I once spent an afternoon on Babblefish, inputting English song lyrics, translating them into other languages, then translating them back into English to see how they’d changed. Something hidden but true might be discovered within the English that would only come to light when the English was subjected to the grammatical rules of another language. When I translated “Love will tear us apart again” into German, then translated the German back into English, it was turned into, “Love will tear us apart again violently.” Maybe the addition of violence is simply the German way, or maybe it is fitting the German should intuit an even deeper bleakness in Joy Division’s lyrics than appears on an already bleak surface. After all, the band was named for the workers of a Nazi concentration camp brothel.
In 2007, the Dutch music video director Anton Corbijn shot Control, a film about Joy Division’s late front man Ian Curtis. The screenplay was adapted from the memoirs of the singer’s widow Deborah, and if the title of the film is ironic given that Mr. Curtis suffered from epileptic fits, the title is also a straight forward description of Mrs. Curtis’s involvement with the film. Winners write history books, as the saying goes, and Control makes the troubled Curtis marriage out to be a pretty one-sided issue.
Deborah is aptly played by Samantha Morton, who conveys the young woman’s warm, daft, doughy soul. Morton’s round, glum face and Jersey cow eyes seem destined for victimhood. Sam Riley is Ian, and the actor’s sharper features are a natural, predictable mismatch with his missus. Ian is always interested in something else, his gaze often aloft, and Deborah Curtis the writer makes Deborah Curtis the character ever mindful of the things of this world, like children and health and breakfast. Ian locks himself away to pen lyrics about disappointment, and Deborah is the one gently knocking on the door reminding him of bedtime.
The film is largely set in 1979 and 1980, a strange transition period for rebellious music. One might forget, apart from films like Control, that the old habit of dressing nicely to perform rock and roll was in fashion so late. In the beginning of the film, Curtis hangs out in his parent’s apartment and listens to Aladdin Sane at a modest volume, carefully applying a little mascara, contemplatively smoking a cigarette on his bed. His interest in rebellion is a polite dabbling. But then he sees the Sex Pistols perform live, and the following day Corbijn shows Curtis leave his house dressed up enough for church, but then the camera swings around and we see he’s painted “hate” across the back of his trench coat, and done so neatly enough I might believe he outlined it first with a ruler and chalk.
This same “hate” makes a fascinating icon of Joy Division’s music, which is angular and precise and stark, as opposed to, say, the scrawled defiance of Johnny Rotten. When Curtis performed live, he wore the same tweed trousers he wore to the office, and a loose hanging, silky dress shirt. The odd dance Curtis performed while singing— an over exaggerated swinging of his bent arms— has sometimes struck me as an imitation of a man from a 1960s film over-confidently walking into town. He looks a farce, but given his own failed attempts to do the husband thing, the dad thing, the homebody thing, the dance might be Curtis working out in ritual what could never be done offstage.
Corbijn shot Control in black and white, the same colors with which Joy Division always presented themselves. In this, Corbijn suggests Curtis saw the world properly. Several years after marrying, Curtis began an affair which finally culminated in sufficient guilt and marital strife that he hanged himself on a clothes line in his kitchen. While Control does not delve deeply into the particulars of Ian’s guilt, one has to wonder if a musician who takes a music journalist to bed doesn’t suffer from a more desperate need to be loved and praised than does the typical musician. Curtis’s self-loathing, Corbijn implies, was apt self-assessment.
The major question with any biopic in which the subject commits suicide is whether to make such an end inevitable or accidental. For the first quarter of Control, Curtis seems no more likely to kill himself than anyone else living in Manchester in the mid 1970s. But he marries suddenly, and while the few wedding photos of Ian and Deborah which exist today present the couple happily enough, Riley empties Ian’s face of interest as the couple drive away from the church. Corbijn shows us the wire upon which Curtis would die quite early, and he favorites songs from the band’s catalogue that angle towards marital disharmony. It is well known that Ian spent his last night alive drinking alone and watching television. While the claim might seem outlandish (it is certainly unsubstantiated and based purely on speculation), I can’t help wonder if he was the first human being whose suicide concluded a night of lonely TV viewing and drunkenness. Given the stark, bleak quality of Joy Division’s music, and the small body of work they left behind, one might peg Ian as the kind of man who talked endlessly about authenticity and worried about not selling out, or else criticized others for their interest in money or fame. Corbijn doesn’t present Ian as a genius, though, but a disillusioned young man who likely lived in the shame of constantly failing as a husband.
The film closes with black smoke rising from the Macclesfield Crematorium where Ian Curtis’ body was incinerated. Corbijn has decided something final about Curtis in this image, for I couldn’t help recalling the fumata bianca rising from the Sistine Chapel when a new pope is elected. Corbijn seats Curtis in a place of authority, a mythic cathedra from which to exonerate all those who don’t-quite-fit.