Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Amidst the Dead Leaves: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Why was this film made?
All art exists within an historical context, a bundle of occurrences and conditions which, like a woman in labor, gives birth to art as an expression of those conditions, a mirror by which to understand what's going on in our society and the world and, even, within ourselves. Thomas Alfredson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a direct answer to all the turmoil within England and Great Britain right now, and a direct response to those suggesting that mistakes have been made and wide-sweeping changes need to be implemented.
John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a best-selling novel, . . . in 1974; so why would it be resurrected today? What could a Cold War era spy novel possibly communicate to us about the world in which we are living? Why does a "mole" at the top of British Intelligence concern us? It's not a mole in British Intelligence, it's the mole within some of us, when times get hard the doubts start swelling up: maybe the free market system isn't the best way to go, with pension plans being altered and Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London trying to take over, with riots and marches going on everywhere, factories and stores closing and unheard of unemployment rates, . . . maybe, we choose the wrong model, and we should have become communists.
This shot defines what was "cold" about the Cold War: the loss of feeling existing within a constant endgame on the threshold of the Third World War. It's an odd name for a spymaster, "Smiley," isn't it? And yet master novelist John le Carre chose well: "George" means farmer and the planting of spies hither and thither, the picking of intelligence like grapes for the wine harvest and the nurturing of the future crop like Peter and Ricky Tarr lets us know why "Smiley" can smile, the future is bright, despite the darkness of the present, and
These are the reasons a Cold War film is being resurrected today: the new Cold War is the "cold" of unemployment, the "cold" of altered pension plans, the "cold" of empty shop fronts downtown with big "for rent" signs on them, the "cold" of seeing the new homeless and hungry, those who were previously employed but lost everything because of shady financial deals to benefit Wall Street brokers; yes, the enemy is within and its tempting us towards revolutions such as those of the Bolsheviks. "Class warfare," it's no small thing, and but it's certainly on everyones minds and will be unavoidable this year with the new films scheduled to come out so we might as well figure out now where we stand and why (even China is re-examining its class struggle and history with the Jackie Chan historical epic 1911).
There is a great deal of abstract art in the film (please note the piece behind Smiley's head) and it would be easy, especially for those unfamiliar with le Carre's style and themes, to correlate the abstract art with the abstract storyline, however, I think its meant to have the exact opposite effect: everything is very tangible and concrete.
So what about the film? How does it build the characters and translate their struggles and decisions into something we can sympathize with?
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) doesn't say a word until his third or fourth scene; rather unusual, a major star like him, just sitting there and taking up oxygen? But this fits in with contemporary trends of silence, for example, the critically acclaimed silent film The Artist and little Hannah in Take Shelter; these trends, not adding Gary Oldman to their ranks, assures us that silence is a legitimate method of communicating, just as Soderbergh taught us in Contagion that noise is a legitimate means of communication.
Why is this scene important? Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) is like the car: expensive, fast and the vehicle that will allow Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) the means to bring in a big one by himself. Irina at the steering wheel and Ricky in the backseat is the car that will ram straight through British Intelligence and take Ricky to the top. It's important to note that during this scene, they drive through a shipping yard where large shipping containers stand ready for loading; this is rather Irina's fate because she will be "shipped" to Odessa but not before "unloading" her treasure to Ricky. "Irina" is the Russian variant for the German name Irene which means peace and peace will be brought to British Intelligence through Irina because of the unmasking of Bill Haydon her information will provide and the return of Smiley after his forced retirement.
But TTSS also uses noise: the closing song, Le Mer performed by Julio Iglesias, acts as noise, not only because it is just a tad bit too loud (and this was a conscious editing decision) but the foreign lyrics which will be foreign to most audience members is naught but noise because they don't understand it and the jovial beat doesn't seem to "fit" the somber mood of all the events which have just unfolded. But let us make no mistake: this was intentional. We generally don't think of music has being noise, it's music, not noise, but the noise tells us more than the lyrics: we haven't heard everything the film has tried to tell us, and within the noise is more than what we are willing to acknowledge.
It might be taking place in the 1970's but that doesn't mean it can't show off how truly modern it is. The film is filled with references to Game Theory, one of my favorite approaches to art. This scene at the card table invokes James Bond's Casino Royale and the high stakes poker game he plays (as well as Will Salas in In Time) but what is the highest stake, your own country's future and identity? The obvious game is the references to chess, the leading men of British Intelligence have their photos taped to a chess piece signifying their identity on endgame of nuclear warfare but there is racquetball played between Oliver (who I thought was actually being played by Roman Polanski) and the British prime minister and then there is the title itself derived from a nursery rhyme of child's play. There is also the "playing" of the music in the backgrounds, much of it foreign, such as the closing song of the film, Le Mer performed by Julio Iglesias. The combination of "game," based upon rules, and "play" which means the absence of rules, situates the film nicely in what is expected of Smiley and the intimate depth of the breach which has been made: Karla, the Russian control of Moscow, suggested that Bill Haydon sleep with Smiley's wife, Ann, obviously breaking the rules of covert action, but also allowing Smiley to lure Haydon into the trap that reveals Haydon's duplicitous nature. But this is also the ground upon the "deconstruction" of TTSS takes place, the demonstration of how what British Intelligence has set its self up against is what its doing: spying on British Intelligence. Smiley, being outside the family, is doing exactly what Bill Haydon is doing for the Russians, but passing the intelligence to the Prime Minister instead, yet employing the same means as Haydon: stealing from the archive room, talking to "out of commission" agents who aren't at liberty to discuss their past work in "the Circus."
