Tuesday, August 5, 2014

'What are you doing here, you pariah?'

 It's been too damn hot to think here, so we have been, in today's parlance, consuming media -- i.e. watching a lot of TV via Netflix. T has been happily mainlining British scifi series -- Survivors, Continuum, Orphan Black -- and I finally saw the famous BBC miniseries of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with Alec Guinness in one of his indelible performances as the perfect Smiley.  The Netflix DVD doesn't have subtitles, and while all the actors (Michael Jayston! Michael Alridge! Ian Richardson! Joss Ackland! Patrick Stewart in one of his many fantastic pre-Picard BBC bit parts!) are fucking amazing, the British thespian tendency to mutter is on full display. In a book it's all right because you are, well, reading the muttered sentences, but when a bunch of great British actors are muttering to each other in full spate, in late seventies Dolby sound no less, you can only rewind so many times before it gets annoying. We had the volume turned up so high the (excellent and beautiful) score blasted out during transitions, I know a lot of dialogue very well from multiple rereads, and we were still both constantly poking each other going "....what did he....did you get that? Who said -- "

Until one famous bit when Alridge-as-Alleline (that haunting refrain, "There are three of them -- and Alleline") is tearing Jayston-as-Guillam (another perfect performance) a new one, and absolutely popped off the screen with "You may not be aware of this, but I am of an extremely forgiving nature." (Stare of the kind you receive from a growling dog about to attack.) "I am positively seething with goodwill." (The dog will rip out your windpipe in one more second.) We screeched with laughter and I just about fell off the couch. That became another one of the instant catchphrases common in our house: "Are you hungry? Should I start dinner?" "I am positively seething with goodwill."

And then Alec Guinness deliberately looks up at someone through Smiley's Coke-bottle-bottom-thick glasses, or gives a pained little smile lasting half a second, and all the Great Acting (and it is great) going on around him just falls away. It's like Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, one of those great masklike performances that is so communicative he almost seems to be projecting the character's thoughts telepathically, or some damn thing. He's the real Merlin, and the witchcraft of his performance is still spellbinding, after thirty-five years.