Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

A cock and bull story

I've been waiting for Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story to come out on video—I knew it would never come to our local theater—ever since I heard an NPR story about it months ago. Well it finally did, and we finally rented it last weekend. Very pleasing. I can imagine some being put off by its indulgence in self-referentiality and metafictional bullshit (I'm pretty much a sucker for that sort of thing, but I understand that it annoys people), but given that the source material is one of the most indulgently self-referential pieces of metafictional bullshit in the English language (and I say that in the most laudatory way), I can't imagine the film being any other way. If anything, the film deserves credit for bravely staying the course down to the very end (where the fictional film producers are complaining to the fictional film-makers about the omission of scenes the filming of which occupied a significant portion of the film we just saw). Sometimes the key to comedy is pushing a joke so far past the point where it stops being funny that it starts being funny again.

An interesting comparison can be made between Tristram Shandy and Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's exploration of metafiction—Adaptation. Both movies take up the challenge of filming of a presumably unfilmable book, and both adopt the gambit of making that challenge a primary subject of the resulting film. The two films employ a number of similar devices: including the "real" creators in as characters within their own creation, having characters question and critique the generic conventions that the film employs, various kinds of mirroring and doubling of characters and plots. Ultimately, though, I found Adaptation somewhat disappointing, and I think it is because it loses faith in this approach. About half-way through, "Charlie" admits defeat in his agonizing struggle to find an adequate form for his screen adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and turns to his shallow but angst-free (and fictitious) brother Donald for advice. From that point on, Adaptation actually becomes the kind of tired Hollywood action/suspense movie Donald would write. That's clever, to be sure, but it is also a bit of a cheat: rather than having to keep juggling the multiple levels of a convoluted metafiction, the film can settle into a nice, linear, conventional story. Adaptation gives in to the presumed need for conventional plot and form, whereas Tristram Shandy resists that siren song to the very end.