Archive for the 'Film and other media' Category
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has to be counted a success ($64 million worldwide so far), and it may have brought new attention to John le Carré’s writing. The fact that some websites and Twitter feeds lured readers to my entry on the film (and thanks to all) suggests that people can enjoy a film even though major aspects of the plot escape them. Everybody loves a mystery, right?
Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I had originally written something longer about le Carré’s narrative strategies generally. Out of common human decency I cut the entry in half and focused on the film. But seeing the interest in what I’d posted, I thought that there might be enough hard-core readers who’d want to go down the rabbit hole again.
So one more post, which reflects a little more on the film, while arguing that le Carré’s development as a novelist offers a fascinating example of a writer trying out various methods of storytelling. Ideally, you should read this after reading my first post. The next three sections don’t spill any secrets, but if you want to avoid spoilers, stop at the section called “Burrowing.”
Going to ground
During the 1970s le Carré seems to me to have reinvented the dense, almost digressive plotting we associate with the nineteenth century British novel. A little narrative theory helps us understand his ongoing exploration of storytelling technique.
We’re used to thinking that a plot presents one or two major characters moving through the world. That movement yields adventures in the broadest sense: encounters with others, experiences that illuminate some aspect of life, conflicts both inner and outer. Our mental prototype of a plot, certainly in mainstream films, features a protagonist (or a couple) accompanied by lesser figures who become allies, helpers, lovers, rivals, and enemies.
Le Carré’s first novels accord with our prototype, with the addition of those old standbys Mystery And Intrigue. Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) are mostly straightforward detective stories. Although George Smiley is a secret agent, he’s forced to investigate crimes. Accordingly, he goes from place to place, suspect to suspect, and hears out their explanations and alibis. With The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), le Carré moves closer to an adventure plot, as we follow a protagonist in a linear succession of encounters. As is common in the genre, concealed information is sprung on us at various points, forcing us to recast what we thought we knew.
It takes a mind as odd as that of Viktor Shklovsky, the great literary theorist, to point out that we can think of any longish narrative as the intersection among many stories. He believed that as a form the novel developed out of assemblies of shorter tales. He pointed to The 1001 Arabian Nights and The Decameron as examples of this sort of compilation—long works built out of collected stories, enclosed within a bigger storytelling situation.
When the novel became a distinct genre, Shklovsky thought, it continued this tradition. In essence, each novel makes a long story out of several shorter stories. But unlike what happens in the compilation format, the stories become connected to one another. Character A figures not only in her own plot, but in Character B’s. This tends to hide the fact that separate stories are nestled within the overall architecture.
Besides connecting all the sub-stories, the ordinary novel makes some of them very minor. Our simpler prototype relies on suppressing or compressing all the other story lines except the one involving the protagonist. Our protagonist meets lots of people, but some are given no background, others a bit, and still others a fair amount, but nobody’s story can override the hero’s.
Shklovsky asks us to rethink our idea of the standard novel. It becomes not a straight-line path but a tangle of virtual tales that has been radically chopped down and ironed out. All the latent stories might be intriguing enough to sustain a plot in themselves, but for immediate purposes they must be subordinated to the fate of those creatures we call protagonists. In effect, Shklovsky suggests that every narrative can be thought of as an undernourished network narrative.
In a tale of mystery and detection of course, hidden backstories of some of the characters come to light gradually. But severe selectivity still reigns, because the backstories bear on the protagonist’s main goal: solving the mystery. When Smiley cracks a murder case or agent Leamas realizes that he has been deceived by his superiors, we understand other characters’ lives in a new way, but they don’t steal the stage from our hero.
Still, Shklovsky notes, some storytellers have realized that secondary characters can claim the spotlight as well. At the limit, they can furnish new narratives, as in Wicked and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Henry Jenkins’ idea of transmedia storytelling exemplifies this idea: the ally in one tale can become the hero of another, perhaps on another media platform. But of course nineteenth-century novelists aimed to do the same thing within a single tale, building elaborate plots that would give us an ample sense of how the lives of many characters converge through chance or common purpose. Our Mutual Friend, Pot-Bouille, and War and Peace try to accommodate a great many stories within their wide compass.
I think that with the novel Tinker, Tailor le Carré decided to try this option, to give the spy novel—typically the province of the teasing linear plot exemplified in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—the sense of a panorama surveying many characters’ lives and perspectives and, still more broadly, the institutions that they serve.
But there’s a problem here: How to expand your plot to do justice to many characters’ backstories and sidestories? Again Shklovsky provides useful hints, and le Carré tried many of the options he proposes.
Shklovsky suggests that stories can be integrated in two basic ways. One is through framing. You the writer set a self-contained tale, or several tales, inside a bigger one. This is exemplified by The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, as in the films that Pasolini made from these classic works. We can see this option at work in a movie like Dead of Night (1945), in which guests at a country house party swap stories of the morbid and bizarre. Actually, le Carré tried this. The Secret Pilgrim (1990), is virtually a collection of short stories framed by an aged spy listening to Smiley lecture at MI5’s training school.
Another option is what Shklovsky calls “threading,” the principle that traces the consecutive adventures of a protagonist. This is the prototype I’ve already mentioned. But Shklovsky suggests that by keeping the protagonist thread you can still expand the framed tales. In Don Quixote, the adventures of the Knight and Sancho Panza hold their own interest, but they surround a string of embedded tales told by the people they meet. And sometimes those embedded tales are pretty long.
It seems to me that le Carré sought ways in which he could expand his embedded tales without losing the main thread. For example, his novel following The Spy…, The Looking Glass War (1965), splits the protagonist function up into three characters, their parallelism stressed by the section titles: “Taylor’s Run,” “Avery’s Run,” and “Leiser’s Run.” There is an overarching rhythm to the action, but we have three distinct protagonists. It’s as if the author is rehearsing, on a smaller scale, the shifting viewpoints that he will exploit in his longer fictions. The tripled protagonist also allows le Carré to present different standpoints on that center of spying operations MI 6, known as the Circus.
The following book, A Small Town in Germany (1968), is a return to a single protagonist and a straight detective plot, but now the mystery focuses on the bureaucracy behind espionage. Alan Turner, an embittered spy in the Leamas mold, is searching not only for a staff member missing from the British embassy in Bonn but also for some damaging files that have vanished. The drab routines of sorting, checking, and managing information become the object of scrutiny, and Her Majesty’s civil servants are prime suspects. Le Carré had found a way to put burrowing at the center of his plot.
After these efforts, in which Smiley barely appears, le Carré might well have felt ready to test his talents on a broader canvas. First came The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), a satiric psychological novel about a businessman who becomes entranced by a novelist and his wife. The book, which runs over 400 pages, shows le Carré’s eagerness to stretch out. Just as important, I suspect, is its value as a laboratory for narrative experiments. Descriptions swell, and inner states are reported in detail. Instead of a roaming point of view, there are deep plunges into the main character’s mind and senses through stream of consciousness, free indirect discourse, and a curiously omniscient voice, sometimes pitying and sometimes jocular. Compare the driving scenes in the opening lines of two books.
“Why don’t you get out and walk? I would if I were your age. Quicker than sitting with this scum.”
