Saturday, December 27, 2014

Love Is a Real Thing Is Moving!

After many years of great support through blogger, I will be moving content (playlists and music musings) from "Radiation Output Determined" to a new site on tumblr.

Come visit me there:

For archived and new book reviews, please visit the new site on

And keep listening to "Love Is a Real Thing" every Sunday, 6 to 9 am!

KTUH FM Honolulu, 90.3 in Town, 89.9 on the Windward Side, 91.1 on the North Shore;

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fresh Listen: "Child of Nature" vs. "Jealous Guy"

When I first listend to the 1968 demo that would become the supreme self-assessment via song ("Jealous Guy," from John Lennon's 1971 album Imagine), I could hardly believe how fully formed the composition was.

Orginally intended for the double album The Beatles (better known as The White Album), "Child of Nature," the basic chord structure and melody of "Jealous Guy," is classic Lennon in the vein of "Strawberry Fields Forever," where in one couplet he can evoke breathless wonder while self-consciously minimizing what it might mean to him. When he sings "On the road to Rishikesh / I was dreaming, more or less," I hear the same kind of interior subversion that exists in lines like "I think er no, I mean er yes, but it's all wrong / that is I think I disagree" (from "Strawberry Fields Forever") or "If you talk about destruction / don't you know that you can count me out--in" (from Revolution 1). Aside from the first line, the rest of "Child of Nature" is more straightforward, in awe of the idyllic surroundings fusing to his spirit, undoubtedly inspired by his his studying of Transcendental Meditation in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But when casually recording the song with his bandmates, Lennon can't help but deflate his deep musings with silly vocal phrasing, another means to mask a sincere yearning for meaning with a joke.

In the end, Lennon chose not to include "Child of Nature" as a track on the overstuffed White Album. One reason: Paul McCartney had a jauntier tune with the same sentiment ("Mother Nature's Son") which, despite an unremarkable middle section with a fair amount of "doo-doo-doo's," had a captivatingly strummed guitar and a simpler, more elemental set of lyrics. "Sit beside a mountain stream / see her waters rise" comes across as more honest to an experience than the more mystical "Underneath the mountain ranges / where the wind that never changes / touched the windows of my soul" (an outstanding lyric for, say, Buffalo Springfield, but only middling for the Beatles).  Another reason for the song's exclusion from the album could be the weak chorus of "Child of Nature:" "I'm just a child of nature / I don't need much to set me free / I'm just a child of nature / I'm one of nature's children." Something tells me Lennon couldn't imagine himself singing those words beyond the mountain ranges that may have inspired them.

The primary reason, I think, is that between the period when he began writing for the White Album and when the Beatles began recording, Lennon matured as a songwriter. Eventually, he grew to disfavor this "mystical" kind of songwriting altogether, growing closer to a more basic mode of expression that could express a sometimes painful truth, but without all the sarcasm and self-mockery. Disavowing the made up scenarios of "No Reply" and "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," Lennon would go on to write, quite affectingly, about the difficulty of maintaining a romantic relationship as the most famous person in the world in "Isolation." Rather than continue to run on the In His Own Write-style wordplay for which he was independently famous (an "elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna" kind of thing), he began to grasp straight for the throat: "One thing you can't hide / is when you're crippled inside." He stopped singing "I once had a girl / or should I say / she once had me" and sang instead "In the middle of the night I call your name." If we think of "Child of Nature" as a culmination of Lennon's early and mid-period songwriting, "Jealous Guy"--what ultimately came of "Child of Nature's" underheard demo--is a farewell to that old way of expression.

