PopSmarts: A Reputation For Difficulty
We who take it as a vocation to criticize the efforts of others must take great care to keep our own behavior above reproach. It is particularly bad form to take a fellow critic to task when he or she makes a judgment that seems eccentric or even outright mistaken. Judge not, lest ye be judged; because we all do it — oh, boy, do we ever — and what goes around comes around, and karma’s a bitch, and I would rather not have the razor-sharp critical mind of a Laura Miller or a Matt Zoller Seitz turned to the task of enumerating my failings, thankewverymuch.
Which presented me with a bit of a dilemma recently while I was catching up on recent (-ish) films. I had occasion to watch the 2011 adaptation of John LeCarré’s thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I was immensely impressed, so much so that I did something that I hardly ever do; I immediately rewatched it. Three times in the space of twelve hours, in fact. It’s a remarkable piece of work — maybe even an all-time classic.
What impressed me the most, in all viewings, was the sure touch with which it navigated the myriad twists of the plot — the way it handled exposition by implication, rather than by outright info-dump, never minimizing the complexity of the events or motivations, but always providing sufficient context that the viewer could follow the action.
Or at least this viewer could. Because when, as is my wont, I took a post-viewing survey of the critical line on the film, I was dismayed to find that many reviewers — and these are reviewers that I admire, mind you, not the cellar-dwellers of the IMDb message forums — did not find the movie as easy to follow as I did. In fact, some confessed they couldn’t follow it at all. Bilge Ebiri admitted, “I’ve watched [director] Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy twice now and I’m still not sure I understand all of it.” Jim Emerson, whose restless intelligence is a constant challenge and inspiration to me, announced himself “floored,” but added a few telling caveats: “The first time I saw it … I couldn’t have told you exactly what happened. That didn’t concern me at all, however, because … the movie is so meticulously observant that I never felt I was missing out on anything important, even when I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on.” (We’ll return to Emerson later, as he has another parenthetical qualifier that I found illuminating.)
Most distressingly, even the late Roger Ebert — one of the keenest minds that the field of criticism has ever produced — had pronounced himself flummoxed. “I confess I was confused some of the time and lost at other times; the viewer needs to hold in mind a large number of characters, a larger number of events and an infinite number of possibilities,” he wrote. And even as he placed much of the blame on himself, he felt that the film did not entirely succeed:
More ordinary spy movies provide helpful scenes in which characters brief each other as a device to keep the audience oriented. I have every confidence that in this film, every piece of information is there and flawlessly meshes, but I can’t say so for sure, perhaps because I don’t have a mind suitable for espionage. …. I became increasingly aware that I didn’t always follow all the allusions and connections. On that level, Tinker Tailor didn’t work for me.
This, friends, is how a work of art acquires a reputation for being “difficult.”
After reading all this, I was almost embarrassed. If Tinker Tailor was giving my learnéd colleagues such trouble, I thought, then surely it was a bad sign that I had found it so relatively transparent. I felt like the schoolkid who completes his exam in the first ten minutes of class and hands in his paper, only to notice his classmates still beavering away — who then realizes, to his horror, that there were a whole bunch of questions on the back of the page. Had I missed something vital? But the more I read, and the more I thought about it, the more the evidence seemed to confirm that, yeah, the story really was pretty much what I thought it was.
So what is this story that so befuddled some of criticism’s keenest wits? On a basic level, Tinker Tailor addresses the old question: “Who watches the watchmen?” The A-Plot, into which all the subplots eventually merge, is simple enough. It is 1973, the height of the Cold war, and the aging head of British Intelligence — known only as Control, and played by John Hurt — is convinced that there is a double agent, a “mole,” in the highest echelons of his own organization. After an unauthorized field operation goes awry, Control is forced into early retirement, along with his trusted lieutenant George Smiley (Gary Oldman); even though Smiley knew nothing of Control’s suspicions, nor of his extracurricular activities, he is considered tainted by association. Control dies only a few months later — but shortly afterwards, a high-placed cabinet official receives new information confirming Control’s suspicions. Smiley is called out of retirement and tasked with hunting down the mole. With no standing, no clearance, and virtually no resources, Smiley is on his own, off the books, accountable only to the Intelligence Minister. His only contact within MI6 (known here as “the Circus”) is Peter Guillam, a mid-level bureaucrat played by the icy Benedict Cumberbatch. While Smiley investigates the Circus from outside, Guillam must play a lonely and dangerous game, spying on his own bosses — the two of them pitting their wits and skill against the entire apparatus of British Intelligence.
Now, as mentioned, I watched Tinker Tailor three times more or less in a row. And my repeated viewings increased my enjoyment of the film, but they weren’t necessary for comprehension. On first watching I was caught up in the intricacies of the plotting; most of my viewing capacity was occupied with simply following what was going on. And at the end of that first viewing, I felt perfectly satisfied with my understanding of the story.
