If you’ve never watched a movie 100 times, you should. I did.
There is a way that one can become so thoroughly familiar with a great narrative that it seeps into your bones and becomes like another organ in your body. You expropriate certain phrases. It becomes part of your Bildung, your autonomic nervous system, your premise as a person.
My own particular obsession was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the 6-hour BBC television movie, with Alec Guinness and a fabulous cast of other British luminaries. The reason: The first time I watched it, I didn’t totally understand it. It intrigued me, because it felt like it was comprehensible if I could just watch it again. So I bought a copy and watched it again. I learned a little more, but not everything by any means. So I watched it several more times.
By the fifth time, I had the basic idea. The problem was, LeCarre’s plotting was so airtight that it became richer the more questions you asked. In addition, so much was implied rather than stated in this work of art. It was a puzzle, but a supremely plausible and airtight puzzle. It was like an onion, in that every layer that I peeled away yielded another layer.
How I got past the eighth viewing is an important question. That’s the point at which it began slipping into obsession. The reason: I was working hard. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I would watch a little bit more of the movie. Obviously, I didn’t have a girlfriend, or for that matter, a social life.
Weeks passed. Every viewing was reassuring, like a secret society that was accepting me in. Months passed. The plot became so labyrinthine that I felt I was becoming an expert at something. I could answer trivia questions. When did Jim Prideaux learn that he was betrayed? Why did Toby Esterhaze change sides so easily? Why did Bill Haydon have an affair with George Smiley’s wife? I could answer all those questions and more.
When I moved on to the sequel, Smiley’s People, also a 6-hour BBC miniseries, I felt truly inducted. These were my neighbors, my intimates, the voices on the other end of the phone. Years passed, and I watched both videos countless times. I bought the books and read them several times, as well, which gave me all the vast universe of detail. I don’t know whether I watched the movies 50 or 100 times, but it was many.
Six years ago, I began writing a novel that had espionage elements, and that novel was informed by LeCarre’s work, as they say. Attitudes, tones, shadings. The realistic and mature attitude toward action still remains with me in this newly published novel, called What Happens to Us http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.
In addition, this exhaustive approach to art has transferred to my own creative process. There are certain passages in my new novel, for example, that I’ve rewritten over 100 times. When you look at something that many times, you can pretty much rest assured that you’ve done everything to turn it into art. No stone is left unturned.
After about ten years, I stopped watching those movies. That was about ten years ago. Recently, I picked them up again, watching the serialization on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzYtb47vvf0 I found it strangely emotional. When I began explaining plot points to my girlfriend, I found myself choking up. Every plot point had tragedy behind it. It was like talking about my grandmother’s life and understanding what decision led to what act which led to me. It was like understanding the totality of life. It was like living inside the Tree of Life.
Here’s a YouTube video about it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKM26bYkCbk