Despite addressing one of the most negative characteristics of human nature, "Jealous Guy" is exceedingly beautiful. The tender, almost tentative piano in the beginning (offset by ambient, slowly building strings) is a never-overdoing it, never-underdoing it Nicky Hopkins, earning his day's pay with one of the most distinctive keyboard parts in modern song (added to a list that includes "She's a Rainbow," Sympathy for the Devil" and that brief middle bit in "Revolution"). But in most cases, Lennon qualifies his airy pieces, infusing them with an earthy quality that made him an ideal foil for Paul McCartney. Just as "I'm Only Sleeping" was saved from blissful somnambulance by George Harrison's backward guitar, "Jealous Guy" is firmly grounded by the simple, elegantly stated rhythm section of Alan White and Klaus Voormann. Not only do they keep the time, they also set an even-keeled groove over which the violins and keyboard arpeggios can soar.

And then there is John Lennon's voice. While many admire Lennon for his pop songs with Paul McCartney and the Beatles (and maybe a handful of songs after 1970), and many admire him for his outsized public personality, his sense of humor, and especially his outspokenness as it concerned politics and human rights, and many admire him they same way they admire Che Guevara and Marilyn Monroe, as an icon who symbolizes a romance for which their lives have no context, I have always admired John Lennon for his singing voice, first and foremost, his way of implying four or five different things in one line ("I read the news today, oh boy"). I consider it an instrument with qualities similar to John Fogerty's lead guitar--not exactly virtuosic, but stripped of all affect, naked, calibrated perfectly in tone and progressively intense. Even in fluff like "Eight Days a Week" Lennon could imbue with a kind of vocal gravitas--listen to how, through the verses, his singing grows manic, almost orgasmic.

On "Jealous Guy" Lennon sings it straight, for which he is most appreciated. Though the song is confessional, there is no unnecessary drama. Yet, you can hear in his voice the struggle of a man attempting to come to grips with a very destructive side of his personality. "I didn't want to hurt you," he sings again and again, each time hopefully coming closer to a painful wisdom that will allow him to grow.

If you've ever watched the Eighties documentary Imagine: John Lennon, or have seen a video of the song performed as part of the Imagine sessions, you've seen Lennon retreating into comedian mode as soon as he finishes the song, going off on some weird riff into the microphone. It's a startling insight into the man's philosophy, which seems to say: "you can only go so deep, and then you just got to laugh at shit." On "Jealous Guy," Lennon goes as deep as possible, coming closer to a universal truth than "Child of Nature" ever could.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Why I'm Done with Animal Collective

I first heard Animal Collective a little later than everyone else had already picked up on them--2005, after the release of Sung Tongs. Ah, the heady year of 2005. The recent emergence of Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, folks like that, the rekindling of a love affair with the possibilities of the acoustic guitar (or harp, in Newsom's case) in popular music, and the off-kilter folky voices and weird songs about the weather and the cosmos. I saw Animal Collective as part of that aesthetic, DIY guys messing with guitars and percussion and songs with slippery lyrics sung in high harmonies though occasionally in low throat moans, a sort of postmodern Beach Boys a la Beach Boys Party! if the Beach Boys played droning ragas with tape loops.

Since then, I've acquired each of Animal Collective's successive LP's: Feels, with its cover inspired by Henry Darger and occasionally transcendent songs ("Have You Seen the Words" got me through the 2007 Honolulu Marathon), Strawberry Jam, a work I can only describe as irritating despite my repeated efforts to get to the bottom of it, Merriweather Post Pavilion, in which the cacaphony from the previous album was dampened in order for beats, dance, and melody to take precedence--though there were still the one/two chord drone numbers the band seems overly preoccupied with.

I imagined Centipede Hz as an extension of Merriweather, at least in terms of a concern with real songs, not just pieces of tape overlaid with jarring electronic effects and high whiny vocals that are especially offensive because of their senselessness. I also imagined that more of Panda Bear's solo influence would be evident, either in clever, minimalist samples (as comprised his 2007 album Person Pitch) or something live, electric and sad like his 2011 release Tomboy. Imagining these kinds of things is mostly unhelpful, and a big waste of time.