“I’ll be all right,” said Cork, the Albino coding clerk, and looked anxiously at the older man in the driving seat beside him.
(A Small Town in Germany)
Cassidy drove contentedly through the evening sunlight, his face as close to the windshield as the safety belt allowed, his foot alternating diffidently between accelerator and brake as he scanned the narrow lane for unseen hazards. Beside him on the passenger seat, carefully folded into a plastic envelope, lay an Ordnance Survey map of central Somerset. . . . For the attention of Mr. Aldo Cassidy ran the deferential inscription; for Aldo was his first name. He drove, as always, with the greatest concentration, and now and then he hummed to himself with that furtive sincerity common to the tone-deaf.
(The Naïve and Sentimental Lover)
The style seems to me unsure, but clearly the writer is moving beyond terseness toward something more enveloping and commentative.
Returning to the espionage genre, le Carré hit upon another way to fill a big canvas. He resurrected that old formula, the supreme master-mind criminal pitted against our beleagured hero. The master spy isn’t Mabuse or Fu Manchu but the Russian Karla, snug in Kremlin Centre, and George Smiley’s efforts to flush him out are chronicled in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979). The mass-market omnibus edition of these runs to nearly a thousand densely packed pages. How did our author manage plots on this new scale?
Chekhov says that if a story tells us that there is a gun on the wall, then subsequently that gun ought to shoot. . . In a mystery novel, however, the gun that hangs on the wall does not fire. Another gun shoots instead.
Some expansions are pretty evident. The Quest for Karla trilogy introduces many new characters, mostly people who staff the Circus or who are involved with the institution of espionage: from secretaries and “scalphunters,” the lonely and low-down agents assigned to menial bits of spying, to the very top, such as the Minister who oversees MI5 and Lacon the pliant civil servant overseeing the Circus. Some of these characters are in turn given private lives, with friends and lovers. The connections ramify.
In addition, there are the civilians whose lives are touched by the Cold War chessgame. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, that demographic was represented by Liz Gold, Leamas’ lover. But in the Karla trilogy we get a panoply of more or less innocent figures who are pulled into webs of plot and counterplot. And here le Carré does something quite shrewd.
He tends to start the novel with these characters, people at the very edge of the web. Smiley’s People opens with an unassuming Russian émigrée living in Paris. She’s confronted by a Soviet agent telling her she might be permitted to see her long-lost daughter. What does that have to do with Smiley’s cleaning the Circus stables after the mole scandal, or Smiley’s loss of power after the Jerry Westerby misadventure? Positing enigmas at two or three degrees of separation, working inward across the web, le Carré lets the reader gradually sense the lines of force that lead inexorably to the principals.
So le Carré grows his book not merely by expanding his cast. He finds a new balance between thread structure and framed stories. In Smiley’s People, perhaps the most orthodox entry in the trilogy, Smiley investigates the death of an émigré Soviet general, and this entails a fairly standard detective plot. The novelty comes in the fact that the participants Smiley questions are former agents whom he ran, or colleagues retired from the Circus—his people. And what they tell him isn’t rendered in compressed dialogue or summary. Their recollections spread out luxuriantly, claiming considerable interest in their own right, sometimes with only slight points of contact with the main plot, sometimes burying clues that Smiley must dig out.
More intricate is The Honourable Schoolboy, the longest entry in the Karla trilogy. It has two main threads: Jerry Westerby’s efforts to trace money flowing from Moscow to Hong Kong, and Smiley’s struggle to rebuild the Circus. The plot encapsulates the two main types of spy fiction—indeed, the two types that le Carré had already mastered in his earlier books. While Jerry’s plot is suspenseful adventure stuff, Smiley’s plot is inquiry-oriented, like that in Ambler’s classic Mask of Dimitrios (1939). To stretch the canvas on a still bigger frame, le Carré makes Smiley pass investigative assignments to other Circus personnel, like Connie Sachs and Doc di Salis (who get characterized in detail). Indeed, both main lines of action are filled out with rich and lengthy sub-stories. We can study the tradecraft of old Craw, majestic spy-journalist; the puzzling past of Lizzie Worthington, Drake Ko’s mistress; and the enigmas around her lover Ricardo, either dead or flying heedlessly through an Asia in flames.
The Honourable Schoolboy also has a more layered narration than its predecessors. It switches point of view constantly, in the process virtually promoting Peter Guillam to the rank of Smiley’s Watson. Most striking is the plot’s ultimate narrating framework, a sort of institutional memory serving as recording angel. Instead of the all-knowing, somewhat condescending voice of The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, this narration is brisk and brusque. It defends Smiley against those in the intelligence community who, through shortsightedness or malice, misjudged his decisions.
It has been laid at Smiley’s door more than once since the curtain was rung down on the Dolphin case that now was the moment when George should have gone back to Sam Collins and hit him hard and straight just where it hurt. George could have cut a lot of corners that way, say the knowing; he could have saved vital time.
They are talking simplistic nonsense.
This opinionated, godlike narrating agency is never identified. It’s one of the many signs that in the Karla books le Carré is reviving conventions of the triple-decker novel. And so he did; he bid to become our Dickens. (The larger-than-life father-son duo of A Perfect Spy is perhaps his most extravagant exercise in this vein.)
He echoes Wilkie Collins too. For mystery, never far from Dickens’ concern, is central to Collins and le Carré. Sustaining the reader’s interest through mystery seems not as important for our highbrow novelists now; it’s the province of “genre fiction.” But many of the canonical works of fiction and drama turn on secrets that are hinted at, then dramatically exposed (not only Oedipus and Hamlet but works by Henry James, Ibsen, Conrad, O’Neill, Faulkner). On the first page of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov thinks, “Why am I going there now? Am I capable of that? Is that serious?” The question of that that keeps us reading. You can argue that the modernist novel, with its fascination with time-juggling and stream of consciousness, found a sort of equivalent for the secrets, deceptions, and puzzles that drive classic tales. In any event, during the first decade of le Carré’s career, he began to explore the ways in which embedded stories can blossom into mysteries.
In my original entry, I didn’t straighten out the plot of Tinker Tailor, but now, as the film nears the end of its theatrical run, I’ll tell the novel’s tale straight. Skip if you don’t want it all ironed out.
Bill Haydon, working for British intelligence, is in the pay of Moscow Centre and its head, Karla. He has been passing information to the Russians for years, but Control, the head of the Circus, is starting to get suspicious. He believes that one of his five top men is a mole. Karla entices Control into sending an agent, Jim Prideaux, to meet a Czech general supposedly going to defect. This leads to a spectacular failure—Prideaux is shot and captured—and allows Karla to install an ambitious dunce, Percy Alleline, in Control’s position.
Haydon is the best and the brightest, the flower of English manhood. Suave, easygoing, with an Oxbridge artistic flair, he is as debonair as Smiley is brooding and inscrutable. Haydon has strained his friendship with Smiley by conducting a brief affair with Smiley’s wife Ann, but that episode was initiated by Karla to make Smiley reluctant to suspect Bill of bigger crimes. Haydon has already tempted Percy with the promise of a double agent, a cultural attaché in London called Polyakov. Through Polyakov Karla feeds the Circus trivia, mixed with bits of good information, to the gratification of Alleline’s inner circle—Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase—as well as Oliver Lacon and the Minister overseeing the bureaucracy. And the Americans approve.
