Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas: Gettin' My God On

Nativity scene from the 14th Century

During the 1960s, TV pundits started the practice of assembling on talk shows to grade the year just ending—good, bad, or in between—as though the calendar were a student taking a pass/fail exam.

I remember they gave a grade of fail to 1968 as being especially awful—the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the Chicago riots; the ongoing Vietnam bloodbath; and the rise of a dark groundling, Richard Nixon, a brilliant but desperately and deeply unqualified man to be occupying the Oval Office.

I don’t listen to pundits much anymore—even the ones I supposedly agree with—but I know they still gather, like flies on old meat.

This year, 2012, isn’t looking too good in my memory banks, either. I could review my experience of it here and now—Best Surgery, Best Long Mysterious Illness--but most of you who have been coming here know enough of it. Moreover, next to what the people in places like Newton, Connecticut, and Karachi, Pakistan are going through, it really wasn’t much. I remain more fortunate, more blessed than many, maybe most.

I’m trying to get in the Christmas Spirit as I understand it. But it’s hard. (And what do we mean by the Christmas Spirit, anyway?) It’s hard after what’s happened, but certain changes that have been taking place in me over the years have led me to see things differently.

Nowadays, I prefer Christmas in its old meaning as opposed to the one that I grew up with in a strict secular household. As I grow older, I find material things are losing their “thinginess.” Like a good dutiful Baby Boomer, I’ve accumulated my share of “stuff” these past Certain Number of Years. “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins!” is a motto of our age.

I now simply feel stuffed. The sharp edges of my toys cut into my inner stomach lining. Even my most valued books, my ridiculously large collection of Ennio Morricone scores, among the only things I cherish, seem trivial. I can only hope they wind up in the caring hands of someone who cares about them as much as I once did.

Nowadays, I’m more concerned about accumulating experiences: of events and happenings, whether it’s watching horse race, or a hike to a high mountain meadow or standing in a soft Autumn rainstorm in Vermont, inhaling the loamy air, feeling like I was home again.

What I really remember most about my childhood Christmases is not the toys, but being home.

In the last year and a half, I’ve taken to spending Sunday mornings at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland. I could say I just go there for it’s fabulous music program (in the way we used to say we bought Playboy  for the interviews and Hustler to defend Larry Flynt’s free speech rights) . . . but that would be a mite disingenuous, wouldn’t it?

The why of this is too large a matter to explain deeply in this space. As a writer, I’m always made sorely aware of the limits of language to explain the ultimate truth of anything. Words attach well to things, less so to the world beyond things.

Likely, my Sundays at St. Paul’s—“getting your God on,” as a friend of mine put it the other night--did not cure me per se, but they brought solace to both Elizabeth and I at a time when we badly needed it. And someday, maybe tomorrow, we’ll need it again.

I will say this and leave it there: I do not want to live in a Cold, Dead Meaningless Universe. If that makes me a sniveling coward, well then . . . whaaaa . . . I want my teddy!

As many of you might know, Christmas history is a tale of tangled roots, a weave of Roman Saturnalia and Christian folk tales about the birth of Jesus Christ. (Christ’s exact birthdate remains a mystery, though there is an interesting astronomical theory, using the Star of Bethlehem as a marker, that estimates He may been born in the Spring, possibly in March or April.)

To the literal-minded, the lack of a precise birthdate means Christmas is a fake, tinsel through and through. But despite the historical inaccuracy, its placement seems poetically, spiritually right—in the bleak midwinter (one of my favorite hymns), at the turning of the Solstice, when all seems darkest, three wandering strangers find a small light of hope: in a bug-infested, shit-strewn manger, surrounded by gamy, rutting animal life, a bastard is born, a bastard who changes the world in a way not seen before and seldom since. Whose light is somehow still with us.

To my fellow Christians, a Merry Christmas. To the rest of my friends, from across the spectrum of belief, however you see Life, Happy Holidays and be safe!

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

George Smiley: A Spy Like Us

It’s a green time for the espionage genre (at least to me: I read more spy novels these days than I do the other genres.) Another James Bond film romps across screens to friendly applause on that venerable figure’s 50th cinematic anniversary. TV and cable networks are streaming spy sagas on all channels, most notably Homeland and the first season of The Hour.