Animal Collective has indeed returned to form in Centipede Hz, though it is the form of their lesser work. The tunelessness, the godforsaken noise, this unnecessary bombast and the overcooked vocals are reminiscent most of Strawberry Jam. Except for perhaps the trifle "Rosie Oh," there is nothing pleasant to hear on this record, nothing you'd want to share with a friend or allow to be the soundtrack for a putting on of the moves. There are no songs, period, just some titles and a lot of gibberish between them.

Friday, May 4, 2012

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?

I happened on What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? by accident early one Saturday morning, on TCM, after a night of beers and Mediterranean food (which ended with a twenty piece nuggets, apple pie and sundae, but that's another story). The mind is perhaps most receptive when it has been scrubbed clean of the residue of the working week, before or after the blooming of a hangover. And TCM never lets me down--I stumbled into Burnt Offerings, Incubus, and Saboteur in the same serendipitous fashion, just by being bored and not wanting to think about anything.

The similarity in titles between What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is no coincidence--both were produced by Robert Aldrich (who also headed the production of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and both feature old women performing nasty acts of physical and emotional violence to one another. In this film, the violence is carried about by Mrs. Marrable against Ms. Tinsley--she beats her to death with a shovel before burying her under a growing tree--and later against Ms. Tinsley's longtime companion Ms. Dimmock (Aunt Alice), who enters into Mrs. Marrable's employ while seeking the whereabouts of her estranged lover. Ms. Dimmock is strangled with a telephone cord and then driven into a pond to drown, with Mrs. Marrable wearing her wig, no less.

The primary plot points are initiated after the death of Mrs. Marrable's husband, who has left his widow with a collection of stamps and dead butterflies. Mrs. Marrable feels cheated, her extravagant lifestyle endangered by inevitable poverty. Alone, Mrs. Marrable takes old women with no family on as maids (what she calls "companions") to ostensibly manage the chores and keep her company. Mrs. Marrable then cons the women out of their life savings with a false investment scheme--and when her hired help have the gall to inquire into the status of their investments, Mrs. Marrable kills them, making their decomposing corpses into plant food for her emerging desert garden. As the movie is set in Arizona, the viewer gets the sense that the soil is perhaps too arid, too loosely packed to cover up anything for long.

When Ms. Marrable offs Ms. Tinsley--a mousy, unhandsome woman who has no doubt played spinsters and teachers her entire career--Ms. Alice Dimmock (played by none other than Maude from Hal Ashby's classic) comes looking for her. Her plan is to get herself hired as Mrs. Marrable's companion so that, with the assistance of her nephew (hence the "Aunt Alice" bit, which confused me at first), she can investigate the true fate of her lover. Meanwhile, a young widow who looks like a Nordic Isabella Rosselini moves in next door, with a child I couldn't tell was her son or her younger brother; Mrs. Marrable's louse of a nephew and his socialite wife are going to the dogs because of a string of bad investments; Ms. Dimmock's nephew begins a love affair with the Nordic Isabella Rosselini. This last part hardly matters. The only reason for the nephew to be involved is to create a pasted together romance in the film.

Mrs. Marrable eventually discovers who Ms. Dimmock really is, in perhaps one of the most biting and beautifully acted exchanges (all their exchanges are great) I've ever seen in a film. Their monumental fight takes place throughout Mrs. Marrable's sprawling Arizona ranch home, and ends with Ms. Dimmock strangled to unconsciousness. Mrs. Marrable does away with her body via drowning (see above), all the while pretending that it was Ms. Dimmock who stole her car and skipped town (she was wearing Ms. Dimmock's wig, see?).

Mrs. Marrable is ultimately revealed as a demented serial killer after she drugs her next door neighbor and her son/brother, and attempts to burn them alive in their home. They escape, get a posse together (the nephew, the yard man, the other nephew, a police officer) and confront Mrs. Marrable in her yard. After the bodies planted in the garden are revealed and Mrs. Marrable has gone totally tits up, someone is moved to mention that the stamp collection Mrs. Marrable's husband had left her is in fact worth thousands (or millions) of dollars.

