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Isolated Emotions: the Rise and Fall of Joy Division

This past week, I revisited Anton Corbijn’s stunningly beautiful film Control (2007), a cinematic biopic that documents the short music career and life of Joy Division’s post-punk rock icon Ian Curtis (played with outstanding authenticity by Sam Riley). Shot in black and white and true to the style of Corbijn’s photography (which has been capturing rock music on film since 1975), the film is based on the book Touching From a Distance written by Curtis’s widow Debbie. The film could be classified as a biopic, but it is so much more than that. It is an art film, and it is a supreme document on class and social realism that can stand on its own whether you are a Curtis fan or not. The fact that both Anton Corbijn and Debbie Curtis were so intimately close to Curtis during his life adds a distinct proximity and emotional authenticity that we would not get from a writer and director who were not involved with Curtis during his short lifetime.

Yes, Curtis died a tragic death, committing suicide at age 23 by hanging himself from a laundry line in the kitchen of his small Manchester flat. Joy Division had just risen to the top of the charts, but Curtis had been diagnosed with epilepsy, married and fathered young, had immense artistic vision, and was trapped by his body, his class, and his inability to cope with the pressures of superstardom. Coming from both Debbie Curtis and Anton Corbijn’s point of view, the film captures the aesthetic of Joy Division’s music as well the intense emotional isolation that Curtis endured, an isolation depicted with human beauty and desperation in the 1980 song of the same title which appears on the album Closer which was released two months after Curtis’s death. Listening to Curtis sing the song (on the album and Riley’s performance of excerpts in the film), it is both prophetic and paranormal, like Curtis’s ghost is scratching its way through vinyl.

In fear every day, every evening,

He calls her aloud from above,

Carefully watched for a reason,

Painstaking devotion and love,

Surrendered to self preservation,

From others who care for themselves.

A blindness that touches perfection,

But hurts just like anything else.

Isolation, isolation, isolation.

–Joy Division, “Isolation” (1980)

Corbijn was fairly new in the world of rock photography, shooting photos for the British rock magazine NME, when he captured the now iconic photos of Joy Division on a snowy bridge in Manchester and inside the Lancaster Gate tube station. Corbijn brings his signature B&W aesthetic to the film, including shots that reflect the original photos he took of the band. Most importantly, Corbijn’s personal relationship to the band is infused in every scene as the entire film is shot as if they were still on that bridge in Manchester nearly 25 years ago. The movie is both an elegy and a document of a specific place and time which was firmly rooted in the marriage between music and class.

It makes sense that Corbijn’s film would be so effective cinematically, because the music of Joy Division is very filmic and works on the senses similarly to ways in which cinema does. When you close your eyes and listen to the sounds of Joy Division, it’s like entering an interior world that flickers through your head frame-by-frame in black and white and takes you into a kind of Robert Bresson universe of the dark, desperate, and beautifully bleak. In that regard, I could not imagine a film that would do the band more justice than Control. The film, like the band’s music, is art of the highest degree. Its black and white aesthetic in which bleak realism meets hyper stylization honors the Joy Division aesthetic which is both grounded in the reality of Curtis’s class and life while also intent on transcending those trappings through poetics, music, and sound.

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Rather than being a story of the band, the film becomes an extension of the music, the art, and the overall life of the music. The photography, like the music, is full of empty repetitive spaces and decaying corners echoing with the trappings of class. The framing and compositions are beautifully empty while overwhelmingly claustrophobic. They present a sense of distanced isolation, yet they are rich in the fringes with human details and expression that contain an immeasurable weight – the weight that eventually brought Curtis to his early end.

The movie shows Curtis in his working class home in Manchester, his early marriage to Debbie, and his day job working in an employment agency for the disabled, one of whom he would ironically become when he is diagnosed with epilepsy. We see Curtis at work and at home, but we also see him isolated and fiercely scrawling his poetry and lyrics on paper. He is an artist. A worker. A husband. A father. A person at odds with his class conditioning and his artistic desires. This is the story of Ian Curtis, but it is also the story of any creative person whose artistic energy and vision are at battle with the trappings of everyday life. It is a movie about the intense isolation and claustrophobia of an artist pulled between class and success, between creating and living. It shows the artist, Curtis, as a person caught in a kind of personal limbo and purgatory where he is driven by his creativity yet also strangled by it. The ordinary suffocates him, yet he can’t believe that he can live without it, and ultimately he dies inside it.

If I had to use one adjective to describe this movie, it would have to be claustrophobic. This is not the claustrophobia of a man locked in a room with no windows, but the claustrophobia of life and class. Curtis, though obsessed with literature and glam, is solidly rooted in the working class and as such he believes in the traditional family while also being overwhelmed with a desire to escape it. He needs it and can’t leave it, yet he hates it and wants to escape it. It is an impossible situation, and the film shows the suffocating strangulation of being trapped inside the domestic institution. Part of the claustrophobia comes from the predetermined narrative. If we know the story of Ian Curtis, then we know the strangulating outcome. Certainly the film uses the predetermination of the story to its benefit, but it also manages to transcend that scripted ending through its artistic style and the way it is composed.

The cinematography in the film delivers an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia beautifully, minimally and harshly by using still frames that rely on mise-en-scène rather than melodrama. The absence of Ian is just as powerful as his presence. Every time Ian enters his home, we can feel his increasing claustrophobia in the smallest of details: a tea canister, diapers and underwear hanging on the drying rack, a baby bottle, a sofa and television in an empty living room, or even just a door slamming. All these things become suffocating symbols of Curtis’s sense of being trapped in stasis. The shots of his modest home with Debbie are austere and minimal. It builds subtly into a sense of desperate claustrophobia to the point that whenever the camera focuses on the door of their townhouse, it looks more like a tomb than a home.

