Sunday, May 6, 2012

Squinting with your eyes open

Obviously, everything's going to be completely all right.
I don't have many observations to record about the chilly, dark spy picture Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).  It seems to be less of a film, and more of a simulation of the experience of being a spy.  Nothing is stated outright, nothing is explained, no one is identified, no one reveals their thinking.  If anyone has feelings, you won't hear about it.

Even better, screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have dispensed with those two popular crutches of the modern spy film.  First, the voice-over of the protagonist, explaining the arcane non-verbal transactions going on.  You know the thing, "Sturgess gave me a glance that could only mean one thing" blah, blah, blah.  Second, the big explanation at the end, "You see, Collins, I knew as soon as I saw Verdoux wearing the ring, that Operation Fuzzball was going to be scrubbed, because..."  Clearly, the writers and director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) decided to have respect for the audience and challenge them to lean forward and come to the film, instead of being overwhelmed by it, as in a Bond or Bourne film.

The story is often referred to as "complex", but it's not so much complex as it is sub-contextual. Here is a very visual film -- the soundtrack by itself would tell you almost nothing-- the very opposite of a standard spy film, which is all explaining and a couple of gunshots at the end.  But the story is relatively straightforward if you understand two things.  In LeCarre spy stories, there is no there there.  It's never about a secret that has to be stolen or protected.  It's about the process of security -- who works for whom, who is who really who they say, who can be trusted and who will betray.  What they are protecting is immaterial and never discussed.  Questions of loyalty are about the security force that claims your allegiance -- MI6, CIA, KGB, not the countries who have created and harbor these forces. And loyalty to the very idea of security and the discipline security requires.  And the time sequence shifts, but that is clearly laid out in the form of Smiley dictating a memorandum, so confusion as to time only lasts seconds at most--if you are paying attention.

The characters communicate in literal and dramatic code.  Information is conveyed by a look, a shrug, a cock of the head, or of the eyebrow.  But the film is not slow.  Information arrives rapidly and in profusion, once you understand how to interpret it.  It is quiet, but densely packed.

My favorite shot--a recurring sequence of a packet of papers rising, by itself, in a sort of document-dumbwaiter, acknowledging that information is the real protagonist, that data is more important than people in this universe, deserving of its very own private elevator.

The film has a wonderful visual uniformity, oddly reminiscent of Welles's The Trial.  It was interesting to learn that that uniformity was achieved in a similar way as it was in Welles's film.  Nearly all of The Trial was shot in a single abandoned railway station in Paris.  Nearly all of Tinker Tailor was shot in an abandoned military base in England.  This provided a number of structures with a wide variety of purposes and spaces, but a single gloomy aesthetic that supports the tone of the film perfectly.

That's really all I can say.  The film has been too brilliantly dissected and explicated by David Bordwell, and if you are a serious student of film, you have to read "Tinker Tailor:  A Guide for the Perplexed."

My own parting advice-- don't watch this for relaxation, but for stimulation.  Put away the wine and brew some coffee.  The film is worth a little lost sleep.

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