Monday, November 26, 2012

Bond and Back

With apologies to Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg and Daniella Bianchi and Ursula Andress and all the other bombshells who have worn the mantle of "Bond Girl," the most important woman in the Bond franchise is Judi Dench, who has played "M" since Goldeneye and retires from the role in Skyfall (2012, directed by Sam Mendes). This is something of which the makers of Skyfall are acutely aware. The relationship between Bond and M in the Judi Dench years has been a complicated one, one that is founded on mutual respect and a prickly balance between duty and personal feeling. M is the only woman in the series to whom Bond's charm means nothing. She's the only woman that Bond doesn't chase. Dame Judi's predecessors in the role (including Bernard Lee, who played M eleven times) left nothing like the same impression and had nothing like the same relationship with Bond, either personally or thematically. When she first appears on screen in GoldenEye, she tells Bond, point blank, "I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War..." She tells another operative at MI6 "...if I want sarcasm, Mr Tanner, I'll talk to my children, thank you very much." Dench is a master at the cutting witticism. She meets Bond not as an equal, but as a superior. She also mentions: "You don't like me, Bond. You don't like my methods. You think I'm an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts." In GoldenEye, she's the new blood, doing things differently than the old guard. In Skyfall, she is the old guard, and she has a different point of view, defending her use of agents and espionage networks before a parliamentary subcommittee in light of a world where the enemy has no face and no state. She's making an argument for the necessity of not just James Bond and his ilk, but for the relevance of the Bond films themselves.

GoldenEye is the touchstone for Skyfall, and not just because it bracket's Dench's career in the Bond films. If this isn't clear enough from the plot of the film it should be manifestly clear from the conversation Bond has with the new Q (played by Ben Whishaw) in which Q equips Bond with a gun coded to his palm print and with a radio transmitter. "You were expecting an exploding pen?" But, as I say, the link to GoldenEye should be apparent from the plot, in which Bond must match wits with a former MI6 agent gone off the reservation. This film's Silva (Javier Bardem) is a very close analogue to GoldenEye's Alex Trevelyan, both maimed in the line of duty, both bitter and vindictive toward the agents who they perceive as betrayers, both steeped in a deep knowledge of how MI6 and Bond do things. Silva's vendetta is a bit more personal than Trevelyan's was. It doesn't cloak a different objective in its various machinations. Trevelyan was more of a traditional Bond villain, and GoldenEye was more of a traditional Bond film. Where GoldenEye treated most of the traditions of the Bond film as cast in stone--Bond shows up and plays a hand of Bacarat, orders a martini shaken not stirred, and has to save the world from a global threat--Skyfall picks at the conventions of the Bond film and unravels them. It puts it all back together in the end, true, and the film's final configuration suggests that these the Craig Bonds will henceforth hew more traditionally to the Bond formula, with obligatory scenes with Q and flirting with Miss Moneypenny and a gruff, patriarchal M, but the way it maneuvers into this represents a radical departure for the Bond films. Sure, it reconstructs all of this, but it does it in a way that makes it ALL seem like a facade. There's something else behind it all, something more modern, more dangerous, and not rooted in the past. This clears out a bunch of the past. When Silva's gunship helicopter demolishes Bond's old Aston Martin, the movie is symbolically annihilating the traditional Bond film so it can rebuild it from the ground up.

The three Daniel Craig Bond films seem to me to have an overall character arc. This is new to the series. With the arguable exception of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the Bond films have never been interested in seeing Bond's essential nature changed by what happens in the film. This isn't true of the Craig Bonds. What happens in these films seems designed to burn Bond's essential humanity out of him. By the end of Skyfall, Bond seems as maimed as the villains he usually fights. Bond bears the scars of his service in this film, and while this provides the film with a minor plot point (the bullet Bond digs out of himself leads him to the man who shot him), this is the first film I can remember where Bond is shown to have physical imperfections. The imperfection that comes to the fore in Skyfall is more psychological in nature, though. Bond has long been an outrageous misogynist, and this film features one of the series' ugliest expressions of this:

