Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006), Film vs. Book

1. Analysis of the Book. Tristram Shandy first appeared as a series of stories by Laurence Stern in 1789. It is narrated by the lead character (Tristram Shandy) as a series of mishaps revolving loosely around his life story, and illustrates Tristram’s thoughts and ideas. This novel deals more with the interactions of Shandy’s family members than with Tristram himself. However, his relationships, particularly with his father and Uncle Toby, provide an insight into understanding Tristram’s personality. The book is constantly disrupted (diversions are key to the novel) by Stern’s narratives which serve as a springboard for his own personal agenda and beliefs. For a reader, this can be confusing and aggravating. However, one begins to realize that is the point of the book, and that Tristram is correlating his beliefs to daily activities as they interconnect with him in a disorderly manner.

2. Analysis of the Film. In Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006), the producer, Michael Winterbottom does a nice job of producing a movie within a movie that coincidentally is about a book. During the production of this “movie” we become entangled with the daily frustrations of making this film. The actor, Steve Coogan plays Tristram Shandy, his father Walter, and himself. Throughout this film, the viewer is seeing three different personalities of this one actor. The theme remains the same. These 3 different personalities have two things in common: they are vain and insecure. They do what they can to promote their dominance. For instance, Steve demands that the costume designer builds up the buckles on his shoes to appear than bigger than Rob’s. His defense is not to be taller but for artistic reasons.

3. Analysis of the Adaptation. In the adapting the book into a film, Mr. Winterbottom manages to include comedy into a film that is branded to be unfilmable. By having Steve Coogan play three characters (including himself) the audience begins to feel the frustration of this one person and the demands of making the film.
The movie never actually gets around to filming the entirety of the book. Only select parts of the novel are portrayed. It honors and adds to the spirit of the book, but does not create a faithful retelling of the novel. Roger Ebert eloquently pointed out, “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story… never gets around to filming the book. Since the book is probably unfilmable, this is just as well; what we get instead is a film about the making of a film based on a novel about the writing of a novel.” In short, it does not create a faithful adaptation of the book in its entirety, but does do a good job of mimicking the style of Sterne. Therefore, the film within a film aspect is a kind of metaphorical adaptation of Sterne’s work, and captures it in a way that a simple rehash of the storyline could not. Whether or not it is a “faithful” adaptation depends entirely on how you look at it.

4. Online Research of the Film. The three online sources I found in relation to Tristram Shandy include a review of the book:  www2.iath.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0259.html , an analysis of the film by Roger Ebert: www.rogerebert.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/…/REVIEWS/…, and a film review by David Walsh: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2006/mar2006/tris-m16.shtml. The www2.iath.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0259.html site has a nice overview of the book but tends to leave out the details of the characters. Roger Ebert’s review Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006) offers more insight into the film. The review by David Walsh, compares and contrasts the movie and the book.
The review by David Walsh does an excellent job of explaining the complexities of the book and film. Therefore, the reader has a clearer picture of this unfilmable book that turned out to be a unique film that allows comedic insight into the characters.
Additionally, http://www.screenit.com/movies/2006/tristram_shandy.html offers several productive stats of the film.

5. Critical Analysis. After seeing Michael Winterbottom’s film version, would you agree that Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is unfilmable? Does Winterbottom’s film capture the essence of the book, or not? I don’t believe the film is unfilmable. Anything is possible, BUT winterbottom’s film version tends to suggest it IS unfilmable since it doesn’t truly take on the task of creating a thorough interpretation of the novel. With that said, it is important to point out that it does capture the essence or spirit of the film very well. The film within a film aspect is a kind of metaphorical adaptation of Sterne’s work, and captures it in a way that a simple rehash of the storyline could not. Additionally, like Stern’s novel, Winterbottom attempts to hit on many similar points in very similar fashion. Yes, the film adds to the book. It’s almost like a sequel. Let’s look at some points it addresses:

What does the film say about motherhood, in terms of the Tristram story, and the filming-of-Tristram story? How about fatherhood? Similar to Stern’s novel the movie seems to elevate the role and virtue of motherhood. During the circumcision scene who is the one to whom the young Tristram runs and finds solace? His mother is the one who consoles the young Tristram. In terms of the birthing scene, we get a sense of how men “stayed away” and concerned themselves with politics or war, while the women banded together to help the mother. When Dr. Slop-his name is appropriate due to his appearance, arrived, he was eager to demonstrate his new tool-the forceps. While demonstrating the forceps-the viewer begins to cringe and so do the women in the film. The end result-the baby has a broken nose-So much for advances in birthing. It portrays fatherhood as pedantic and ignorant about most subjects pertaining to parenthood. It attempts to imply that motherhood is the only one of the two roles which is not ignorant of parenthood.
Particularly in how it treats pregnancy and birth, and the way men are portrayed as being both pedantic and ignorant about these subjects, is the film feminist? (Note that the book is very similar to the film in this regard).