In trying to figure out everything the film wants to tell us, we have to get outside the film, like George Smiley being "outside the family," outside the Circus (British Intelligence); but we can't get outside the film because we are living within it, but decoding the secret script, so to speak will reveal secrets to us. For example, at the beginning of the film, when Control (John Hurt) and Smiley have been fired, two important things happen: Smiley gets a new pair of glasses and Control dies.
John Hurt as Control, the head of the British Intelligence including Smiley. Control has been leery of intelligence being brought to them by a double agent, codenamed "Witchcraft," and because he didn't want tot accept it, he lost his job. There is a significant change that alters nearly the entire premise of the film by the changing of one word: in le Carre's book, the foreign intelligence was codenamed "Merlin," which has its own connotations (including the idealistic notion that using that golden information being supplied on the Russians would be like a Renaissance to Great Britain) but in terms of "Witchcraft," the dark magic of Merlin is deepened and instead of Merlin, we get Morgan le Faye.
When Control dies, it's more than just the passing legacy, or a passing generation in the Cold War era, it's a part of Britain that dies. We only have a glimpse of Control in his death bed, which appears to be a hospital bed, a Styrofoam plate, creased and cracked on the floor, a bunch of red grapes on the floor and he, in hospital gown, half out of the bed. What does it mean? The meal before him (finding the mole) had been snatched away before he could finish, and he didn't have a peaceful death (half way out of bed). Taking Smiley out of the Circus as he himself was leaving was the nicest thing Control could have done, because the fewer men there were in the ring leading MI6 along Witchcraft's path, the easier to spot the dirty one and the easier for Smiley to remain clean of all suspicions.
Peter in Control's flat after Control has died and Smiley has been asked to investigate the mole. The flat very much, like its own work of art, reflects the situation in MI6: its unorganized and it stinks. The foul odor in the air as Peter and Smiley enter isn't just the smell of the old and the unclean, its the smell of decay in progress, but without someone to have a "bird's eye view" of what is going on, all the pieces of the puzzle could be right there, but not make sense.
Before we even hear a word from Smiley's mouth, we see him getting new glasses. This is so important that, in the primary poster (pictured above) it's his new glasses that his hands are adjusting. The old, brown/yellowish frames are discarded and he gets the new black frames, literally, he's getting "new eyes" with which to see the situation at the Circus and that's how we know that his being fired is a good thing because if he were still a part of the Circus he wouldn't be able to see as clearly, like us being a part of the film and not being able to see and hear everything it's trying to tell us.
There is another aspect of  Smiley's advantage of being fired from MI6: he stays clean. This is aptly demonstrated by Smiley swimming in the pond/river and carrying a towel with him. This isn't an accidental or non-consequential symbol because Smiley has to remain professional and keep his heart out of this investigation as well as making sure he doesn't get tainted by it.
But there are a few odd things Smiley does.
Towards the end, as Rickey as made the phone call and the heads of MI6 are meeting and the bait in the trap sit, Smiley does two things: first, while listening on the phone, he takes off his shoes, then he takes out a roll of mints from his pockets and sucks on that while he's about to make the biggest bust in MI6 history. Why? Smiley is being careful to lay a trap for the culprit, not as an act of revenge. Removing his shoes is a sign of removing obstacles to his will, that he's going to let the cards fall where they may (in addition to not making noise as he walks across the floor), but since Haydon had been having an affair with his wife, Ann, this is an important act of "removing" his personal life from the situation.
Mark Strong as British agent Jim Prideaux who is set up by Bill Haydon to take a fall so Prideaux cannot report to Control who the mole is. Prideaux is about to be shot by Hungarian Intelligence and, as Prideaux walks away, on his right, there is a woman breast feeding her baby who is shot in the head. I will discuss this below. What's most important is Prideaux shooting Haydon in the face, just below the eye, at the end of the film. Why does he do this? At the school where Prideaux has become "a lotus-eater," there is a young boy named Bill who wears spectacles that Jim has taken a liking to; Jim "jokes" with Bill about his name, "Do they ever call you the 'unpaid Bill?'" and the reason this "unpaid Bill" is on Jim's mind is because Bill Haydon has to pay for setting Jim up and spreading the lies that Jim told the KGB about all the British agents in Hungary to "save his own skin," when Jim went through hell. So shooting Bill in the face is paying the bill for the defacing of Jim's reputation as an agent and what he told when he was held in captivity. Was Jim and Bill Haydon lovers? No. There is a strange, unspoken moment at a Christmas party, and we know that Bill "goes both ways," but besides the other gay men in the story there is nothing to suggest that Bill and Jim have been partners. Lastly, about Jim, instead of living in an apartment or house, he chooses to live in an old trailer house, which is a sign that Jim "hasn't settled down" yet and is restless about what happened in Hungary.