Upon Control’s forced retirement, his team is abandoned and he dies a short time later. A permanently damaged Jim Prideaux is brought back to a new life as French teacher at a minor boy’s school. Smiley retires, while his wife Ann leaves to take up a string of love affairs.
But when a raffish field agent, Ricki Tarr, reports on good authority that there is a mole at the very top of the Circus, Lacon asks Smiley to investigate sub rosa. Smiley installs himself in a shabby hotel and with the help of a youngish colleague, Peter Guillam, and an old friend, Inspector Mendel, he starts patiently scouring the records. Following in Control’s footsteps, Smiley discovers disparities, missing documents, and incompatible testimony. Eventually he is able to pressure Toby into revealing the location of the safe house where Alleline’s cadre meets Polyakov.
By inducing Tarr to send a message galvanizing the Circus’ top brass, Smiley forces the traitor to hurry to meet Polyakov at their usual place. There Smiley, Guillam, and Mendel record Bill Haydon’s incriminating conversation and play it back to the embarrassment of the inner circle. There remains a long epilogue, in which Bill, in detention, confides in Smiley and seems to have no regrets about sending his closest friend Jim Prideaux into a trap and months of torture. Jim has discovered the treachery of his dearest friend and, sneaking into the compound, kills Haydon. While Smiley, now occupying Control’s seat of power, goes to the countryside for a possible reunion with Ann, Jim returns to his school, the object of the boys’ adoration but also a morose, haunted man.
I’ve tried to synopsize the action as a thread, in Shklovsky’s sense, but I can’t do justice to the novel’s exfoliating plotlines. We’ve seen that a detective story basically presents the sleuth going from person to person, asking questions and getting information. Since Smiley is the protagonist, much of what I’ve traced has to be discovered through testimony or flashbacks. As Shklovsky remarks, any mystery in a plot involves some play with time, either ellipsis (what happens in the gap?) or rearranged order (hiding crucial causes) or a late point of attack (so that we must go back to reconstruct why things are as they are).
But your straight-line Q & A investigation can be pretty plodding. Check for yourself by trying to read one of the “classic” detective stories by S. S. Van Dine. Forced to present official reports and characters’ recollections, le Carré skillfully expands those into robust, extensive stories of their own, filled out with characterization, detail, and atmosphere. The recording-angel narrator moves easily from reporting the interrogations to summarizing past action and then to full-blown scenes rendered from the viewpoint of the witnesses.
As in the later books of the trilogy, le Carré’s point of entry is oblique. Instead of starting with Smiley, principal investigator, it starts with Jim Prideaux’s enigmatic arrival at the boys’ school, and even that is presented at one remove, through the vantage point of Bill Roach, aka Jumbo, a hapless “new boy” at the school. Only after that do we meet Smiley, hailed by the obnoxious gossip Roddy Martindale (a convenient expository device) who chats about the usurpation at the Circus. Soon Smiley is summoned to Lacon’s home, where he and Peter learn Ricki Tarr’s story of spying in Hong Kong and falling in love with Irina, the wife of a KGB spy. It’s she that tells him of the mole in the Circus.
Tarr’s tale is the first embedded story, running four chapters. Once Smiley takes the assignment, relatively little happens in the present. His investigation carries him to his old Russia expert, Connie Sachs, and she recounts another block of information, about how her suspicions of Polyakov led her to be sacked from the Circus. Once Smiley is back at his hotel, he starts his reading, and for five chapters we get a big chunk of the past, including Smiley’s discovery of Bill’s affair with Ann. Smiley’s homework is interrupted by a suspenseful string of scenes involving Peter’s smuggling crucial files out of the Circus.
Another embedded story soon follows: Over dinner Smiley tells Peter of his only meeting with Karla, many years before. Then, pursuing yet another clue, Smiley questions Sam Collins, the man on Circus duty the night Jim was ambushed. As in any good detective story, Bill Haydon seems to have an alibi (he heard the news at his club) and acts resolutely un-guilty, bursting into the Circus to take command and demand the return of his old pal Jim. Sam’s embedded story to Smiley is followed by others, from the man who drove Jim into Czechoslovakia and from Jerry Westerby, who heard rumors that the military were waiting for Prideaux. Getting ever closer to the fateful incident that set the whole shuddering machine into motion, Smiley finally hears Jim’s own version of what happened to him that night and in the months afterward.
After so many extended stories—recounted by witnesses, filtered through hearsay, written up in bureaucratic files, commented upon by the recording angel—the plot launches into forward motion. Smiley and his colleagues set their trap, and there’s a suspenseful set-piece spanning two chapters. Le Carré alternates among Tarr in Paris, Mendel watching affairs at the Circus, and Smiley waiting in the safe house to trap the traitor. There follows an equally crosscut epilogue, with Bill and Smiley’s confrontations alternating with vignettes of other characters—including a young woman, introduced for the first time, who seems to have borne a child by Bill. The book concludes with Smiley, waiting to meet Ann and meditating on what drove Bill.
In adapting a novel for the screen there is a natural temptation to dramatize the information supplied by narrative description in the original text by turning it into dialogue, but this is generally to be resisted. Where possible it should be translated into action, gesture, imagery. Much of it can be dispensed with altogether.
Imagine trying to adapt this monster! Respecting the novel’s construction would demand a cascade of flashbacks, long tales framed by Smiley’s investigation. The seven-installment BBC series, scripted by Arthur Hopwood, took the simpler option of starting with a scene that is presented very late in the novel, in Jim’s embedded story told to Smiley. The series opens with Control summoning Jim and sending him off to Czechoslovakia; Jim is shot and Control is cast out. Clarifying the string of events this way, and giving us a decent action scene early on, has its cost: Smiley doesn’t enter the plot for nearly 23 minutes. Yet this construction does obliquely retain the portmanteau quality of the novel’s concept, in which sustained blocks of action are allowed to stretch and breathe.
Soon, as in the novel, the TV series gives us Ricki Tarr’s story of his affair with Irina, presented as a discrete flashback. Then Smiley’s trawl through the files is supplemented by his visits to Connie and others. Sometimes their recollections are dramatized in flashbacks, other times we simply watch them tell Smiley of them. Fortunately for the viewer, there are also scenes of Smiley bringing Peter up to date, and briefing Lacon on current discoveries. Because the BBC series was broadcast in weekly episodes, this sort of backtracking was necessary. And since Hopcraft had several hours to fill, the plotting could be somewhat spacious. Nonetheless, the book’s oscillating time scheme was somewhat flattened out, and the block construction—main thread interrupted by inset stories—was compressed. The inset tales didn’t expand to their novelistic dimensions.
The Tinker Tailor film, of course, had to be much more squeezed down. I mentioned in the earlier entry that the screenwriters compared their structure to a mosaic, and I followed this out in my discussion of how the narration was elliptical and fragmentary, leaving out redundancies that are usually required in popular film. Many scenes are both spacious and laconic. The rhythm is slow, and we’re given time to see and hear everything; but that “everything” might be only a voice dimly overheard, or a doorbell, or an image that gives one piece of information.
