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nov·el1 [nov-uhl]

1. a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.
The film, Cock and Bull, refers to its source, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, as "a masterwork of postmodernism before there was any modernism to be post." What we might ask is whether it is possible to explode conventions before they have been established?

When I was a lad we were told that Don Quijote was the first novel. But it produced no flowering of the form in Spain, so it does seem fair to credit the British instead. I'd consider Gulliver's Travels a novel, so Jonathan Swift would be my choice, but many cite Samuel Richardson as the father of the novel. Whomever you place first, they were promptly followed by Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Frances Burney, and Laurence Sterne, among others. And the novel quickly became the preferred form of English-language literature.

But consider that form, as defined above, and Sterne emerges--there at the very birth of the novel--as the skunk at the garden party. Because his Tristram Shandy steadfastly refuses to follow any kind of sequence, does not contain much action, and is, in fact, ultimately devoid of a plot. Sure, it's supposed to be the fictitious autobiography of the eponymous "hero," but never gets much beyond his conception and birth.

Instead Sterne seems hellbent on making the novel yield to the reality of everyday life, so instead of a linear plot we get a book that consists mainly, and famously, of digressions. It's a funny book and one I enjoy reading in chunks, but it does defy a sustained reading for precisely these reasons. The lack of any narrative drive frustrates as much as it entertains. We can concede Sterne's point, that life is a series of digressions rather than a straight line from birth (or even conception) to death, but the fact remains that every life does proceed from the starting point to the end point eventually. The narrator's refusal to do so is exactly as provocative as Sterne presumably intended.

On the other hand, the film can be enjoyed in a sitting and richly rewards the viewing. Michael Winterbottom and his terrific cast--I assume they're improvising at some points--give us a movie about making a movie about a book that has always been considered unfilmable. So we get not just hilarious set pieces surrounding Tristram's birth and his unfortunate encounter with a window sash, but a discussion between the actor playing young Tristram and Steve Coogan, who plays adult Tristram and his father, about how the scene should be played. It's almost a mockumentary about filmmaking itself and the opening scene between Coogan and Rob Brydon, who plays Uncle Toby, as they are being made-up for their roles, is as funny as anything in Spinal Tap. The make-up artists can't contain their laughter and you won't be able to either.

In the end, what really makes us appreciate Sterne is his pre-modern anticipation of the post-modernists. Where Cervantes accidentally lost control of his Don and served up metafiction even as he was creating (co-creating?) fiction, Sterne quite willfully blew past the boundaries of the novel well before they had been set. In so doing, Sterne--and Cervantes--made all the future criticisms and experimentations sound stodgy rather than revolutionary. Because of them, post-modernism is an entirely retrograde movement based on rather conventional notions, the conventions having been established at the novel's nascence. And that's undeniably funny.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

    -INFO: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)<.a> (IMDB)
-FILMOGRAPHY: Michael Winterbottom (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Michael Winterbottom
    -PROFILE: The Enduring Genius Of Steve Coogan And Michael Winterbottom (John Tammy, 7/11/13, Forbes)
    -PROFILE: A Winterbottom's tale: One critic last year said he had made the best British film ever. He's worked on 10 movies in 10 years. So why is director Michael Winterbottom cinema's best-kept secret? (Geraldine Bedell, 31 January 2004, The Observer)
    -PROFILE: Michael Winterbottom (Deborah Allison, July 2005, Senses of Cinema)
    -INTERVIEW: Michael Winterbottom (Christopher Kompanek June 24, 2011, AV Club)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview with "Tristram Shandy" Star Steve Coogan: Steve Coogan on "Tristram Shandy" & Reuniting with Director Michael Winterbottom (Rebecca Murray, Guide)
    -PROFILE: Comic Brydon branches out on film (Ian Youngs, 1/02/06, BBC News)
    -PROFILE: Steve Coogan: 'There is an overlap between me and Alan Partridge': After a blustery day behind the scenes of Alpha Papa, the question remains: where does Steve Coogan end and his most famous creation begins (Patrick Barkham, 8/02/13,
    -PROFILE: Five roads to Michael Winterbottom (Ashley Clark, 24 April 2013, BFI)
    -PROFILE: Michael Winterbottom's 'Everyday' is a prison drama that was worth doing time for: The director's latest film for television was five years in the making. It's not a vanity project, he tells Gerard Gilbert, but a human tale shot in real time (GERARD GILBERT, 14 NOVEMBER 2012, Independent)
    -PROFILE: Michael Winterbottom: the only man who can make Steve Coogan shine: How does film director Michael Winterbottom coax such superb performances from Steve Coogan? With 'The Look of Love’ about to open (Tim Robey, The Telegraph)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation With: Freida Pinto and Michael Winterbottom (SHIVANI VORA, 5/02/12, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Michael Winterbottom Gets Naked (STEPHEN RODRICK, July 3, 2005, NY Times Magazine)
    -PROFILE: Steve Coogan’s Grand Ambitions (Giles Harvey, NY Review of Books)
    -PROFILE: Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan: 'We're not the big buddies people think we are': The comedians play companions in their new TV series, The Trip. But their real-life relationship runs far from smoothly (Laura Barton, 10/26/10, The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES: Michael Winterbottom (Metacritic)
    -ARCHIVES: Michael Winterbottom (The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES: winterbottom, michael (NY Times)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Cock and Bull (Metacritic)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (Stanley Kaufman, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (Dana Stevens, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (A.O. Scott, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (David Edelstein, New York)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (Stephen Hunter, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (J. Hoberman, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (Bob Mondello, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (Kurt Loder, MTV)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (David Walsh, World Socialist Web Site)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (Roger Moore, Baltimore Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Cock and Bull (John Mullan, The Guardian)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Trip
    -INFO: The Trip (IMDB)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (David Thomson, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Margy Rochlin, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Ann Hornaday, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Manohla Dargis, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (IndieWire)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of (Catherine Stebbins, CriterionCast)
-REVIEW: of The Trip (Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Kyle Smith, NY Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Andrew Schenker, Slant)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Bob Mondello, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Jennie Yabroff, Paris Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Trip (Helen Greenwood, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW: of The Killer Inside Me (NY Times)
    -INFO: The Look of Love (IMDB)
    -REVIEW: of The Look of Love (Dana Stevens, Slate)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: A Mighty Heart (Metacritic)
    -INFO: 24 Hour Party People (IMDB)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: 24 Hour Party People (Metacritic)
    -REVIEW: of Trishna (Marshall Fine, NYFCC)