Monday, February 20, 2012

There Ain't Nothing Sacred About a Hole in the Ground

Cold Weather:

A little slip of a movie. I only vaguely know what mumblecore is, and I’m pretty happy in that being the extent of my knowledge. Cold Weather I guess is mumblecore in how it shows the current sad slackerdom of the young American dude, and does so with elliptical, realistic dialogue. I liked Cold Weather primarily in how it borrows just enough from the crime genre to tell an incredibly small and kind of touching story. It plays with genre in a way that seems respectful rather than ironic, and retains enough genre-based plot that it’s not just about some jobless young hipster not attempting to not articulate what he’s not sure he’s feeling. It looks like Brick, and in its focus on the young and essentially powerless it’s also a bit similar, but it’s loosely realistic with its dialogue, unlike the excellent mannered dialogue of Brick, and tiny in scope compared to Brick’s epic sweep. In an odd way, I think they’d make great back-to-back viewing. Brick goes big and tragic and nails it, while Cold Weather goes exceptionally small, stays true to its scope, and at its heart is really sweet (not a thing I commonly say about crime movies).

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia:

Exhaustion oozes from every scene, every gesture. Warren Oates drags himself towards a redemption that we all know, Oates included, isn’t coming. The head rots in the shotgun seat. The movie drives itself ragged bringing the head home, at one moment Oates crazy with his quest and talking to the head, the next lugging it like every damn mistake he’s ever made. I know it’s been said a million times, but this movie is saturated with Peckinpah’s anger and his resignation; he’s present everywhere. It’s got all the Peckinpah signatures, from the enjoyable slow-mo gunshot deaths to the (at least) consistently unsettling misogyny. If The Wild Bunch is his initial masterpiece, and Straw Dogs his brilliant, queasy oddity, then Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah’s personal masterpiece, flawed and weird, but one of those movies that couldn’t ever conceivably be made by anyone else.

The Hustler:

I have a personal hesitation with old black-and-white movies that’s rooted in feeling that I should watch them rather than wanting to watch them. I approach them with the idea that I’m going to learn something from them rather than enjoy them. The ones that really hit me, like The Hustler did, make me forget why I’m watching them or what I’m supposed to be learning. Moments of melodrama aside, it’s a sad, contained coming-of-age story, and it’s driven by Paul Newman’s incredible performance. He proves that a fine actor can play through his looks, rather than obfuscating them to show he can really act (Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, Charlize Theron in Monster, etc. etc.). He uses his massive natural charm to portray Fast Eddie’s immaturity, then allows that charm to disintegrate as the character does. Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats is incredible as Fast Eddie’s foil, a dapper fat man who’s all stillness against Newman’s constant motion. The shot at the end that shows Fats to be more performing monkey than untouchable champion is a wonder—one of those moments where a massive, tangential story blossoms out of a few lines of dialogue and a change of expression. The Hustler’s a movie, like Casablanca, that may seem stiff in the style of its era, but has a story that’s timeless precisely because it still feels vital. It’s a classic in that way, not as something that should be seen to understand its effect on later movies, but as something that should be seen because it still cuts.


Its flashback cuts are showy in a way that’s not nearly as natural or smooth as the movie seems to want them to be. And its central theme, of the past’s impact on the present, is not delivered with a light touch. But it’s bold in allowing the story to sprawl all over the community, making it democratic in its storytelling and comprehensive in investigating how the past isn’t the past. My favorite part of the movie, apart maybe from Chris Cooper just doing his thing as an empathetic everyman, is how it doesn’t cheat at the end. Spoiler: the story builds to an inevitability-that Cooper’s Sam and Elizabeth Pena’s Pilar are united by the past in ways they couldn’t imagine. Normally, a movie will either drop in some deus ex machina to allow the two romantic leads to get together (deeply unsatisfying) or have them remain tragically in love and tragically apart (which might be “realistic”, but is still unsatisfying). Lonestar sticks to its guns, not even making a big deal of the fact that its main characters are half-siblings who intend to keep on tenderly boning under the eyes of the lord. Sure it’s kind of creepy, but it’s admirably creepy.

