Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dr. No-Carbs; or, The Yumminess of Bond

Over Thanksgiving, I watched (or re-watched, it's not always easy to keep track) Dr. No, the first Bond film; and I also watched the Tippi Hedren-Alfred Hitchcock HBO film The Girl. There wouldn't seem to be a connection between the two: one is the blueprint for all Bond plots to come (i.e., spy + girl vs. international evil); the other is a docu-drama of Hitchcock's creepy obsession with the star of two of his films, The Birds and Marnie.

The only real connection is this:

  • Dr. No (1962), starring Sean Connery
  • The Birds (1963), starring Tippi Hedren
  • Marnie (1964), starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery
In The Girl, Hitch tells Tippi the idea of the movie Marnie--a frigid woman is blackmailed into marriage with a man who repels her (as all men do)--and that her co-star will be Sean Connery, from Dr. No. Tippi's response is that she'll have to be a very good actress to be frigid towards Sean Connery.

With that line in mind, when I watched Dr. No, I couldn't help but notice how differently this film treated Bond than some of the later films. Yes, at least one partly unclothed woman throws herself at him in his first appearance; but the main Bond girl doesn't show up until the second half of the film.

(And that woman is the almost realistically named Honey Ryder. Sure, that's ridiculous, but compared to Pussy Galore, Christmas Jones, and Holly Goodhead, "Honey Ryder" could be something out of Stephen Crane for its realism.)

On top of that, for a big chunk of the third act of Dr. No is Honey Ryder-less, with Sean Connery losing more of his clothing as he climbs through the air vents. (This was before supervillains realized that air vents are bad.) The camera doesn't follow Bond's body in the way The Avengers starts by showcasing Captain America's butt, but it also doesn't ignore his body as a consumable product of pleasure. What's especially notable here is that there are no women in these scenes who are comparably undressed. James Bond being naked for sex is one thing--James Bond stripping for the visual pleasure of the audience is quite another.

This takes something of a backseat in many of the later Bond films, where the camera lingers most on the women in James Bond's sights, or, at most, on Bond's clothing and gadgets. But Dr. No is a helpful reminder that the Daniel Craig James Bond movies aren't coming out of nowhere, but a return to the source.

Monday, November 12, 2012

My take on Bond, the shorter version

My last two posts on Skyfall were pretty big, so just in case you thought it was too long, here's the shorter version:

1) I am a moderate Bond movie fan.

2) I especially liked Daniel Craig's Bond in Casino Royale, which uncovered some of the ironies of Bond's status as a "man's man."

3) Skyfall made some good choices, but also some choices that I felt were strange and/or politically retrograde.

4) Most disturbing to me was the queering of the villain, which mainly seemed to elicit uncomfortable laughter when I saw it.

5) Skyfall seemed committed to nostalgia for Bond, which comes with fine nods to Bond history (the Aston Martin, M's hilariously padded door) and a resetting of women's roles in Bond: not head of the department, but maybe a glorified secretarial position.

Addendum: If your first impulse is to say, "of course there's misogyny, it's a Bond film," I will start bite through my lips again. If you want the same old Bond, you can watch the films that were made in a time when misogyny was more pervasive and less discussed; a Bond film made today doesn't get any passes about what was common or accepted back then.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skyfall's major problems (it's nostalgia) (Bond, Part 2)

It's uncomfortable when just about everyone agrees that Skyfall is a good movie and you are left with only the company of the New Yorker's David Denby, notorious culture scold. If I agree with that guy, I must be wrong, right?

Now, I didn't hate Skyfall. In fact, I found it entertaining enough to keep my attention; and there were certain issues that I think make for good changes to the Bond formula. For instance, the big one is that instead of some ludicrous high-stakes villainous plan--remember Tomorrow Never Dies, where the villain wants to start a war between the UK and China to help his news empire? Woof--Skyfall focuses on a more personal stake of friendship and loyalty and feelings of obsolescence.

