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William C. Altreuter
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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Some time back, scrolling around, I came across the middle part of "The Spy that Came In From The Cold". I watched about ten minutes worth (Burton, sinking into drink, gets into an altercation with a shopkeeper in order to infiltrate the English Communists), then realized that this was too brilliant not to see in its entirety. I added it to the Nexflix queue, where it was buffeted about by the rubbish my family wanted to re-watch, until finally it washed up on our doorstep. Here's how it goes with me-- if I read a LeCarre, I get thinking that I ought to read a bit of Graham Green, and then I think some Joseph Conrad would be just the thing. Then I read the Conrad (there is still quite a bit that I haven't read), and decide that both Green and LeCarre just can't hold a candle, and I'm cured, and can go back to what I was doing.

This time I was set off on a LeCarre movie binge, and I ordered up the mini-series of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy". I'd never seen it. I have a sort of rule about mini-series, but it's turning out to be more of a guideline, really. Anyway, in this particular instance it seems to me that the mini-series accomplished something that the book did less well, and that as a result the mini-series was in a way a more successful artistic accomplishment. One of the things that LeCarre is really out to do is to demonstrate how entirely interior his character's lives are, and one of the ways that he does this is to make his narrative full of claustrophobic elements. The caravan that Jim Prideaux lives in, the endless little rooms where meetings take place-- these things represent Smiley's mind. Very little of the activity takes place outdoors, and even England itself is a small island, a symbol of Smiley's head. To the extent that the action occurs outdoors or away from England it is largely in flashback, being related to Smiley, or Smiley's own recollections, being re-shuffled and re-connected with other bits of information. It seems to me that the flashbacks are more effective as a cinematic device than as a literary one, at least in this instance because as a written device we tend to lose track of the fact that the events being described aren't taking place in the now. We know that it is a flashback, or an anecdote, or a recalled memory, or whatever, but we do not experience it that way. As a cinematic device, at least in this work, we are always aware of this, because of differences in lighting, or perspective, or because we see the events with a voice-over narration describing them. (By the way, I usually hate voice over, which seems to me to be most frequently employed as a sort of cinematic cheat to capture the literary tone of the thing being filmed. Tinker, Tailor doesn't fall into this trap, and instead uses the technique magnificently.) The end result is that we experience the narrative in much the same hermetic way that Smiley does, and we understand Smiley better.

Naturally, I am anxious to start "Smiley's People". When this sort of itch occurs the only thing that can be done is to scratch it. Unfortunately LCA and A do not share my current infatuation with interior dramas about Brit spies, so we watched "Waitress" last night. The sad thing about "Waitress" is that it's writer, director, and co-star, actress Adrienne Shelly, was killed in the sort of stupid, horrible crime that we don't think happens any more. The movie is good enough that you can get past that terrible fact, and I recommend it to anyone who likes stuff about Southerners, or female empowerment, or pie.

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