Take an instance I didn’t pick out in the original post. In order to steal a file, Peter Guillam has arranged for Mendel to call him, pretending to be a garage mechanic.
The call provides a pretext for Guillam’s retrieving his bag from the security officer, so he can slip the file inside.
George Formby’s music-hall tune “Mr. Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now” is playing on the garage radio. It’s carried down the phone line to the call-screener at the Circus, who murmurs along with it as the call is recorded.
After the tense meeting with the Circus cadre, Guillam has apparently sneaked the file out. But on the staircase an offscreen voice softly sings “Mr. Wu” before we see the source, not Guillam but Roy Bland. He descends slightly ahead of Guillam.
Guillam follows right behind, pausing and looking off nervously as Bland passes through the foreground.
The empty stretch of the staircase shot allows us to think that it’s Guillam offscreen, humming the tune he heard on the line, so it’s a surprise when Bland appears. We realize that he must have heard the call, or the recording.
Another film would have cut away during Guillam’s maneuver to show Bland and his colleagues listening to Peter’s fake conversation. That would have dialed up the suspense: Will they detect the trick? Instead, showing the lady on the phone lets us know that the call is being recorded. Only retrospectively—and by a single piece of information that slips by—do we realize that Bland has heard the conversation. Guillam is being watched closely. There’s a meta-message here too: By humming the tune, Bland lets Guillam know he’s overheard the call. Bland’s casual feint fits with the intimidation of Guillam that began when he was called into Percy’s meeting.
In all, the moment’s oblique, ricocheting transmission of story information could easily be missed. (In the book, it’s Bill who waylays Guillam and asks if he’s seeing Smiley. “Guillam’s world, which was showing signs till then of steadying to a sensible pace, plunged violently.”) The film’s script and direction have followed David Lodge’s suggestion of translating Peter’s sudden panic into images and sounds, but more laconic ones than we usually find.
More broadly, the film’s stinginess about supplying information extends to its protagonist. As I suggested in the first post, Smiley doesn’t just solve mysteries—he is one. What does he want? Oldman’s dry, impassive performance bottles the shrewdness, sternness, and pain that Guinness let leak out in the series. It still seems to me that the film’s Smiley is playing a waiting game; even the “Aha!” moment near the climax, when he seems to have hit upon something, proves to be obscure.
After the montage parades the suspects and shows the shifting train tracks outside Smiley’s dingy hotel, the narration doesn’t present the classic giveaway clue or blinding insight. Immediately we see Smiley, by force of will, bullying his superiors and Toby into giving him the information he needs to trap the mole . . . whose identity isn’t pinned down until the ambush. Smiley’s emotion bursts forth only once more, in his confrontation in Haydon’s cell. After a slight confirmatory smile (Prideaux, Smiley surmises, “knew deep down it was you all along”), Smiley asks if Karla ever considered letting Bill take over Control’s post.
Bill, angry: “I’m not his bloody office boy!”
Smiley, almost roaring, but with expression unchanged: “What are you then, Bill?”
Bill, after a pause, in a subdued, strangled voice: “I’m someone who has made his mark.”
Smiley exhales, the burst of energy gone, and turns slightly aside.
Smiley’s outburst here is his most vehement utterance in the movie. By the epilogue, Smiley, still unsmiling, has assumed his place as Control’s successor.
You have to let go of the idea of explaining it all to the audience. You have to make it so complex that the audience understands that they can’t understand all of it. . . . We had to make it trustworthy and credible but also so complex that you couldn’t penetrate it. . . but not so incomprehensible that it put people off.
Dino Jonsäter, editor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
More than most plot types, I think, a mystery story lures us into analysis. Think of the endless fan probes into Memento, Primer, Donnie Darko, and the like. The secrets in the action, and the roundabout tactics of recounting it, invite us to think about narrative technique more abstractly than we usually do. We’re encouraged to study how we’ve been misled. Analysis is a bit like detective work, but also like academic research. The analyst has a lot in common with Smiley and his patient burrowing into the files. He is, in the books, an amateur philologist and a scholar of German poetry.
For many, the mysteries of Tinker Tailor have aroused an urge to analyze. Jim Emerson has compiled a handy roundup of exceptional probes into the film. Some of my readers have filed perceptive reports as well. Filmmaker and teacher Stew Fyfe offers this:
I agree that what they’ve done with the film is subtract most of the redundancy, with bits of information offered up only once. If you missed it, you missed it. I was surprised when Smiley actually told Ricki Tarr that he missed the chip in the door; that seemed like the movie was taking it uncharacteristically easy on the audience for a moment. It was kind of thrilling to see a film that trusts its audience to keep up with it the way this one does. I wonder if they might have initially stripped more info out and then put some back in during the editing process. . . .
The other thing that has struck me is how very legible the film is when you see it a second time. Most everything does indeed seem to be there, in frame, but the audience isn’t cued to be looking for certain things. Ann does have some slight reaction to Bill Haydon when he sits down at the party, if I remember correctly (something cues Smiley to turn and look at him). And it’s clear why Bland offers to accompany Guillam to lunch.
Or performances take on a different meaning based on the information we have by the end of the film. It’s clear by the end that some sort of relationship was going on between Haydon and Prideaux, which makes Haydon’s conversation on the phone the night Prideaux was captured play differently the second time around. (The Haydon-Prideaux relationship was actually one thing that didn’t work for me the first time watching the film. The nature of their relationship hadn’t registered, so Prideaux’s act of shooting Haydon didn’t have the same emotional heft. The scene played much more strongly the second time I saw the film.)
I guess Smiley’s eureka moment is a little bit of a leap, but otherwise, it’s all there.
And here’s Ben Slater, a long-time le Carré admirer.
I read the screenplay, officially online as part of Focus’s awards campaign (http://focusawards2011.com/workspace/ttss-screenplay.pdf) , and it’s fascinating how much of the adaptation was reworked and restructured in production.
The film was intended to open ‘cold’ with Prideaux’s mission. His meeting with Control – now the opening sequence – wasn’t till much later. The abortive mission and the Christmas party were intended to only be returned to once each, and yielded most of their secrets (Karla’s presence/Bill and Ann) on the first go-round.
There are myriad tiny and fairly dramatic changes – in the script Ricki Tarr’s first appearance is much more impactful, the killing of Bill is very different, etc. Some of these are changes Alfredson must have made during filming, others suggest a great deal of time spent re-arranging and re-sculpting the fragments of the plot in editing – trying to make the story flow as elegantly as possible. I imagine this was tough!
Interestingly, the bold decision to make Smiley silent for so long in the opening scenes seems to have been made in post. They simply cut all his first lines of dialogue. And Smiley’s closing line of the film was also shot and cut – “Shall we begin?”
It’s impossible to watch the film without running the novel and the TV series alongside it, and it struggles to compete in terms of narrative and character, but the real triumph is arguably the ambience of broken England it evokes – cigarettes, whiskey, bad burgers, bad skin and failed lives.
So mystery stories tease us into analysis. But they also flaunt some common characteristics of all storytelling. Encountering any tale, we always want to know what comes next, but we’re also curious about what was left out, or lied about, or presented in passing, or hidden in plain sight. The writer is the mole, and we’re the mole-hunters. As novelist Jane Smiley puts it:
The most basic conviction of every novelist from Lady Murasaki on . . . is that things are not as they appear.