And yet I can't help not loving Skyfall as much as, say, Roger Ebert. Now here's the part where I confess to loving Roger Ebert even though I don't always agree with him: he seems to perfectly balance a populist interest in entertainment and a love of the craft and art of film-making. But I don't understand Ebert when he says that "here is James Bond lifted up, dusted off, set back on his feet and ready for another 50 years." Let me count the ways that I don't agree with that sentiment (and give some spoilers on the way):

My problems with Skyfall
One is for the length. I wasn't bored through much of the film, thanks to the use of clear goals for the main characters. But seriously, there were certain sequences and certain shots that could be shaved down. How many times do we need to see an establishing shot of the London skyline before cutting to the MI6 location that we've already been told is in London?

Two is for the villain Silva, a blond-dyed Javier Bardem, whose motivation and character feel like a real step back. This is such a complex of annoying choices that I have to give it its own numbering system:

Problem #1: Silva's character design and backstory: Unlike some other Bond villains, this one comes with backstory (a backstory that's a little too close to Janus's/006's history in Goldeneye, if you ask me):

Silva used to be M's favorite when she ran the Hong Kong bureau, but he got a little fresh with the Chinese, so to preserve a peaceful hand-over (and a couple of other agents' lives), M gave him up; the Chinese tortured him and when he realized that M had abandoned him, he took his cyanide capsule, which only resulted in massively disfiguring his face if he's not wearing his prosthetic cheek bones; and now he is in charge of a ruthless and well-funded terrorist/spy network for hire and a master hacker.

The leap from tortured prisoner to head of network is one of many things that you'll just have to either take or leave here, because there's no explanation of it, and I just have to shrug. At least Janus's backstory of being a traitor to MI6 involved his secret Russian activities before he faked his death, which explains why he went on to run his own Russian-based intelligence operation.

And then there's Silva's pointlessly disfigured face--is that why he's out for revenge, because his cyanide didn't work right? Maybe he should see Q Branch about misfiring gadgets. It seems like a quick way to give a little visual pop to the confrontation scene with M, but honestly, if you need a visual pop, maybe that's because you skimped on the emotional pop.

Problem #2: What does it mean to Silva to get M? It's always clear that this Silva is out to get M, but the parameters of that "out to get" aren't particularly clear: at one moment, he's trying to torture her by attacking her institution and at another point, he's just trying to old-school shoot her.

It's not a problem that his idea here changes, only that it's not sufficiently examined or explained. His first plan is to attack her reputation by exposing an MI6 list of some NATO spies that are under cover in terrorist organizations. That would strain Britain's relation with her allies, which would be a problem for M. (Now, Silva got that information from a hard drive in Turkey in the first action sequence--and no fair asking why the British hard drive with that information is in Turkey rather than safely in MI6 somewhere. Like Silva's transformation from Chinese prisoner to terrorist world leader, SHUT UP THAT'S WHY.) He also uses "computer hacking" to leak gas and blow up part of the MI6 building.

So that's Silva's plan: ruin M's reputation. No, wait, because then Silva allows himself to get captured; confronts M with her crime against him; and then escapes and tries to shoot her at a committee meeting. Why has his plan suddenly changed from "elaborately ruin M and expose her powerlessness" to "shoot M"? (It's especially weird that he interrupts the committee meeting which is exposing her to the public--yech--in order to shoot her. Dude, why interrupt one plan with another?) You might say, "maybe after the confrontation with her he decided to change his plan"; which would be a fine guess except that his plan clearly was set up before he was captured and confronted her. (Or else how would he have contacted his minions to bring him a cop's uniform and meet up with him to shoot her?)

This issue of Silva's motivation becomes especially bothersome in the final act, a siege of the old Bond estate of Skyfall Lodge. At first, Silva seems like he wants to take M out personally--otherwise, instead of infiltrating a government meeting with a gun, he could just use his magical computer network to hijack some missiles or something. And yet, Silva's attack on the lodge plan is a) let faceless minions go in and shoot first; b) let his helicopter use its massive gun to shoot up the lodge; c) throw grenades into the lodge. Now, if you can spot the "personal touch" in any of that, you've got better eyes than me.