There are three things to love about this movie. First, as I referenced earlier, the acting. Granted, I'm hardly an authority on the craft--but I guess I tend to want, and to believe in, acting that is invisible, in which the person I see onscreen or onstage isn't transparently acting. However, in the cases when a particular thespian has the role of a psychopath, I'm impressed, and confused somewhat, at the ability of a well-paid narcissistic pretender to portray the character with any credibility, especially since the means of the portrayal rely on the most obvious of acting techniques. Think of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Heath Ledger as the Joker--I don't expect to find the actors themselves to have a natural resonance with the characters they're playing, and thus I must appreciate the mastery of technique (acting in its purest state) in an abstract and aesthetic way when watching these characters. In these cases, it's only through the obviousness of acting that the authenticity of the intentions and actions of these characters emerges.

I would add Geraldine Page's portrayal of Mrs. Marrable to this male-dominated list of great psychos in the movies. Page's Marrable is haughty, superior, condescending, cruel and absolutely charming in the role of Mrs. Marrable. Despite her advanced age and infirmity (as well as he predisposition to want to kill people and their pets) I sort of fell in love with her. There is not one line of dialogue she delivers that is not ripping with subtext, and there is not one camera from in which her character appears that Page is not thinking, calculating, in the subtlest shift in tone, or variance in facial expression. Page as Marrable is simply the most compelling film villain I've seen in a long time. And aside from being entrancing, she is a total fucking bitch. Ruth Gordon also represents strongly as Ms. Dimmock--her interactions with Page are worth the movie itself--but unlike Page's Gordon's performance is much more straightforward.

The other things to love about What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?: 1) its music, which brings to mind a psychedelic marriage of Bernard Herrmann and Deerhoof, suspenseful electrified stringed instruments emerging at times out of nowhere; 2) the fact that Mrs. Marrable keeps winning weird sweepstakes and contests, and lords this over her companions; 2) the location (Tuscon, Arizona)--Alfred Hitchcock also knew how to squeeze the most horror out of the American Southwest, really the perfect canvas on which to carry out the savagery of a dried out, withered humankind; 3) the other little extras, the scenes that serve no purpose but to disorient the viewer--the chile smoking in the brush while his mother/sister makes out with her new paramour, or the same kid throwing darts violently against the wall while proclaiming oddly prescient truths, or the nephew at all, the social gatherings in palatial homes and country clubs and the sexual innuendo (or flat out sexuality) to suggest that the whole community is debased in some way. While these components contribute little to the story of a murderer and her buried help, they add a heady atmosphere of lust and amorality.

Yes, there are element of What Ever Happened to the Aunt Alice? that subvert the trajectory of it ever being considered a great film. But it works with what it has one perplexing and engrossing piece at a time.      

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Record Review: Kurt Vile's Smoke Ring for My Halo

After repeated listens, I'd finally gotten around to kind of digging Kurt Vile's previous LP, Childish Prodigy. It took me a while to develop a fondness for the man's musical style, his primitive songwriting.

At that time, I thought I was hearing an artist in transition. Rather than the dead wooden likeness to which many musicians aurally trap themselves, I imagined I was experiencing the organic sounds of an artist about to take a great leap toward his best work yet. The follow up, Smoke Ring for My Halo, was bound to be that next great work.

Upon listening to the album (and I've been through it many times) three things slowly, then very quickly, become clear: 1) Kurt Vile's songwriting technique is based upon, with exceptions, a repeated chord structure (usually finger-picked) in twos and fours before a brief change into unlike, usually ugly, bridging chords that--sometimes too quickly as to be jarring, sometimes too slowly as to be tiresome--lead back into to the primary, repetitive chord sequence (Childish Prodigy was also full of this kind of stuff); 2) Smoke Ring eschews the rock noise of Childish Prodigy for the gentler tones of finger-plucked acoustic guitar, augmented at times by electronic beats and bleeps (all in all, very sonically close to Beck's folk-pop record Sea Change); 3) hopefully, this is not the extent of what Kurt Vile is capable of as an artist. The songs, most of which are pleasant and inoffensive enough, sound less like the efforts of a songwriter than a guitar player (in the folk tradition) trying to write songs, but with limited success.