Last year saw a remake of John le Carré’s great novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an outwardly unnecessary project that I first greeted with arched eyebrow and slitted eyes, my monocle swinging free in full-blown Colonel Blimp mode. (“Really? Must we? Was something wrong the first time?”)

In the end though, the new version was embraced by most everyone, including me, without dimming the dour glow of the original BBC miniseries. Both versions stand fast under repeated viewings, the new one re-visioning the original in surprisingly fluid fashion, but still knitted to the first by the fine sensibility of the novel’s author. (Maybe now there will be a film of Tinker’s sequel, The Honourable Schoolboy.)

And really, who wants to get snared in a grey, useless tangle over who was the better George Smiley: Sir Alec Guinness or not-yet-Sir Gary Oldman? Clearly, these gentlemen don’t. Pardon me while I clean my glasses and gaze out the window at a passing lorry.

The debate regarding Mr. Smiley vs. Mr. Bond is more charged, but the argument—genre fiction as literary endeavor vs. genre fiction as commercial endeavor—is one that I, in best English restraint, feel cautious about: Do I support mindful boredom or mindless pleasure? Do the two never meet?

Besides I haven’t read Fleming’s Bond since I was a bug-eyed, horny teenager under the bedcovers with a flashlight during summer nights in Central Texas. I have started reading Casino Royale and it’s an okay and likable entertainment so far. Ian Fleming clearly writes with a pleasing smile up one side of his face but there are startling lapses. For one, take this perilously dangly modifier:

“As a woman, he [Bond] wanted to sleep with her, but only when the job was done.”

(A-HA! So that was what Daniel Craig was insinuating in Skyfall’s torture scene with Javier Bardem?)

Really, though, I like much better the brown suits and gray shadows inhabited by John le Carré’s George Smiley. Smiley lives in a truly secret and much more treacherous realm, a world perilous to both body and soul, than does James Bond.

Bond’s bodywhether He is Woman or not—faces much greater dangers, obviously. As for his soul, well, it has a well-lacquered veneer—scratch it and you find more veneer. He doesn’t live in the world so much as react to it on behalf of our reactionary little-boy souls. He’s a spy in knee pants. (He’s also more of a commando type; Ian Fleming organized and ran commando operations from London during World War II.)

Bond is fun, even delightful, in portions and sequences, rarely as a whole, regular meal. I agree with The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane: You can walk out of Goldfinger, make a sandwich, and come back without missing much. (Some, like Die Another Day, can be walked out on for a leisurely four-course meal, Pierce Brosnan or not.)

Walk out on Tinker, Tailor, you miss that raised eyebrow, that shrug, that tells you everything.

From what I’ve read, John le Carré was, unlike Fleming, an actual field agent, in his case during the Cold War. We can thank to le Carré’s experiences for bringing us a George Smiley who acts like someone who knows what he’s doing, someone we would rely on.

Very few of us are James Bond. But most of us are Smiley.

Smiley is the spy you and I would be if we were spies. He responds as any one of us would when caught in life’s everyday intrigues—the lies and evasions we tell and are subject to, whether we like it or not; the small incongruous gestures that are meant to hide, but instead reveal, and vice-versa. As spies deal with the slippery world, so do the rest of us at times.

To see the world through Smiley’s eyes is to be drawn to look closer, for more than just whether a hair laid across a desk drawer has been sprung, or whether the label of the Dom Perignon faces out instead of where you left it, at three-quarters.

There are intricate subtleties of gesture and language, of intonation, of dress that need close watching. There are memories to be pored over and sifted, stories to be told, compared, broken down, then reassembled carefully, and told again. Smiley is the one to do it, though, as slippery fellow spy Toby Esterhase reminds us, he has “too many hats on his head.”

To James Bond, it’s almost always clear who’s good and who’s bad; who’s with him and who’s against him.

As real spies know, sometimes it’s different. Sometimes it’s a little complicated.

For George Smiley (and other loners in the le Carré’s universe) a spy’s life is not action-packed and simplistic, but a slow, porously grained, sometimes grimy, lonely, and painful, taut with suspicion. Most of them don’t even carry guns, much less invisible ink pens with chambers for bullets and the means to be rejiggered into a jet pack. Smiley would likely break a hip if he attempted a karate kick. I know I would.

