The great wizard - and mythic clincher of very long Churchwardens - Gandalf the Grey is returning to the big screen next week, and he is bringing with him a troop of rowdy dwarves and a slightly reluctant hobbit - all of which come equipped with plenty of pipes and halfling pipeweed.
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey guarantees to bring a grand adventure of sword fights, fire-breathing dragons, conjurers of cheap tricks (okay, maybe not those), heroes, villains and... like in his previous Middle Earth journeys, plenty of Churchwardens and tobacco. This is a rare thing. Good guys - leading heroes and not just a gruff sidekick or bit player - enjoying their tobacco with no admonishing “You need to quit; it’s bad for you” or other negative connotations.
So we have the host of heroes in the first Lord of the Rings movies (and books, of course), Sherlock Holmes, Santa Claus, Popeye and Frosty. Of course, I can’t recall any of the last two actually using their pipes. If you read fantasy, you could add Elminster and his floating, capped Oom Paul and a host of other mages you’ll find hiding out in the Fantasy section. But mages of various varieties aside, there is not much else. I seem to remember the old Darrin from Bewitched and a few other father/husband figures from early television, or more recently a couple of characters from Mad Men, but I don’t see them as very inspiring heroes that you might cling to and seek to emulate in some way.
I cannot speak for every pipe enthusiast, but my interest in pipes came from literary heroes, like those mentioned above, particularly the mages and Holmes. I toyed often with the idea of picking up the pipe whenever one of them would come to the foreground of popular culture or my readings. However, it wasn’t until recently that I finally made the leap, with the modest purchase of a Savinelli “Qandale” Churchwarden (a series dedicated to the Grey Wizard of Middle Earth -- Yeah, I’m a bit of a fanboy. I accept this).
And I think several other modern pipe smokers probably find themselves picking up the pipe for the similar reason. They see a powerful fellow like Gandalf puffing on a Churchwarden and think to themselves that is pretty cool, and go to the web to see where they can get one. The last time Peter Jackson took us on a journey to Middle Earth, the pipe industry jumped on board with licensed reproductions of the movie’s props, articles in industry magazines and every other marketing technique to make sure those seekers find what they are looking for. I have little doubt we will see a similar occurrence with The Hobbit.
I have already seen people reaching out to the Internet for answers to their desire for a “hobbit pipe” or “halfling pipe weed” or “a wizard’s pipe.” There will be more after the movie premiers. In all likelihood, most of these new seekers will move on to the next big thing, say speculating on Disney’s Star Wars VII, without ever getting a pipe. A few will get a licensed prop replica, stick it on their mantle and forget about it until a wild New Year’s Eve party leaves them with a spinning head, a near empty pack of cigarettes and the sudden idea that will probably not end well. Finally a few will get a pipe--maybe not a licensed reproduction, maybe not even a churchwarden--and some good pipe tobacco, pack the bowl, light up...and fall in love.
To those of you that made it that far, welcome aboard, and may you enjoy many long cool smokes.
Though British intelligence officer-turned-author John Le Carre's 1974 espionage novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was released as a full-blown Hollywood production just last year, a much more in depth, and according to many, all-in-all outright superior treatment was given to the "Cambridge Five"-inspired narrative some thirty-odd years previous. I am of course referring to the 1979 television mini-series, which allowed for not only a far longer running time, but a very un-Hollywood handling of the screenplay as well.
Make no mistake, as you might expect from a tale written by a man who actually worked in intelligence and counterintelligence, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is as far removed as can be from the wild scrapes of James Bond and his imitators.
In place of mad car chases and torrid seductions, it has Alec Guinness staring at people, and slowly, thread-by-thread, dissecting their deceptions. In place of wild shoot-out after wild shoot-out, it has a single depiction of one lone operative, exposed behind the lines, wounded, captured, and rendered completely at the enemy's mercy. And in place of a nemesis with a funny accent and a command staff made up of killer dwarves/albinos/Siamese twins, it has the enigmatic and implacable man known only as "Karla", who appears but briefly in flashback, speaks not a single word, and gives away nothing (except, perhaps, that Patrick Stewart has never not been bald.) Indeed, George Smiley doesn't even suspect it was "Karla" that he met until long after it's too late.
And while Smiley faces off against "Karla" distantly and indirectly through his struggle against the master intelligence officer's murky and deeply calculated game - the suspicion that a mole has climbed to the highest ranks of British intelligence, a more immediate and open obstacle to the investigation is dealing with the man who replaced his mentor, "Control", as the head of MI6 - one Percy Alleline; a position he gained when both "Control" and Smiley himself were forced out of the intelligence service after a catastrophically failed operation.
In fitting with British statesman Winston Churchill's famous observation of the USSR's actions as a "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma", the task the highly trained, experienced, and perceptive, yet quiet, buttoned-down, and cautiously thorough protagonist George Smiley faces is akin to playing a game of chess, blindfolded, in which undisclosed pieces amongst one's ranks are secretly under enemy control. And all while the lumbering Alleline, promoted through a combination of his predecessor's downfall and the merits of a secret source of Soviet intelligence, holds the authority of his position close, and Smiley at a distance as the outsider he's become.