In "Baby's Arms," the voice that leered to such discomfiting effect on the earlier album is subdued to a quiet pining, contempt and lust replaced with a straining to sound genuinely tender. But Kurt Vile (mostly) knows what works for him, and snarls out (in between the business of sounding soft) "I get sick of just about everyone."

"Jesus Fever," a laid back groover with the familiar refrain of "I'm already gone" also lacks the punch of its predecessor (or the Eagles' early hit of the same chorus), but marries the easygoing singer-songwriter sound of the 70's to the metronome beats of electronic percussion (again, much like Sea Change).

The one bonafide rocker, "Puppet to the Man," most definitively illustrates Kurt Vile's limitations in songwriting. What first presents an interesting idea (tool of the government, though a fairly common theme, is about as complex as we're gonna get on this record) soon goes nowhere--just ridiculous statements independent of one another, laid over the never-ending guitar, a muddy, hardly brilliant noise, incoherence busting out between the overlapping notes. Kurt Vile's lack of interest in following through, the absence of a commitment to any idea except not wanting to talk to anyone and just stay where he is is frustrating, and perhaps says more about people who listen to modern rock records today than I would like to admit.

The weariness of "On Tour," on the other hand, seems perfectly authentic. Here, Kurt Vile seems to know what he's talking about: the struggle to connect with anyone in a meaningful way. In Kurt Vile's world, only a select view exist who do not want to destroy you, or hurt you, or waste your time. In this song there is the ring of truth without the ineptness of the preceding track.

Like "Puppet to the Man," though, "Society Is My Friend" puts onto display an artist out of his depth, lacking any ability to express the complexities of the positions he sets forth ( the same could be said of Wilco and Arcade Fire). Similarly, John Lennon could be found guilty of oversimplifying a complicated idea into a slogan song ("All You Need Is Love," "Give Peace a Chance"); however, Lennon, no matter what his faults, encouraged togetherness and equality, while Kurt Vile's vision is much more inward and bleak. His mistrust of everyone leads to a musical and lyrical stasis that perpetuates itself in every song he performs. "Society is my friend / It makes me want to lie down in a cold bloodbath" is just stupid, the misanthropic attitude of a teenager.

The last several songs reinforce what's happening in the first half of the album. "Runner Ups," though steeped in the same toxic honey water as "Baby's Arms," foregoes attempted tenderness and doubles down on detached distaste; in "Peeping Tom," a pretty, repeated guitar figure isn't enough to elevate the music from entropy and lyrical inanity; "In My Time" is the pop hit of the record, with echoes of the Replacements in the chorus; the title track, which could be the record's best or worst song (I was unable to tell after a while) suffers from the same production style and arrangements of the the others before it, and is buried amongst the bloodlessness; and, finally, "Ghost Town" could be the thesis of the entire works: "I think I'll never leave my couch again."

Kurt Vile's Smoke Ring for My Halo is something you can listen to, but is it worth the time? It seems most appropriate as a soundtrack to those times when reality appears as a stoned disconnect, in which the artist's sentiments are suitable. The final song and the most memorable is an instrumental entitled "(shell blue)." Its spookiness would fit as the main theme for a dark HBO drama or the background to a scene in a movie, where heavy shit is happening in slow motion. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Short Strange Trip: Tales from the Darkside

I shall not watch reruns of Tales from the Darkside anymore. Tomorrow someone will take away the rabbit-eared television in my living room, denying me access to the two-epidsode block at 2:00 pm on Saturdays before the Svengoolie creature feature. And then I will move to a boat off an island, where no one remembers the late '80's/early '90's series. Soon there will no opportunity for Tales from the Darkside to perplex my sense of aesthetics, humor my hankering for bad taste, or regurgitate its ridiculousness into my dreams.

