Monday, September 3, 2012

A talent for wonder (Books - My Name Escapes Me by Alec Guinness)

In preparation for watching the recent film version of John Le Carre's  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I got the 1979, 6-episode, made-for-BBC version to watch first.  I know that I had seen some part of it before, but never the whole thing, and never with the amount of attention required to follow the amount of story telling conveyed through behavioral detail.  It is wonderfully slow paced, unlike anything one can see on television now - without the cutting back and forth every five seconds, between seventeen different cameras - lest we linger, lest we see the lie before us, get bored, and change the channel.  The music for it was very good too.  Ian Richardson's performance is wonderfully animated, but the real pleasure of it was Alec Guinness's close-to-the-chest portrayal of George Smiley.  He is one of those actors whose performances always make me think, well he's not really acting, that's just who he is.

Guinness's quiet performances tend to be believably human but he did not have what you might call a method-y, experiential approach.  Rather, he crafted characters via the conscious assembly of human behavioral detail.  Curiosity about the intersection of the man and his creative process made me seek out the published diaries of his final few years My Name Escapes Me and A Positively Final Appearance.  I found one for a penny and the other for forty-nine cents in second-hand shops.  Saturday evening, I sat down with My Name Escapes Me and finished it eagerly in two sittings. It is a modest account of a man who seems painfully conscious of his flaws and his age, but who loves his quiet life with his wife of nearly 60 years, his dogs, his friends.  Every so often he flirts with taking another role, but at 82 years old, he doesn't think he has it in him.
When I am asked, which is all too often, if I have retired, I am inclined to assume a pained expression and deny it.  At eighty-two I am well passed my sell-by date and I doubt if any part, however small, would tempt me.  The difficulty is the chore of learning (I used to be reasonable reliable and fairly quick) and diminishing physical vitality, both of which would choke any creative effort.  So I am happy to scribble instead.
He uses the same eye for detail that served his acting to craft his writing.  On a Sitwell exhibition at
the National Portrait Gallery:
It is a remarkable likeness; the eyes have a curious, fastidious and disapproving glint which I remember well.  The Tchelitchew painting of Edith seem to me to be striving after something other than the sitter; himself perhaps.  Early in the war I had tea with him in New York; very agreeable, and camply amusing, but I had the impression I was in the presence of a professional exile - something I often feel about Russians or eastern Europeans.  Edith's famous aquamarines were rather tattily presented and some of her clothes looked as if dragged from a dressing-up hamper - a facade and a charade.  I miss her kndness and Plantagenet condescension.
 John Le Carre writes an appreciative introduction.
He is not a comfortable companion.  Why should he be?  The watching child inside this eighty-year-old man has still found no safe harbours or easy answers.  The deprivals and humiliations of three quarters of a century ago are unresolved.  It is as though he were still striving to appease the adult world about him; to winkle love from it, to beg its smile to deflect or harness its monstrosity.
Here is a widely known star who is embarrassed by his successes, horrified by his current physical state, (there is a marvelous paragraph in which he mourns the state of his feet), and only ever expected his failures.  There is a childlike innocence to Guinness's experience of himself in the world.  I am most aware through the diary that has maintained through his life a talent for experiencing wonder.  One sees it in his reactions to theatrical productions, many of plays he knows well. Occasionally I don't trust a story he tells.  I found his memory of meeting a child who has seen the Starwars trilogy 100 times and begging him never to watch the films again, which he shares in the second volume, a bit glib and instructive.  But I don't think he gilds the lily outright, rather his innocent appreciation for what will make a good story has rewritten his memory.

I found the greatest insight into his art, his regret at not being a better actor.  He shares his marvel at the talent of Jeanne Moreau, with whom he acted in A Foreign Field.
All the time I have worked in films I have been painstakingly good a 'hitting my marks' on the studio floor in an effort to satisfy directors and technicians, and I have also made an effort, when  repeating a scene, to make it an exact replica of the previous 'take'.  Jeanne demonstrated that such exactitude was deadening.  Watching her filming I knew she was right; every 'take' was slightly different and every one was spontaneous and fresh.  If I had been freed from my self-imposed strait-jacket three decades ago I might - who knows? - I might have taken off and been a sort of star...
This from the man who won an Oscar for The Bridge Over the River Kwai and who played Obi-wan-Kanobe.

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