Problem #3: Silva's queerness: This is a complicated topic, but let me just tell you my experience: here in West Texas, when the villain starts to caress Bond's chest, neck, and knees, there was laughter that seemed to be about the very expression of queerness. For comparison, when a man touches Bond: laughter; when Bond touches a woman at a bar or in a shower: nothing.

And for further contrast, when Silva makes a comment about Bond trying homosexuality for the first time, Bond archly asks Silva why he thinks this would be Bond's first time--and the biggest laughter in the audience was from my girlfriend, not from the people around us. ("Homosexual villains are all well and good, but a hero who engages in homosexuality--you go too far, sir.") If I had been watching this movie alone in my house, I might have thought "well, that's a character choice that seems antiquated." But seeing it in a theater where the primary response to homosexuality was uncomfortable laughter, that makes me uncomfortable with the stereotypes of homosexuality as predatory, weird, laced with trauma and sadism.

Silva's fourth problem is actually a problem everyone shares, so:

Three is for how everyone has to act a little stupidly in order for the plot to go on as needed. Silva may be the prime example of this: he controls a well-funded, well-armed, and well-staffed network, but nothing can ever be done simply. This might have been fun if they had established him as a game-player, the sort of villain who needs to prove his mental superiority; but as it stands it just seems unplanned, chaotic, and a little crazy. (And after Heath Ledger's Joker, if you're going to bring a crazy character to life, you better bring it.)

But everyone has to act a little stupid:
  • When Bond fights with three bodyguards/captors of Silva's ladyfriend Severine, one of them knocks him into the Komodo dragon pit and the other two... stand around instead of shooting him?
  • In fact, why do they even care about killing him when their main job should be to keep Severine from running away? Why is she even allowed off of Silva's secret lair on an island? (Some of this could be explained by saying that Silva needs to lure Bond to capture him and bring him to London, but there are easier ways to get captured--and easier ways of getting to London.) 
  • Why does Silva hire an assassin to kill an old man when Severine is in the room with the old man, so he's clearly gettable? (Again, this might be a crumb Silva leaves for Bond, but it's just another odd thing. At the very least, when Bond notices that Severine is in the room and in the casino, he might think "that's odd" because he's superspy who is supposed to notice things like that. So maybe this is Bond acting dumb instead of Silva.) 
  • Why does the Bond family's old gamekeeper shine a flashlight when he's trying to hide from Silva's minions? 
  • Why is the new M glad to hire 007 when, let's review: Bond played dead and went AWOL for a while; he failed his physical and mental reviews; his plan to kill Silva by using the old M as bait resulted in her death? Who looks at that record and says, "I'd like to offer you a position"?
  • If M's philosophy is that it's better for one person to be given up than for a whole group of people (which is what she did when she gave up Silva to save six other spies and preserve relations with China), then why doesn't she just give herself up to Silva at the first possible moment? Because the longer she fights, the more spies and civilians are going to end up killed and wounded. (Honestly, M trying to sacrifice herself while 007 tried to protect her against her wishes would make a pretty awesome character dynamic.)
Maybe not all of these questions show how these characters have to act idiotically; but they do show that the plot requires these characters to act strangely, unrelatably, or contrary to their characters.

Four is for the nostalgia and the cheap nods to Bond's history and fandom. The problem of nostalgia is thematized here with the conflict between the old and the new, the conflict between raw human spirit (fuck yeah!) and intermediated computer networks and technology. There are quite a few lines here about how espionage is a young person's game and how the new Q--a hipster Sherlock knock-off--can do more damage than 007 without getting out of bed. We're clearly supposed to be on the side of the aged here: Judi Dench's soon-to-be-retired M, 007 who knows when to pull a trigger or use a knife, the old gameskeeper Kincade and the historical secrets of the old Skyfall Lodge (like M, the house is referred to as an old lady). And then there's the tedious arguments about whether or not the world has changed and how many shadows there are left for spies to operate in.