My short-lived residence in the Darkside was pleasant, its lukewarm chills mitigated by a self-awareness (one would hope) of its own inanity. Now that I've returned to the lands where telephones do not indiscriminately murder, witchmen still lack the secret of transmigration of the soul, and mannequins remain in whatever poses they are left, I don't foresee myself myself day-tripping back to the Darkside on another hangover Saturday afternoon.

Let me afford you a brief description of the program. Each episode begins with a repetition of synth notes played over stock footage of blue skies, farmhouses, bridges, and forests, accompanied by a narrator's explanation (a monologue written by producer George Romero) of the duality of reality (light and dark sides). As the narrator horrifyingly enunciates, the better illuminated, more tranquil scenes of nature flip to--chillingly--A STILL IMAGE OF A TREE IN SHADOW. Over this spine-tingling picture is laid the Tales from the Darkside title screen, which recurs, in '80's television fashion, before and after each commercial break. Lest we forget the cornball TV series for which we've surrendered a half-hour of our lifespan.

With a few exceptions, there seem to be three kinds of stories repeated throughout Tales from the Darkside: 1) inanimate objects gain sentience (generally malevolent) that bodes ill for the human beings who encounter or come into possession of them; 2) a hapless experimenter of black magic is inevitably doomed to suffer for transgressions into the spirit world; 3) an otherwise normal person comes into contact with the mythical or otherworldly, with (surprisingly) happy results. 

In the first first category (what seems to be the most frequently featured), a man takes home a store mannequin he imbues with the characteristics of his parted wife, and she kills him in front of his friend; a woman, investigating why a telephone next door to her hotel room won't stop ringing, is strangled by the evil phone's cord; a man purchases an answering machine that sabotages his life with messages he never intended; a woman is lied to and later absorbed into a fortune telling machine. 

In the second, a physically repulsive medicine man is poisoned by his wife and young lover, only to plant his soul in the young man's body before he dies; a man uses black magic to win the lottery, but is foiled by a stronger agent of the dark arts. 

In the third kind of story, which always struck me as the most bizarre and unsatisfying, the Gorgon Medusa is liberated from her mannequin state (mannequins again!) by an unfortunate burglar who looks into her uncovered eyes, and later finds love with a blind saxophone player in a New York subway station; a man collects the tears of a clinically depressed woman, and adds these tears to his storage room of sadness through the ages--when she steals her tears back and breaks the vial that contains them (she's almost run down by a taxi), she's set free from sadness.

Some of the actors who have appeared in Tales of the Darkside, who have appeared in the shows described above, may raise one's eyebrows. Jerry Orbach plays the friend of the mannequin obsessive, Harry Anderson is the unlucky bum under the control of his answering machine, and, in an unlikely pairing, Bud Cort and Carol Kane engage in supernatural warfare to possess a winning lottery ticket. And a very young Victor Garber is the Collector of Tears, a far cry from his work as Jack Bristow in Alias. The acting is usually bad, given the expectations we may have of some of these performers.

Likewise, the budget is low, and the direction--in fact, the whole feel of the enterprise--reminds one of the instructional videos one was compelled to watch when starting a new job. The lack of any discernible slickness, though, is refreshing.

At times, in its quest of wringing meaning from its cheap stories, Tales from the Darkside manages to synthesize an utterly different kind of television that goes against everything we, with our preoccupation with continuity and extended plot lines and closure in our modern TV serials, are used to. The show has a lot of information to get across in its 20 plus minutes, and at times does so in ways completely unforeseen. For instance, the episode with the killer telephone is primarily enacted in a long, overblown monologue by a conceited actress (played by a less conceited actress). When Medusa comes back to life, rather than rampage about the earth, she discusses forgiveness, love, and the inherent flaws of human nature. And the one about the fortune telling booth (the best of the episodes, technically) has something powerful to say about destiny and ideological inflexibility, and puts this forth (all credit to the actors) with the intensity of a one-act play.