Sin Nombre:

As far as I know, Mexico’s current troubles have largely been undiscovered country when it comes to crime film. It makes sense in that things are still unfolding in horrifying fashion, making it a bit of a “too soon” and making it tough to go down and get the details right. Sin Nombre explores the particular aspects of today’s Mexican crime—wrapped up in immigration and aspiration and drugs—and does so by focusing entirely on character. It’s dedicated to ignoring the larger themes (unlike, say, Traffic) and dealing with the conflicts of its central characters. Those conflicts unspool organically, as any realistic character-driven narrative should, and slowly earn all the tragedy and hope of its story. The camera stays so closely focused on its two main characters that, when a secondary character dies by falling off a train, there’s only that brief, terminal slip, seen from a main character’s perspective, and then that secondary character is gone. Sin Nombre’s rigor gives the movie a feeling of deep, moving realism. If Breaking Bad’s doing an entertaining job of showing the upper reaches of Mexican crime, Sin Nombre shows the absolute lowest rungs, the teen foot soldiers and collateral Mexican civilians. Plus, as currently villainous groups go, MS-13 ranks among the most terrifying.

Yr honorable mentions:
Animal Kingdom: Some reviewer said that it was “the Australian Goodfellas” and that’s maybe correct if someone had only seen the last 1/3 of Goodfellas. The movie does a good job of showing the unraveling of a crime family, and at its center Jacki Weaver turns in a really fantastic performance as the flip side of the Livia Soprano evil matriach coin, with all the brutal manipulation but instead cloying and hovering with her affection. Still, it’s only a 1/3 of Goodfellas, because Goodfellas shows the giddy rise and the brief, unstable middle. Animal Kingdom is all fall, and it left me wondering not only what it was like when times were good, but how it could have ever possibly been good—a problem because the movie implies that, in some distant past, it really was. Unlikely and unexplained plot twists aside, the lack of those glory days makes Animal Kingdom a functional, but terminally lopsided movie.

The Getaway: In a lot of ways, a Peckinpah movie that doesn’t seem like it was made by Peckinpah. I think I like it partly because it gets a bad rap, an ungainly Peckinpah toss-off. But Ali McGraw manages to be a luminous beauty and a deeply complex and scarred character at the same time (though how she was ever seduced by Ben Johnson remains an impenetrable mystery). Steve McQueen is even more scarred, and he dials back his nuclear charisma just enough to make both his badass rep and his loveable loserdom plausible. Together, they play off each other in a way that made me believe them as a couple, and root for them in that magic way that narrative makes you care about people who aren’t real. It’s got a well-plotted heist; it’s got Sally Struthers as a cuckolding floozy; it’s got built-up shootouts and bottoming-out characters. More than anything, it’s got a well-earned and guarded happy ending. Considering Peckinpah’s canon, that alone made it worthy. Had I not seen Alfredo Garcia in the same year, this would have gone in my top five.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: More a spy movie than a crime movie, though it spends its entirety investigating treason using spy tactics. Gary Oldman, of course, inhabits the role to the degree that he’s only somewhat Gary Oldman at all. It looks like an honestly grimy, bureaucratic Mad Men, and it dispenses with the progression of plot in as efficient a manner as possible. Still, the true delights of the book were the depth of detail, the untrustworthiness of a plot that’s based on subjective telling, and the slow revelation of Smiley’s interiority as the plot advances. The story progresses with swift brutality in the movie, but the constraints of time flatten out all the doubts and details, sacrificing nuance for unrelenting forward motion. Plus, the last moments of the movie rank up there with The Departed and About a Boy in the pantheon of fine movies that shit all over themselves in figuring out a way to finish. Please, please read the book first.

Yr. Honorable Mentions that I didn’t feel I had much to say about:
25th Hour: The AV Club’s talked a bunch about this one, so I’ll just say that it’s a damn fine movie with a great cast that I didn’t think was great mostly because I think the book’s better.

The Good Thief: An update of/riff on Bob le Flambeur, it’s got Nick Nolte, reason enough to see anything. I really liked the story, liked the characters, liked the heist, and constantly, constantly wished Neil Jordan would stop doing shit to remind us that HE WAS DIRECTING THE MOVIE and just tell the fucking story.

Infernal Affairs: I’m sure people will think I’m an idiot for this, but I liked The Departed better (and not just because of Boston). Maybe it’s my not-great inclination to like the iteration I experience first (saw Mystic River before reading it, like the movie; read Winter’s Bone before seeing the movie, like the book; read 25th Hour before seeing the movie, etc.). I think that’s partially it, but also I think The Departed took the story and tightened the hell out of it. I also think I might have liked it more if either A.) I picked up on some cultural nuances, and/or B.) It didn’t seem like it was subtitled by Babelfish.

