A Cock and Bull Story Review

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne was published between 1759 and 1767. The first instalments were published by the author at his own expense as he had been unable to find a publisher, but by the time the novel was complete it was a considerable public success. In it, Tristram sets out to tell his life story, but he digresses, breaks off to tell the stories of his father Walter, his mother and his uncle Toby. By the end of the novel, Tristram’s self-appointed task has become untenable: he has spent several years on the project and by the end is still only two or three years old. The novel has been a great influence on postmodernist fiction written two centuries later, in its humour (quite bawdy in places and still funny now), its absurd view of life, and its use of typographical eccentries such as black or blank pages, lines of dots and unfinished sentences.

Take a supposedly unfilmable novel and someone will have a go at it. Joseph Strick had a stab at James Joyce’s Ulysses and there is even a Scenes from Finnegans Wake, made in 1966. The approach Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (the latter under the pseudonym Martin Hardy) take is a similar one to that taken by Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation and, further back, Harold Pinter in The French Lieutenant’s Woman - to intercut a relatively straight version of the book, with a second plot centred on the making of the film of the book. So, as well as playing Walter and the older Tristram, Steve Coogan plays what has to be called “Steve Coogan”, an insecure star worried about his star billing and insisting on lifts in his shoes so that he is taller than co-star “Rob Brydon” (played by, naturally, Rob Brydon, who also plays Uncle Toby, wounded in battle in a place he’d rather not name). This “Steve Coogan” has a girlfriend, Jenny (Kelly Macdonald) and a young child. Halfway through the film the budget runs out for the battle scene, so the producers decide to bring in a subplot from the novel involving the Widow Wadman and wonder if Gillian Anderson would be interested…

It goes without saying that one Michael Winterbottom film is going to be completely different from another: A Cock and Bull Story followed 9 Songs and preceded The Road to Guantanamo, but its closest connection is to 24 Hour Party People. This new film has the same postmodern slant, the mixture of fiction and “reality” and the self-referential jokes. This becomes positively ingrown when the real Tony Wilson (who Coogan played in the early film) interviews “Coogan” on the set of the film within a film – and there’s even a voiceover that tells us that the full version of the chat can be found on the DVD. And so it is.

Anyone looking for a firm plot and structure to their films, and who dislikes all this tugging of the carpet from under their feet will probably loathe this film. But it is frequently very funny, with Coogan and Brydon playing off each other extremely well, and a strong supporting cast backing them up. Considering this is a film about digressions and failure to come to the point, Winterbottom is admirably economical at bringing it all in within ninety minutes. Marcel Zyskind’s camerawork makes the most of the cast, the costumes and the locations. A Cock and Bull Story is certainly inventive, often hilarious and unlike most other films you’re likely to see. It’s hard to say it adds up to a great deal, but then again that is the point.



The DVD
Lionsgate’s release of A Cock and Bull Story is encoded for Region 2 only. It has an anamorphic transfer that’s pretty much hard to fault except for one thing – it’s not in the theatrical aspect ratio, which is 2.35:1. A Cock and Bull Story was shot on hi-definition video, whose native aspect ratio is 1.78:1 (16:9), and cropped to the wider aspect ratio for cinema prints. However, on this DVD we have what amounts to an open-matte transfer in the 1.78:1 ratio – the amount of headroom (particularly noticeable in the opening sequence) gives this away. There is no overall policy on incorrect aspect ratios for this site. Some of my colleagues would give this DVD an automatic zero for “Video”, but for me there are varying degrees of sin. (I’m not too exercised by films being in 1.78:1 instead of 1.85:1, for example. Open-matte is preferable to panning and scanning, though even then almost every Scope film from the last twenty-five years which was shot with anamorphic lenses is specifically designed to be panned and scanned to 4:3 without any great loss. But, in the spirit of Tristram, I digress.) At least the whole picture as seen in the cinema – plus some more – is visible, so I have given this transfer half marks.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, and it’s fine without drawing undue attention to itself except in short sequences such as the battle. There is no original music score: Winterbottom uses classical pieces and lifts from other film scores, most notably Michael Nyman’s for The Draughtsman’s Contract. There is an audio description track in Dolby Digital 2.0. Subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras. There are twelve chapter stops.

The DVD comes with a good set of extras. First off is an audio commentary with Coogan and Brydon. This begins on the menu screen and continues over the feature. The two men claim to be naked, take the piss out each other, impersonate several people and in between whiles say quite a few interesting things about the film itself.

The extras continue with the full version of the Tony Wilson interview, which runs 12:19. In addition there are three deleted scenes – “The Demise of Tristram” (1:17), “Flinging Up Baby” (0:51) and “Poor Notices” (0:48) – with a play-all option. The last-named makes the references to “reality” a convolution further, where “Coogan” reads a review of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, an earlier film where Steve Coogan plays the obnoxious, self-regarding “Steve Coogan”, as it were. There are four scene extensions – “In Makeup” (1:46), “Rob Brydon in Character” (5:45), “Favourite Porn Star Names” (2:05), “More Steve and Rob in the Theatre” (6:45) – again with a play-all option.

Two behind-the-scenes featurettes follow, “Night Shoot with the Sealed Knot Re-Enactors” (2:20), which is self-explanatory, and “A Tour of Shandy Hall, Laurence Sterne’s House” (16:06). Stephen Fry is our host for the latter, showing us round the house and discussing the book with Patrick Wildgust from the Laurence Sterne Trust. This is certainly interesting and is a more original way of conveying biographical information on Sterne and his novel to the reader than pages of text. Again there is a play-all option for these two items. All the above are non-anamorphic 16:9 with a timecode running in the lower black bar.

Also included is footage from the premiere and after-show party (13:24), featuring some jokey interviews and equally jokey captions. Finally there’s the theatrical trailer (1:53). These two items are 16:9 anamorphic.

Love it or hate it, A Cock and Bull Story is a notable film in Michael Winterbottom’s prolific and versatile career. The DVD is very good apart from the incorrect aspect ratio, which may or may not be a deal-breaker for some people.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
5 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 05:00:39

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