On second viewing I could concentrate on the look of the movie, the oppressive grays and browns of London, the cheap ‘70s ornamentation that sought to push back against the environment but only emphasized the grimness of it — peacocks trapped in a Brutalist maze. I was also taken with its subversion of spy-movie clichés, in its insistence on showing the seedy reality of the craft. If the movies acknowledge at all the bureaucrats and cubicle-jockeys who comprise the bulk of the intelligence community, it is mainly to cast the traditional protagonist — the dashing field agent — in an even more heroic light, as an object of envious admiration. But the closest thing Tinker Tailor has to a Bond-style man of action is the wayward “scalp hunter,” Rikki Tarr — a hulking, half-bright yobbo played by Tom Hardy in a shearling coat and a bad shag haircut — who is universally despised and dismissed as a jumped-up thug, even by his own bosses.
On my third viewing, what came out was the uniformly fine acting. All the characters are in the business of deception; they’re all actors, in one way or another, all giving performances with varying degrees of effectiveness. There aren’t a lot of Big Thespian Moments in Tinker Tailor. Oldman has one astonishing monologue, and David Dencik, as a Circus toady, has a great breakdown, reminiscent — intentionally, I think — of a classic Peter Lorre freakout. For the most part, though, the players radiate a poker-faced stillness, just beneath which we can sense the roil of emotions. Oldman is impressively opaque throughout, but for me the movie belongs to Cumberbatch; for his character Peter Guillam, the false bonhomie of the workplace — difficult for anyone to maintain, in any workplace — suddenly has life-or-death consequences.
So, yeah. Three viewings to enjoy the film. But only one needed to get it. I had couple of moments of confusion my first time around — in one case because two actors of vaguely similar appearance had been cast in similar, but separate, roles — but they were just that; moments, and by the end of the scene I would be back on solid footing again. Because Tinker Tailor, as it makes clear early on, is not a film that takes as its purpose to mess with the audience’s heads, to make us question what is “real.” It’s a not a fake-out or a mindfuck. There’s a single definitive version of events, and our process of watching the film mirrors Smiley’s investigatory process as he uncovers those events. The information is scattered, yes, presented in flashbacks and multiple narratives; but none of those narratives is unreliable, and they all confirm rather than contradict one another. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, and all the pieces, as Roger Ebert had every confidence (but could not say for sure), are present and accounted for.
So how was I able to get it in one, while Roger didn’t quite get it at all? Am I smarter than Roger? I can’t believe that for a moment.
The film spends its opening minutes, as all good films do, teaching you how to watch it. The lives of its secret-agent characters depend on their ability to take note of every detail, and TinkerTailor makes that real for us, instilling in the audience that same sense of paranoid hyper-awareness. The movie begins with field agent Jim Prideaux (played by Mark Strong) heading for a rendezvous in Budapest. As Prideaux seats himself at a side-street café, we observe the relative isolation of the location; the potential chokepoints at either end of the alley; the lack of clear escape routes. We note the evasive manner of his contact; he’s clearly killing time, waiting for something. What about the woman with the baby? The band, practicing in the empty storefront? The old lady looking out the window opposite? The waiter’s hand trembles as he sets down the coffee; a drop of sweat falls from his forehead and splashes on the table. And almost without your realizing it, the movie has put you right there in Prideaux’s head. And even though nothing overtly menacing has happened, you know that something doesn’t smell quite right, and it’s time to get out of there before Something Very Bad goes down.
From this opening, it is immediately clear that Tinker Tailor is an uncommonly intelligent movie, and that it will assume the intelligence of its audience. Alfredson (the Swedish director best known abroad for Let the Right One In) doesn’t hold our hands, or lead us by the nose. He tells us precisely what we need to know… but only once. Standard Hollywood procedure dictates a degree of repetition — lay out your plot points often and early — but Alfredson never belabors a point. Every moment, every shot of the movie is significant. Tinker Tailor is a film that requires a good deal of audience engagement, but once you’re clued in to its dense narrative strategy, your attention is amply rewarded as the pieces start to come together.
Another example. There’s a montage about ten minutes in, showing us George Smiley’s daily routine since his retirement. He awakens alone. It’s a huge double bed, but the way that he occupies a single small corner of the mattress tells us that he is accustomed to sharing it. Smiley is solitary and self-contained — indeed, he speaks not a word until nearly a half-hour into the film — but the flat seems much too large for bachelor’s quarters. Returning home from an errand, he brings in the mail; a fleeting shot reveals that several of the envelopes are addressed to a Mrs. Ann Smiley. George looks them over, then carefully puts them aside with a stack of similar envelopes.
