Monday, 6 February 2012

I've been reading... and watching... a whole bunch of stuff.

I've been a bit of a culture vulture this week, indulging in a serious film, a not-so-serious film, a book I will probably never read again, and a comic of epic proportions that I still haven't finished.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  • Julie and Julia
  • Foucault's Pendulum (by Umberto Eco)
  • Habibi (in progress)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

I should say first that I've never read the books or seen the old TV show.  I feel that's important because I know how attached people can get to the original versions of things and how irate any changes can make them ("Elves at Helm's Deep?!?").  So I'm just taking the film as I come to it.  And actually I had to come to it twice.  The first time I got about 15mins in and realised that I didn't know who anybody was or what was going on.  This is the kind of film that requires you committing to sit down and really watching it.  I tried again a few days later, got all the way through and was really impressed by the whole thing.  Basically it's the story of a retired MI6 operative, George Smiley, who is brought back after a failed operation to find a mole in the organisation, referred to as 'the Circus', knowing that the traitor is one of a few men that make up the inner circle.  Let the games begin.

It's not an easy watch.  There's a lot of names to keep track of, throwaway lines imply key information and the plot is never explicit; it sort of shuffles into focus as the movie goes on.  Surely that's right for a spy movie though?  Why should we expect to know what's going on when the characters don't?  This isn't a modern spy film either, all racing emotions, hi-tech action and explosions.  Don't forget, this is the 70s, post-Cold War Britain.  There are no heroic charges or raging battles any more and the men (they are almost exclusively men) are more disenchanted and desensitised than they have ever been.  The sense of duty is still there, but it has become a constant effort and exhaustion as they are forced to suspect everyone, even each other.  Two colleagues can share an understanding look before one calmly shoots the other point blank, barely blinking.  In the scheme of things, that war has become a shameful and mundane thing is natural to them, and the individual is inconsequential  It's now a terrifying monotony of office paperwork that stands between the West and the omnipresent loom of Soviet Russia.

I think the best thing about TTSS is how it presents the world of British espionage.  It sucks the glamour straight out of it, leaving an ever-present grey tension that seeps into everything.  There is very little colour, very little noise.  Everyone you see is calm, collected, a little bland, but somehow always anxious.  There are no chase scenes, no dark alleys, no explosions.  The only jump-scare we get is when a character is startled by his colleague in the archive library.  A single word can hold immense threat, but rarely does anyone ever shout or rush.  Even the few gunshots are somehow understated. 

Initially it may seem that very little is happening, but then you begin to read deeper and see that actually everything is happening, just out of eyeshot, but no one dares to lay the whole thing out in obvious terms.  It quickly becomes clear that no one in this world ever truly lets their guard down, even with the workmates they are closest to.  The strong emotions that would seem so dramatic and romantic in any other film have no place here because even the smallest affection can be manipulated and turned back on you, and frequently is.  The only three romantic relationships we see end badly thanks to the Circus; an affair, a separation, and a death.  One man befriends a boy but is forced to scare him away.  Everyone is very aware that no matter how discreetly you conduct your business the fact of the matter is that this is a job which will consume your life. and you simply have to get on with it and sacrifice whatever is required of you without question.  One brief scene with only two lines of dialogue perhaps shows this the best; one of the younger operatives realises that his apparently treacherous actions to help Smiley hunt down the mole will lead to him being scrutinised and he cannot be found to have a single weakness.  So when he gets home he tells his partner to move out.  He doesn't explain why but the whole thing is once again very quiet, very civilised.  There is no fighting and nobody shouts, he just watches them pack and says nothing.  It is only when the front door closes behind them and he is completely alone that he breaks down and for a few seconds you realise how deeply he is affected.  I can only recall only one serious loss of temper (same guy, bad day) and two scenes with genuine smiles in the whole film.

The world of TTSS may be subtle and hard to read by necessity, but beneath that is a fascinating and delicate landscape of immensely high pressure and people desperately needing to trust each other but, with their lives revolving around secrecy and manipulation, completely unable to do so.  Even in their triumph Smiley, and everyone else, remains completely and crushingly isolated.

Julie and Julia (2011)

A bit of lighter relief, I didn't go for this film at first because one half of it looked like a chick flick and the other half featured a woman I know nothing about.  In the end though, I really enjoyed it.  The story starts with Julie Powell, a woman whose life is a bit of a drag.  Needing a purpose to lift her out of her slump she decides to cook every recipe in Julia Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and blog about them as she goes.  At the same time the film starts cutting back to Julia's life in France, how she learned the Cordon Bleu cooking which led to the creation of the book.

There are some lovely moments, and all the best of them come from Meryl Streep as Julia Child (or Powell's mental impression of Julia Child).  She's a determined and exuberant character, if a little shrill for my ears, but even lovelier is her relationship with her husband Paul.  Most movies show couples falling in love and end on the wedding; here we see two people who stayed together until death did them part, and who make an excellent combination of strengths.  Julie is interesting too, but very much a de-romanticised modern girl with some very obvious flaws.  Which is fine.  We've all got 'em.  If you can say one thing for her she is enthusiastic.  About everything.  She throws herself into 'The Julie/Julia Project' with great gusto, but equally she whinges enthusiastically, her fixation on Julia becomes near-obsessive, and she throws the most outrageous tantrums I could ever hope to see from a woman her age.  She's very highly strung and not someone to do anything by halves but, like Julia, has made a good choice in her husband Eric, who can balance her out most of the time (although at one point even she takes it too far, and he walks out until she's cooled off).

Only at the end of the movie does it all work itself out, when she receives a disapproving review of her blog from Child and realises that her idea of Julia was a fantasy, and while she remains an avid admirer the effect of the project was what mattered.  By setting up a goal, even an idealistic one, Julie manages to propel herself up and out of her slump.  And we see that Julia does the same, with the book that led to her TV career finally being published after years of hard work and revisions.

