Sunday, October 30, 2011

James Bond

I don’t remember a time when I hadn’t heard of James Bond. I was born in the UK in the mid-60’s, when access to movies was of course constrained. Christmas was a big thing on TV there (that’s right, on all three channels) and there was always a Bond film at the centre of the schedule. I don’t think I was allowed to see them for a while though, and I recall being confused about who, or maybe what, this “James Bond” actually was. I think I knew he’d been played by different actors – at that point Sean Connery and Roger Moore swirled just about equally in the public consciousness - but I may have intuited from this that a James Bond was a generic job title, like a Lumber Jack, albeit probably more exciting (I don’t know though, lumberjacks would probably have seemed pretty cool too, if I’d ever heard of them). I vaguely remember seeing promos for some of the movies and not really understanding them – they bore so little resemblance to the drab, juvenile things I was used to watching.

Bond through the years

In the early 80’s, I remember going to a double bill of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker in a fleapit cinema. I think I enjoyed the former a lot, but was a bit bored by the latter, and I didn’t think much of Roger Moore (you can see this isn’t one of those articles where I venture out on a narrow limb). But Bond movies were unquestioned events – this was post Star Wars, but still before the age of the blockbuster as we now suffer through it – and from then on I went to them all, without thinking too much about it. I liked the short-lived Timothy Dalton era more than most people did, but I found several of the Pierce Brosnan entries unspeakably boring. And of course I caught up on the earlier Connery movies along the way. I know people regard those as the gold standard, but I’ve often thought that if they’re less dumb than what came subsequently, it’s mainly because they hadn’t had time to get there yet.

I suppose the most telling thing is that it’s been years since I had any desire to revisit a Bond film (the only one I’ve occasionally thought of watching again is George Lazenby’s one failed shot at it, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which I remember relatively fondly, probably because of that very failure). I’ve written here before about the wonderful moment on the DVD of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, where the old master praises For Your Eyes Only for its “cinematic writing,” an assessment seemingly only explicable by assuming Bresson had hardly ever seen a mainstream action movie, and was able to view it with a purity of spirit denied the rest of us. Lacking that purity myself, even this rarest of blurbs didn’t tempt me back to Bond.

The only exception is that in 2008 I watched Never Say Never Again, Connery’s 1983 return to the role, which was made outside the mainstream series. I’d remembered it as a grittier, more character-driven exercise, but it didn’t seem that way now; it was hokey and horribly dated, radiating a low expectation of its audience. Maybe the disappointment was all the greater because, again like most people, I did admire the 2006 Casino Royale reboot. In my review here, I said Daniel Craig’s Bond was “scarily intense, physical, and complex,” noting “there’s surely never been a Bond movie where the protagonist is so notably scratched, bloodied, belittled, horribly tortured and brutalized.”

Indifferent returns

“So of all things,” I said, “I occasionally found myself thinking of The Passion of The Christ, in that the committed sadism almost seems to be leaking someone’s underlying neurosis. Maybe it’s just expiation for so many decades of bad Bond movies. Either way, the film is unusually literate…grounded in plausible motivations, and anchored by underlying emotion.” Reading that again now, it sounds like I was a sure thing to return for the follow-up, Quantum of Solace. But actually, Casino Royale broke my streak of seeing Bond in the cinema. Maybe re-watching Never Say Never Again recast its achievements in a more mediocre light, reminding me it still represented a poor cumulative return on the time invested.

I mean, who cares about those qualities I listed? Maybe at some point, if you were there, Bond embodied something about Englishness, about the contradictions of the Empire with its mixture of external pomp and inner rot. Maybe the films – with their M and Q and Moneypenny and Pussy Galore and Blofeld and the rest – allowed the pleasures of contemporary mythology in an era before every other film was based on a Marvel comic. And once upon a time, I guess action sequences with boats and planes and spaceships were actually special events, no matter how thick the blue lines around the actors. And respectable titillation wasn’t as easy to come by either (or quasi-respectable; many of the Bond actresses found it an easy springboard into a subsequent career in cheap exploitation work). And since there was a time when even the performer of the theme song was a news-making choice, and the closing credits ended by telling you James Bond would return in (insert title), the sense of a unique event touched every part of the artifice. Even the producer’s name – Albert R Broccoli – sounded like something you had to be in on (it’s good for you!). But that was then!

Quantum of Solace

I didn’t end up seeing Quantum of Solace until the other week, on TV. And I was right the first time. As if acquiring ideas above its station after Casino Royale, the series engaged a director not primarily known for action, Marc Forster of Monster’s Ball. It was a disastrous choice: Forster proved incapable of or unwilling to deliver clarity of plot or action, rendering the movie incomprehensible at times and pretentious at others. Craig barely registers in the role this time, submerged by a grim revenge plot and an utter lack of humour. The movie basically trashes most of what might have made the Bond formula worthwhile, inserting nothing in its place. Ironically, despite everything I just said, it came as close as anything could have done to making me fleetingly nostalgic to revisit the real deal again.

But it soon passed. They’re now gearing up for Bond 23, as it’s currently labeled, doubling down on the great director stakes by hiring Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, with Javier Bardem reportedly playing the villain. Those collaborators seem smart enough to avoid a Forster-fashion screw-up, but perhaps too smart not to over think some aspect or other of it. Actually, now I think of it, it’s also true that as long as I’ve been aware of Bond movies, people have been complaining about them; they’re as persistent and enduring a disappointment as the weather. If they were always pristinely perfect, they couldn’t possibly have lasted this long.

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