This human vulnerability makes the dangers more real in le Carré’s books. In the seven novels of his I’ve read, death mostly leaps from ambush; a soft-nosed bullet to the face; a sniper’s bullet from the back, from torture.

I first read le Carré’s classic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the late 1970s, shortly after Peter Straub’s Ghost Story revealed to me the literary possibilities of genre fiction. For me, Spy was a stunning, thrilling, and emotional experience. Many others agreed, among them two other masters of the genre.

“The best spy novel I have ever read,” Graham Greene blurbed on the back of my paperback copy.

 “The best spy novel anyone has ever read,” Eric Ambler replied underneath.

Spy wasn’t just a smart, well-told story; it was a beautiful, poetic book, poignant and tragic. Alec Leamas felt real to me, down to the seams on his raincoat and the sweat on his face, real to one who knew next to nothing of real espionage, in a way I never recall feeling with Mr. Bond. Le Carré could have been conjuring the whole thing out of a hatful of rabbits, but it didn’t feel that way to me for a minute.

I did not follow up on his subsequent or earlier novels immediately, but dropped them in from time to time over the years. Some of course, I responded to more than others, particularly his very first, Call for the Dead (which also featured Smiley’s first appearance), The Night Manager, and, of course, Tinker Tailor.

I found some of his books a little frustrating, his allusive, indirect style more obfuscating and coy than intriguing and enlightening. He seemed to be practicing a literature of avoidance and indirection, especially with action scenes (not for him Richard Stark’s brutal “he-shot-him” flair.) A Small Town in Germany, for example: I recall its supposedly explosive ending as being fogged in by winding, indirection.

Last year, I decided it was far past time to return to le Carré and read the epic The Honourable Schoolboy  and enjoyed it completely, especially the opening in Hong Kong with its hard-partying Cold War burnouts, and Jerry Westerby’s hair-raising journey through war-ravaged Southeast Asia.

A week ago, I finished Smiley’s People (the last of “The Karla Trilogy”), and found it a rich portrait of the ending of the Cold War and the passing of the generation of agents who fought in it, a modern, urban Ride the High Country  for aging Cold Warriors:  A story about people on both sides who fought in the trenches but then found themselves cast aside as history rolled on.

Though Smiley’s People  was published nearly a decade before the Berlin Wall fell, le Carré already saw the handwriting on that very wall, for both the Soviet Union and the agents on both sides—all Smiley’s people, including the elusive Karla--who met and did battle in its secret world.

I then excitedly turned to the 1982 BBC adaptation, starring the peerless Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley. It’s impossible to praise Guinness’s performance too much, even at the expense of Gary Oldman. With his calm, almost Santa-Clause-like demeanor, Guinness combines both great authority and great tenderness; a sense of ruthless, fortitude (at one point Smiley takes the alias “Standfast”) and sense of sad horror at the world he finds and what he has to do to work in it. Smiley is a prismatic character in the novels and Guinness work in the series calmly carefully captures each facet.

Genre fiction is often, and fairly, criticized for being nothing more than its plots. But le Carré is one of those writers who have shown that it can be more, that the Fiction of Action can reveal truth about the human experience and the world we live in, just like “real” literature. Those who do the dirty work of the world do have an inner life, sometimes remarkably like ours.

Le Carré is by no means the first writer to recognize this, but he’s damn near about the best there is.

[CUTTING BACK: I’ll be appearing here less frequently for the time being. My regular business has been showing an uptick and so time must be set aside to bring my upcoming novel Butchertown to its roaring close, hopefully for mid-2013.

But worry not . . . Burchfield will return.]

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Now Playing in Your Living Room: Headhunters and Cabins


Hollywood—meaning the industry located in Southern California—long ago lost its touch with genre movies, the kind of films at which the system once excelled. Since 1991’s Total Recall, the Big Studio approach to genre films has too often been: “Make ‘em loud, make ‘em confusing, make them unwatchable. Pummel audience in head repeatedly until they crawl out like flattened worms, moaning ‘Just what the hell was that, anyway?’”  

