“Existence. What does it matter?” The first words spoken in the beautiful, yet sorrowful, film “Control” invites the viewer into the trouble and gifted soul of Ian Curtis, the iconic singer of the legendary post-punk band, Joy Division. In his short 23 years of life on the physical earth, Mr. Curtis’ introspective and reflective poetry continues to speak to a generation of fans whose devotion to a band is still as strong today as it was when their influential album, Unknown Pleasures, was released in 1978. Existence is a central focus of Anton Corbijn’s “Control.”
Existence for fans. Existence for friends and bandmates. Existence for your art. Most importantly, existence for self. While the film takes a familiar route in the cinema biographies of trouble rock stars, “Control” takes a somewhat different approach in that the music and lyrics of the band’s catalogue provide chapter markers in Mr. Curtis’ short life. For fans familiar with the band’s lyrics, the film reconstructs and reimagines them to reflect pivotal moments in the life of Ian Curtis. The film also allows the songs to become the genuine voice of Curtis, who often used his band to reflect his deep observations of a world seeking connection and community. In these lyrics, one notes the significant tension of living a life with solitude compare to living a life in isolation.
The film offers a peek into the bonds, friendship, and challenges of Mr. Curtis and his bandmates through the eyes of his wife, Deborah Curtis, whose book “Touching from a Distance”, provides the source of the movie. The relationship between the Curtis’ give the film the anchor for how existence is addressed and responded to in the film. Married young at 18, the film represents their relationship as one filled with optimism and promise. In this first section of “Control”, Ian Curtis is portrayed as a creative and gifted poet, who recites his writings spontaneously with the surprise of Deborah and his friends. Curtis is seen often in deep reflection and thought, as though he is the only person living in his world. Solitude gives Ian his inspiration for his introspective lyrics. Solitude is seen when at an early scene we see Ian walking through the courtyard of his shabby, definitely middle-class, Macclesfield, England, oblivious to the kids kicking a soccer ball in his direction. As the kids sarcastically thank him for helping retrieve their ball, Curtis continues into his parent’s flat and proceeds to his bedroom where he immediately plays a David Bowie album. Lying alone, Ian seems contempt being alone with just his thoughts and music. Solitude is often equated to loneliness and being withdrawn from the world. In fact, solitude, as explained in the book, Radical Hospitality https://www.amazon.com/Radical-Hospitality-Benedicts-Way-Love/dp/1557258910(Homan & Pratt, 2002), is just one of the three key components of monastic community living. Solitude, as the authors describe, actually leads to stronger community bonding and togethernes. How can that be? As the film notes, Ian’s solitude allows him the time to remove himself from school, family doldrums, and even romance, to focus and shine at his craft – lyric writing and poetry. It is in these moments that you see a side of Ian Curtis that often is forgotten by his fans – a happy, somewhat joyful, and romantic individual. “Let yourself go” is spoken by Ian Curtis before him and Deborah venture out to hear live music glammed up in a wardrobe often work by fans of Bowie and other 70’s glam rockers. Deborah Curtis gifted us a peek into a free-souled Ian Curtis who immersed himself in the music that inspired his poetry. Solitude frequently includes rejoicing and celebrations of life and new discoveries. The film portrays Ian Curtis as one who sees opportunities through music. Music provides a conduit to observe the world in his moments of solitude. Music also allows his solitude to be an act of rebellion, true to the post-punk movement about to occur in music during this time in the film. One of my favorite scenes of Curtis’ solitude involves him walking alone through the middle-class streets of Macclesfield. The music in the background provide a hint of future Joy Division sounds where a bass riff (made iconic by Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook) signals Ian’s transformation to a rock lead man. The scene shows him walking from the front, just him looking around looking like a well dressed lad in a black trenchcoat enjoying an daytime stroll. After a few moments of watching him walk, the perspective goes from behind. Then, we noticed that his trench coat on his solitary walk is his punk rebellion item – written in big white letters is the word “HATE”. Classic punk! I saw this scene as a divider in the movie where solitude starts to get challenged by isolation. While “Hate” provides a punk message to the world, the world starts to return the message to Ian that “hate” is an evil force when your solitude transforms itself to start removing you from your community and art.
