In his review of John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama (In the Dark, June), George McCartney comments in detail and at great length on what he perceives to be the film’s merits. Some of these are real, though hardly worthy of the extravagant praise that McCartney bestows. He especially praises Pierce Brosnan for his portrayal of a superficially suave, callous, ruthless and generally revolting intelligence agent. Besides the lavishness and extent of its praise, what is striking about McCartney’s review is that it does not so much as mention one of the movie’s most prominent features: its blatant and protracted pandering to the presumed lascivious appetites and lurid imagination of the audience. So the agent is a brutal manipulator, a rake and an inveterate womanizer: Why dwell on what is so quickly obvious, why describe every instance and nuance of dissolute behavior, especially if it happens to be sexual? No artistic need is served. McCartney recognizes that Brosnan’s character is repulsive, but instead of objecting to the prolonged depiction of it, he calls it “fascinating,” as if anything of value might be gained from elaborate exploration of an essentially vulgar, sordid, and one-dimensional character. The filmmakers seem really to enjoy this part of their work. They adopt a cynical perspective quite in tune with that of the intelligence agent. What little survives of real love and integrity at the end of the action finally does triumph, but by that time, the main characters have been shown to be far less than admirable and wholly susceptible to one or another form of moral corruption. This includes the tailor’s wife, whom McCartney wrongly describes as “entirely immune” to the appeal of the womanizing agent. Hence, the apparent message praised b}’ McCartney —that good exists and that bad deeds have bad consequences —comes across as phony, as an artificial add-on. The movie tries in the 11th hour to please the moralists in the audience, and some of them are apparently used to being grateful for small favors, quite happy to spend the other ten hours seeing their principles honored in the breach. McCartney’s take on the movie is not without foundation, but it is strange that he should be seemingly oblivious of the film’s highly questionable kind of moral ambivalence, its basic dishonesty.
—Claes G. Ryn,
Dr. McCartney Replies:
Dr. Ryn takes me to task for overlooking the film’s “basic dishonesty,” “its blatant and protracted pandering.” I assume he is referring especially to Doorman’s inclusion of a show-and-tell sex scene between Brosnan’s character and a British attache. I agree: This scene is not artistically justified. We don’t need to see actors get naked and roll around with one another to know their characters are dissolute or, should they be married, conjugally correct. This information can be communicated quite readily without doffing so much as a cloche. That said, the scene in question is quite restrained by today’s admittedly low standards. By my estimate, it lasts less than a minute and is shot in nearly total darkness so that the actors appear as blue and white silhouettes, a palette choice that emphasizes the coldhearted nature of their loveless coupling.
Dr. Ryn goes on to charge me with being too ready to applaud any sign of moral intelligence in the products of an otherwise cynically compromised film industry. Well, yes. Under the onslaught of a befouled popular culture, one does search for the odd gold nugget in the mud. Nevertheless I hold with my original judgement of The Tailor of Panama. Despite its glancing concession to current film conventions in the matter of visualizing what would be better implied, the film is an intelligent and essentially moral satire. With wit and justice, it skewers the brand of international power politics conducted by the First World in collusion with corrupt rulers of the Third who are often so willing to exploit and abuse the poor of their own lands mercilessly while we look the other way. As for Brosnan’s character, his brutal use of others for his own financial aggrandizement is critical to the film’s meaning. He incarnates the evil that well-intentioned people and their governments let loose in the world when they refuse to consider closely their self-serving policies. However important our access the Panama Canal, is it right that we ignore the inequities visited on the local population by those we help stay in power?
One more issue. Dr. Ryn reproaches me for finding Brosnan’s character “fascinating.” First, let’s put this in context. Having called him fascinating, I call him a “moral cretin” in the next sentence. Second, what else can the spectacle of evil be but fascinating? In its presence, we are transfixed with fear and wonder not just with regard to the perpetrator at hand but—if we’re honest—with its latent appeal to ourselves. If not, would Milton’s Satan mean anything to us? Would we still bother to read Hawthorne? Would Mr. Kurtz’s horror still resonate? Would Harry Lime go on dazzling us with his boundless willfulness? Evil fascinates us precisely because it is the subject of the central question in our lives: What should we do about our devilish self-will? The achievement of Boorman’s film and the John le Carré novel on which it is based should not be slighted. Among other things, it unmasks the all too influential amoral icon of our time, the screen version of James Bond. Here, he stands revealed as the repellent thug he really is. No one will swagger from this film humming the theme to Goldfinger. I think that’s reason enough to lavish a little praise.
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