Honorary re-watch:
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: I saw Ghost Dog when I was in my early twenties and thought I got it and was bored by getting it. A decade later, I didn’t get it nearly enough. I couldn’t appreciate how firmly the movie sets its rules—Ghost Dog lives by his code, the Mafia are cartoonishly fallen—then explores what those rules mean. I also couldn’t appreciate how it stays in the bounds of genre, both samurai and mob, and makes something interesting happen by combining them. There are still the moments that seem incredibly goofy to me: Ghost Dog probably shouldn’t be practicing the noble art of the Samurai in his sweats with a little knife accompanied by moody hip-hop (though, again in hindsight, RZA’s score crystallizes the time the movie’s set in and sets the atmosphere perfectly). Still, Jarmusch’s care in making Ghost Dog a man embodying a dead ideal, having the camera capture the fleeting beauties that a man like Ghost Dog would stop to ponder, and Jarmusch showing all the ways that the Mafia failed to evolve within their own dying ideal (Cliff Gorman dropping Public Enemy in his bathrobe exists here for all time to enjoy that someone made this thing happen) made it a movie I’m not only glad I rewatched, but want to own and fall asleep to.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Yes. That Was Good of You

I never imagined loving a Le Carre book, or frankly any spy novel, as much as I love The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I like the big-scale anger of Alec Leamas, and his desperate romance with Liz Gold, but most of all I love how clean the book is. I think of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the same way I think of sharks: the book is muscular and sleek and efficient, and it feels as if it does one or two things better than just about anything else on the planet (provide a ground-level view of the Cold War and show what it’s like to be a field agent).

Rather than supplant The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy compliments it by depicting and dramatizing the business of Intelligence at the command level. There is none of the standard espionage action or motion of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; what little reference there is to being a field agent comes from the stories of others. Instead there is George Smiley, who begins the book as a cipher and ends it as a quietly remarkable protagonist. Rather than run run run, Smiley just does a great deal of listening.

With a character that could have easily been a bland plot engine/proxy for the reader, Le Carre crafts Smiley into a reluctant, ideal machine, while still managing to give brief, striking and usually deeply sad insights into his character. To all outward appearances, Smiley seems a dumpy bureaucrat—underneath that Le Carre takes care to show the precision of his mind and depth of his memory when focused on uncovering the mole in the Circus. But under that, and apart by force of will, are Smiley’s emotional and moral sides, and as the book progresses, particularly near the end, that emotional and moral register surfaces. There is none of Leamas’ operatic drama, but there is a romanticism, even though it’s subdued and melancholy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a mystery of sorts, a puzzle book, and the mystery is unraveled not by the discovery of physical clues so much as the compiling and comparing of various fragmented narratives. The singular concern of Smiley, and the focus of book, is ferreting out a mole in the upper reaches of British Intelligence (The Circus in Le Carre-speak). This leads to a procession of one type of scene: a character tells what they know; Smiley listens; and the reader constantly reorients themselves to the new knowledge and tries, in my case usually futilely, to keep up.

In addition to the pure volume of information, Le Carre also doesn’t stop to explain the various industry terms his characters frequently use. The reader is left to largely pick up through context what it might mean when a character is described as “pink”, or what a lamplighter does. Some terms are common, but some are also part of a particular character’s lexicon.

While this makes the book more dense going, it also reveals Le Carre’s pitch-perfect ear for voice. Each of the characters has a distinct one. They tell their stories in unique ways, with unique language and cadences, and Smiley interprets the tells, elisions, and obfuscations of each. Jim Prideaux gets furious in his conversations, while Connie Sachs gets flirtatious, but Le Carre shows how, though different in result, both stem from the characters attempting to hide something. Considering that the book is really a mass of exposition, this cacophony of voices would seem to get both dull and confusing. But because he nails the voices, and the dialogue usually has layers of subtext, it never does get dull; and because confusion is an integral part of the story, it’s a confusion that, for me, was compelling. One of the joys of the book is watching Le Carre’s pinpoint ear at constant work. He seeds all his dialogue with minor, telling details that simultaneously advance the plot and characterize the speaker. And in the tradition of smart thrillers, it’s left unclear which of those details hides a deeper significance to the central mystery.

In its collection of distinctive voices, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is similar to my constant touchstone—The Wire. It’s also similar in that “fuck the average viewer” mentality; neither work talks down to its audience, perhaps out of respect for the audience’s intelligence, a desire for authenticity, an innate arrogance, or some combination. Regardless of origin, it’s an aspect I increasingly find in work that I like (last year’s favorites A Prophet and The Friends of Eddie Coyle also share this characteristic). More and more, I prefer to chew my own food.

