound of Music’ was a genuine cult movie [and remains so to this day] for us. In fact, A couple of years back I borrowed an english video recording for my youngest daughter to watch [we live in France now, and she only speaks French], and she was so subjugated by the film that it was only on the second play that she realised it was in English, not French.

    [And, I loved ‘Control’ too…]

  5. I never cared much for Joy Division or New Order. I much rather listen to Sisters Of Mercy, Bauhaus, and The Cure. 🙂

  6. Wow – came across your blog via SvN – a man after my own heart, the first gig I went to was Joy Division supporting the Buzzcocks in ’79 at Leeds University. Still get goose bumps listening to Ian Curtis.

    I’m now fighting enterprise software and making software tools that just work for easy instant ad-hoc collaboration.

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