“Trust no one.”
The opening words of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” strike a special chord this year. In several high-profile movies writers depict the malignant impact of secrecy and untruth.
Reacting to what co-writer Peter Straughan calls our “frustrated and isolated society,” in “Tinker Tailor,” Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor explore “the human cost of the Cold War, the human victims. These people have to keep secrets for a living, and have to lie. It isolates you, bit by bit, from everyone else. It’s part of the espionage operating system to make airtight compartments, even between your colleagues.”
The ’70s-set pic’s “existential sense of dread” is equally appropriate for the post-9/11 world; spymaster George Smiley’s complaint “Nothing is secure any more” rings true today. To cement that connection, Straughan and O’Connor relocate a key shooting scene from a forest to a very public Czech street, where bespectacled strangers peer over newspapers and a mother shiftily rocks her baby.
“Only gradually,” Straughan says, “do you get the nightmarish sense that no one is who they seem, everyone is in on it and nobody can be trusted.”
Going back a few years, the mid-20th century brought frustration and isolation to one power broker in particular. To “J. Edgar” scribe Dustin Lance Black, “Hoover understood the power of secrets because he had such a big one of his own. Not only the ‘love that dare not speak its name,’ but the love he dared not speak even in his own home.”
Black’s screenplay persuasively suggests that repressed sexuality caused Hoover to ferret out others’ secrets and use them for his own advantage. And any attack on the agency was an attack on himself, hence the reckless charges of “radical communism” at any public critic such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When the director’s ego was threatened, the truth was the first casualty.
When the world goes topsy-turvy, everyday folks’ psychology can be skewed no less than that of spies and G-men. Take the Victorian women who shear their hair, bind themselves up and live as men in “Albert Nobbs”: house painter Hubert Page and eponymous hotel waiter Albert.
Their charade is in dead earnest. “Albert and Hubert are living a so-called lie in order to survive,” empathetically observes co-writer and star Glenn Close.
“There are all kinds of different lies people live. There are secrets people are afraid to let out because it’ll affect their lives for the worse: They’ll lose their jobs, they’ll be frowned upon. … I approached this story as one about survival, and what masks people put on in order to cope.”
The former cultist in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” wears her own mask, a product of societal disorientation thanks to cult brainwashing. Says filmmaker Sean Durkin: “She’s told the ideas her family told her, growing up, were lies, the wrong way to live. Tactically, they break her down to a childlike state.
“When she leaves, she can see that it was a lie, it was manipulation. But then she goes back to the world where she’s been told people lied to her, but she knows (the cultists) have been lying to her too. So she doesn’t know what to believe.” She doesn’t speak of what happened to her, not telling her sister she was in a cult — even as it becomes apparent there’s a danger they’ll come after her.
To an extent, says Woody Allen, such secrets and lies are part of life and “the tools of both drama and comedy. That’s what they do. … Lust, crime, deception, fraud, they’re the things that make up all the films that you see.” Hence, they can be a source of mental health as much as dysfunction.
In “Midnight in Paris,” Allen places front and center not a perpetrator but a victim of deceit, screenwriter Gil, who would happily include his fiancee, Inez, in his magical 1920s rambles, but it turns out she’s too busy cheating on him to notice.
A loved one’s adulterous secret brings about a positive energy in “The Descendants,” co-writer Alexander Payne says of his protagonist. “The trajectory of the film, his quest, is simply wanting to know the truth.”
When Matt King peppers his rival with queries about where they met and who loved whom, “he just wants to know, even if it’s going to be brutal. Even when he asks ‘Did you fuck in my bedroom?’ and the guy says ‘Yeah. Twice.’ Brutal!”
“And that’s the curse,” Payne says wryly. “When you want to know the truth — be careful.”
That’s the moral of the Oedipus myth, and Payne does say of his film “It’s very Greek.” No less Greek is the tragic hubris that fells the once all-powerful Hoover because of his twisted values.
“He’s perceived as a great villain and it’s because of the secrets he kept,” Black says. This suggests a potential means by which society may right itself.
“I think history shows that the secret-keepers and operators will be exposed and brought down, while those who live openly and honestly will be celebrated and lifted up,” he says.
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