Saturday, January 7, 2012

“Men and bits of paper”: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

Words have a way of haunting me.  That is, particular phrases I’ve read over the years linger on the edge of my consciousness, hinting at things that seem bigger than the words themselves.  And I don’t always remember where I read a phrase; I’m not sure I remember, even, the exact phrase itself; I remember two words, perhaps, and the rest, the context, slides out of my reach – the feeling only and those two words sit with me.  “Sordid remains” are two such words; I think it was “the sordid remains” that I read; “the sordid remains of  breakfast,” I think.  The context, I know, of those words was British, a Dorothy Sayers novel, maybe?  In my mind, those words paint me this picture: a plain, London woman walks home in the late, dim afternoon and arriving, alone, to her flat sees her breakfast dishes still resting on the table, bits of hardened egg, crumbs of toast, a cloudy glass – and she feels the heaviness of her lonely life, the pointlessness of it; the small efforts of the morning to feed her body are left over, left out, drying in the shallow air, sad things telling her her story. 

A.S. Byatt, in her introduction, as editor, to The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, describes her experience in attempting to assemble stories that are “English.”  She worked to abandon any pre-conceived notions of what an “English” sort of story is and simply read widely from any author who might be described as English and choose anything that felt to her like "art," anything that “startled” or “satisfied” or “excited” her.  And she found, when she had finished selecting those sorts of stories, that threads of what might be called “English,” emerged.  One thread, in particular, is what she notes Henry James called, “the solidity of specification” and what Byatt herself calls “the evocation of the concrete” and, alternatively,  “the thinginess of things.”  The narrative that drives these “English” stories—following this thread of “thinginess”—depends on a specific thing, an object within the narrative; in one story, for example, the action circles, farcically, around a pair of trousers; in another story, a ghost story, around sheets and blankets on a bed; in another, a patterned quilt;  and yet another, false teeth.  In each of these stories, the things -- ordinary things -- move the story.  Or rather, the characters’ actions and feelings revolve around these things, and the things are both only themselves but absolutely, something else: the things are symbols or indicators of another thing that is less solid—a feeling, a mood, a crisis, a relationship.  But solidity of the things is so heavy and so detailed that the stories evade lofty philosophical heights and create, instead, something both more elliptical and more concrete: an idea revolving in a shadowy orbit around a rocky planet.
I think, perhaps, that solidity – that thinginess of things – is what I love so much about British literature.  It is, so often, like the stolid, red face of an unromantic Yorkshire village pub owner (the one I imagine in Herriot's tales), who dares me to presume any presence of sentiment in him, and I daren’t presume.  I know he will give me a piece of rough bread and a bit of cheese when I come to him hungry, but he’ll ignore me if I thank him.  If he says anything at all, he might say, gruffly, dismissively, “It’s nowt but a bit of bread.”  So I keep quiet, I’ll eat my bread and cheese, and be fed with that nowt.

“The sordid remains of a breakfast” means nothing, but it speaks to me, in its solidity, of some mood, some idea that are firmly distinct, but symbolic without presuming to be such.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film made up of solid objects, objects both only themselves and also something else.   The objects of the film tell the mood, tell the characters, and tell the story.  

These are some of the objects:  
-two porcelain bulldogs, draped in the British flags; 
-a square-framed painting; 
-a one-winged owl, stuffed, on a wall; 
-a padded room of a sickly orange color; 
-chess pieces with faces taped roughly onto them; 
-untied shoes and feet forced into them; 
-a cigarette lighter, “To George, with love, Ann”;  
-a drop of sweat on the café table; 
-coded number messages spitting from a furiously clicking machine; 
-a cigarette packet, broken neatly in half; 
-a file elevator, slowly moving, up and down with its piles of folders; 
-a small wedge in a door; 
-an orange note on the briefcase; 
-a hand slightly shaking, clutching quietly, once, on a banister.

The objects are so solid, so specific that they defy sentiment and philosophizing.  They are the story, but they will not move on their own – I must tell their story, though I fear to tell it above a whisper, lest my Yorkshire publican glare at me and refuse me my pint.  But what whispered story do I see in their solid thinginess? 

