“Mother, I tried, please believe me
I’m doing the best I can,
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through,
I’m ashamed of the person I am.
Isolation, Isolation, Isolation.”
When Sam Riley, as Joy Division’s tragic lead singer Ian Curtis, drones out these lyrics in Corbijn’s 2007 film, Control, he’s sequestered to a recording room padded off from his bandmates. The movie audience can only hear a muffled shadow of the band’s music—it really just sounds like he’s singing by himself—and it sort of feels like he feels that way, too. In a film entitled Control, which seems to appropriately converse with the human (mis?)conception of control in much the same way the upcoming conference might, we find that, more or less, such a mythology leads one only into a state so aptly described in the lyrics above. It’s “Isolation.”
Curtis is portrayed from the beginning as a navigator. When the Joy Division bandmates are all but ecstatic to have had their album displayed on Tony Wilson’s TV show, Curtis is later found hounding him with napkin-notes at a bar to be put on the show to play live. Later, in their first live show in London, the smalltown boys farting nervously backstage before going on, Curtis is the visionary: “This is just the beginning.” He is the captain, he is in control.
Fame comes quickly for Joy Division, in almost seamless congruence with Curtis’ confidence. Well, sort of. Corbijn beautifully depicts that, at every moment where it seems that everything being chased is obtained, things get utterly complicated and muddled. It could very easily feel like any other band-loses-heart-in-pursuit-of-fame story, but what’s interesting is that this story is more about love than those are. Curtis’ wife and child become more and more alien within his pursuit for control, and it eventually leads him into a love affair with a foreign journalist, Annik Honore. More than the affair, though, he finds himself resenting his life and all that was important before. Despite proclaiming his hatred for his mistress at one point, the fact is that he cannot break himself from his affair. Love is lost and transmogrified into something that looks more and more like demand—numerous scenes depict Curtis coming home from a tour, weighed heavy by the army duffel he brings back into the house he resents.
This notion of demand continues into his music career as the film continues. As the thrill of success dampens, Ian’s relationship with his music, the listeners, the supporters becomes more of a puppeteering experience than a visionary one. He finds himself exhausted, deeper in the throes of his epileptic fits, and bitter about the demands of his manager and his crowds. After a particularly exhausting show, which ends in a riot of unsatisfied fans, Ian describes the weight of divisive expectations he feels now: “I never meant it to grow like this…and now they expect more. I have no control anymore. I don’t know what to do…It all used to be so simple, everything. Now everyone hates me, even the people who love me hate me.”
What once felt like control is now stripped, and Ian finds himself unable to resolve any of the conflictions and fetters he now feels bound to. His desperate resolution is to surrender control the only way he feels he can. In his last letter to Annik, he adroitly expresses a confusion between what he knows to be true (the spirit of law) and what he is expected to give (the letter of law):
“I realize I’m paying dearly for mistakes I’ve made in the past. I never realized how one mistake I made in my life some four or five years ago would make me feel how I do. I struggle between what I know is right in my own mind and some warped truthfulness I’ve seen through some other people’s eyes who have no heart and can’t see the difference anyway.”