DSQ > Winter 2008, Volume 28, No.1

Control is celebrated photographer Anton Corbijn's debut film, following the mounting success and tragic downfall of troubled singer/songwriter Ian Curtis and post-punk group Joy Division. Control is shot entirely in monochrome, invigorating Macclesfield with a sense of vibrancy akin to color, while also soothing the often austere mise-en-scène with a contrasting aesthetic rich in chiaroscuro and analogous to Joy Division's dark and haunting sound. Corbijn's decision to cast the relatively unknown Sam Riley to play the lead role is similarly congruent, as the young actor manages to eloquently portray the internal turmoil and poignant moments of lightness that make Curtis such a compelling and fascinating figure to watch. In sum Control is an archetypal tale of rock and role, with the inclusion of Ian's struggle with epilepsy introducing a rich viewpoint from which the subject of disability and its prevalent issues can be explored.

From the opening scene Ian's individuality is signified through both his environment and affectation. His bedroom walls are plastered with posters of rock stars such as David Bowie — known for his unconventionality — and his table contains folders of 'lyrics' and 'poems'. At the same time the budding writer is shown delicately applying eye liner, whilst wearing an audacious fur coat, in turn accentuating an already mounting aura of eccentricity. Whereas his peers are probably outside playing football, Ian chooses to spend his time escaping into the world of his thoughts, producing reams of poetry in the process. And it is precisely this introductory glimpse into his idiosyncrasies which serves as a pre-diagnosis implication/connection to disability, as Ian's physicality, regarding his dress code, introversion and penchant for makeup, serves to Other him from normality, and thus normative society, which is itself akin to the effect disability provokes: a transgression of boundaries. From this viewpoint Ian's divergence from normative structures can thus be seen as his first connection to disability, and the positive juncture from which his freedom appears to flow.

Ian's difference from others is again confirmed when he is shown scratching his first name into a desk at school, before changing the final letter into an 'm'. As the envelopment of this neo-suffix contains more than simply a linguistic alteration, its origins stem from the underlying theme of escape, which pulses through the core of Control like the claustrophobic smog languidly filling the sky. Whether it's the unspoken constraint of classification or the constrictive aura that plagues Macclesfield, Ian seems to understand the stabilising effects hegemonic structures elicit, and the disabling influence such constellations have on bodies. In this respect Ian's failure to conclude 'Iam' with an answer (I am normal) becomes more than simply a problem to be solved, and rather the solution to a problem: freedom's potential to highlight the restrictive nature of normative categories, in turn illuminating their disabling potential. In this regard Control takes a seemingly positive stance towards disability — albeit intangibly — as its endemic implications aren't tethered to a sense of restriction, but rather the freedom of difference, and as such the deterritorializing potential this theme provides.

A tangible connection between Curtis and disability is actualised during his role as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer at the local Jobcentre when he helps a young girl suffering with epilepsy. Herein Ian's link becomes more than an implication, but rather the fold between disability and ability, and as such the force attempting to merge normality with its antithesis: a juncture ultimately enabling a workable balance between his social/familial responsibilities and his creative impulses. However, this delicate stability is eventually shattered when he has an epileptic fit when traveling home from a gig. As the diagnosing doctor impassively reads the distressing side effects his medication may entail, the scene cuts to a medium close-up shot of an exhausted Curtis looking at the ominous bottles of pills now dominating his medicine cabinet. With the cabinet open, the only reflection that remains is the multitude of tablets now staring him squarely in the face. In essence Ian has become his medication, just as he has become his illness. A sign expressing a fateful movement from an abstract implication to an absolute definition, in turn casting a dark shadow across the possibilities his initial connection to disability implied.

From this point forward Ian's marriage seems to suffer in almost direct correlation to both his fears — exacerbated when he discovers the epileptic girl he helped died — and Joy Division's rising success; numerous scenes depict his wife Debbie asking him if he's 'ready to come to bed', only to get little or no response. Ian's reticence here appears to be linked to both a mounting distaste for the banality/normality of married life, and an increasing need to write new material, a need which simultaneously serves to forge a rather clichéd connection between his disability and his gift/ability for poetry. A bond explicitly represented when Ian's frenzied, almost shamanic, dancing on stage reaches its climax in a full blown seizure. A similar peak is also discovered regarding the mounting distance between Ian and Debbie, in the scene where he actually breaks down in tears whilst making love to his distressed wife. In this respect Control moves beyond merely connoting Ian's illness as defining him, to, in effect, questioning his very manhood. Not only has his disability stripped him of his capacity to live a normal familial life, it has now prevented him from making love to his wife. It has now emasculated him.

As Ian's marriage continues to collapse, he finds solace in an affair he begins with a Belgian fan called Annik, who he meets after a gig. Annik is the polar opposite to everything Debbie signifies: she is exotic, artistic and has a deep passion for his work. In this sense Annik is implicitly associated with Ian's music, which, as I have previously stated, is itself linked to his disability, in turn forging a new dialectic: Debbie/baby equating normality and Annik personifying her antithesis: abnormality/disability. This new relationship in turn sees Ian further dismiss his familial responsibilities, in favor of the freedom Annik exudes; visually acknowledged in the scene when Ian goes home to his estranged wife and a low-angle shot peering out from the cot's bars, implicitly connotes the restriction/asphyxiation he comparatively feels. In this respect Ian's illness is now doubly denigrated, as not only can't he look after himself, he can no longer look after his family, a predicament which eventually leads to a failed suicide attempt. Whereas Curtis's initial connection to disability illuminated a position liberated from binaries, this new intervention negatively reterritorializes a stratum bereft of contentment, in turn validating the underlying dialectic (normal/abnormal) he'd sought to reject.

As Ian's battle with epilepsy intensifies, his world continues to decay in equal measures. His marriage is for all intents and purposes over, his performances are increasingly exhausting, and he finally loses his job at the jobcentre. In essence it is his illness which prevents him from living a normal life. He is no longer the merging patch between normality and abnormality, just as he is no longer capable of looking after himself. He has lost all control. Furthermore, his initial desire to free himself from both Debbie and Macclesfield is ultimately hindered by his inability to leave either — or rather his inability to accept the implications of his disability. In this regard Ian's powerlessness to reconcile his desire for freedom with his illness — or his normality with his abnormality — places him in a corner he simply can't escape. And a position that ultimately leads to his suicide, when he hangs himself on the rope used to air the washing in the kitchen: a signifier of domestic drudgery and familial responsibility par excellence, which, in essence, had long been a source of his suffocation.

Control is a brilliantly made film which touches upon many salient issues concerning disability; from the restrictive nature of dialectics, to the deterritorializing potential such logic ironically imbues disability with. Allowing this prevalent topic to transgress its fleshly tethers, and branch out into a reflection of the disabling effect environments can equally have. The fact that Corbijn chose to tenuously link Ian's genius to his disability is perhaps a regrettable decision that fortunately produces a positive result: the opportunity to question categories of normality, and in so doing, consider the deterritorializing potential that disability/difference allows.

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Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Saker

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)