My arguments from Victor Shklovsky come from various essays in Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Dalkey Archive, 1991); the epigraph is from the essay “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery Story,” 110-111. The David Lodge epigraph is from his “Novel, Screenplay, Stage Play: Three Ways of Telling a Story,” in Lodge, The Practice of Writing (Penguin, 1997), 215. The Jane Smalley quotation is in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (Anchor, 2006), 49. For more thoughts from editor Dino Jonsäter, go to “Cutting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” on Creative Cow.
I’ve signaled before the marvelous two-part interview with le Carré for the CBC, but why not do it again? Since writing the last piece I also discovered a helpful interview with Tomas Alfredson and Gary Oldman at Film School Rejects. I have other notes on the Hong Kong atmosphere of The Honourable Schoolboy here.
The entrance to the Brussels Cinematek screening rooms, guarded by Jiri Scheppan. No cellphones, no drinks, and above all no frites.
As every year, I’m spending time in Brussels doing research at the Royal Film Archive, and as usual every two years, I’m preparing to go to the Flemish Film Foundation’s Summer Film College, this time in Antwerp. My stay was timed, also as usual, to the Cinédécouvertes festival sponsored by the Cinematek.
Cinédécouvertes is a partly a festival of festivals, gathering most of its titles from Venice, Rotterdam, Berlin, and Cannes. It’s a good way for me to catch up with several top-flight films unlikely to come to the US, or at least any time soon. (See the links at the bottom of this entry for my earlier observations.) In screening only films that have not been bought for Belgian distribution, Cinédécouvertes’ record shows a keen talent-spotter’s eye. Just in the last ten years, its winners have included Japón, Oasis, Shara, Tropical Malady, Day Night Day Night, How I Ended This Summer, and Police, Adjective. The year 2000 was remarkable, with prizes given to four films: Miike’s Audition, Im’s Chunhyang, Kurosawa’s Barren Illusion, and Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. My affection for this modest but robust festival goes back to the 1980s; it introduced me to films by Hou, Kitano, and Kiarostami when they were genuine cine-discoveries.
This year Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan took the L’Age d’or prize, the one reserved for films that seek to disturb us in the vein of Buñuel’s classic. That prize consists of 5000 euros given to the filmmaker. The two other awards aim to support local distribution of the best work. The Austrian entry Atmen (Breathing) by Karl Markovics and Alejandro Landes’ Porfirio, set in Colombia, won the prizes. If either is picked up for Belgian release, the distributor will receive 10,000 euros to help cover costs. Shouldn’t other festivals imitate this strategy for getting films onto screens?
My lecture preparations for Antwerp kept me away from many festival offerings, but I did see two of the prizewinners. Atmen and Hors Satan reminded me that a lot of European art films, despite their reputation for being slow, have a crisp, laconic style. Abrupt cuts open and end scenes, while an unexpected close-up can accentuate a moment. This sort of precision meshes with other conventions of this tradition: delayed exposition, long scenes without dialogue or music, routines that structure the plot, and a demand that we let things unfold at a rhythm different from that of the goal-driven Hollywood cinema. Early on, the scruffy idler of Hors Satan shoots down a man while the vaguely punkish girl with him doesn’t bat an eye. What registers is the bare, brute act, no more and no less.
Eventually we’ll learn some causes and reasons, but in this mode of cinema, a gesture is given heft by coming out of nowhere, without benefit of much preparation. What we can count on is the repetition of a routine, such as the man’s praying or his receiving a piece of bread each day from an (initially) unseen donor. Sooner or later, something will emerge–a pattern of activity, if not a straightforward plot.
Similarly, we know almost nothing about the young man who gets dressed at the start of Atmen. Only gradually will his routines reveal his work-release from a juvenile prison and his growing awareness of his responsibility for the crime that put him there. In this unvarnished tale, which sends young Vogler to work assisting a mortician, we get nothing like the mixture of humor and poignancy we find in Takita’s Departures. Everything here is cool, even curt, with each shot providing a bit of action that we have to fit into the personality lurking behind Vogler’s guardedly blank expression.
That personality becomes clear, in a rather conventional way, when Vogler sets out to find the mother who abandoned him. Things are much more opaque in Hors Satan, in which miracles and near-miracles are performed with a grimy physicality suited to provincial life lived among marshes and rocky hillsides. If Atmen pulls into focus as a fairly clear-cut psychological drama, Dumont’s film tries for something grander and less committed to personality. It seems to me to aim for a sense of flinty, rough-hewn holiness that is beyond conventional piety. In The Tree of Life, faith bathes the lovely faithful in a glow–hell, it can make them levitate–but here faith, if that’s what’s involved, is irredeemably coarse, even ugly. (Hors Satan reminded Cinédécouvertes judge Charles Tatum of Abel Ferrara.) Like Atmen, though, Hors Satan gets to its destination through a storytelling technique that we can trace back to neorealism and its respect for dawdling exposition and the undramatic singular detail. Some cinematic traditions are endlessly fertile.
Earnest Goes to Summer Movie Camp
The Last of the Mohicans (1920).
This year’s July film college is woven of three strands. One is called “Masterpieces in Context,” and it includes films by De Sica, Ford, Flaherty, and others. The primary strand is devoted to film and the visual arts, and given my interests it looks exciting. Steven Jacobs will present lectures related to his new book, Framing Pictures, to be published during our event. Steven will survey a range of relationships between cinema and painting, including films about artists (e.g., Caravaggio) and scenes set in museums. Wouter Hessels, the incoming Director of the Cinematek, will discuss work by André Delvaux and other Belgian filmmakers. Lisa Colpaert will talk on “Noir Portraits.” And Tom Paulus will survey instances of the influence of painting and photography on directors’ visual style, ranging from Tourneur to Tarkovsky. Films include The Last of the Mohicans (1920), Spirit of the Beehive (1973), and Arsenal (1929). I’ll throw in my $.02 with a lecture called “Seeking and Seeing: Lessons from E. H. Gombrich,” which hopes to show how Gombrich’s approach to art history can help us study film history.
My main contribution, though, is to a third strand called “Dark Passages: Storytelling in 1940s Hollywood.” Through screenings of Suspicion (1941), Daisy Kenyon (1947), Laura (1944), A Letter to Three Wives (1948), and six other movies, I’ll survey some narrative innovations of this remarkable era. Our main attractions are A pictures, but I’ve pulled some clips and stills from B’s, which are no less intriguing in their flashbacks, dreams, hallucinations, splits in point-of-view, and treatments of mystery and suspense.
I’m still working on the talks, but what’s emerging is one unorthodox premise. As an experiment in counterfactual history, let’s pretend that World War II hadn’t happened. Would the storytelling choices (as opposed to the subjects, themes, and iconography) be that much different?In other words, if Pearl Harbor hadn’t been attacked, would we not have Double Indemnity (1944) or The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)? Only after playing with this outrageous possibility do I find that, as often happens, Sarris got there first: “The most interesting films of the forties were completely unrelated to the War and the Peace that followed.” Sheer overstatement, but back-pedal a little, and I think you find something intriguing.
