Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Decadent, Inferior Wild Cat

We're in the middle of Bowl Season as dozens of fans trek out to a series of impossible and ridiculous locations to watch their teams battle the dregs of the Sun Belt under the watchful eye of sponsors like Dr. Lawnmangle's 50% Louder Mowing Equipment, American Ninja Knife and Nunchuk Expo '98, and the United States Armed Forces and Northwestern will be joining them soon.  They've been chosen through the arcane and nonsensical bowl selection procedure to play in Nashville's Music City Bowl against Kentucky for the greatest prize of them all: the Cardboard Football Trophy.

The Music City Bowl trophy was doodled by a bowl committee executive 
on the back of a grocery bag and then taken to the Extremely Literal Bowl 
Trophies and Stonehenge Prop Company

Anyone covering this game has already noted the most exciting part of this matchup: Northwestern and Kentucky have the same mascot, the Wildcat.  Kentucky even got their nickname the same way, according to their Wikipedia page, when a group of students decided they had fought like Wildcats (for Northwestern, it was a Chicago Tribune headline).  This origin has raised questions about how common it was to witness or fall victim to wildcat attacks in the early twentieth century, as college students could hardly walk three feet without one of them springing upon them and gnawing at their spats while they futiley whack at them with walking sticks while yelling things like "I say back off, you vile vermin, with your claws and teeth and line-backing."

Another Wildcat team, Kansas State, defeated UCLA in the Cactus Bowl 
with the help of their mascot, a prop from the Lars Van Trier film "Antichrist"

Kentucky's Wikipedia page claims that the school has three mascots: Blue, a live bobcat who lives in a state preserve; The Wildcat, an anthropomorphic wildcat like Northwestern's Willie; and Scratch, a "more child-friendly version of the Wildcat" who "wears his hat backwards, drinks Mountain Dew, and loves to party," a description so perfectly ridiculous that I am halfway convinced it was conjured up by a cackling Louisville fan with Wikipedia editing privileges.

The Wildcat and Scratch, whom I would describe 
as Divorced Poochie

The most insightful thing anyone can say about this matchup is that the game will be played with NCAA regulation rules.  Kentucky has a worse record, worse advanced stats, and are underdogs by more than a touchdown.  Northwestern won nine games with the help of three overtime victories, which have turned the fanbase into an overtime cult donning robes and headgears while staring vacantly at the scoreboard as the timer goes to zero.  

The Northwestern Wildcats are looking for a ten-win season, an unprecedented consecutive bowl win, and an opportunity for Justin Jackson to make mincemeat of an opponent for the last time.  Kentucky has an excellent running back that will try to test Northwestern's impossible rush defense.  But there are no guarantees in bowl season.  The game will be in a cold, wind-whipped, and half-empty stadium between two teams listlessly vying for a shitty trophy sponsored by a mortgage company between two teams who have not played since the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact.  In other words, it is the apotheosis of the unnecessary, packaged, nonsensical Shitty Bowl Experience, and I hope that the bowl brings in the Wildcat sound effect for both teams and just leaves it on after every play, an endless Wildcat yowl echoing through the streets of Nashville and on every television tuned to ESPN2.


I spent the past week coughing, turning my nose into a craggy, kleenex-ravaged scab, and immobile on a couch watching the BBC adaptations of Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People and falling asleep to incoherent cough syrup-fueled fever dreams about Soviet agents and Cold War mustaches.

The BBC adaptations are slow and talky and set in dingy hotels, bars, and conference rooms, especially when compared with the 2011 version whose dinginess and 70s beige was achieved through extravagant expense.  The 2011 film rests on bravura acting from an all-star cast and interlocking flashbacks, but the film suffers from the impossibility of compressing Le Carré's sprawling narrative to feature length and renders it nearly incoherent.  The 2011 movie is also pitched higher-- there's more yelling, more nerves, more tears, even from Tom Hardy's tough-guy Ricky Tarr who talks like a more or less normal person because Hardy had not yet developed the power in the movie industry to demand that he use the insane Bane voice that Tom Hardy now uses more or less constantly.

