Saturday, September 02, 2023

The Pigeon Tunnel (world premiere in the presence of Errol Morris)

Errol Morris: The Pigeon Tunnel (GB 2023) featuring David Cornwell aka John Le Carré.

Werner Herzog Theater, Telluride Film Festival (TFF), 2 Sep 2023.
In the presence of Errol Morris.
Q&A hosted by Dan Zack (The Washington Post).

Jason Silverman (TFF 2023): " During his bountiful, adventurous career, Errol Morris has interrogated roboticists, pet cemetery owners, a Holocaust denier, Stephen Hawking, a parrot, the Unabomber’s pen pal and two architects of massively deadly American wars. In talking to David Cornwell, aka the novelist John le Carré, he seems to have discovered a soulmate. Cornwell is a generous storyteller, gifting us tales of his compulsive grifter father and the hypocrisies of British society. A former spy, he deftly explodes any romance of espionage we might have. But that’s not the juiciest part. The two men, each of whom has dedicated decades to hunting the elusive nature of “truth,” seem to bond, and arrive at the same question at the same time: If we can’t know what’s real in the world, how can we know ourselves? THE PIGEON TUNNEL’s interviews were shot on a set featuring mirrored and skewed expressionist bookshelves. The effect is unsettling, and it is just right. " –JS (U.K., 2023, 90 m) In person: Errol Morris

Festival premiere: 1 Sep 2023 Telluride Film Festival.   

AA: Errol Morris started his introduction to The Pigeon Tunnel by celebrating Telluride Film Festival and Tom Luddy: "Thanks to Tom I'm a film-maker. He was a friend and a champion since the beginning".

The Pigeon Tunnel is classic Errol Morris, made particularly moving by being quite obviously a meeting of "kindred spirits": David Cornwell = John Le Carré and Errol Morris. The Q&A with Dan Zack started with attempts to define the distinction of "interview" and "interrogation". I would propose that an interview is free and voluntary and an interrogation has a formal and official character, even covering police and military procedure.

An interview can be elevated to the level of a Socratic dialogue, a common pursuit of the truth, which eludes us but which we keep approaching. And that is what is happening here, in contrast to, say Morris's films with Steve Bannon, Donald Rumsfeld and Robert S. McNamara. But also Morris's film with Stephen Hawking was clearly a meeting between strangers. Morris is one of the greatest political film-makers, and his works are important documents of political history. In his case, the past is not even past.

The basic theme is betrayal, and at the end of his life Cornwell / Le Carré (who died in 2020) states that he has no need for self-defense. Writing is his passion, and writing is a form of self-discovery. "If I knew any secrets of myself, I'd deprive myself of writing." But the inmost room is bare. There is nothing there. In a curious parallel, we are offered the tale of the secret safe of the MI6. When a professional burglar is invited to crack it, it is empty. But hidden behind the safe are the trousers of Rudolf Hess.

"Childhood is the credit balance of a writer", and Cornwell's life was marked by the figure of his father, a convicted master criminal, who thought that the world is a stage and life is a performance. He charmed his victims even after being exposed. "I don't know if he believed in God, but he thought that God believed in him." Childhood was a period of endless betrayal for the young David. Mother left the family when David was five. 

On David's  MI6 career, the mounting of the Berlin Wall was the turning-point, inspiring him to write The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Around the same time, Kim Philby was exposed as a Soviet spy, a fact that Cornwell kept pondering to the end of his life. There is a lengthy analysis in the movie about the psychology of the spy and the temptation of becoming a double-spy. It is a case of "self-imposed schitzophrenia". "He was at war with himself". The issue is addressed in a mirrored Socratic dialogue / monologue.

The film is full of re-enactments, spiced with illustrations from book covers and excerpts from movie adaptations. Visually, the film is rich and versatile. Text appears as visual matter, slow motion and superimpositions are used, as well as hall of mirror scenes. A recurrent motif is the pigeon. The pigeon tunnel is used at shooting ranges. It is also an expression for the vulnerability of defectors at the Berlin Wall.

The visual variety never distracts from the profound themes of espionage, betrayal and self-discovery.

The engrossing score by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan provides the movie with a relentless drive.

In the Q&A after the screening Errol Morris was asked if he is going to make a movie about Donald Trump. He responded that he has already made one, a brief entry into the 2002 Academy Awards. He found Trump not stupid. Crazy? Hard to know. Trump praised King Kong ("I can identify with that") and Citizen Kane. It occurred to me that the two films have a lot in common, produced by RKO, sharing talent. Famously, Trump's analysis of Citizen Kane is: "get yourself a different woman". We heard this in Errol Morris's Trump imitation.

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