Saturday, February 6, 2016

I Have Always Found Circuses A Little Sinister (Octopussy)

fig. 1: Not James Bond
I'm a big fan of the TV show The Americans, which follows a pair of Soviet spies embedded in 1980's Virginia as a middle-class married couple. They have two children, Paige and Henry. Paige was much of the focus of the most recent season, as the KGB put pressure on her parents Philip and Elizabeth to begin to recruit her into the KGB. Henry, almost as a running gag, is largely ignored by his parents.

Henry is also thirteen, or thereabouts, the exact age a young boy would be to pick up James Bond. I'm imagining Philip, in that long summer of 1983, taking his kid to see a James Bond movie, sitting in the dark watching Octopussy's tale of double entendres and daring-do, of megalomaniacal Russian generals and all-female circus troupes storming a castle, of an exiled Afghan prince played by a Frenchman and his glowering Sikh bodyguard.

Philip, who's killed people. Whose job on paper might look like James Bond's if you squint, but who differs from the character in nearly every respect. Who carries a laundry list of alternate identities. Who has one marriage assigned to him by the Soviet State and another he crafted out of necessity, a long con to get closer to the FBI, a sham marriage just now about to collapse all around him.

The obvious take is that The Americans is a more realistic portrayal of spying, and it is. It's a stretch to believe James Bond would have survived fifty-three years in the cinematic landscape as anything but an adventure character, nor does Fleming's conception of the character have very deep roots in any realistic portrayal of intelligence gathering. It was never going to be a half century of hushed conversations and muted betrayals and long, drawn out operations staged for a sliver of intelligence on a bomber plane. The best we get here is a disguise mustache.

Still, it seems churlish if not impossible to really complain when the Bond at the heart of all this action is Roger Moore. Though he'd been eyeing the exits at least since the previous installment, Moore keeps the eye twinkle and the light touch that so defined the charm of his character here. Again, it's difficult to imagine what the characters of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings might make of this man, the only spy real or fictional whose most recognizable catch phrase is to tell you his actual given name. Of all of the actors to play the role, Moore seems the most to be enjoying himself, playing the character with an infectious joi de vivre. Granted, it's the joi de vivre of what plays today as an emotionally stunted man-child, but it's hard to argue with the man's charm. Moore has impeccable comic delivery, which suits the campier nature of this story, though he doesn't lose sight of the stakes. His performance as the character is anchored in a consistency that keeps everything recognizable, even when it tilts through to unbelievability.

fig 2: The KGB sure never splurges on mini-planes that run on 87 Octane

And, as unbelievable plots go, this one's a humdinger. I admit to losing the thread about two thirds of the way through, as I failed to connect the film's original mystery--the smuggling out of Eastern Europe several fake Faberge eggs, which is somehow tied to funding Soviet efforts to bolster its tank battalions across the Iron Curtain. More importantly it leads Bond straight into the clutches of Bad Guy Kamal Khan, the aforementioned "exiled Afghan Prince" [when did the Af monarchy collapse?] and his partner-in-smuggling, Octopussy.

fig. 3: Remember me? I was in The Man with The Golden Gun!
She's got a real name, of course, and a tie to Bond's past, which is an interesting character beat. Octopussy is also played by Maud Adams, the first--and so far only--Bond Actress to return to the series in a different role. Her story--of her profiteering father who was given 24 hours to turn himself in by James Bond and instead turned to suicide--reflects the actual short story on which this whole business is loosely based. She's grateful to the secret agent--whom of course she knows by name and likeness, making this possibly the first time in the series his habit of saying "Bond, James Bond" to Nearly Everyone He Meets actually catches up with him--for sparing her father the indignity of a court martial. This gives her an emotional connection to Bond that makes their eventual/inevitable romance an easier sell. There are instances in these films, Licence to Kill and GoldenEye spring to mind, where the turn toward romance is so sudden and arbitrary that it strains believability. Hopping in to bed with a debonair super-spy seems completely reasonable, sure, but falling in love with one before the second act break comes off as forced.

Luckily, Octopussy doesn't have this problem. It has a host of other problems, mainly down to the unfortunate exoticism of films made by Westerners set in non-Western countries. Though India is gorgeously deployed here, it suffers from the same problem Afghanistan did in The Living Daylights. It's a backdrop. It's a gorgeous backdrop, and this is one of the better looking Bond films for it, but to the extent that any of the Indian characters have agency at all, it's to help James Bond because they work for British intelligence, or to try and murder the shit out of him because they work for Kamal Khan.

fig. 3: Not sure when the Glowering Sikh Bodyguard first became a thing, but I've seen it often enough to suspect it didn't originate here

In fact, I'm hard-pressed after watching the film last weekend to remember where in India Bond actually went. According to the film's Wikipedia page, he goes to Rajasthan, which happens to be the largest state in India, so that isn't exactly a help. He's in a city at one point, but it's not said where, and in his attempt to escape Kamal Khan's palace (while pursued by guys on elephants) he runs through a checklist of Exotic India Tropes. Jungle? Check. Very Large, Presumably Venemous Spiders? Check. Tiger, Just, You Know, Walking Around? Check. Leeches? Check. It's the same problem as The Living Daylights, where Afghanistan was represented by one Soviet air force base and one dusty mujaheddin encampment and a whole lotta mountains.