So this is permanence. Of all the lyrics Ian Curtis wrote for Joy Division, devoted fans know that this lyric marks a pivotal moment in the band’s history. In the song where this lyric is found, Twenty Four Hours, the pain and heartache of Ian Curtis forecasted his future suicide. The song, which describes the lost of love and the pain it creates, represents the isolation that now looms over Ian Curtis’ life, one which he feels he has no control over and one that makes him feel that the world is against him. The film also touches on how Curtis also feels his epilepsy diagnosis was another force that was slowly removing him from society. All these forces are represented in “Control” and the black and white cinematography adds to this isolation, where the color white is marked predominantly in the first half of the film with sunlight and bright club lights (solitude) and the second half filled with black found in smoky music nighttime music clubs and drab cloudy skies (isolation). Ian Curtis’ life is often equated to this isolation. The fact that one of Joy Division’s memorable songs in their repertoire is the song, “Isolation” reiterates the fact that Joy Division is often remembered for songs that validate feelings of “no one sees pain” by fans. The movie, however, represents isolation as the counter to solitude. Ian Curtis never thought he would become iconic at his young age. Solitude provided him the gift of poetry and lyric writing, isolation provided him the horrors of disconnect and chaos. As Joy Division reached popularity in England and abroad in the U.S., Curtis started to feel that his life was unraveling and true to the film’s title, beyond his control. Even the birth of a daughter to Deborah did not bring him the joy he thought he would receive.
It is in this part of the movie where Joy Division’s greatest hits start to become the worse nightmares for its lead singer. For example, in a key scene using the song “Isolation”, Ian is pouring out his soul in the recording studio through the song’s lyrics. Inside the mixing boards, his bandmates, manager, and studio technicians are oblivious to the pain being sung by the singer alone in the studio. The director literally uses “Isolation” as a figurative element of Ian’s own isolation. The fact that the single word “isolation” is repeated four times as the song’s chorus is truly heartbreaking to watch. As the film progresses, Ian Curtis’ epileptic seizures grow and his addiction to the medicines used to control it are apparent. Curtis also starts an affair with a female journalist who he meets on the tour road, using this individual to feel the void of love when he’s away. Ian Curtis’ existence has come to basically survive the isolation that is now consuming his life. As the film continues to conclude, fans know that as Joy Division’s popularity starts to peak, Ian Curtis took his life just as the band it about to start their U.S. tour, which would have likely expanded the band’s popularity. Curtis’ suicide is not shown, but the reaction on his wife is seen from a distance outside their home. She obviously is distraught when she finds him. The scene changes to his bandmates, who cannot believe that he took his life. From this film depiction, it isn’t necessarily because they lost an opportune moment for success, but it is truly because they lost a friend they knew was troubled and sad. In a letter to Deborah, Ian writes “no need to fight now.” These words were written in his first suicide attempt. The film lets the viewer know that through his wife’s eyes, a tiny glimmer of the solitude found in the early years of their relationship was still apparent in that Ian didn’t want to leave knowing that he did not still have a connection with his wife. The film does not show if Ian left another note, but Deborah is seen experiencing the true heartbreak of isolation. After finding his body, she runs out of their apartment. In that moment, she is screaming “can anybody help me? Please!” Isolation is heard and seen – no one is coming to her aid. Isolation does not have any fighting, but it brings into focus that existence tries to matter. Control is not an easy movie to watch. It reminds us that many gifted musicians are taken for granted. They are troubled when we believe they are enjoying success. The black and white visualization in this movie tells us that for Ian Curtis of Joy Division, solitude and isolation were dichotomous in the rise and success of Joy Division…and represented in the life of Ian Curtis.
