Wednesday, October 18, 2023

The mystery of Jean le Carre


  In The Pigeon Tunnel, a documentary about author Jean le Carre,  director Errol Morris uses a Philip Glass score to create an atmosphere of simmering mystery, not unlike le Carre's much-admired spy novels, the feeling that we're moving toward a disturbing revelation.

   But single revelations aren't le Carre's specialty and Morris doesn't follow that kind of path, either. Although much of le Carre's conversation in Morris' documentary is frank, le Carre keeps some doors securely closed. More on that later.
   Morris never has been particularly interested in talking heads. In this case, dramatic recreations illustrate major moments in le Carre's life, concentrating most notably on the author's relationship with a conman father who also was a profligate gambler.
     Born in 1931 as David Cornwell, le Carre reviews his life, considering influential events (his mother left him and his brother when he was five), and talking about how his work in British intelligence helped shape the fictional worlds he built and the characters who occupy them.
   The film is named for an odd phenomenon le Carre frequently references in his novels. It's also the title of a 2016 memoir published by le Carre, four years before his death at the age of 89.
   As a boy, le Carre accompanied his father on a trip to Monte Carlo where they stayed at a hotel that bred pigeons on its roof. The pigeons would fly through a special tunnel. Upon reaching open air, they became targets for guests who like to shoot.
   The surviving birds returned to their roosts until summoned for the next round of killing, a cruel entrapment that serves as a darkly suggestive metaphor for le Carre. 
   We listen to le Carre talk about themes of betrayal and deceit -- both of self and others, the core of spying and, perhaps for le Carre, an essential human trait. Morris supplements the conversation with images from films adapted from le Carre's novels.
    The film was produced by le Carre's sons (Simon and Stephen Cornwell) but it's not an unalloyed homage; le Carre doesn't present himself as the hero of his story yet he holds much in reserve. He never discusses his role as a father, his name change, or his love life. Morris allows his film to live within these bounds.
      A must for the legion of le Carre fans and an intriguing introduction for those who aren't deeply familiar with le Carre's work, The Pigeon Tunnel struck me as an oddly unsettling work. Le Carre talks about the deceit and betrayal as addictions, the sense that the spy knows what others don't and is privy to secrets that, if known, would make ordinary folks shudder.
      But the joke's on us. No such explanatory secrets pierce the fog of moral ambiguity that interested le Carre. Le Carre remains in charge of his conversation, even as Morris avoids talking-head stasis.
      I don't know if Morris helps us know the "real'' le Carre, but the le Carre we meet emerges as talker of masterful control and, more importantly, a writer of impressively similar bent. 

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