Friday, January 27, 2012

Aesthetics and morals

The most interesting line in the new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes almost at the very end, when the unmasked traitor describes his actions as being more an aesthetic decision than a moral one. The thought isn’t explained further (maybe it’s explored at greater length in John le Carre’s original novel, which I haven’t read), but I took it as elegantly summarizing the natural extension of the Cold War super-spy’s endlessly labyrinthine environment. At least as depicted by now in countless films, the definition of “intelligence” was only tenuously linked to verifiable facts; strategic advantage might lie for instance less in obtaining useful information than in confusing the opposition with misinformation, or in obliterating the distinction between the two (assuming such a distinction ever existed). I suppose the positive interpretation of this would be that it was a truly scary time, with the greatest possible stakes, requiring huge strategic finesse, and it’s no wonder if it generated its own twisted structures and ideologies – after all, what doesn’t?

On the other hand, of course, this comes with a legacy of ethical and legal contortions and breaches, the justification for which would have grievously offended the national consciousness if known (Clint Eastwood’s recent J. Edgar muses on related territory). But anyway, the reference to betrayal as an aesthetic decision suggests we might regard all this as a self-contained art form, an elegantly perpetuated system in which the artist’s achievement would be measured by the complexity of his participation in it – a measure for which the complications of double agency would provide a huge, even necessary, advantage. Faithful patriotism would only be the proof of one’s limitations, therefore of one’s failure.

The Human Factor

Of those countless films I mentioned, I think the last one I happened to watch was The Human Factor, Otto Preminger’s last work, made in 1979. It’s not usually regarded as a strong ending for the masterly director, but I found it a fascinating depiction of British spy-craft, depicted as a mixture of drab formality and unacknowledged derangement. Going over to the other side is the ultimate transgression, meriting death, even though the characters dispassionately leak their own intelligence for strategic advantage; the film’s traitor is a more stable embodiment of traditional British virtues than any of his colleagues (he started passing information out of gratitude for the role played by a Communist in getting his wife out of South Africa). Preminger does justice to the subject, capturing the inherent mediocrity of the environment and the people, which of course renders their power all the more disturbing.

I might also mention David Hare’s Page Eight, the closing gala at last year’s film festival, which played soon afterwards on PBS. This one’s set in the present day, but things haven’t changed much – at one point someone mentions how the dreams for a post-Cold War world failed to materialize, and indeed the agency’s busier than ever now (this is also true of course of all government bureaucracies, of any kind, anywhere). The notion here – again not a new one of course – is that America’s conception of its own strategic interests (and in this case, British kow-towing to them) obscures its own core values, but the movie’s too abbreviated to do much with that idea. Still, it very effectively delivers the kind of seasoned, laconic character-play on which the genre depends.

High-placed mole

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy actually delivers a bit less of that, choosing a mode of often-chilly restraint (it’s directed by Tomas Alfredson, best-known for his very creepy, and very wintery vampire film Let the Right One In). The protagonist is George Smiley, a veteran fired from his senior position within the agency (referred to here as the “Circus”) after a mission failure in Hungary. When evidence emerges of a high-placed mole, Smiley - originally under suspicion himself, but now cleansed by his time outside – gets called back to investigate, knowing his target is one of four senior people.

In addition to not reading the book, I haven’t seen the famous British TV adaptation of it, in which Alec Guinness played Smiley. The film is only about a third as long as the series was, obviously allowing much scope for comparing and contrasting the two (a recent issue of Sight and Sound did this quite absorbingly, regardless that I had mostly no idea what the article was going on about). Some reviewers found the picture hard to follow, and I’d hate to be tested on my grasp of every single detail, but overall I thought it was admirably clear, without being heavy-handed about it. The film draws on a fine cast, including Gary Oldman as Smiley and last year’s Oscar winner Colin Firth, without ever feeling like a series of star turns (thus avoiding a common pitfall of the genre – Bill Nighy is great in Page Eight for instance, but so stylized he threatens to become disembodied from everything else). And the tone feels right – atmospheric but not strenuously scenic, stylish but not flashy, capturing the uneasy relationship of the 1970’s to our current age: recognizable in some ways (jackets and ties don’t fundamentally change that much), entirely alien in others (accessing the records of British intelligence appears to be a matter of finding the correct hand-written notebook, stealing it from the file room, and then hoping someone hasn’t torn out the relevant page).

Ineradicable rot

The Sight and Sound article came out behind the picture, calling it a “hugely successful treatment of formidably resistant materials,” but noting it could only hint at le Carre’s “central preoccupation…does the existence of a mole at the centre of the Circus indicate some ineradicable rot in the upper classes – the ruling class, to this day, of England?” Given the current state of England, the question remains relevant, in fact urgent, but in responding to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you wonder whether the nature of the rot, and what it would take to diagnose and treat it, would be best grasped by obsessively turning over this narrow (albeit fascinating) chunk of the past. Well, perhaps the assertion of aesthetic over moral considerations comes as close as any explanation ever could, as a demonstration of embedded decadence. But on the other hand, a society defined entirely by morality would amount to sterile totalitarianism – and has there ever been a ruling class that didn’t ultimately succumb to rot? Maybe betrayal and treachery are inherent to creativity and awareness, and the Cold War spy genre remains fascinating because it’s a particularly stark embodiment of the traps and excesses and confusions we still sense defining our fragile progress through the world.

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