In these things is the story of the desperate end of a group that has lost its way and wonders uneasily, unconsciously if it ever knew the way in the first place.  Here is the story of a busy, secretive world, in love with its own busyness, in love with its own secrets – now suspecting that the secrets have lost their value, that the busyness is merely a vain scrabbling.  It is the story of a power that was once a greater power, now jockeying for a place between those who will, certainly, casually bump it aside.  It is the story of men – and some women – who find themselves actors in something that was once beheld as a glorious war between the good and the bad but is now only a kind of sickly bickering, leaving poisonous gases, leaving unsung bodies -- not heroes -- in its wake.
Though the objects tell the story, the film is not without a traditional arc; it is, in fact, a spy story where the protagonist, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), discovers there is a mole at the center of British intelligence, and he must track him down and expose him.  There is, therefore, the conflict of a traditional story, with the tension building as Smiley works in tunneling after the mole, uncovering piece by piece of information, keeping us in ever tighter suspense and weaving an atmosphere of paranoia.  It is a suppressed sort of suspense though and a heavy, rather than taut, paranoia: suspense and paranoia built more by mood than by plot, more by uneasy looks than by new reveals of information. 

And Smiley, methodical, cautious, stoic, almost ghostlike in the vacuum of his personality, is not our typical hero.  An aging, graying man who is physically quiet, whose face is non-descript.  You would meet him and forget him or pass him on the street without noticing him.  He is no aggressive and glamorous James Bond, coolly wooing women or exploding into violent action.  Instead, he is the sort of person in the car who watches while others bat at the angrily buzzing and trapped bee, and calmly, unnoticed, opens the window at just the right moment, letting the bee fly out.  There is not even the excitement of a bee sting.  The buzzing simply subsides.

Smiley, then, as our given hero, defies us, and his person indicates the kind of spy movie that this is.  The plot is complex, the relationships intricate and subtle – and we can keep up if we pay attention—but the stillness of Smiley, the underlying suspicion we have because of him, that the machinations of plot and plotting are an intellectual puzzle that must be muddled through but will bring no triumph or even catharsis in the end.  Smiley will tunnel, inexorably and thoroughly, until he finds the mole, we suspect, but what, exactly, will the discovery give us or give him?  What will the discovery, in fact, reveal? 

In the end, this isn’t a movie that thrills us with its pace so much as it crushes us with the weight of its objects.  Even the characters themselves – played subtly and superbly by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, and Ciaran Hinds – seem like so many objects, pieces on a chessboard, being played by forces long out of their control.   Perhaps though, the tragedy this story tells is that, in the end, the inanimate objects in the story have more weight and consequence than the men who speak and move; they are men following in a tradition that has collapsed, following in a winding path that leads to no end and offers no heroes.  They know – we see the knowledge in their faces, and in particular in Smiley’s face – just how rotten the structure is and just how inconsequential their lives are, and yet they continue to move and be moved because they know nothing else and know how to do nothing else; they continue shifting in positions, assigning and re-assigning empty power. 

Is this a particularly British movie?  An old-fashioned dinosaur of a thing that evokes only a nauseating kind of nostalgia for the grimy, smoky days of a 1970’s London at the tail-end of the Cold War era?  Is it, merely, a history lesson?  John le Carre penned his novel in 1974; to what purpose has Tomas Alfredson given us the movie now?  It is a story that is of a particular time and of a particular culture.  But I find – like the best British stories, with their solid particular objects – that the film is widely resonant because of its specificity.  If it is about the decay and disillusionment of a particular power, of particular men, in a particular time, and if it is about the grinding on of a particular government machine that does not know how to stop though it will soon destroy itself if it continues to run, it might also be about decay and disillusionment and the grinding on of failing institutions in the here and now, in my  here and now.  I will not be so indecent and brash as to connect the dots, as to make this particular object, this film, into a metaphor.  But it contains in itself something that will sit in my mind, powerfully, as sordid, haunting remains.

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
--From "Burnt Norton" by T. S. Eliot


  1. Wow! Great piece Melissa! I feel as though my appreciation for the film has just grown because of your piece. Supremely written and observed. I can't tell you enough how much I appreciate this post.

  2. Thanks so much, Adam! I had so much fun writing this; TTSS was probably the film I most wanted to see this year, simply because I'm such a lover of all things British - and the film delivered in every way. So utterly satisfying.