Enjoying Tales from the Darkside, when I had access to the series, is like enjoying certain Hostess products. It does not necessarily taste good, nor is it good for you--but there is something comforting in its ability to remind you of simpler times. When this sort of thing was consumed with no discretion whatsoever.          

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Weakness in Each Other's Systems: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I've seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy twice in the theater, and I still think I need another two or three viewings .

Tomas Alfredson has directed the most carefully executed and consciously understated movie to come out this past year. It is the most well-made movie to come out in several years, as a matter of fact. In a collective of spies vying for advantage over a world superpower (and, ultimately, one another), no thoughtfully considered gesture is wasted, no facial tic nor shifting of one's clothes is allowed to give one away to someone else, someone who might be monitoring meanings beyond words. Alfredson's dedication to John Le Carre's characters is so absolute that each spy's method of concealment is nearly his entire identity in this film: Smiley's reserve, for instance, coming across at first as formal British stiffness; or Bill Haydon's bluster and bravado, which hides the great secret of the film (and not just that he's having an affair with Smiley's wife, and knows that Smiley knows, and makes sure that Smiley knows he knows). Percy Alleline diverts attention away from his incompetence and gullibility with arrogance and an air of authority, while Peter Gwilliam plays the womanizer in the office and maintains a monogamous relationship in his private life. Gwilliam's relationship, like Haydon's bravado and Alleline's arrogance, is destroyed by Smiley's covert investigation of a possible double agent within England's Circus (the country's intelligence service)--and, ultimately, so is Smiley's esteemed reserve destroyed, breaking for one delicious moment near the end of the movie.

A brief, clumsy synopsis would sound thus: At the beginning of Tinker, Control (the man at the head of the Circus) sends a subordinate agent to Budapest to gather information on a mole in the organization. This mole, Control thinks, has been feeding information to the Soviet Union. The Budapest mission is botched, the agent presumably killed, and the resulting scandal forces Control out of the Circus. Accompanying Control into forced retirement is his second, George Smiley.

Now idle and alone, Smiley takes morning swims in the Thames and purchases new glasses for himself, while another agent, Ricki Tarr, resurfaces from Turkey--whence he was believed to have gone rogue--to present corroborating information obtained from the Soviets that there is indeed a traitor among the Circus spies. A minister pulls Smiley from inaction and the unassuming man, with the help of Peter Gwilliam and Ricki Tarr, begins a spying operation on the Circus from the outside.

Because there is very little verbal exposition in the film (aside from Ricki Tarr's explanation of why he remained in Turkey so long--to save the life of a Russian woman), much of the thrust of the story comes from men acting small and saying very little. These men watch, listen, remove files, inspect logs, and perpetually smoke and drink. It has been noted that Smiley, the film's main character, doesn't even speak for the for nearly twenty minutes into the film. Early on, when he exits the Circus with Control after they've been forcibly removed from their offices, each man's regard for the other upon parting is evident, even though nothing is said, hardly any movement made. A brazen smile that Bill Haydon gives to Smiley during a Christmas party takes on a chilling and tragic meaning later in the movie. A viewer need nearly be as cautious, and observe as closely, as these spies watch one another--I felt particularly rewarded when, during my second viewing, I interpreted a detail as significant and it turned out to be significant, not just the busy work in which actors engage when in movies. Alfredson gets loads and loads from the tiniest actions: Smiley's hand on a stair rail as he enters a house, a wood chip lodged in a doorway.

Maybe the commercial success of Tinker will allow for more films of the same caliber to be widely released in the multiplexes. The nuances of film making are maximized in nearly every scene, the viewer rewarded for paying attention instead of merely being coddled into suspending disbelief. And Smiley makes for one of the greatest heroes to trudge across the screen--an unassuming bureaucrat and man of violence, cuckolded and pure of heart, noble and of staggering intellect and insight.