Tristram Shandy: Getting to the Point!

5 Jun

The Novel

Lawrence Stern’s classic British novel, Tristram Shandy, is hardly a novel at all. It consists of a series of opinions and memories of the title character. It emphasizes more of Tristram’s family than Tristram, himself. There is an air of ridiculosity and oddball humor to this book, especially given that it was written in the eighteenth century.  Not only does Tristram and his mistaken name reside outside the box, so does this novel.

The Film

Just like the book, this movie deliciously struggles to get to the point. The events of Tristram’s life are constantly put on pause for Steve to insert his commentary, and the viewer is constantly shifting back and forth from century to century. This movie features a tangled web of relationships centered around Steve Coogan. A bit of a rake, himself, Coogan is seen romantically linked to the mother of his new baby, a woman on set and there is even an allusion to another sexul encounter with prostitute in the months earlier. The movie reminds the viewer that life is complicated and messy; it is impossible to “pause” one aspect of life to take time to deal with another.

The Adaptation

This movie-within-a-movie takes place in the 18th Century, and the movie takes place in modern times. This does cause a bit of an impossibility, for Tristram to be commenting on his life in the 18th Century through a modern actor. The “actors” run around in powdered wigs and dated dresses, while the cameras roll, and assistants deliver Starbucks Macchiatos. The joke is that Tristram/Steve is not the star of his own movie… or seemingly his own life.

The Critics

Martha Nochimson’s review of this film is particularly inciteful. There is also depth to arguments from Megan Ratner and a deep web entry by an unknown contributor from Super Itchy. Megan Ratner seems to have enjoyed Winterbottom’s film, mostly focusing on praise for the actors. The unknown contributor from Super Itchy very much enjoyed this mockumentary but noted that the last third dragged.

Nochimson uses two pages to describe the madness of this movie, not omitting the various ironies at play. She notes how the director makes absurd choices with casting, filming, scripting, etc. to play to a comedic advantage. She ultimately lauds this movie as successful, noting that the shenanigans and hijinks work to its advantage.

The Critical Argument

Tristram Shandy: A Cock-and-Bull Story is clearly a satire upon reality programming; the film portrays actors as self-absorbed, appearance conscious, and not terribly intelligent, much as society would expect them to be as they lead unrealistic lives. So many actors are portrayed on television that many have become skeptical of the “scenarios’ they encounter on their reality shows which seem too ridiculous to be true. Considering the many interactions of Steve Coogan throughout the film, it would be highly unbelievable that so many events of this nature could occur in one day. This is what makes this film so representative of the book which was also a satire of life at the time it was written in the 1700s. It is also inconceivable that so many strange moments could occur in the life of only one man. Rachel Cooke posits that “[This] movie manages to pin the elusive essence of Tristram Shandy to the screen at the same time as it takes the piss out of the actors and film-makers who would have the temerity to attempt such a project. It is, then, rather knowing. It is a film that knows all about postmodernism” (Cooke, 2005). Without this tongue-in-cheek approach of “reality” filming, Tristram Shandy could not be the masterpiece that it is.

Works Cited

Coogan, Steve, Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes, Shirley Henderson, Dylan Moran, Jeremy Northam, Naomie Harris, Kelly MacDonald, James Fleet, Ian Hart, Gillian Anderson, Martin Hardy, Andrew Eaton, Michael Winterbottom, and Laurence Sterne. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. New York: HBO Video, 2006.

Cooke, Rachel. “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” London Film Festival 2005: The Observer. The Guardian, 15 Oct. 2005. Web. 4 June 2015.

Nochimson, Martha P. ‘Movies and the America of the Mind: New York Film Festival 2005 Report (Part One)’, _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 44, November 2005

Porton, Richard. “In Praise of Folly: An Interview with Michael Winterbottom.” ENGL329B. Ed. Joseph Byrne. Cineaste, 2006. Web. 4 June 2015.

Ratner, Megan. Bright Lights Film Journal, 1 Nov. 2005. Web. 15 May 2015.

Scott, A O. “An Unfilmable Book, Now Made Into a Movie.” Movies. New York Times, 27 Jan. 2006. Web. 5 June 2015.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Champaign, Ill: Project Gutenberg, 1990. Kindle Edition.

“Tristram Shandy; A Cock and Bull Story Movie Review.” Super Itchy. 18 Aug. 2010. Web. 4 June 2015.


One Response to “Tristram Shandy: Getting to the Point!”

  1. Joseph E. Byrne June 16, 2015 at 4:54 pm #

    Nice job, but a few things to consider and work on in future assignments. Your analysis of the book, film, and adaptation, are kind of light and too much focused on plot and character, at the expense of themes. RE: the online research, try to avoid reviews and look instead for articles that deal more with the book and/or problems of adaptation. And please include the link with the description of the source, rather than listing them all at the end of the blog entry. If you haven’t done it already, try this page for some ideas on where to find good sources:

    The critical argument paragraph is a good response to a critical analysis prompt, but isn’t as strong as a stand-alone argument. So the film is a parody of reality programming. What does this have to do with Sterne’s novel? Quite a lot, I would say. Sterne’s novel is the eighteenth-century version of a reality program. So Winterbottom is actually being faithful to the novel in his reality programming approach. That’s what you want to get at in a critical argument, rather than review other reviewers and critics.

    10/10. Joseph Byrne. ENGL329B.

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