While Alec Guinness performs perfectly as the lead, the production also did good service to portraying every character of significance with, well, character - Alleline included. He's a figure who's gained his position of life-and-death responsibility through circumstances that leave questions regarding both his loyalty to the United Kingdom and her allies, and, distinct from that, whether or not he really has the skills to merit it - yet also one who externally bears no lack of traits or habits that might fool an outsider to their small and deliberately obscure professional community. Tall, baritone-voiced, naturally confident, relaxed, smartly and conservatively dressed, and, as one of Smiley's former comrades observes with a snicker, always smoking a "great log of a pipe", which he lights with an easy snap of an old-fashioned match.
Believed to have lived from roughly 390 to 459 AD, Saint Simeon the Stylite could be described as, to put it mildly, a rather colorful introvert. Seeking to escape material distractions and worldly temptations, he first sought shelter by concealing himself within in his own hut for a year and a half, then later by climbing to a rocky height of several yards diameter. By that time, however, he had already attained a reputation as a holy man (and, no doubt, as quite a curiosity as well), and soon discovered that even this elevated patch of land left more than enough room for crowds to gather and, well, crowd him - and his attempts at contemplation alike.
Thus did follow his most famous act, that of living atop a series of pillars for thirty-seven years - a feat which resulted in, amongst other things, this son of a Syrian shepherd holding the World Record for holding the longest-standing world record. While this naturally attracted even larger crowds, they could hardly impose themselves, and even as the crowds grew, well-wishers built for him increasingly loftier perches. (The original column Simeon ascended had been but part of an old ruin - its base still stands in the courtyard of the remains of the late 5th century church built in his honor.)
Though he possessed of the earth but a tiny patch of stone little more than a single yard across, Simeon Stylites attained a great view of everything else - land and firmament alike - as well his own time and thought; while he never completely withdrew from the world, writing letters and speaking to those who gathered on the ground below each afternoon, he did so on his own schedule, being otherwise left to his own contemplation.
Now fast-forward roughly fifteen-hundred years, to 1965. This was the year that Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel released his own modern reinterpretation of the Syrian saint's tale, Simon of the Desert. Despite featuring some quite well-known names from Mexican cinema at the time, such as Claudio Brook as Simon, and the beautiful Silvia Pinal as the Devil who repeatedly tries to tempt him back down to earth, the story is compressed to a running time of well under an hour. And the final scene, which follows after Silvia's Devil at last resorts to climbing the pillar herself, throws the audience a complete left hook - Simon and the Devil vanishing from their confrontation in the 5th century desert, only to reappear right in the middle of a 1960s dance club at full, hedonistic froth.
As the camera pans across the dance floor, we're shown a wild landscape of thrashing bodies ruled over by the frenetic tunes of (real-life musical act) Les Sinners... the focus eventually setting upon Claudio's Simon, in modern garb, sitting stoically at a small table with Silvia's Devil, a bottle of beer, and - his pipe. Even the Devil herself shakes to the beat as she sits beside Simon, so that he alone remains reposed, unswayed, untempted, and unstirred:
When Sergio Leone originally cast Clint Eastwood in his first spaghetti Western, he felt that Eastwood's until-then fresh-faced, clean-cut image needed considerable roughing-up, to lend his character a tougher, more ruthless sense of virility than anything he had previously played. Thus came the broad poncho, the rugged beard, and, perhaps most iconic, the dark cheroot almost constantly clenched between his teeth. The irony of this image, now so ingrained, was that Eastwood didn't smoke, had never smoked, and by the second film in Leone's famed trilogy, For a Few Dollars More, he was trying to convince Leone (in vain) that the anti-hero lead need not necessarily be trailing smoke throughout almost every scene.
But for another actor who gained a big break from Leone's eerie, enigmatic, and savage tales portrayed across the Spartan landscapes of the Western frontier, there was no need for aesthetic reinvention. Nor, for that matter, any trouble getting him to smoke. Lee Van Cleef is quoted as having once observed of his life that, "Being born with a pair of beady eyes was the best thing that ever happened to me." Some irony does come into play there, however, as what cinched Leone's decision to pair him up as a mysterious, vengeance-seeking co-anti-hero with Eastwood in For Few Dollars More, was not simply his fiercely aquiline countenance, but, as he put it, the total package: "I saw him some way away, and, was struck by his silhouette, his extraordinary attractiveness: he was perfect for my character."
Though Van Cleef had previously done quite a lot of acting, both on screen and on stage, and had become notable indeed for his unique look, when Leone met him he was in the midst of a lengthy forced hiatus. He had been working as a freelance painter, with only the occasional small role, following a car accident which had destroyed one of his kneecaps. Though the doctors had told him he would never ride a horse again, he was doing precisely that within six months... and yet nonetheless the future of his acting career seemed to have become extremely tenuous. Once given another chance at a significant role, however, he nailed it.
So it is that today Van Cleef's unique, fiercely aquiline, yet refined features, which made him a natural for portraying villains and steely-eyed heroes with a ruthless streak alike, remain as an inseparable part of our image of the spaghetti Western's heyday.
Lee Van Cleef was a talented actor with an undoubtedly striking look - beady eyes (allegedly heterochromatic, at that) and singular silhouette included. Though he played in many, many roles both before and after his injury-induced hiatus, there is one role, and one scene in particular, which has always been the first to come to my own mind - one which is utterly steeped in portraying a mindset of unflinching boldness and brashness in the face of evil (as personified by noted actor/madman Klaus Kinski), one which makes the most of Van Cleef's simultaneously intimidating and aristocratic features... and which also, as it so happens, involves a man simply, leisurely, enjoying his pipe:
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