Some may say the film may have feminist undertones. During that time period there were certain roles that men and women adhered to. So for the men to stay away while the woman is giving birth is understandable and adds a comedic tone to the film. Also, the time period illustrates how men proved their virility by how much they acquired in land, possessions, and number of children. It offers a contrast in roles between the two different centuries (late 18th and 21st). It provides a basis for drawing comparisons between the two: the relationship between Tristram’s parents versus the relationship between Coogan and his wife. Both have the wife spending a great deal of time in the bedroom, and with children while the husband finds ways to bolster his ego. Is it feminist? It demonstrates common behaviors between two similar personalities in different periods. Does it go so far as to make a broad generalization of all members of a particular gender? If so, it creates a broad and sweeping generalization or stereotype. Perhaps that makes it very feminist or misandrist. It seems feminist in that it portrays the women in traditionally strong/virtuous roles which have become pedantic and commonplace. The role is of the undervalued virtues of womanhood. The roles are tired and do not accurately portray women. Neither women nor men are really that virtuous.

The producers of the film-within-the-film seemed obsessed with battle scenes and love stories. This a send-up of Hollywood-style entertainment films. Hollywood films are typically obsessed with sex and violence with no regard for taste or literary value. It is considered an industry which appeals to base interests. Likewise, the film is a mockumentary (it is a parody of a “making of” film and a satire of reality television). This is well in line with the spirit of Sterne since his novel is a book about writing a book. Both are self reflexive. This leads into how the film is post modernistic. Its early postmodernism is an element frequently mentioned by those who laud Stern’s work.  Particularly in its film-within-a-film structure, Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy is quite postmodern as well. It’s self-reflexive, in that it reminds us that we’re watching a film, and that films are fake. How else is the film self-reflexive or postmodern? “Postmodernism postulates that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs and are therefore subject to change. It claims that there is no absolute truth and that the way people perceive the world is subjective and emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations in the formation of ideas and beliefs.” This is the whole point of the film and novel, and begs an explanation of the role of certain characters… The intern Jenny is a budding auteur (or film professor!) who cites renowned auteurs Bresson and Fassbinder. The viewer meant to admire even though they might find her pretentious. It is supposed to impress upon the viewer the intellectual prowess of Jenny. This lends her later statements more power and credibility. It leads into her characters development so that her later statements are taken more seriously. For example, her and Stephen Fry (as an academic talking head) say that life is chaotic, driven by chance, and can’t be captured by art. The film argues for this, and confirms it? This is the same as Sterne. Jennie comments that who we become is all a matter of chance. It reflects upon the post modernistic approach of Stern mentioned previously. The chaotic nature of it all is also the point of the quick moment in the film, when we hear news about the war in Afghanistan on the radio. What is Winterbottom trying to comment on life’s chaotic nature. Winterbottom is also commenting on love and death. For Freud, it was all about love and death. That is part of how the film deals with love and death (sex and war) in addition to the war scenes, the Jennie/Jenny’s, the Pavlovian sex scenes, the allusions to cock, etc. Tristram Shandy is a Freudian film.

One of the central jokes of the novel is that it never really explains a story directly. Both Tristram Shandy the book and Tristram Shandy the film have disjointed narratives (they are non-sequential, and prone to diversions). Likewise, Winterbottom often employs split screens as a method to mimic Sterne’s novel?

Both the book and the film have various meanings and representations of “cock”. As mentioned “nose” is also a stand in for the male member in the book and the film. Actually, “nose” has often been used as a metaphor for penis, especially concerning size. This is a central point in the description of great men with big noses after the entire forceps accident where Tristrams nose is broken and enlarged in childbirth. Additionally, Steve references Groucho Marx’s joke about a woman with many kids where she said she loved her husband and he replied that he loves his cigar but takes it out now and then. One website states, “When describing the title and first showing a real bull, Tristram says that he’ll show us “the cock in a minute.” When Uncle Toby is hit in the crotch during a battle, Tristram says it’s about his (Tristram’s) “cock” and not Uncle Toby’s.” The role of cock and sexual potency, sustainability, virility is central to the story of Uncle Toby, and his dalliance with the widow. Similarity between cock and clock there is a wordplay to further connect the Pavlov story; Lots of cock interpretations from childhood are in both the film and book: the window scene in the novel and book, and the baby bathing scene in the film; Additionally there are many references to the title as when there is a bull mounting and trying to mate with a cow, and a joking comment about a man’s “cock”.

Finally, competition between Coogan and Brydon plays a central role to the film. So, who does a better Al Pacino, Rob Brydon or Steve Coogan? Does Steve Coogan personate Al Pacino better than Rob Brydon? The impersonation of Al Pacino between Steve and Rob illustrate the constant competition between the two actors? Throughout the film, both Steve and Rob’s character’s compete with one another.  For instance, when Steve wanted the buckle to be bigger than Rob’s and with Jennie, the Production Assistant attention.  However, we know that Steve’s character has a girlfriend with a baby visiting. So why does he care about Rob’s character vying for Jennie’s attention? Despite the constant competition in life for these two actors, one understands that they have a good friendship and I thought Steve did a better job impersonating Al Pacino than Rob.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

  1. Your analysis of the book, the film, and the adaptation were good. In your online research, avoid general reviews (even Ebert’s). For your critical analysis paragraph, try to form it like an argument, beginning with a thesis statement which you develop in the argument paragraph, rather than just respond to a critical analysis prompt. The prompt is to help you come up with ideas. AND YOU ONLY NEED TO DO ONE CRITICAL ANALYSIS PARAGRAPH (respond to one prompt). Anyway, check out the critical analysis paragraph model:
    http://engl329b.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/critical-analysis-argument-paragraph-model/
    9/10 Joseph Byrne

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