This lack of explanation, I think, allows the reader or viewer to lose themselves in a work; there is never that distancing moment when a character explains something purely for the benefit of the audience. After watching The Wire I’d walk down Dickson St. in Fayetteville and imagine how the corners might operate in plain sight (which, in The Wire sense of corners, Dickson St. doesn’t have). Similarly, after reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I’d be sitting in the airport analyzing the people around me, trying to memorize details with one look, trying to read postures and conversational subtext, trying to distinguish patterns. Now, a big part of this is just me being really lame, but I think it speaks to how completely the book sinks the reader into the world of espionage. Smiley, and others in the trade, have a rigorous, constant worldview—one that necessitates awareness and remembrance of detail, that assumes duplicity and ulterior motives, that prizes objectivity and dispassion. It may be exhausting (as it often is for the characters), but it’s also so well rendered and consistent that it lingered after I put the book down.

As in other Le Carre books, this constant vigilance and sacrifice is in service to something –nation, the system of capitalism, the unaware masses- that is portrayed as at best murky and at worst unworthy. Unlike Graham Greene, who is similar as an author to Le Carre in many ways, there is no concrete world beyond to contrast with our own flawed one. Greene is an absolutist (though a flexible one, as in The Quiet American or The Third Man, which are similar to Le Carre’s work). Le Carre is a relativist. There is nothing but grey in Le Carre’s world, where humans are routinely ground up in the gears of capitalism and/or communism and dubious ends justify inhuman means. While you never get the sense that there is a definite right in Le Carre’s world, there are terminal wrongs, often involving the betrayal of those who trust and love you, and the line separating the relatively right from the absolutely wrong is a shifting and thin one.

Even in love, Le Carre’s constant juxtapositor to the business of espionage, there is no pure good. Characters are often led by love to betray their nations, or allow love to lead them to their deaths. Those characters who are able to compartmentalize their feelings, as Smiley is, are still wounded by the constant betrayals, compromises, and confusions that make up realistic, adult love. Rather than make it an ideal to contrast against espionage, Le Carre presents love as utilizing many of the same practices, if for an end that he views as nobler or more true than God and country. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Constant Gardener, it is love ultimately that stands as the one, worthy, human thing that connects us, for what small bit Le Carre shows that to be worth. He says of Smiley that love is “the last illusion of the illusionless man,” and that quote would seem to apply to Le Carre just as easily.

Apart from love, which mostly hinders Smiley, there is another compulsion, a sense of duty, that drives him to complete his task. It’s not simply duty to one’s nation, or even duty to a dying notion of England, central player in the grand geopolitical game, though there is an occasional nostalgia that touches Smiley even as he distrusts it. It’s not totally duty as a means of giving life purpose, or of avoiding life’s other complications, though Smiley is miserably directionless at the novel’s start. It’s all those things, but at base there’s also a sense that Smiley feels a driving need to do the task correctly: if you’re going to find a mole, you should find a mole in the best way possible. It’s this aspect, this sense of duty stemming from multiple sources, that differentiates Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Alec Leamas is furious and disenchanted, and places what little faith he has in love. Smiley, too weary and too smart to work up much fury, is irrationally moved by love, but he’s equally, and equally irrationally compelled by duty. He notes the paradox of it, maintaining a powerful sense of duty to something you don’t really believe in.

This isn’t all to say that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not without faults. There is a massive exposition dump in the middle, just as there is in The Constant Gardener, that, while potentially necessary, is awkward and lumpy and artless in comparison to how he handles exposition in other places. And unlike The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which is a romantic book narrow in scope but masterful in execution, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is sprawling, messy, ambitious, and ambivalent. It also feels very true, which in a story entirely given to deception, is a marvelous thing. Le Carre does not cut corners, oversimplify, sentimentalize, sex things up, get blood on the page, force the pace, or any of the other myriad tools that make for more marketable and undoubtedly shittier genre fiction. Instead he throws you in the middle of web, starts methodically working his way out, and asks that you keep up.

None of this touches on the other pleasures of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carre renders setting with a precise, lyrical hand. He creates fully realized characters that are either difficult not to like (Prideaux, Guillam, Mendel, little Bill Roach) or at least made to seem deeply human in their faults (Esterhase, Connie, Haydon, Tarr, Alleline). There are scenes that are intense without sacrificing either pace or character—the scene between Smiley and Karla is the best kind of slow motion disaster. If Le Carre had just unraveled the knot at the center of the story, the book would have been very good. With all these extra touches, and the increasingly admirable and complex Smiley both driving the plot and giving the story its quiet, basic humanity, it is something great.