It’s a small scene, but we are being fed several pieces of information here, almost invisibly. Namely:
- Smiley has or had a wife, Ann, now absent.
- She’s still getting mail, so she’s not dead; therefore, she has left him.
- Smiley is saving her mail for her, indicating that he expects her to return.
- The practiced way in which he does this indicates that this is not the first time this has happened.
All of this is confirmed later, when a secondary character mentions, in passing, “I hear that Ann has left you again.” But this is more than mere restatement for exposition’s sake. The follow-up line is, “She never deserved you, George.” Which sets up the revelation of Ann’s chronic infidelities, which in turn proves important to the story’s central mystery.
Before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is over, a man will stare fixedly at an ugly painting; an old woman will, after a moment of debate, elect to take a tot of whiskey in her tea; an old man will flourish an engraved cigarette lighter; a young man will force a smile; the camera will linger on a photograph; two men at an office Christmas party will exchange glances across a crowded room. Tiny moments, which in another film might be insignificant. But here, they strike like bullets. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has been adapted for film before, in 1979, as a five-hour BBC miniseries. That Alfredson manages to tell the same story in just a shade over two hours is a tribute to the efficiency of his narrative method.
If Tinker Tailor is confusing, perhaps it is because it is tough to pin down stylistically. Like the characters, the movie itself has multiple identities. It has the subject matter and trappings (and the all-star cast) of a populist thriller, but with the artful composition and deliberate pacing of an art film. (It’s a curious thing. The film unfolds in a seemingly unhurried manner, but — once attuned to its informational density — I never found it slow, simply because there is always so much to see.) But the clever montages and exquisite use of depth-of-field are there to power a relentless narrative engine.
And perhaps that is the source of the confusion. It was from Roger Ebert that I learned the Prime Directive of Criticism — first, to figure out what a work of art is trying to do, and then to judge how it succeeds or fails on its own terms. Perhaps temporarily forgetting his own maxim, Ebert seems to have been expecting Tinker Tailor to eventually settle down into a “more ordinary spy movie,” and found himself lost when it did not. Perhaps, after watching God-knows-how-many formulaic thrillers, he had become accustomed to the conventions of the genre, and was subconsciously expecting one of those “helpful scenes in which characters brief each other,” only for it to never arrive.
I cannot be disappointed in him. I understand that I see and write about films from a rarefied and privileged position. I watch maybe eighty movies a year, tops, a mix of new releases, old favorites, and new discoveries. A working critic, like Ebert at his height, or Jim Emerson or Matt Seitz today, watched approximately eighty movies, like, last Tuesday. And the sheer volume of material is bound to have the effect of conditioning the viewer, of creating expectations; I imagine it makes it more difficult to come to a film fresh, to immerse oneself in a different mode of viewing, such as the one that Tinker Tailor demands.
That’s a double-edged sword. It makes critics inclined to treasure film-viewing experiences that don’t conform to the norm — but it might also leave them vulnerable to being blindsided when they don’t get what they were expecting.
And because I generally write from the perspective of an enthusiast, rather than as a consumer advocate — a role to which, for better and worse, film criticism has largely adapted itself — I am free to compartmentalize my viewing experience in a way that many critics cannot. Let’s return to Jim Emerson. Elsewhere in the piece quoted above, he allows that narrative confusion, at least during a first viewing, is practically his default state. Not knowing exactly what’s going on “is usually the case for me, even with movies that don’t negotiate complex plots in slyly evasive / elliptical styles.” It occurs to me that I while I was able to take separate viewings to appreciate the film’s narrative, cinematography, and acting, Emerson — like most critics — is processing all those aspects at once, and then some.
Or maybe it’s something else. Thinking about the way I had second-guessed my own reactions after reading Emerson and Ebert, it occurred to me that maybe incomprehension, too, is a conditioned response. In art, a reputation for difficulty can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Emerson, for instance, accepts from the get-go that he might, upon first viewing, get lost in the windings of the plot — perhaps even expects it. He compensates by concentrating on the big picture: “[Tinker Tailor] kept me in the emotional moment, and I knew I could figure out the details later on.”
If I had thought going into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that I might not be able to understand it, I might not have done so. But I am a sometime writer of fiction, and on that day when I sat down to watch Tinker Tailor, I was also gearing up for a project more intricately-plotted than any I had ever before attempted — and so, of all the many elements that make up a film, I was looking most closely at the through-line of the plot. And so that is what I saw most clearly. If you’re looking for other things, you will see those things more clearly, instead.
Different means, different ends; different modes of engagement to produce different results. Some works of art will reward one particular mode of engagement more than another, but can still be engaged in multiple modes.
You can still be floored by it, even if you don’t think you fully get it.
That doesn’t make it difficult — just deep.