This film's main Bond woman is Severine, played by Bérénice Marlohe. Severine is Bond's link to Silva. She agrees to take Bond to Silva on the condition that help her escape from him. Severine has a small tattoo on her wrist, marking her as a former sex worker that had been sold into the trade. Bond's audition for Severine is to walk out of the casino where he finds her alive. He has to go through several goons and a pit full of Komodo dragons, but he manages (with the help of his supporting agent, Eve). Bond enters Severine's shower as she bathes and makes love to her. When Bond and Severine arrive at Silva's island, they're taken prisoner. Silva proposes a game to Bond. Knowing full well that Bond's marksmanship is not fully recovered from his "death" at the beginning of the movie, Silva invites Bond to shoot a glass of scotch from the top of Severine's head, William Tell-style. Bond can't draw a bead, so he fires wide. Silva chooses to shoot Severine himself, prompting Bond to quip "It's a waste of good scotch." This is perhaps the cruelest thing that Bond has ever said. Severine is specifically coded as disposable in this movie, and even though Bond shows a superficial sympathy for her, in the end, he fucks her and abandons her to her fate with hardly a backwards glance. Mind you, I realize that Bond has always been callous about the women he beds, and the disposable Bond girl is a long tradition in these movies, but this one seems farther beyond the pale than usual. Maybe that's just me, but then, the cruelty of Craig's Bond began with the very first scene in Casino Royale. Casino Royale seems like it provides a root cause of Bond's misogyny in his genuine love for and betrayal by Vesper Lynd, a relationship that followed Bond into Quantum of Solace, but the way it's presented in Skyfall makes me wonder if that's all just cover. Like many of the scenes in this movie, this one echoes another. In the film's opening, it's Bond on the receiving end of the bullet, in this case one fired by Eve--the film's other Bond Woman. Eve is a skewed reflection of Bond: female, lethal, a woman of color. The movie puts Bond at her mercy much as it puts him at the mercy of M.

What's suggestive about the William Tell scene, beyond its extremity, is what immediately precedes it. Bond is tied to a chair for his first meeting of Silva. Silva, as played by Javier Bardem, is a fey monster, who rather than threaten Bond with an industrial laser or a tank full of sharks caresses him instead, as if he's seducing Bond the way Bond seduces women. In defense of M, Bond says to Silva "She never tied me to a chair." "Her loss," Silva replies. And when his advance on Bond becomes more overt, Bond says, "What makes you think this is the first time." This is all kinds of evocative. I've seen analyses of Bond as a repressed homosexual before, of course, but this is overt, not even subtextual, and paired with the scene following it rather explains some of Bond's misogyny. Though maybe this is too pat. Likely. In any event, it's a scene unlike any other in the Bond canon, and is suggestive of so, so much, not least of which is Her Majesty's Navy's tradition of rum, sodomy, and the lash. Bond, an Eton boy and Commander in Her Majesty's Navy surely knows a little about this.

Silva, as I say, is a reworking of Alex Trevelyan and some of the film's beats are specifically designed to play off of that, beginning with the climax of the film's opening action sequence, in which two agents are forced to make a hard choice that only one of them is likely to survive. Bond is struggling on the back of a train with a man who has stolen a list of NATO agents embedded in terrorist organizations. Eve has a shot, and M orders her to take it. Bond, rather than Trevelyan winds up on the short end of this, and plunges to his "death." Silva, like Trevelyan, was the former golden boy, the apple of M's eye. The connection between Bond and Silva is emphasized by their physical appearance. Both men are blond (Craig being, famously, "James Blonde"). Silva represents a kind of evolution of the double-o agent, too, in so far as he's moved beyond running around killing people one on one. He's a cyberterrorist, whose mayhem is perpetrated from a bank of computer servers and at the push of a button. He's more Jullian Assange than Auric Goldfinger. By rights, his opposite number ought to be Q rather than Bond, a fact that isn't lost on this movie.