Of course, that line is undercut by the fact that Silva has bridged this gap: he's capable of computer manipulation and shooting a gun. He even makes a show of using antique pistols. He lives in the old shadows still, but uses cutting edge tools. In fact, we could also point out that Silva is only beaten by Bond when he cooperates with the young Q; and the final images of the film involve Bond purposely destroying the old house (thus symbolically clearing the trauma of his family loss, with the trip through the underworld of the priest's hole as a symbolic rebirth, blah blah). So all this rah-rah nostalgia for the old days that people talk about--it's not upheld by the action of the film itself, except in a few key ways that are so obvious they might have hung a neon sign flashing "symbolic triumph of the old."

But what really gets me about all this nostalgia is that it goes beyond "computers are hard." If nostalgia were just "I miss handwriting," I'd understand and accept it. But so many times, this sort of nostalgia comes along with a whole host of "good old day" baggage that should be left unattended at the airport and then destroyed as suspicious. That't the kind of nostalgia that Skyfall treats in and I don't like it.

Finding the old Aston Martin in a warehouse is fine; remembering fondly that Bond has a long and gloried history of misogyny is not. And the end of this movie sees a certain retrograde movement that does not make me happy: the female M replaced with a male M? The reduction of female field agent Eve to the status of secretary Moneypenny? The queering of the villain? Yay, it's the 1950s-60s again--let's dig up Alan Turing's body and pump it full of hormones again.

(Curiously, gay computer expert Turing died from his cyanide poisoning, unlike Silva; and Turing's contributions to the security apparatus of Britain were similarly hush-hush. So maybe there's some Silva-Turing connection to be made. Though let's further note that Silva's real name "Tiago" is a form of "Santiago," which is Portuguese for, ahem, James.)

It's funny to me that the last scene involves Bond demolishing his own house, as if he were wiping away the childhood trauma that produced him and coming out of the tunnels rebirthed, a phoenix free of the past. But this movie is so drenched with nostalgia that I can't see any way forward for this Bond. Roger Ebert says this Bond is ready for another 50 years, and I agree if we're talking about the past 50 years.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

And I'm Sky, I'm Sky-Fallin'! (Bond, Part 1)

First, I stole the joke of the title from Brendan Hay's twitter, which I recommend if you want to steal things.

Second, talking about James Bond is like talking about Batman: it's impossible to really say what Bond is like since we've seen several different iterations of him. For instance, you might think of Bond as a suave womanizer who looks like Sean Connery--until you watch On Her Majesty's Secret Service with George Lazenby as Bond. That iteration of Bond doesn't do so great at suave womanizing: his suavity is parodically reduced to re-using the same lines on different women; and his womanizing is replaced with marrying for love.

Third, I have seen a lot of Bond films and have opinions on them all. Or I would if I could remember them. Mostly they're a haze of villainous plots and snappy lines, like
Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.
A lot of these "snappy" lines revolve around the women in Bond's life and bed (often the same thing), from Goldfinger's rather restrained banter, where Pussy Galore introduces herself and Bond responds, "I must be dreaming"; to the cringe-, nay, barf-inducing zinger in The World is Not Enough, where Bond gets Denise Richards's nuclear scientist Christmas Jones into bed and tells her how surprised he is since he "thought Christmas only comes once a year."

So, I would restrainedly call myself a Bond fan; at the very least, I recognize the title "The World is Not Enough" as the motto on Bond's family's crest (as mentioned in the movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service, though it's delivered by Bond to women, so maybe we shouldn't trust him too far here).