Some lectures are in English, some in Dutch. All screenings are 35mm, with live accompaniment for the silent films. There will also be an excursion to Antwerp’s gorgeous, widely praised new museum, the MAS. It’s open until 11 on weeknights and until midnight on weekends, an admirable idea. I’ll be sure to take photos of the skull-mosaic terrace.
More on the summer film school after I’ve done it. In the meantime, coming up blog-wise: ideas about how people might have watched movies a hundred or so years ago.
I first explained my research in the film archive here. For previous years’ notes on the Cinematek’s annual festival, you can go to the category here. On the Cinephile Summer Camp, here is the report on the 2007 gathering and here’s the one on 2009. Sarris’ scandalous claim (yes, I too thought about The Best Years of Our Lives, They Were Expendable, Ministry of Fear, etc. etc.) is in the introductory essay, “Toward a Theory of Film History,” in his classic book The American Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1968), 25.
I especially believe the “with all present” part. This is apparently the table to get at Au Vieux St. Martin, Brussels. In reflection is Nicola Mazzanti of the Royal Film Archive.
While in NYC I’ve been catching up with old friends, eating too much, and seeing movies. In my next entry I hope to write about movies and some venues showing same.
In an earlier blog, I wrote about research into the ways our eyes scan pictures. In his blockbuster follow-up Tim Smith shared his current research into tracking viewers’ eye movements when they watch a movie scene. Today, I go back to still images, inspired by a couple of visits to the place where Kristin is finishing up her fellowship, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
3D or 2D?
Sculpture, we say, is three-dimensional and painting is two-dimensional. That’s mostly true, but in the case of relief carving we have something in between. Consider the above nifty Egyptian shallow relief from the mid-fourteenth century BCE, the Amarna period, discovered in Memphis. A servant is force-feeding some cattle. As an effect of the lighting and the carving, his foot protrudes a bit from the overlapping surfaces behind him.
On a lesser scale, the same thing can happen with paintings. We commonly say that paintings are flat, relying on pictorial cues to suggest depth. But paint applied to a surface has its own thickness, a quality that is largely lost in reproductions. One of the virtues of seeing a painting in the flesh is that you can study (at least as closely as the guard ropes allow) the subtle ways in which even a little dab of paint can give the painting a tangible depth, sort of 2D plus.
The painting wasn’t under glass, so I could see that Ribera had made Christ’s wound horrifying by laying a scab of paint on the picture surface. It was as if the canvas itself were bleeding. (More generally, that trip to the Prado convinced me that Dali’s work, and the Andalusian Dog film, made a lot more sense after you saw Spanish baroque art.)
So at the Met last week I was inclined to keep my eye out for bits of paint that seem to lie on top of other patches. I was rewarded initially when I visited Vermeer’s great Allegory of the Faith (1670-1672). This has provoked many questions as to whether Vermeer used a camera obscura in planning, drawing, or even painting his images. Some claim to find the camera booth reflected in the crystal ball hanging over the lady’s head.
Peering at the tapestry curtain on the far left edge, I was gratified to find white speckles dappling it.
Some scholars propose that these stipples are the specular reflections that an optical instrument like the camera obscura create. Robert Huerta proposes, though, that these signature devices are used in a variety of ways in Vermeer’s paintings, often suggesting surface texture. Here, they are present only on the fabric, not in other areas of the painting; they stop at the curtain’s edge. Are they then Vermeer’s effort to represent needlework, slight bumps on the surface of the curtain? I have to leave it to experts.
It’s a very big picture, nearly six feet high, but again my eye was caught by a detail. While Aristotle’s left hand rests against his elaborate belt, his pinky ring, a sharp, highlighted strip of paint, seems to protrude from the canvas.
The slight pop-out effect probably comes partly from the hard-edged ring set against the sketchy hand. Still, as far as I could tell, the dabs of paint sit on top, a thin layer of golden light. The ring’s gleam lights up the bottom corner of the picture. It works better than many 3D movie effects I’ve seen.
More amateur art appreciation, this time tied to our earlier theme of where you look in an image. There’s plenty of detail to study in Georges de La Tour’s The Fortune Teller (probably 1630s). For one thing, we get a powerfully illusionistic representation of brocade in the sash of the wizened fortune-teller (right). However, what grabbed me was the composition of the drama. A somewhat condescending young man is paying the old woman, stereotyped as a gypsy, to have his fortune told. But the women surrounding him are her confederates. One woman is stealing his purse, the other is snipping off a medallion. The theft might be more evident to you looking at this tiny image, but the picture is so large (about 40 inches by 48 inches) that a gallery visitor must scan it in great saccadic sweeps. So I’d hypothesize that in front of the picture you don’t spot the grift right away.
I think that the painter has engineered a pretty game of misdirection. He has used cues that draw our eyes to one area of the frame and so one aspect of the drama, the exchange of glances, before letting us explore the frame to detect the pocket-picking. Several bottom-up, stimulus-driven cues work together to draw us toward the top half of the picture.
Framing is a major cue. When a picture cuts off the human body at the thigh or crotch we’re steered to the upper area of the frame. That’s where the action is likely to be; knees aren’t usually as expressive as heads.
Faces, as Tim’s analysis shows, are magnets for our attention, and the painter exploits this. The two women’s heads on the far left are played down: one is turned away, the other, with a neutral expression, is in profile and semidarkness. Her glance directs us to study the slightly suspicious expression of the youth and the edgy gaze of the central woman, and then imagine a drama played out. The head positions of the two central figures represent a compromise between readability (frontality is a strong attention-getter) and realism (people do share gazes). But the painter profits from the compromise by letting man and woman, facing front, move their eyes shiftily, raising the atmosphere of suspicion. The almost grotesque face of the fortune teller, a richer brown than those near her, also attracts our notice.
Another powerful cue is horizon-line isocephaly. The term is a mouthful, but the idea is worth knowing about. This common Renaissance technique places several heads, regardless of their distance from us or one another, along the same plane. It’s especially marked here because even the eyes of three figures fall almost exactly on the same line.
Centering in the picture format works to make the gesture of exchanging money very important. With the expressive hand gestures, we seem to have a complete story: The skeptical youth, dirt under his fingernails, has just paid the fortune-teller, who may be crossing his palm with silver in the course of her predictions.
There are other cues that keep our eyes exploring the upper half of the frame, such as the streak highlighting the hot-pink blouse. But all are merely decoys delaying our noticing the covert action in the bottom half of the image, the activity carried out entirely by hands.
Hands are normally areas of high information content, second only to faces, I suppose. But the michievous hands of the pickpockets are low in the frame, one is in shadow, and both are subordinated not only to the faces but also to the more expressive hands just above: one on a hip, two gesturing around the coin.
It’s as if there are three layers: the heads, the hands executing the business transaction, and the hands underneath doing the real business. The third level harbors something still more covert. Only on several passes did I notice that the second, profiled woman on the left has her hand ready to receive the purse from the woman lifting it.
There’s a lot else to admire here, not least the way that the two women on the left seem to merge into one two-headed pickpocket, thanks to the shared contours, their orange vests, and the angle of the first woman’s arm.