The problem of Bond's relevance in the 21st Century is one of the motivating themes in Skyfall. When Bond is introduced to his new quartermaster (Q), he tells Bond that he can do more damage to England's enemies from his computer while wearing pajamas and drinking Earl Grey than Bond can do over the course of his career. "Oh?" Bond asks, "then why do you need me?" "Because occasionally a trigger has to be pulled," Q replies. "Or not pulled," says Bond, "It's hard know which in your pajamas." The movie itself makes this point in its low-tech finale, set at Bond's ancestral home in Scotland, a gloriously ruined manor house with not even a hint of the 20th Century about it, let alone the 21st. Where Skyfall up to this point has taken many of its cues from the 21st Century--it has the same basic plot as The Dark Knight, for one example--it finds itself hearkening back to Rio Bravo, an old school western, for its final siege. This part of the movie doesn't even look like a Bond movie. The contrast between this sequence and the earlier sequence in Shanghai as Bond fights an assassin amid neon lights and glass surfaces couldn't be more stark (a mirror image figures in both sequences, tying them both together). The earlier scene resembles one of the Maurice Binder credit sequences: glass smooth, theatrical, and technological. The finale, by contrast, is raw, murky, and primitive. The thematic regression this film encompasses--in which it strips away some of the series' most ridiculous contrivances--is completed when Bond's mask slips as he's sitting in a country chapel cradling a woman who actually matters to him as she dies. Is this the end of Bond's humanity? Is this where he finds it? It's an ambivalent ending.


W.B. Kelso said...

And to throw more salt on Severine's demise is, apparently, those rescue helicopters were already alerted and there, making one wonder just what in the hell were they waiting for?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I know, right? A totally pointless scene even if the aim was to demonstrate that Bond is still (or has become) a misogynist dinosaur.

Brian Schuck said...

Great stuff! However, I didn't get the same impression from the "William Tell" scene that you did. I saw a Bond who was clearly distressed that he'd gotten himself and Severine into such a mess. His quipping was covering an inner turmoil. And of course, there's still the old "don't appear weak to your enemy" thing going on. A far cry from misogynistic indifference.

They were both idiots for delivering themselves into Silva's hands in that way (the Bond equivalent of "don't go in the house/basement/woods/super-villain's lair...")

Anonymous said...

Is that pistol coded to Bond's palm prints REALLY the only 'gadget' in the movie? If it is, then that's just infuriating! And so is that 'exploding pen'line! A Bond film NEEDS TO have gadgets!...Or at least, it needs to after it's been lacking them for two movies! And now that damn number has risen to 3! And the palm coded gun has been used before! It was in License to Kill! And I read that his other gadget is...a RADIO! DUN. DUN. DUN!!!!!

Sure, gadgets are kooky and sometimes unrealistic, but so? They need to come back, and the new Bond film writers need to realize that a fucking RADIO is NOT a gadget! I'm sure it was on par with the laser wriswatch all the way back in 1800, but now?! Q, give the fucker an iPhone!

Aubyn said...

I think what struck me even more than the cruelty and pointlessness of Severine's death was the sex scene, where Bond jumps uninvited into the shower with a woman he had just described as a terrified abuse victim and sex slave. This is Bond, true, but still, what are we meant to take from that?

I always feel a weird disconnect with the Craig Bond films since on the one hand, they're giving me the things I would like to see from Bond (emotions, continuity, real consequences). And yet I always feel like their handling of said emotions is clumsy, out-of-place, or overly derivative of other films. I think my favorite part of Skyfall was Roger Deakin's cinematography, which gave the final confrontation scene a real mythic grandeur and beauty.

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: When friends who have seen the film told me Dench is gone, I felt a sadness, even shock. How can this be? I was surprised at my level of upset. I've been wondering why that is, and your post filled in the blanks - M was the only female character in the Bond series that the agent had respect for as a superior. She was the only woman Bond didn't even try to master in bed. This is a lot to lose for the franchise. Well observed.

Deborah said...

Severine's death is strangely ambivalent. Is she really dead? She was shaking from fear; if Silva had shot the glass, or shot near her and missed, she might readily have fainted--she could barely stand up to start with. Or he might have wounded her. We simply never saw her definitively dead--just slumped over. A strange choice.

I think "waste of good scotch" was a ploy to psych out Silva, just as "what makes you think it's my first time" was. Either or both might also be true.