Fourth, even though I enjoyed the over-the-top Bond of earlier movies (men with metal teeth, space lasers, evil institutions with silly names likes SPECTRE), I thought Casino Royale was, for all its faults, a revelatory and exciting reinvention. Instead of suave womanizer with cool/silly gadgets, Bond was a brutal tool used and abused by institutional forces. Instead of gadgets and women, this Bond was placed as the central weapon and object of attention.

Again, like Batman, the Daniel Craig Bond in Casino Royale was an incredibly traumatized figure whose empty-hearted dedication to the job was empowering and re-traumatizing. (Try all you want, Batman--all those crimes that you prevent won't prevent the one crime that haunts you.) Put it this way: when Sean Connery's Bond wasn't working, he probably continued to do Bond stuff, like drinking, womanizing, and gambling--the job was an extension of his personality; when Daniel Craig's Bond was off the clock, I could picture him just sitting in a dark room, waiting to be called into action. The job isn't an extension of Bond's personality, it's a replacement of his personality.

Fifth, no matter how much I enjoyed Casino Royale, I recognize that you can't really make a franchise out of such a deeply cracked figure. Perhaps at most, you can make the Nolan Batman trilogy, where we see the making and then un-making of the traumatized superhero as he learns to live a human life. Casino Royale was very much 007 Begins, the making of Bond as super-spy with no particular soul. Now, that's a story you can't really expect to play over and over again: a character who achieves some apotheosis in one film will seem false to the audience if he starts over again. After you've hit empty, you need to find somewhere else to go. You can't keep doing "Bond kills remorselessly, finds love, loses his heart and becomes an institutional tool" arcs.

Sixth, people seem to love the new Bond film Skyfall. I did not. More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Missing the Point; or, Yes, But Can You Secede from Reality?

I am not a conservative or a Republican, and unless things change radically, I never will be. And I don't know many Republicans/conservatives that I talk to about political issues. But I do occasionally hang out on conservative websites and forums to see what people are saying; this doesn't give me any special insight into the conservative mind--for one thing, the people who go to those sites are a self-selected group, tending towards some extreme views.

In other words (and shorter), I'm just guessing here and don't have a nifty model like Nate Silver.

That said, what I'm reading is not making me hopeful that Republicans will wake up to reality after the drubbing of the 2012 election. The talk might occasionally nod towards soul-searching like an acquaintance--"well, maybe we should rethink our position on social issues since they're not winning issues for us."

But most of the talk excels at the sort of angry, reality-resistant positions that the right has perfected recently: Romney was a bad candidate (and even worse, a mushy non-conservative); the media was in the tank for Obama (sub-argument: there wasn't enough attention paid to Benghazi, Fast & Furious, etc.); things will never be the same with these new, non-traditional Americans (you know the ones we mean *makes racist comment*, not that we're racist); the takers just vote themselves more bread and circuses; etc.

In other words, everything is wrong with the world except our ideas, which are great.

And this isn't just from the no-name commenters; if you go to National Review's blog, The Corner, you'll see quite a few arguments like this, including:
1) the old GOP leaders don't work, we need new leaders (with, we assume, the same ideas);
2) Chris Christie betrayed us;
3) we can't change our ideas because they're our ideas!;
4) we need to educate the public about the meaning of liberty (sub-argument: destroy the existing colleges and schools); etc.

What really gets me about this (and why I'm taking precious NaNoWriMo time to write this post) is that these Republicans keep talking about how great their ideas are, without any hint that maybe possibly kind of we tried a lot of these ideas over the years and they're not. Low taxes on the rich create jobs? The Republicans are the party of small government? We need to do things unilaterally to show the world we mean business? Capitalism solves everything? Gay sex and abortion are terrible things that degrade the morals of society?

I hope I'm wrong about all this; I hope all this "a storm is coming, I'm getting guns" talk is just the immediate sting of the 2012 beating; but while hopeful, I'm not optimistic that this will teach the GOP very much. Maybe a few more election loses will knock some sense of reality into them.

So, who's ready for 2014?