I wish Tim or someone would try eye-scanning on this picture. In what order do viewers sample the layout? Do some viewers never look below and realize what’s going on?
In any case, my example shows the importance of top-down thinking. Recently preoccupied with eyes (in The Social Network) and visual scanning, I’d naturally be drawn to this image. I wouldn’t even care if it was the fake it’s sometimes claimed to be. But even that speculation involves top-down conceptual testing! If we entertain the prospect that The Fortune Teller was painted in the 1920s, then we might be inclined to see its cunning misdirection, and perhaps even the “cubistic” merger of the two women on the left, as influenced by modern art’s spatial ambiguities.
Bottom-up and top-down perception work smoothly together. The eye is sensitive to both stimuli and stored concepts; it’s driven by the environment and by the brain. The interplay of the two should fascinate anyone interested in cinema, which is at least partly a visual art.
PS 1 March: Tim Smith, our guest blogger last month, writes to remind me that the book I discussed in an earlier post, Land and Tatler’s Looking and Acting, makes reference to another famous de La Tour painting, The Cheat, and an eyescan study of it by Iain Gilchrist. The zigzag pattern of fixations suggests that people did indeed start with the faces of the players before discovering the cheating that’s going on. Eyescans of the painting are analyzed in John M. Findlay and Iain Gilchrist’s Active Vision: The Psychology of Looking and Seeing. Gilchrist discusses the painting in a fascinating illustrated lecture.
Some readers of my entry above have wondered if eyescan experiments could study how magicians misdirect us. Tim recommends Gustav Kuhn’s work on this problem, to which I can add this article: Peter Lamont, John M. Henderson, and Tim J. Smith, “Where Science and Magic Meet: The Illusion of a ‘Science of Magic,’” Review of General Psychology 14, 10 (2010), 16-21.
Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010).
Normally I wouldn’t comment on a movie after seeing only 10.4 % of it, but there are always exceptions. The Clock, which played at the Paula Cooper Gallery during our stay in Manhattan, runs 24 hours. It’s a compilation of over 3000 film clips, mostly from Hollywood but also from Europe and Asia. Some of the footage is easily recognized, but a lot of it I couldn’t identify.
The premise, or gimmick, is that every snippet of a scene is purportedly connected in some way to the passing of time measured on a clock. Characters check their watches, or the camera shows a wall clock or digital alarm clock or countdown device. There are tiny clocks and gigantic ones. If the whole thing has a star, it might be Big Ben, who reappears surprisingly often.
A nice idea, but why stretch it over twenty-four hours? So that the creator Christian Marclay can assemble scenes that synchronize perfectly with the passage of time in projection. A shot shows a watch at 11:55 AM; you look at your watch; it’s 11:55 AM. Wherever the piece is screened, it must start precisely at the corresponding local time. The Clock isn’t just about clocks; it is a clock.
The project teases you into lame puns, which I’ve been unable to resist. But my visits set me thinking about what makes The Clock unique and pleasant. Maybe it’s a little too pleasant.
Collage without closure
The Black Cannon Incident (1986).
In its collage of compiled material, what The Clock does is quite familiar to cinephiles. For a long time, experimental filmmakers have built works out of footage from mainstream movies. One of the most famous, Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1935), powerfully illustrates how the collage principle can pry images from their narrative context and call attention to their poetic or graphic qualities. The assemblage artist Bruce Conner did something similar in A Movie (1958), which creates anassociational form out of newsreels and old Hollywood sequences. Although both Rose Hobart and A Movie still evoke vague narrative expectations, Craig Baldwin whipped together found footage to create a hallucinatory narrative in Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies under America (1991). An urgent, hard-bitten voice-over tells of CIA conspiracies and interplanetary conquest while we see images scavenged from cheap science-fiction films.
Nowadays plenty of filmmakers, especially on the Web, have snipped footage from old films to develop a theme. Jim Emerson has done it with close-ups, and Matt Zoller Seitz, Aaron Aridillas, and Steven Santos have created a video essay around guns in American film. Last summer, at the new facility of the Cinematek in Brussels, I found thematic loops running on their video monitors. Sometimes there was an interplay among them, so that characters one screen seemed to be looking at those in another. Some of the Cinematek loops in fact centered on clocks.
So the principle of compilation collage didn’t seem new to me. But Marclay refreshes it by the other central premise of The Clock: its time structure, which syncs moments indicated onscreen with moments of viewing.
Some fiction films (e.g., Cleo from 5 to 7, Nick of Time) and TV shows (e.g., 24) have played with the conceit of making the duration of the piece (“real time”) correspond to the amount of time covered in the plot. (Usually, however, the film fudges it.) But in The Clock, there’s no overarching plot, so the duration of that action can’t be determined. Marclay gives us real time with a vengeance, in the relentless correspondence between screen clocks and audience clocks.
Without this exact synchronization, The Clock would be an enjoyable but unexceptional found-footage movie. The onscreen clocks check the flow of the images like centers of magnetic force. They form nodes around which each set of shots revolves, like a musical key that a melody can drift from and return to.
This patterning too has parallels in the experimental film tradition, I think. What P. Adams Sitney famously called Structural film was a 1960s-1970s trend that often built the awareness of time into a film’s overall pattern. A simple example is Robert Nelson’s Bleu Shut (1970). A clock runs in the right corner of the frame to measure the time consumed by a film that is, we’re promised by a woman’s breathless voice-over, “exactly thirty minutes long.” (She lies.)
A less explicit instance is Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970). In its central section, one by one a string of images replaces one-second shots of signs marking the letters of the Latin alphabet. The shot-changes set up a steady beat, and the pattern locks in a sense of momentum. Although we’re surprised by what images replace the letters, our expectations get focused on the inevitability of all the alphabet shots being deleted. There’s no literal clock, but we can sense this event slowly fulfilling itself. In addition, some of the replacement images show processes moving toward completion, such as dried beans steadily filling up a container. I’m tempted to say that in many Structural films, an actual or tacit clock tracing the film’s movement toward closure becomes a sort of non-narrative equivalent of a deadline in a storytelling movie.
The Clock doesn’t provide exactly that sense of closure, since it has no end point. It’s on a loop and, like a real clock, can be reset according to the time zone of the venue. But the nodal clock images make us aware of the film’s relentless unfolding, and its sync principle has affinities with the Structural tradition’s commitment to a precise time-based architecture. That tradition had its own sources, of course, including the experiments of the Fluxus movement, a trend that also influenced Marclay.
Tracing parallels shouldn’t lead us away from the unique qualities that make The Clock so appealing. For one thing, the fact that there isn’t a continually running readout, as in Bleu Shut or in an iPod slider, enables the film to test our feeling for passing time. Not every shot shows a clock; indeed, most shots in the portions I saw don’t. As we get captivated by clock-less images and follow their development within a scene, the arrival of a timepiece reminds us of the structuring principle. The appearance of a clock creates something like a punchline, while also letting us realize how loose our sense of duration in a movie usually is.
