Ian Curtis on stage is really something to see.

So says I.

In Joy Division (D: Grant Gee, 2008), you don’t see much (if any) footage of him off stage, without a spotlight attached, and virtually every photo of him presented connects him to the band (press photos, concert stills, stuff captured during rehearsal, etc.), so there’s really no way of saying whether he was something to see in a more mundane context – Ian Curtis is always “Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division” and so inseparable from the story, a character, nearly a myth if you know how his story ends (which, if you’re watching the movie, you probably do). The rest of the band (the future New Order, a band I’m actually far more fond of) being, well, alive, escape this fate; they’re human after all, very real, present before us as either a series of regularly appearing close-ups – there to tell the tale – or in the live performances from the archives, where they do just that: perform, playing their parts both musically and as components contributing to the scene, figures filling out a “live show” template. (Peter Hook, probably the most earthbound figure here, highlights this functionality at one point (and I’m paraphrasing here, all apologies): ”When we were live, my only goal was that we sounded as good as we did in rehearsal.”)

If at those moments they’re fulfilling a role, Curtis, up front and center stage, is doing something else. Objectively he fulfills the requirement of a performance – Curtis vocalizes, attunes himself to the music, lets it guide his rhythm – but that’s the only visible seam in the experience presented, the necessary trace of affect. He never really interacts with anything else on screen though, nor does he seem capable of the awareness that would allow such interaction; his attention seems to extend, at most, three millimeters outside of himself, so the audience before him, the band behind him, and the camera directed his way may as well be lucky bits of circumstance, equivalent to furniture or the weather.

This feels apt – as a figure, “charisma” and “presence” are simultaneously appropriate and too weak to describe Curtis on stage. From the instant we see him in motion, he’s not so much a component of the scene as apiece with it, leaving everything else indistinct, furniture and weather notwithstanding. He’s not in the moment, engaged in the scene, but rather he carries the scene with him; the field of interest established doesn’t wax or wane according to anything that “happens”, but is defined exclusively by Curtis’ body, a body whose actions never refer to anything but itself.

“Nervous energy” is probably a faulty description – that phrase implies impulse, a chaotic swirl which can explode into exuberance as easily as it subsides into listlessness. Curtis’ movements are whole, sustained, both unrehearsed and certain; witnessing them, we suspect they can’t be executed otherwise, as if they were dictated from a trance (a comparison heard often in the movie), the actor picking up on some distant frequency.

“Trance” is pretty on the nose – from there you can no doubt (and “no duh”) extrapolate a connection between Curtis on-screen and off, specifically his battle with epilepsy. At its most elaborate, his body resembles the end point of an equation, a set of clearly delineated values of chaos and control interacting repeatedly in the vain hope of reaching stasis, cancelling out the remainder: his head still (near rigid) as can be above arms and torso in a state of stick figure frenzy, a jittery disconnect between limbs enacting actions which never flow from one to the next so much as shift into three or four different configurations per second (hit pause and every pose is easily measurable via protractor), while his legs twitch a precise unwavering line across the stage. As pure movement, it’s a drama unto itself, endlessly replayable, with release, catharsis, continually suspended for the sake of friction, a tension too tough to shake. This may be the most emblematic instance of Curtis on stage but, funny enough, it doesn’t feel climactic. This frenzy, we suspect, isn’t potential made fully manifest, just another expression of what was already there – as he sways choppily behind the mic or grasps it tight to his lips, intoning the lyrics while his body accommodates the beat as a gentle but definite pulse – the most kinetic end of a spectrum of motion. Whatever we perceive from Curtis, it’s plain at any given instant, however the variables shift, however it presents itself.

A more conventional performer par excellence, the kind keyed toward rapture (James Brown, for example, though feel free to insert your own fave), may serve as a neat contrast, i.e. someone intent upon leading the audience to a state of transcendence, the aforementioned release, giving a communal vent to emotions that have no conventional outlet beyond, say, sex. Curtis does something similar, but what is made manifest isn’t so much passion as interiority – he’s not projecting outward but giving us a view of something concentrated, something of undoubted and unknown significance conveyed through a vocabulary of (let’s call them) private gestures. To reframe this comparison, if the preacher is the working model for most pop performers, the tools of the trade being seduction, acceptance, communion, then Curtis’ stagebound qualities peg him as more akin to a shaman, who doesn’t spread the word so much as embody it.

What I’ll reach for to describe this is terribilita*, a bit rarefied but suitable; it translates into the all-too-loaded “terribleness” and might be generally defined as “awe-inspiring”. More exactly, it implies a brush with an ideal, the uncanny sensation which results from encountering something wholly and completely itself, an absolute. Regardless of your familiarity with the terminology**, you probably have your own points of reference w/r/t this quality: some proper Bressonian moment of ineffable stillness, a thrill-power throttled Jack Kirby double-splash page, whatever. What leaps to my mind is the titular figure (as portrayed by Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, standing at the threshold of the Zone a third of the way through the movie (click here and go to the 59 minute mark; unless you’re versed in Russian, don’t forget the closed captions); he’s a believer standing in a place which, to him, may as well be a footprint showing God’s passing, somewhere which is both Heaven and Hell, a man who’s witnessed more terribilita than he knows what to do with and so can’t help but be infected by it, and never moreso than then, as he – ecstatic and anguished and low-key all at once – tries to communicate this miracle to two doubtful dilettantes. Burdened by knowing the only thing worth knowing, he, at this moment, exists at the very edge of himself, aware that implicit in this state, haranguing these men, is every action he’s taken in his life thus far.

Naturally, moments like that are rare***, even in a Tarkovsky movie (though if there is a shortlist of artists who could possibly offer the absolute a comfortable and accommodating frame, he’s on it). Grant Gee and writer Jon Savage bring a whole mess of essayistic intent to Joy Division – documenting the band’s rise and abrupt fall (due to Curtis’ suicide) the better to view them as a cultural signifier of the threshold through which the past becomes whatever we call “the modern” in the early 21st century and, heaped onto that, of said progress reflected specifically in their hometown of Manchester (this latter bit means footage of lots o’ pretty cityscapes) – and there’s some (very loose) validity there, insofar as much of the music remains good ‘n’ potent; gauging the expiration date on art is probably a shell game, but I doubt the cultural moment for a song like “Ceremony” has passed yet. It’s all nice notions, kinda diffuse – Curtis, his presence, destabilizes everything, enough so that what’s left in his wake is a decent rote rock doc, albeit one that’s very lovely to look at. He justifies himself without a foundation of talking head testimony or the scaffolding of a dramatic arc; better to just stitch together performances and end up with a nice package of undivided moments – the pure stuff.

Or you could just watch this:

*”Transfiguration” is another good term, though a bit too weighty for me to wield at the moment.

**Originally gleaned from Alberto Manguel in Reading Pictures and gleaned by Manguel from Vasari’s Lives Of The Artists, where Vasari uses it as a key descriptor of the work of Michelangelo. So there.

***Though the last five minutes are a good contender as well.

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