Existence is permanence. While Ian Curtis took his life at the early age of 23, his existence continues through his fans and through his former bandmates in the band following Joy Division – New Order. To this day, New Order plays Joy Division songs to the joy of fans. For me, I had the opportunity to see New Order play live in 2015 in Austin, Texas. While I started my fandom first with New Order, I grew an appreciation to Joy Division as I started to learn more about the band’s history. Joy Division is a true inspiration to how I listen and know music. Ian Curtis’ life, as tragic and sad as it was, provides a reminder that we need to value solitude. Solitude is needed and his lyrics remind listeners that it is okay to feel sad and alone somedays. In that Austin concert, the iconic song “Atmosphere” was played. In the visuals behind the band, the video created by the director of “Control” Anton Corbijn was playing. Fans immediately knew the connection of the video to its creator since the video symbolically represents the passing of Ian Curtis. I see “Control” as Anton Corbijn’s gift to Ian Curtis and a continuation of him immortality through his songs and lyrics. In one scene, Ian asks his manager after taking a much needed pause before a seizure if his fans hated him for not going on stage. That one moment of delicateness and humility signifies Ian Curtis’ lasting impact on his fans. Fans know his hurt, his pain, and from this his art forever lives in their fandom and identification with the iconic images of Joy Division.
Since watching this film, I reflected on the lessons that watching a film biography can provide beyond the music. It seems that especially in our pandemic year that music and art has kept all of us from drifting from solitude to isolation. We have enjoyed opportunities to watch free virtual concerts from our favorite bands, we have jumped on opportunities to purchase exclusive viewing nights from symphonies and operas, and as our world continues to get vaccinated, we have become hopeful and excited that band tours and shows are being rescheduled for live events. In our pandemic solitude, we have reconnected to the importance of creative arts. In Benedictine thought, we have experienced the unexpected outcome of solitude which Benedictine monasteries value – time to remove self from the rushed life of modern society to enjoy things that bring you joy. Solitude is a gift and if one thing that these past months have provided is the increased discussion of the value of “alone time.” In my world of higher education, this has been framed as “self-care” but I shun calling solitude as “self-care.” That we have to use language to remind ourselves that caring of self is needed is awful, in my opinion. We need to strive to create a world that allows us to naturally experience solitude so that we can emerge refreshed and rejuvenated. Solitude is something to have in our daily work lives. Solitude also does not need to be silence. For example, I travel 90 miles each way to work at my office at Sam Houston State University. People often are surprised by my work commute. However, I frequently respond to this surprise by saying I enjoy my “me time” in my truck. I listen to my favorite morning show where I laugh. I listen to my favorite music that uplifts me. I listen to podcasts educating me on new ideas. I think during these times which often creates new ideas and tasks. Solitude is what you make it. When you do make it, you make it yours. You do not make solitude something that others create for you (e.g. “self-care”), you create something that gives you impact. For me, my 90 mile commute does exactly that. In that hour and a half drive, I am in control of what happens during that time (minus the laws of the road, mind you). Knowing that within that space, it is me that creates my solitude. It is this reason why even during the waves of the pandemic that I still ventured to my office.
I truly do value being alone in solitude in my house, but solitude needs the experience of challenge, curiosity, and change. In going to my office, for example, the music of Joy Division and New Order played prominently in these commutes. The lyrics of Ian Curtis and his bandmates provided a narrative that allowed me to understand what I was seeing in my surrounding world. It validated my sadness, but also my optimism. I reflected on the life of Ian Curtis and how his lyrics still can describe today’s world (e.g., I contributed Joy Division’s “Isolation” as part of a time capsule playlist for one of my classes regarding the pandemic).
Being in solitude with Joy Division helped me avoid being in isolation from myself. It is hard to explain, but solitude provides me a peek into what spirituality can fee like. While prayer is a different kind of solitude, being alone listening to music, being alone with nature, being alone in silence, being alone reading a book, being alone cooking dinner, being alone cutting the yard, and other solitary activities are just as impactful as being in audience at the Vatican on an Easter Sunday. You do it and create it. That is the empowering aspect of being alone. Your existence matters when you say it matters. Solitude often brings that to you and definitely within your spiritual community.
As one of my favorite t-shirts states, “Sometimes I need to be alone and listen to New Order” And that is perfectly fine with me.