The Poppies of Terra #15 - Pigeon Tunnel Vision
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
The Pigeon Tunnel, the new documentary by Errol Morris about intelligence-officer-turned-famous-writer John le Carré (writing pseudonym of David Cornwell), is a tease, a rehearsal for a film that can never exist, a re-enactment of a deception that has always been.
The material–le Carré’s retrospective ruminations on certain defining experiences, sourced from, but not confined to, his autobiographical volume The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016)–is not just slippery, but craftily sculpted into an aesthetics of slipperiness. From the very opening, which muses on the difficulties of beginnings, the self-aware, taunting nature of this gorgeously-produced, always enthralling documentary, is in evidence. It takes a little longer for its self-evasiveness to enter the frame.
Errol Morris, Academy Award winner for The Fog of War (2014) and highly acclaimed for many other pieces of work, has been a spellbinding documentarian for over fifty years. When he sat down to talk to le Carré, the brilliant novelist had been writing for sixty years. (Indeed, it’s remarkable to think that le Carré’s groundbreaking The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) came in from the cold six decades ago as of this writing.) In this documentary, two titanic careers shake hands, discovering, as they go, a mutually pleasing rhythm that accommodates Morris’s deceptively straight-ahead questions and le Carré’s choreography of absolute candor.
“Is the inmost room ourselves?” asks Morris after referencing The Secret Pilgrim (1990). “Maybe there’s nothing there?” Responds le Carré, self-negatingly: “In my case that is true, yes. I can’t speak for everybody else.” In an earlier sequence involving a recollection of his father Ronnie’s duplicity, both as a means and as a mode of life, le Carré says: “You discover early that there is no center to a human being.” Here, he is clearly speaking for somebody else. The lack of affect in his delivery is studied, a subtle form of persuasion.
After a while I was reminded of something that Matt Damon’s character Mike McDermott says in John Dahl’s Rounders (1998): “If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.” Morris and le Carré are no suckers–or in le Carré’s preferred term, dupes–, which leaves the audience in an interesting position. The back-and-forth between Morris and le Carré suggests spontaneous thrusts and parries, but upon closer inspection is rather more like a dance performed for our pleasure. “This is a performance art,” le Carré says. “You need to know whether you’re performing to a trade union, an elite audience. You need to know something about the ambitions of the people you’re talking to.” Certainly, this gives us some insight into his ambitions.
At various times le Carré vaunts his obliging nature in this chronicling enterprise. “You have all I am, as far as I know,” he says, a prevaricating immodesty saved only from being a complete falsity by that hedging “as far as I know.” Or: “I'll answer any question you wish me to answer, as truthfully as I can.” This, coming from the same man who a short while later declares: “Objective truth is perceived by some absent third party, but otherwise, truth is subjective.” Which in effect means that answering “truthfully” means answering “subjectively.” The verbal gymnastics reflect a sharp, playful, cunning mind trying to pass off as settled and placid. Calling le Carré a writer of espionage thrillers, and pretending that we now know him, are gross acts of, well, pigeonholing.
Whereas Blake Bailey’s recent biography of Philip Roth–who said, of le Carré’s A Perfect Spy (1986), that it was “the best English novel since the war”–was exhaustively fastidious, and almost pathologically lopsided towards prurience, this documentary is sweeping in its abstractions and refuses to explore, or even brush up against, le Carré’s marriages and affairs. “I’m not going to talk about my sex life, any more, I trust, than you would. [...] My love life has been a very difficult passage, as you would imagine, but it’s resolved itself wonderfully, and that’s enough on that subject.” This blunt declaration that the topic is off-limits, the obvious withholding of information that could prove quite telling in a documentary centered on the themes of double-dealing and betrayal, becomes in le Carré’s hands an invitation for us to fill in the blanks. His refusal becomes an act of seduction. And of course, now that the cat’s out of the bag–or, perhaps, the pigeon out of the tunnel–the pages are flowing. Suleika Dawson’s The Secret Heart: John le Carré: An Intimate Memoir appeared in 2022, the year in which Tim Cornwell, le Carré’s son, also published A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré 1945–2020. Adam Sisman, who published le Carré’s biography in 2015, has just yesterday released a second volume, presumably making full use of the opened case files, titled The Secret Life of John le Carré. Or, now, not-so-secret.
Technically, the documentary is a marvel. The intercutting of footage from countless le Carré adaptations, as well as previous interviews, is masterfully paced and timed so that it acts both as an underscoring and flirtatious interrogative of whatever le Carré is saying. Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan collaborate on a score that provides urgency along with roving reflexiveness. Igor Martinovic’s cinematography, despite the muted palette, shines.
In another Morris documentary, The Unknown Known (2013), Donald Rumsfeld recounted: “In my confirmation hearing when I was nominated to be secretary of defense, the best question I was asked was, ‘What do you worry about when you go to bed at night?’ And my answer was, in effect, ‘Intelligence. The danger that we can be surprised because of a failure of imagining what might happen in the world.’” This is a failure for which we can never fault le Carré. Time and again, with shrewdness, he wove literary spells of not only what might happen in the world, but what had already happened without even those involved being fully aware of it. “Without the creative life,” le Carré observes near the end of the documentary, “I have very little identity.” The ordering of quantities seems significant. His ample bibliography demonstrates that le Carré’s life was perennially creative; Morris’ documentary now shows that in all domains, including personal book-keeping, creativity was le Carré’s way of life.