“And so, Ian Curtis, dead name, dead stop, dead mysterious, dead success, dead all the same, dead at the moment, a close relation of the unknown, as withdrawn as it gets.
“And so, Joy Division, dead cool, as made up as history, as mad as rock and roll history, had seriousness thrust upon them overnight—that’s overnight, that’s serious, that’s boys becoming men, that’s their music coming true, the fictions becoming facts, overnight, seriously.” (243, Piece by Piece: Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007, Paul Morley)
Within any of the narratives about him, there’s something terribly resigned about the suicide of Ian Curtis. The spectacle of his life is done, there’s no great fight left inside him and the lights of any foreseeable stage have gone out, he seems to need to let go. Perhaps this explains an ongoing preoccupation with his efforts, perhaps not. Perhaps an obsession exists with needing to explain the deaths of those no longer interested in life, perhaps not. In Corbijn’s Control the scene is dull compared to the sweated ambition of Curtis’s performing life. He wanders around the kitchen one morning after a dull, meditative night and when he hangs himself it isn’t some religious display in the basement alongside his favorite idols; he uses a rack that’s already hung in the kitchen, resigned to make his death something that will inconvenience those he loves as little as possible, perhaps.
All of these disparate elements result in an image of Ian Curtis as a conflicted, young, depressed individual, whose struggles both with depression and epilepsy were often transposed into beautiful works of art; yet might be said to have resulted in his death. We’re not forced to love Curtis in Control, nor by way of Paul Morley’s writing, or personal accounts from Curtis’s close friend, as he’s frequently shown as rather cruel to his wife Deborah, and confused about what he hopes to gain from his work as a musician. In many ways, the film shows Curtis as a passionate, emotional, contradictory young man who—depending on the person he’s relating with—did what he could make sense of contemporary existence while occasionally pushing himself and those around him to extremes, likely all resulting from the complicated inner space that led to the necessity of his art. An identification is thus perhaps encouraged, between the depressed youth of any generation overwhelmed by the seething of life, and this individual. His anxiety over relationships can become our anxiety over relationships, which might lend itself to the Foucauldian notion of making one’s life one’s greatest work of art; Curtis’s struggle can encourage our engagement with our own struggle. In this light, the Curtis at the outset of Control might be looked to as an inspiration because he seems to be constantly becoming, seeking out any and every avenue that might satisfy his thirst for existence. It’s the world that discourages this pursuit, one might argue, as well as certain institutions Curtis aligned himself with in youthful pursuit: marriage, the music industry, relationships themselves, fatherhood; all of these things might be desirable but they’re also overwhelming, so we might take cues from Curtis in Control based on his striving, perhaps taking more time to consider to what end we search in the first place.
Here it seems significant to mention again the film’s use of grayscale, and Corbijn’s video for ‘Atmosphere,’ that presents a spare, strange universe of blacks, whites and grays where hooded figures haul around monoliths with Curtis’s image—the video was directed posthumously. Control’s cinematography and the lack of color in its film might be looked at as purely aesthetic considerations, but the sparseness of the film also reminds one of extremely lush black and white films either from the noir era, or the Italian neo-realist era with those of Fellini, Antonioni, or Rosselini. These films and more from the black and white era have come to be seen as staples of modern myth, their directors mythmakers, and Corbijn’s decision at the outset to align his biopic with them could very well be seen as a call to engage with Control as one would those of directors already mentioned, and more whose work, bereft of the more spectacular effects of color, must be considered for different aspects entirely. In particular Fellini’s and Antonioni’s films seem pertinent, where 8 ½ addresses the impossibilities of the life of an artist, and La Notte explores that as well as the impossibilities of public life and intimate relationships. Fellini’s director-character in 8 ½ struggles with much of what Curtis endured while making Closer, that led eventually to his suicide, and both Control and 8 ½ rely heavily on lush black and white imagery to draw our attention to the minds of these conflicted individuals. Antonioni’s La Notte focuses on the life of a novelist as he attends a party with his wife and basically spends the evening mumbling his way through strange social interactions. It’s the everyday-ness that seems to parallel Control here, as Curtis might be entirely content to live his life making art and music like Antonioni’s novelist, if only he didn’t have to navigate these cumbersome everyday moments and notions of etiquette.
Rather than being depicted as a purely historical figure from one space and time with no parallels to the here and now, Curtis and Joy Division in the film offer us a glance at an artist or group of artists whose struggles are just as applicable to the here-and-now as they might be to the characters of Fellini/Antonioni, say, or even farther back to the struggles of writers or thinkers from antiquity. One way this is accomplished is through the aforementioned cinematographic choices; moody, lingering shots of solitary faces staring off, having conversations about favorite artists and films or lying on couches prior to gigs farting with anxiety. Another is Corbijn’s attention to the events between the major historical moments in Curtis’s life. Again, rather than seeing a full ten minute performance or something, we see the time leading up to or after Joy Division shows. Rather than seeing Curtis’s suicide in grisly detail and being stuck with that as the final image, we see the effect it has upon his wife, and a meditative shot of the city that pulls our focus back from the local into the world of ideas where art, suicide, struggle, and any of the notions hinted at throughout the film can be considered in a broader sense. We’re never forced to memorize information or names in the film, and although it does depict actual figures from history they’re shown in a more archetypal way and thus their trials are relatable rather than mere facts listed out for posterity.
Curtis’s changing nature throughout the film is also significant as to its applicability now and likely forever. We don’t simply see a rockstar here doing rockstar things and dying in typical rockstar fashion. We see a confused teenager become a confused young man who tries at every turn to cope with a life rife with struggle. References to titles of their albums or dates of particular gigs aren’t nearly as significant as the overall feeling that might’ve existed in Curtis’s life, and it’s here that the interior monologs provide a sort of Greek chorus to the story. The lines recited by Curtis are general, exploratory, attempting to make sense of the things we’ve just seen as well, and thus we might agree or disagree with them—the film is not propagandistic, as noted, we’re not forced to love or hate any of its characters per se—so long as we in turn do what we can to understand and interpret these events that—aside from, of course, being part of a seminal musical group—most people can relate with at some point or other in their lives.
The film takes something from you, apparently pulls it from your chest and hangs it just in front of your face thereafter as you’re pulled outside listening to Joy Division’s music on some portable device. It creates an immense pressure within the viewer to do something, and yet you feel so dead, almost as resigned as Curtis at the end, almost ready to accept suicide as easily as you’ve accepted waking up most mornings. It pulls apart the suicide and makes it personal, every feeling felt, every nuance place simply before your eyes in enticing imagery that humanizes the experience and thus perhaps terrifies you. Intimate with suicide, this is the result. You become intimate with someone choosing death over life because you understand what might lead one to think this way. You understand the pills, the cabinets full of. You understand the arguments, the evenings full of. You understand the family’s concern, the life apparently full of nothing else. You feel nauseated with identification, perhaps. It’s a downer, a terrible thing, you’re a negative creep. You sit there festering with Ian Curtis at the end. You think of the lives of livers who chose death. Those endings. It’s a terrible thing and un-unique, that’s what scares you so much about it. The relatability of the desire for death, you feel it, you joke and think you can “ID” like fellows used to say in AA meetings and imagine the possible later in life drug addictions of someone like Ian Curtis, and it becomes clearer why ending it early doesn’t exactly make sense but it has the edges of sense, the earmarks of logic, you think. That feeling presses to your forehead as you listen to one of their songs over and over again walking out into the country, deciding you can’t do what you’ve seen done but that it helps nonetheless to gain perspective. You walk home.
Note: The Samaritans Helpline and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are safe, private and available 24 hours a day.