Some of the back and forth cuts seem a bit arbitrary, and there are dislikable elements to both characters (which I just read as realism but you may not) but overall I loved the parallel message of it.  Sometimes life is a bit rubbish but even when things don't go according to plan there is always something you can do.  It might be a self-improvement program, a grand project or just a way of cheering yourself up.  It may not fix everything immediately either, but rather than just let life stay rubbish you can always improve on it.  It's a good film not because it ends by telling you that life is all fine really, but rather that it admits the hardships and shows you people moving forward and succeeding.  A good pick-me-up movie.

Foucault's Pendulum

I've never met a book I couldn't read.  There are those that I didn't, and a few that I wouldn't, but never have I come across a (fiction) book that was beyond me.  Until I started on Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, which very nearly did me in.

As far as I can work out, the plot is roughly as follows:
  • A man named Belbo is missing.  Nobody seems very concerned about this.  His friend Casaubon does vaguely hunt for him for a while but mainly ends up reading Belbo' computerised diary.
  • We go into a flashback which lasts for most of the book and follow Casaubon about for a some time.  It turns out he works as a fact-finder for a living.  He literally scours encyclopaedias for a job, hunting down snippets of information to fill the gaps in the knowledge of his employers.  He is the friend you would always phone on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.  He meets Belbo and another friend Diatovelli -both self-motivated scholars/philosophers- and all three end up working for the same shady publisher.  Well, I say work, mostly they just sit around discussing obscure conspiracy theories and showing off.  Only Diatolvelli shows any ability to hold his counsel or have a life.  Casaubon is a fanboy.  Belbo is positively annoying.
  • Casaubon goes on a road trip to South America, gets a girlfriend, talks incessantly about the Templars, breaks up with her and returns to Spain.
  • Casaubon gets another girlfrind.  Belbo wants a girlfriend, but his woman of choice is so volatile she's scary.
  • The plot finally kicks into gear 300 pages in.  From here it's plain sailing.  The trio have been reading so many conspiracy theories making universal links between the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Mayans, the Romans, the ancient Hindus, the occult, various mythologies and spiritualities, you name it, that it's all gone to their heads a bit.  For a jolly good wheeze they decide to combine them all to make up their own mad theory that will clearly explain how every aspect of the modern world (right down to a car spark plug) is obviously part of a master scheme to help guide the remaining Templars to the source of some universal mystic knowledge.  They call this game The Plan.
  • They get a bit carried away as to whether or not it's actually true or not.  They even start actively trying to trick other people into believing it's true.  You would think, for such clever men, they might realise how this might backfire on them, but apparently they don't.
  • IT'S ALL TRUE!!!  EVERYTHING IS TRUE!!!  Even the bits they invented themselves are true, which is... weird.  Turns out that the secret society they invented is really real, or else entirely made up of deluded nutcases that heard their idea and took it far too seriously (which seems more likely).  Flashforward back to the present and the secret nutcase society kidnap Belbo since he seems to know more about them than they do, having made it all up himself.  Casaubon tries and fails to rescue him, and the lunatics kill Belbo in such a way that they scupper their own chances at ever finding the secret knowledge.  Oops.

Okay, I'm being a bit harsh here.  There were things I liked about it.  I liked the sense of craftmanship and endless research that had clearly gone into it, the lack of conventionality with way the story progresses - there was no breakdown into traditional 'scenes' or equal chapters, just the meandering of thought which can occasionally be aimless or focussed, lengthy or brief, trivial or obsessive, but aren't thoughts like that sometimes?  Even when characters were annoying they were interesting (apart from Belbo's girlfriend, who really was skating very close to bipolar.  I think maybe she should see someone)  I would have liked more women in there, but that's mainly because I am one.  Anyway it probably reflects the state of the education system better to have all men, as statistically there are generally more males than female in the higher echelons of scholardom.  Both of Casaubon's girlfriends have their own voices, strengths, faults and foibles, and seem to calm his obsession a bit - maybe the implication is that girls would never get that caught up in so silly a game as the Plan.  The whole thing is actually a very neat send-up of the whole Ridiculous Secret Society/Conspiracy Theory genre (Dan Brown, I'm looking at you) whereby the belief in the imaginary theory becomes so strong that in the end it brings itself to life, in full technicolour horror and complete with murders abounding.  You create your own monster, and then you have to slay it.  Or in Belbo's case, it slays you.

But yes, it was a tough read, especially at the beginning.  To be honest, the story wasn't the problem.  Even the translation was okay, and I usually find translated dialogue a bit stiff.  The plot is well constructed, engaging and has that knack of making you feel clever after reading it, probably because you're proud you understood it!  What made it so difficult for me was the sheer amount of facts you had to wade through to get to the plot.  Not that you're required to remember everything they tell you to follow the story, it's more that it slows any action to a crawling pace - just getting from picking up a pint glass to taking a sip can last the best part of a page.  This is probably not bedtime reading unless you really enjoy abstract de-contextualised trivia (which you may well do); I suggest that if you're going to attempt this book you bring a machete with you.  Worth the effort though, as it is an artfully crafted story.  Proud I finished it.

If Ridiculous Secret Society/etc isn't your genre, or you wanted to try something with the same fact-dumping properties but a little less of the surrealism, I would suggest The Last Samurai by Helen deWitt.  I've had a copy for years and its presence is still a foregone conclusion on my bookshelf, but the fact-dumping is more anecdotal, and is also counterbalanced by a very intimate story focussing on a highly intelligent mother and son, and their efforts to interact with the world.  It's great.  Read that instead.

Only Habibi to go!

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