Why does Smiley take the mint?
Removing the pack of mints from his pocket means that he is "pulling from within himself" what he needs to do, and that is keep himself clean (not let loose his personal anger and feelings, but remain "fresh" and "clean"); it's also important that, when the mole is revealed, he doesn't say something he's going to regret. It's a very simple device that reveals to us aspects of a spymaster who is not used to revealing things about himself.
Knowing at the start of the film that Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is the mole, provided me with chances to observe how he would be "betrayed" by little things here and there, gestures that describe a mole and a spy. Bill's first words in the film are, "Percy, you little prick!" and that's a revelation because it's Bill who "pricks" MI6 and bleeds it dry, drop by drop. In this scene pictured above, Bill has brought his bicycle into MI6 and says that it won't be any safer in there, implying that they are all thieves, but he can think that way about his co-workers because that is what he is, a thief. In this shot, he's there to see the new girl, "Belinda the blond," and it's important the we understand his appetite and roving eye, not just because of the affair he starts up with Smiley's wife, but because that kind of promiscuity carries over into his professional life, in who he is willing to work for.
A fond expression in the film is "get in bed with us," and that's not accidental.
The role of Ann, Smiley's wife, is limited yet imperative (there is the book and a previous film I am mentally comparing her role to and it's quite different); we never see her face because she's quite symbolic of MI6 itself, rather, England itself, and we can't see through Smiley's glasses how he sees whom he's married to. Ann having left him in the beginning of the film corresponds to MI6 leaving him (firing him) and Ann returning corresponds to Smiley returning to MI6 (in Control's position). Bill Haydon's affair with Ann corresponds to Bill Haydon . . .  Well, I won't use the vulgar word I think the film supplies, but instead will say "having intercourse with" MI6. Ricky, and his affair with the wife of Boris, a Soviet agent, (isn't right but in artistic terms) balances out what Bill Haydon is doing to Smiley's wife and what Irina supplies for Ricky is the mirror image of what Ann does to George: Bill was trying to bring down George through Ann, but Ricky brings down Bill through Irina. (Connie is important, yet I would rather discuss her if there is going to be the two sequels).
Mirrors and glass are used to great advantage in the film. When Ricky first sees Irina, it's through an apartment window and she sees him, so they both "reflect" on what the establishment of their relationship will mean on a larger scale.
There is a sign twice shown in the film: "The Future is Female."
In context of what was spoken above, Ann returning to Smiley can be taken that the future will be solid and stable, a united effort, a marriage of love and fidelity. But there is the murdered Irina, and her death foreshadows the death of the Communist Party (which le Carre did not know, writing in the 1970's), but there is also the mother, feeding her baby at the Hungarian cafe where Prideaux is shot, and the baby left without a mother. The last we see of them, a policeman has taken the baby and holds it, as Smiley would be holding the new, infant MI6 after "the great betrayal." If  "the future is female," (and there are many ways to interpret that), it might be a future that is more nourishing, more loving, but I think that's one of the things we can't know because we are in the present, not in the future.
Smiley has just walked into his house and finds Bill with an abstract painting on the table and trying to slip into his shoes. This is possibly a reference to when Smiley is about to shut the trap on Bill and Smiley removes his shoes in "Bill's home" the safehouse where Bill meets his Russian agent. Smiley removing his shoes is like Bill trying to cover his tracks in Smiley's house with Ann, but Smiley wants Bill to know that this is his revenge, and a subtle, gesture such as this wouldn't catch anyone's attention.
What I was most anxious to discover about the film would be Bill's motives for betraying his country. The film is its own entity, but comparing his motives to the book (wherein it nearly seemed natural that Bill would choose the communist side because that was something the Oxford breed considered doing as an extension of their intellect), the 1979 version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guinness clearly manifested what a crime Bill committed with serving the Soviets. In today's version, Bill tells Smiley, "It was an aesthetic choice as well as moral. The west has become so ugly," and this is the real lesson for us, today: what is it that has become ugly in capitalism that we want to abandon it for? We cannot mix the "aesthetic" and "moral" questions of our future, we must insure they remain different questions and, as we move forward into the future, we don't throw away all the sacrifices that have been made to preserve the freedom of being free market economies.