Sometimes these movies are called “rollercoaster thrill rides,” but honestly, that is an insult to amusement parks. Most of today’s Hollywood genre movies are works of brutalism, like a tour of a cramped, windowless, indoor bomb testing facility. (A possible exception is Ben Affleck’s Argo, which I have not seen yet.)

Most of the best genre movies I’m seeing now are from places like Asia and Europe. The skills that American studios have lost—pacing, setting, dialogue, characterization, story—have been absorbed by foreign filmmakers and are coming back to us, maybe in the same way the Beatles took American Rock n’ Roll and sent it back to our shores, new and alive.

For an example, allow me to guide you to the recently released DVD of the exuberant Norwegian thriller Headhunters, which I saw again over Thanksgiving.

One of the current crop of Scandinavian thrillers appearing in novels, movies and on TV, Headhunters is based on a novel by Jo Nesbø (unread by me).

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a corporate headhunter of short stature, large ego, and deep debts. His blond waifishness conceals a venal, cheating heart. To keep himself and his tall, statuesque girlfriend (Synnøve Macody Lund) from sinking into penury, Roger moonlights as a very clever, cunning art thief.

Roger has none of the qualities worshipped by Hollywood screenwriting gurus and marketers: He is short, scrawny, unlikable. He doesn’t even have a cute dog (and just wait ‘til you see what happens to the one dog that does appear)

It’s his side job as an art thief that eventually plunges Roger into waters deep and bloody once handsome, sinister Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, from Game of Thrones) enters the story. Clas is one of those bad boys adored by some women so the minute he appears, he starts kicking sand in poor Roger’s face.

Roger soon becomes a mouse pursued by one mean cat in a grisly, grotesque, and terrifying pursuit, as things take one bad zig after zag. Along the way, our feelings toward him evolve from sniggering contempt toward concern and even, finally, a grudging admiration as this little pig confronts the big bad wolf.

Headhunters is a superbly crafted movie. It starts slowly, weaving and winding up story, setting, and characterization together before it springs loose in a ragged but suspenseful chain of jaw-dropping, hair-raising, occasionally stomach-churning, episodes.

Aksel Hennie holds it all together as the commanding but insecure and self-conscious Roger. Even better, he’s under the cruel serpent gaze of a terrific villain in Coster-Waldau, who plays the equally vile Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones. (Coster-Waldau will be a welcome bad guy for years to come.)

Headhunters is beautifully photographed against the sinister emerald shadows of Norwegian forests. It’s superbly edited without being over-edited. Once it gets going, its moves fast, hits hard, without numbing and confusing the viewer. It’s made with enthusiasm and professionalism by all concerned. Director Morten Tyldum and his team have well remembered the lessons of Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, and all the other writers and directors modern Hollywood seems to have forgotten. It’s not just about hitting ‘em hard. It’s hitting ‘em right. Headhunters hits ‘em right.

The plotting, as happens even with the best, has its share of holes, but there’s so much pleasure to be had, you’ll have to watch it twice to see where the holes appear.

Both audiences I saw it with, Americans all, were sporting grins all around at the finish. Hollywood, get a clue.


Cabin in the Woods is a clever, sometimes funny, but unscary movie from Joss Whedon, the creator-producer of the TV hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the movie Marvel’s The Avengers.

The crafty recipe for Cabin takes one part Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, another helping of torture porn, a large of helping of Wes Craven’s Scream series, then add a large dollop of The Matrix. Stuff it all into a piñata, bake, then whack away at it for 95 minutes.

Most of the funny stuff comes from the interplay between Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the two techno-puppeteers responsible for the mayhem, along with some of the antics of reedy-voiced stoner-hero Fran Kranz. More laughs come when Sigourney Weaver shows up at the end.

It’s superbly produced, with live and lively special effects, but it’s so busy with its in-joke, post-modern references, that it wouldn’t scare a baby (or at least failed to scare the infant in me). It never stirs up the basic fear found in the best horror films. Its roots are showing, but they just hang there, separated from the ground of real human emotion.

In an interview on the DVD extra, director Drew Goddard states that he and his crew talked endlessly about how they would visualize the things in life that scared them most. Cabin the Woods packs every one of those fears into its busy 95 minutes. But true fear and real horror remain locked outside, far away in unreachable darkness.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Images from Headhunters and Cabin in The Woods web pages

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.