Doors and windows are everywhere in this film. They are not necessarily exits but more like symbols of being trapped. The cinematography uses windows and doors to show Curtis’s disconnect from the world of people by repeatedly framing him within the confines of glass. Ian’s head leans on and gazes out a dirty car window, the reflection of the city and sky smeared over his face showing him both trapped by his exterior and interior landscape. Ian stands in a window looking down at the street, his body an isolated form trapped in brick and glass. Ian sings alone in a sound booth literally isolated in sound and body from the other band members. The ending scene is utterly brilliant and devastating. Ian is so isolated that his body vanishes from the film entirely.

In the final shots, we see the laundry line being pulled against the blank slate of the ceiling, and then the film cuts to Debbie’s car pulling up to the flat. The entire suicide discovery is witnessed from outside the house with a view of the door and the empty window. Ian is not even visible. Interestingly, by removing Ian’s body from these scenes, the movie has much more emotional impact because we feel and see the trappings which he could not escape while we also discover his death through the very personal lens of Corbijn’s camera and the tragic screams of Ian’s widow.

All of this may sound a bit melodramatic, but this film does not rely on melodrama at all. In fact, it intentionally resists it through its aesthetic distancing. It gives us space for emotion to seep through while not telling us what to feel. The film contains some of the classic trappings of the biopic — Ian torn between wife/home and lover/band, but those conventions are subverted by the film’s stylistic distancing and its reliance on the ordinary. While the photography is aesthetically sublime, it also relies entirely on the understated and the empty. The emphasis on the ordinary also shows that Ian Curtis was an ordinary guy who happened to be possessed by massive creative talent which made him feel strangulated by his environment (both body and class).

The scenes with him at his day job at the Employment Bureau are done exceptionally well. They show an amiable guy who was both compassionate and good at his job. The scene when Ian tells his Belgian lover Annik that Sound of Music is his favorite movie is particularly effective. Annik’s look of shock shows the class disparity between her and Ian while his pick of favorite movies seriously ratchets down Ian’s status as Suicidal Icon of Despair. (Imagine a Joy Division cover of “Do Re Mi Fa”.) One of the things this movie does exceptionally well is that is resists cultivating the suicidal apocalyptic darkness that has co-opted much of Curtis’s post-death public identity. The film lets him live and breathe as an ordinary guy who is simultaneously trapped by the ordinary and wants to escape it, but who also is desperate to maintain connection with it. Yes, the movie has despair, but the despair is quiet and indefinable. It is Curtis’s private affair.

And we are given one hell of a conflicted, dynamic and complex Curtis. Sam Riley’s performance is absolutely, mind-blowingly great. He takes on Curtis’s identity so powerfully that it is almost like he is channeling the dead. Riley performs all his own songs and completely inhabits Curtis’s body with all its signature ticks and gazes. His acting is incredible, and his performances explode with raw energy. Riley is not lip-syncing to Joy Division songs. He is performing them, and his performances are explosive things of art and music. He breathes life into them with nearly as much ferocious desperation and transcendence as Curtis himself.

Music beats at the heart of this movie, and it is done impeccably well whether Joy Division is playing in the background or Riley’s performance as Curtis are brought in sweaty dynamism to the foreground. The music is perfectly integrated so that it is simultaneously the heart of the movie but doesn’t override the other components of the film. Music, image and story all weld together to deliver the whole picture of art and isolation.

The music is a powerful presence, almost as alive as Curtis. When the first bass note strikes from “No Love Lost” as Ian walks down the street, it is a moment of sheer and utter bliss, and the music sounds greater than God. Also, when the first few strains of “Atmosphere” play after Debbie discovers Ian’s body, the refrain “Walk in silence” pierces our hearts and seeps from the speakers like tears of mourning. The movie also gives an inside look at how the music was created. For example, we learn that the song “She Lost Control” was inspired by the combination of Ian witnessing a girl with epilepsy having a fit on the floor at his day job and his discovery that he himself is afflicted with the illness. Then we are shown how an aerosol spray can gives the song its distinct sound. There are plenty of live performances to drive the energy of the film, but not so many that they detract from the portrait of Ian Curtis as a man. Riley’s recreation of the Curtis’s stage-dance is great; he captures Curtis’s signature twitching and methodically rhythmic arm swing perfectly.

Control is a phenomenal film. It is beautiful piece of art that honors the artist it portrays by adhering to the aesthetic of its subject. It is flawless and beautiful, and it stands entirely on its own as a great film while also showing Ian Curtis with reverent realism. Whether you like Joy Division or not, this is an incredible film that that holds its own with the best of cinematic social realism. In fact, its style harkens back to the British films of Kitchen Sink Realism. As a music film, it also performs a huge service by allowing people to see the human and artistic value of the music of Joy Division. The film’s high aesthetic standard does not allow for bourgeois discrimination against post-punk music, which is music for universal human struggles rooted in class and post-industrial economic fallout. Punk and post-punk are often discriminated against by a skewed perspective. They are seen as crude, rude or unsophisticated. Actually, the music of Joy Division is multi-layered sonic poetry grounded in the dichotomy of transcendence and realism. Interestingly, people tend to be more flexible in what they will accept as “art” in visual mediums like film, photography or painting, but when it comes to music, they tend to devalue anything related to “punk.” Control very clearly shows that Joy Division’s music was and continues to be art, and this movie brings that art to intense and beautiful life even in the aftermath of Curtis’s tragic death.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

 

 

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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