No Context by Zach Baron
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Through November 1st, Film Forum
Two weeks before beginning work on Anton Corbijn’s Ian Curtis-biopic Control, the cast and crew visited a New Order show, seeking inspiration, or guidance, or approval from the three-out-of-four men whose early lives they’d soon represent onscreen. Most awkward, by his own account, was the presence of Sam Riley, who was to play Ian Curtis — the one member of the silver-screen band who lacked a real-life counterpart, since the occasion for the film was, at least in part, Curtis’ May 18th, 1980 suicide. “They didn’t offer all that much advice,” recalled Riley at last night’s Film Forum screening. “Bernard Sumner sort of patted me on the back and said, ‘Have fun.‘”
As it happens, this is by all accounts the way Sumner talked to Ian Curtis when he was alive, too — the four members of Joy Division were known to be reticent, with each other and famously with the press. In one scene in the film, Curtis has just had an epileptic seizure, one in an increasingly disturbing series of them, while onstage; he’s just told his wife, with whom he has recently had a child and who he married at the age of 19, that he no longer loves her; and in the crowd, watching as he collapses at the back of the stage, is Annik Honoré, the girlfriend he can’t give up. The band’s manager, Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell) lays Curtis out on a couch backstage and says, by way of comforting him: “Could be worse… You could be the lead singer in the Fall.”
Coincidentally, Sam Riley did play the lead singer of the Fall, Mark E. Smith, in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, the Factory Records film which many assumed would be the last word on Joy Division and Ian Curtis onscreen, and in which Anton Corbijn’s elegiac 1988 video for “Atmosphere” plays as a final, gut-punch memorial. Corbijn, a photographer who took some of the more iconic photographs of the band in the last year of their existence, had yet to direct a film before Control, but no one doubted that, with his proven understanding of the band’s mute aesthetic and seeming ability to appreciate a distant band from a distance, he was perhaps the perfect man for the job.
And, in fact, Control is eerily (mundanely, even) faithful to the Joy Division mythology. There are the books on the shelves of Curtis’ childhood bedroom — J.G. Ballard and Ginsburg — and the records on his stereo: Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. There are the constant references by every interviewer, fan, and TV personality to the Buzzcocks; the foundational Sex Pistols concert; the change in name from Warsaw to Joy Division. There is the inexplicable “You all forgot Rudolf Hess!” boast by Curtis, pulled right off of the legendary Short Circuit Manchester punk EP, and there is the night that Curtis died: the fight with his wife Deborah, the half-empty bottle, Herzog’s Stroszek on the TV, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot on the record player, and at last the noose in the kitchen.
Riley looks like Curtis, moves like Curtis; the four actors ultimately talked Corbijn into allowing them to perform the Joy Division songs in the film themselves, and it’s almost incomprehensible how well they do, especially considering the fact that none of them — excepting Riley’s short-lived 10,000 Things — were musicians before filming. James Pearson, who plays Bernard Sumner, “had never played guitar before,” said Riley after the screening. “Now he knows nine songs. He’s not much fun at a party.”
Riley is clearly aware of what they are up against in making Control — “I know a lot of these films about bands are a bit iffy,” he said, and about Curtis he noted: “He’s a private hero to many people.” Corbijn’s challenge, in making the movie, would be paradoxically to represent this fact while remaining faithful to its fundamental tenet/tenant: that Joy Division was a band enjoyed best from a distance, from a remove, without emotion — the way, not coincidentally, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner and Deborah Curtis still speak about the band today. Even when Curtis was alive, he was adamant about not being psychologized. Understanding was beside the point; as Tony Wilson, the owner of Factory Records and a primary mythmaker behind the band, once said, “If it is a choice between the truth and the legend, take the legend every time.” Curtis’ daughter Natalie has recently quoted this exact line with approval, and she notes that her mother (on whose memoir of the marriage, Touching from a Distance, Corbijn’s film is based) feels the same way.
Honoring this wish would be a tall order for any filmmaker, even one as apparently talented as Corbijn — every shot in the film, with its bleak monochrome palate, perfectly understated costume design and almost fetishistic attention to the real-life exterior of the house in which Deborah and Curtis lived, honors the band. In Control, there’s no triumphalism, no unearned inspiration, hardly any transparent emotion at all.
Ultimately though, if only near the end of the film, Corbijn’s desire to possess Curtis, rather merely observe him, begins to infiltrate. Where Corbijn is content, for most of the movie, to render Curtis as the inarticulate and uncomfortable soul he himself described in song after song and abortive interview after abortive interview, the Curtis represented by Wilson and Hook and Deborah Curtis, eventually we go beyond the barriers Curtis so naturally set up in life — into the empty bedrooms and doctor’s offices and hotel rooms and even, via voiceover, into his thoughts themselves. What was remarkable about Joy Division — and what is remarkable about three-quarters of Control — was the way in which everything anyone needed to know about the band, and about Ian Curtis, was available in a handful of songs. No one ever needed to imagine what happened behind closed doors. We already knew.
LD Beghtol on Control