This test-like quality of the film, an important aspect of Structural film that Sitney points out, is reinforced by Marclay’s central idea. We are primed to scan the shots for clocks. Indeed, the search for the clock can reshift our sense of what is important about the scene. In an earlier entry, I discussed how Alfred Yarbus’ experiments in tracking eye movements assigned people tasks, such as estimating the social status of people in a painting. This created “top-down,” concept-driven search behavior. The Clock does the same thing, with the only explicit instruction being the title and our background knowledge of the piece’s procedures.
The result of our top-down search that we pay attention to clocks in the corners of shots or out of focus in the background, in scenes in which time isn’t really at stake. Normally we probably wouldn’t notice these items, but spotting them gives us a reward and allows us to admire Marclay’s cleverness. Some scenes seem to lack clocks altogether, but that doesn’t make them filler; a stretch of clockless footage only sharpens the fun when one shows up.
With shots pried free of narrative demands, you start to discriminate details, like the designs of numerals and brand identities. As you see the names Bulova, GE, Tissot, Hamilton Beach, and all the rest, you realize that it isn’t only James Bond films that use watches for product placement.
I’ve said that the film isn’t narrative in the same way that Craig Baldwin’s fantasy collages are. Yet it does tease us with some narrative expectations. If you recognize the footage, then you can summon up your memory of the story. If you don’t recognize the footage, you might still recognize the generic situation (investigation, pursuit, lovers’ confrontation, awakening in the morning). And the whole shebang does get you thinking about the role of time in narrative.
In this regard, the film makes an almost didactic point: Stories, at least those we’ve become used to, need clocks. They set the story world in motion, they measure its changes, and above all they provide deadlines that generate suspense, surprise, and satisfaction. The Clock makes deadlines especially apparent as we approach noon, when we get not only images from High Noon but also a flurry of other 12:00 PM shots (Titanic, for one). Noon is a really important moment in Central Standard Movie Time. I didn’t see the midnight stretch of The Clock, but I bet it’s a hell of a show.
Like the compilation filmmakers, Marclay wants crosstalk among his bits, but the stretches of The Clock I saw don’t create much friction. There’s a lot of continuity from shot to shot: One character in one movie walks out a door, and we cut to another character from another movie entering a new locale. Music links scenes smoothly. Although Marclay was influenced by the diffuse, chance organizations promoted by John Cage, some of his earlier work emphasized through-line linkages and blending as well. Marclay’s famous record-album collages allow a unified figure to emerge as a gestalt binding together disparate images. On the right, you can see this happening in Guitar Neck (1992), which virtually diagrams the sort of smooth juxtapositions we get in The Clock.
The result has a fairly slick texture. It goes down easily. I admire the way that Marclay and his assistants have rummaged through a vast archive and pulled together a majestic, utterly entertaining assembly. But emotionally it’s mostly cold. The year-end obituary tributes on Turner Classic Movies, reminding us that the perfect faces and bodies gliding past us are definitively gone, are more throat-catching than anything I saw here. Along another dimension, so are Conner’s A Movie and his dissection of the JFK assassination, Report (1963-67). Just as important, none of what I saw seemed to me particularly challenging or discordant, and in this regard The Clock parts company with the comparable film traditions.
Structural film was notoriously demanding, ruffling viewers’ perceptions and trying their patience. And experimental compilations were often seeking to shake us up, sometimes in absurd ways. An earlier blog entry of ours illustrates how Baldwin’s Mock Up on Mu (2008) builds disconcerting scenes out of bits taken from other movies. A man and woman constantly shift their identities and positions while their conversation continues without missing a beat.
Crucial to the classic compilation films is the central innovation of collage: the fragments do not blend into a smooth whole. There are clashes between one shot or clutch of shots and the next. There’s also a sense of material differences. Each piece of scuffed or distressed footage retains something of its own integrity. In his sound work, Marclay too claimed an interest in the “sound patina” of vinyl LPs:
When a record skips or pops or we hear the surface noise, we try very hard to make an abstraction of it so it doesn’t disrupt the musical flow. I try to make people aware of these imperfections and accept them as music; the recording is a sort of illusion, while the scratch on the record is more real.
But the shots in The Clock are mostly scrubbed clean of imperfections, presenting a sleek surface that facilitates the flow across shots. The movie is a pure product of the DVD era, with all those gleaming images so easily appropriated. At times Marclay manages to match weather conditions, with rain in one scene carrying over into the next. This tactic creates an intriguing sense that the two movies are set in a homogeneous world, but it makes the gaps between the images even narrower.
For about twenty years there has been a controversy in the gallery world about whether the burgeoning tradition of “artists’ films” owes anything to avant-garde film traditions. It’s often summarized as the difference between the white cube of the gallery and the black box of the movie theatre. By setting The Clock alongside collage compilation films, am I guilty of comparing apples and oranges? For instance, the films have fixed beginnings and endings, whereas The Clock is an installation that can be entered at any point. It’s not a film but rather, to use a current phrase, a “time-based audiovisual work.” Moreover, some will argue that Marclay’s lineage doesn’t consist of Cornell, Conner, Baldwin, and Structural Film but rather Fluxus, Minimalism, Punk, and Scratch-and-Mix. (Marclay has devised a turntable he can play like a guitar.)
All of which carries some weight, but I see enough common features between the two traditions to make my main point: Based on what I sampled, this is an ingratiating work, virtuosic in a Postmodernist way. But it doesn’t risk the roughness, the boring patches, and the confusions of the film traditions I’ve invoked. Perhaps the most condemnatory thing you can say about The Clock is that it runs like clockwork.
But maybe things get more disruptive in the 89.6 % I wasn’t able to see.
This entry was written fairly early in The Clock‘s Manhattan run. I had no trouble getting in at 10:40 AM and staying until about 1:15. But it quickly became a sensation. A friend and I tried to visit on a chilly Friday night and confronted a long line. I heard from others that the line was just as forbidding at 5:00 AM. The problem, of course, is that you could wait a very long time, since there’s no set point when many are likely to leave. (Nobody will say, “This is where we came in.”) This New York Times article traces the rise of the Clock cult. The article also confirms that midnight is a high point of the video.
Yet another Times piece discusses The Clock as akin to recorded music, making some points related to mine above. Here is a loving account by Jerry Saltz, who logged nineteen hours on duty. Easy to enjoy and admire, Marclay’s piece probably deserves to be added to Christian Lander’s list of Stuff White People Like.
A good overview of the artist’s earlier work can be found in Jennifer Gonzalez et al., Christian Marclay (London: Phaidon, 2005). My quotation comes from p. 33.
On the experimental compilation film, see William C. Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993). See also Stefano Basilico, ed., Cut: Film as Found Object in Contemporary Video (Milwaukee Art Museum, 2004). P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film, second edition and thereafter, provides the most influential account of the Structural tradition. Scott MacDonald discusses Zorns Lemma at length in Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies. For incisive analyses of how compilation and Structural films elicit particular activities from their viewers, see James Peterson’s Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order.
Thanks to Jim Kreul and Jonathan Walley for guidance in the controversy about artworld and filmworld traditions. Jonathan’s essay “Modes of Film Practice in the Avant-Garde,” in Tanya Leighton’s collection Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, is a useful guide to these and other trends. I advance some notions about the user-friendliness of another artist’s film project in this entry on Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle. Kristin and I have written about associational form in Conner’s A Movie in our book Film Art: An Introduction.