My favorite part of the trailor for Hardy's double-role 
crime opus Legend is when you hear Hardy's voice in the 
trailer and you think oh that's a normal person voice 
before he appears as a twin brother immediately starts 

The BBC's versions of Smiley are better though because they have Alec Guiness.  Guiness's Smiley resembles Gary Oldman's Oscar-nominated version-- both are old, tired, melancholy, and angry at being pushed out of the Circus at the hands of rivals that Smiley considers lesser and at the fact that 65% percent of their encounters involve someone referencing his wife's affair.  The Guiness Smiley, though is a revelation in that those feelings become tamped down into a man with a singular purpose that cannot be deterred from his investigation even when that investigation involves his own life.

Guiness as Smiley from the BBC series with Terence Rigby as Roy Bland.  
Bland doesn't have a huge part in either the series or the film (he's 
played by Ciarán Hinds, Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome in the movie) although 
I much prefer the BBC's version because his schtick is constantly puffing 
on cigarettes and then falling into coughing fits and being made almost 
entire of muttonchop

The power of George Smiley is that there is nothing extraordinary about him-- peering out through his thick glasses, he blends easily into the background.  Yet, Guiness's Smiley possesses an extraordinary unshakable resolve.  He's introduced getting dragooned into a dinner and drinking session with a hapless old gossip and for what appears to hours, Smiley remains a stone.  He offers nothing, refuses to attack old colleagues, and deflects questions, his words always precise and polite while his tone and the pauses that Guiness puts in to weight certain words radiate contempt; his Smiley talks at all times like he assumes a transcript of all of his conversations is being prepared for Moscow Center.  This opening scene both sets up the rest of the series (the gossip is also there to fill in the audience on all of the goings-on at the Circus from my favorite expository device, a person spending a long time saying hey do you remember all of these things that happened to you) and establishes everything you need to know about Smiley as the rest of the series unfolds as a piece of office gossip with dire geopolitical implications.  

Smiley spends the rest of the film talking to old friends, colleagues, and enemies about the events that had led to his downfall and, even as people praise him, tell him he has been done wrong, yell at him, cry, and threaten, he never ever reacts, hammering away at his questions like a sculptor turning a block of granite into a statue of himself, staring at them.
The BBC Series also features spies looking extremely spy-like, from Ian 
Bannen's Prideaux modeling 1979's most fashionable Espionage 
Turtleneck to Guiness's Smiley dressed at all times like an East Berlin walk signal

The more I think about Guiness's Smiley, and please remember that I have done so while literally in the thrall of numerous antihistamines and fever reducers, is that he is played as a monster that we all root for because he is the main character.  Guiness's Smiley sits, stone-faced and unmoved, as he manipulates everyone around him to unearth the mole.  He cajoles, threatens, and plies people with alcohol, always at the emotional center of a story about betrayal and camaraderie but unable or unwilling to register anything emotionally, always keeping everyone at arm's length.  Yes, the search for the mole has grave Cold War implications and the lives of hundreds of British informants and agents scattered around the world.  And yes, Smiley has been the victim of a literal communist plot.  But Smiley's main motivation seems to be revenge and power, not as an end in itself like for his rival Percy Alleline, but because he does not trust anyone else to do the job properly-- even though it's a job that Smiley himself comes to question by the end of Smiley's People.

Le Carré, especially in the Smiley books, sought to demystify spies.  His British operatives are not martini-soaked, gadget-mongering James Bonds but dreary Oxbridge functionaries obsessed with office politics and consumed with their own affairs.  That was the MI6 he knew before he was exposed by the famous double-agent Kim Philby (there's a strange documentary currently on Netflix about Philby called The Spy Who Went Into the Cold that features a guy pointing an iphone camera at a dilapidated building in Beirut and saying that is where Philby sat around and drank).  Smiley's heroics come from his unshakable competence in the face of a sclerotic organization that no longer values it.  Guiness brilliantly conveys Le Carré's ambivalence about the use of this organization by stripping his performance of almost anything to latch onto-- it is only at the end when Smiley cracks for an instant and allows his feelings about his personal betrayal to show.  "Poor George. Life is such a puzzle to you," his wife Ann tells him.

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