Monday, January 09, 2012

Silence is Golden


Silence is golden, or so we have been told. Today provided a great example of this maxim, while at the multi-dozen-screen Cineplex, located out by the interstate highway along Restaurant Row. I was there to see a movie. 

You see, I don’t go to the movies very frequently, and when I do it’s usually at the smaller neighborhood theatre that’s frequented by middle-aged types such as myself, where there’s less of the popcorn-on-the-floor-and-teeny-boppers-yapping-on-their-phones syndrome, though the carpet’s a bit worn and they don’t have those tiered, captain’s-chair seats. I must be picky, or something, but the typical over-hyped Cineplex offering is a bit too - cartoonish? So today, I went to see something a bit different, John Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

I’ve read most every one of Le Carre’s novels, and consider him the master of the cold-war espionage genre. His stories aren’t studded with spectacular special effects, explosions and heart-pounding, nail-biting action, but instead offer insight into the inner thoughts and motivations of those on both sides of the wall who choose to spy, through an atmospheric portrayal of the drudgery, ambition and fear present in such a lifestyle. His stories are masterpieces of understated subtlety, as opposed to overhyped, superficial violence, and his typical characters are the anti-James Bond, an attribute I believe he set about purposefully to create in reaction to the cartoonish characterizations present in the Bond series of movies, and of which he has every right to claim some degree of intimate knowledge, having himself worked in British Intelligence in a former life and thus knowing more than just a little bit about the inner workings of the spy business.

But before I could immerse myself into the story at hand, I had to first sit through the preview commercials for other upcoming Cineplex offerings. These previews have ratings, I noticed, one for the preview itself, and another, afterwards, for the movie having just been previewed. For instance, an R-rated movie might have a PG-rated preview, etc. I suspect that behind all of these peculiar notifications (yes, I’ve been away from the movies for a while) are teams of lawyers.

Another thing revealed by the nearly twenty minutes of previews (a bonus entertainment of sorts), and one that reinforces my suspicions about the veracity of the typical theater offering, is the preponderance of what I call the “comic book effect” in present-day moviemaking, where video graphics technology has merged so successfully with the action genre that the two are indistinguishable from any story found in the typical super-hero comic book of youth. They’re animated comic books, these movies, and assault one’s senses with the wall-of-noise soundtrack that delivers a never-ending barrage of explosions, gunfire and ecstatic orchestration. They leave a person with no space to think, ponder or barely even breathe. But they are exciting deliverers of adrenal gland secretions, I will admit.

Le Carre’s stories, in contrast, demand that the reader intently ponder the meanings behind every word and turn of phrase offered. There is present little superficial language (“low redundancy,” in the Information Theory-speak of cryptography), no filler to pad out the volume of the work in order to fulfill some publisher’s contract. In these tales, characters subtly turn from loyalty to disenchantment to despair to treason in the same pace as the seasons turn from spring to summer to autumn to winter, the changes happening slowly, inexorably yet with a certainty revealed only through the depth of the language provided. Le Carre offers us the spy novel as literature, rather than as pulp fiction.

And so it was that, as I sat in that darkened theatre, in my steeply tiered captain’s chair, I witnessed art unfolding before my eyes in a manner that I’ve seldom seen in years. I saw pure, unspoken thought transpire between the characters of George Smiley and his old boss Control, for instance, that could not have been possible without the interplay of silence into the pace of the film. Just like musical rests play as much of an importance to a score as do the notes themselves, the pace of silent contemplation in this film served as a conduit for a type of communication to transpire between characters that would not have been possible otherwise. It reminds me that without spaces between letters there can be no words, and without spaces between words there can be no sentences, and without spaces between sentences there can be no paragraphs. The very structure of writing itself is built around a silence that divides an otherwise meaningless string of symbols into concrete idioms of thought. This also reminds me of that old saying about silence being golden, which is where I started this piece.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has a similarly mysterious and quiet pace as the Deep Throat parking garage scenes in “All the President’s Men,” or that of “The Conversation” (one of my all-time favorite films). Now, I must rate “Tinker, Tailor” up there with the very best of them.

You might not like this film, I will admit. Its pace might seem to drag on at the beginning; but never-mind, for that is just Le Carre once again weaving his magic, one that starts out like every good parlor trick does, with sleight-of-hand character-building and establishing backgrounds as smoothly effortless and believable as any you’ve ever encountered. The characters in Le Carre’s stories don’t inhabit steel and glass modernist palaces, but dingy, cluttered old decrepit pasts filled with the detritus of imperfect, half-lived lives, leaky steam pipes and all, and amidst all of this ruin there are those moments of silence, those golden gems, that serve to speak volumes, that bring the silver screen to life. 

(Posted via iPad2)


Blogger Cameron said...

It seems that us middle-aged folks notice more how films have gotten louder, more sensational, and with more special effects -- because we remember a time when the pacing was slower and there was less noise.

Although I'm not familiar with Carré's work, I appreciate the fact that this film exists in the way you describe.

As a professional musician, I notice that the overall volume of the orchestra has increased markedly over the past 35 years. And the Broadway shows are ear-splitting. The world is getting more noisy.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Rob Bowker said...

Your positive feedback on the film echoes others. And now your rating of it alongside The Conversation, well, its a must see.

By the way, I hear it was the Irish that spaces between words were invented for. All of a sudden, the common man decided to begin reading. Prior to this, books were printed as mere memory joggers for a clergy who knew most of the (latin) contents by rote.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Rob Bowker said...

...and your comments on silence remind me of my dad's alteration of the saying, "If you don't have anything nice to say, say nothing." His version left out the word nice. I've come to value his advice.

9:53 AM  

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