Wednesday, 24 October 2007


“Ultimately the character portrayed with the least satisfaction is the city of Manchester. I don't mean specific locations, but the look of the film in general. Where are the dark, empty streets, the Manchester of the Seventies, evoked by the lyrics and music of Joy Division? I don't expect the film to be a history lesson but its glossiness is disappointing. How can an audience understand Joy Division without understanding its environment?”,,2180296,00.html

Always amusing to read a review of a film where it says exactly what you said, only the other way up. But who is this know-nothing, who has so little feeling for the music of Joy Division they can’t see it when its corollary is so clearly put up on the screen? None other than Natalie Curtis – Ian and Debbie’s own daughter! I hang my four-eyed head in shame!

She continues…

“In recent years much has been made of the notion that Ian's biggest problem was the women in his life, when in fact his inability to deal with his relationships, not to mention everything else, was a symptom of his depressive illness. Sadly, the film does little to show this, or how these two women were more aware than anyone of how ill Ian actually was and how hard they tried to help him.”

…while meanwhile…

“No matter how close either woman tries to get to Ian, neither can ever really get inside his head: neither cups of tea nor romantic conversations will do the trick… Control frames these failures - these gaps not closed - in such gendered terms; in terms of each woman's proximity to Joy Division as a band and Ian Curtis not only as a man but as a (burgeoning) rock star. This is not necessarily the fault of the film, for the contours of this story took shape long ago.”

Perhaps Control is one of those films which divides its response neatly between girls and boys. “His inability to deal with his relationships… was a symptom of his depressive illness” sounds to my ears like a summary of the film rather than a critique of it. And, to make a comparison with the other great rock’n’roll suicide of our era, I don’t think I’ve heard any “some bitch drove him to it” style suggestions, a la Courtney Love. The film does show Debbie trying to help him, albeit in an ineffectual way, suggesting doctor’s visits which fail to happen. The irony lay in his making Debbie a surrogate mother without surrendering to her the authority of a mother. (How true to history all that is I’ve no way of knowing, of course.)

Plus a large part of the appeal of Joy Division to me is the conjunctions they found between the personal and the social, the private and the public spheres. (Formally caught in the combination of Curtis’ words with the evocative music, as already said.) You put in what you want to take out of these things of course, but for me it’s emphatically not merely the story of an isolated male ego, triumphantly insisting on his own private hell whatever the cost to those around him. (I never stand to hear Joy Division compared to whingers like Radiohead!)

Of course, that may well be just a personal response, choosing to see the glass half-full. And truth to tell, the last line quoted does somewhat resonate with me. Curtis quotes Wordsworth in the film, and in many ways he was a kind of post-industrial romantic - finding himself in tower blocks and empty car parks rather than waterfalls and fields of daffodils. But the deal’s the same, you look at the word outside of you and see only a reflection of your own face. (Me, I prefer the notion of two-way traffic.)

Hennings also says:

Listening, this last week, to Pere Ubu, Joy Division's cross-Atlantic mirror…

Reading this line just today, I was struck by the fact I don’t compare Joy Division to Pere Ubu more. Apart from musical connections (like using synth as soundsource rather than instrument) the comparisons between Laughner and Curtis are too obvious to spell out. But partly the contexts are so different. Paradoxically, the aesthetes in Ubu reviled American gonzo punks like the Ramones without any of that mud ever sticking, while Joy Division quite clearly had their feet in punk yet somehow effortlessly transcended it. At the time it seemed an incredibly powerful statement that the band just wore ‘normal’ clothes on stage. With every other band on earth spiking themselves up into hackneyed shock, that ‘normal’ look added massively to their mystique! (Joy Division happened after the Pistols, while Ubu went alongside the Ramones – at least as far as chronologies went.)

But mostly the consequent events are so different, that they can’t help but reshape what went before. While the electro roots of early New Order are clearly there in late Joy Division, I increasingly lost interest in their subsequent albums. (I’m glad they avoided becoming the first Joy Division tribute band, but have no desire to own a copy of Worlds in Motion.) With Pere Ubu, Laughner’s contribution lasted for two singles (not two albums) and subsequently they’re seen by pretty much everybody as Dave Thomas’ band. The tombstone on the cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart ultimately cast a longer shadow than that bomber over Tokyo…

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