Some of this would be less of a problem if Kamal Khan weren't played by a Frenchman. Louis Jourdan does a fine job here playing a smugly villainous ne'er-do-well, but Octopussy sits on the shoulders of a long-standing tradition of racebent casting going back as far as the history of film. Hell, in 1983 we're only sixteen years out from Sean Connery playing the Least Convincing Japanese Man Since Marlon Brando. So not only do the people in these countries not really get a say in how their lives are affected by this fictional tug-of-war between these powers (apt, if unintentional metaphor here), but if they have a strong enough role to play, they don't even get to be played by someone from the region. At least Daylights' Art Malik was Pakistani.

fig. 4: France. I come from France.
I'd love to see the franchise return to India. It's not as though the Bond films have become a beacon of cultural sensitivity in the intervening decades--they're no more or less racist than the society that consumes them--but an adventure in a place so informed by the British occupation could give this more introspective take on the character interesting resonances. Then again, like in Spectre, he may just show up at some culturally significant event just long enough to blow up a building and scamper off.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

I've Met You In Your Future Lives. (Never Say Never Again)

fig. 1: I originally had the impish intent to just use pics from Thunderball to illustrate this entire post. That was before Mister Bean showed up.
1983 was a banner year for franchise pictures. We take it for granted in 2015, which saw continuations of Marvel, Hunger Games, and Fast/Furious properties, and the revival of long-dead franchises in Mad Max, Jurassic World, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Star Wars, but it wasn't always this saturated. 1983, however, saw a third Superman movie, a third Star Wars movie, and a head-to-head contest between Sean Connery and Roger Moore in the Battle of the Bonds. You could have conceivably--if one theater actually held on to Moore's Octopussy for an absurd four months, have slipped out of one James Bond picture and in to another.

fig. 2: And while you're at it, check me out across the hall in Superman III! 1983 is Peak Gavan O'Hearlihy!

News outlets of the time made hay of it, used the aforementioned phrase "The Battle of the Bonds", and while odds-makers predicted Connery's return to the role after twelve years would beat out Moore's sixth outing, in the end Moore won out. But how did we get to this point? How do two versions of the same character end up in competition with one another in the same year? The answer to that, as well as the answer to at least one trivia question about Tom Jones, lies with Thunderball.

Ian Fleming approached screenwriter and producer Kevin McClory in the late Fifties to produce a James Bond feature film. The character had, in fact, already appeared on television in the United States in an episode of Climax!, (another trivia answer) which adapted Casino Royale, and Fleming knew there was money in the property. McClory and Fleming worked on an original screenplay after the former rejected adapting one of the previously existing novels, tentatively calling the film Longitude 78 West. Fleming eventually tried to force McClory out of the project, adapting the screenplay into the novel Thunderball and refusing to credit McClory for his work on the treatment. The whole business went to court. EON productions eventaully bought the rights to James Bond novels seemingly piecemeal, including a deal with McClory, to produce Thunderball as a movie, in 1965. This same haphazadery would result in Casino Royale being adopted as a spoof in 1967 and kept off movie screens as a proper James Bond adventure for nearly forty years after.

fig. 3: McClory, whose picture is the number one Google hit on the phrase "Longitude 78 West"

In the late Seventies, McClory tried to produce another Bond film, and the Fleming estate sued him. They lost the suit, and it was determined that McClory could make a Bond picture, provided he only use elements from his draft of Thunderball, making the film that would eventually come about, Never Say Never Again, a straight remake of the former film. Legal wrangling over the rights to the character would crop up again in the early 1990's, eventually dooming Timothy Dalton's third film, and again in the early 2000's, when McClory threatened to remake Thunderball again before the rights were finally bought out.

I know very little about British copyright law. What I do know is confined mainly to what I've read about this movie, and about Doctor Who, whose iconic monsters the Daleks were first conceived by writer Terry Nation (even if Nation had nothing to do with their iconic visual design) and, as such, had to abandon the monsters for several years when Nation took his ball to America and tried to get some other studio to play with him. It's hard to imagine coming from 2000's America and it's rigid rules on intellectual property zealously watched over by large media conglomerates. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster tried for years to wrest control of their creation, Superman, from Warner Brothers. Rocket Raccoon was in a movie that made Marvel Studios over three hundred million dollars. Bill Mantlo, who created Rocket, didn't see a dime.

Follow this link for more information on Bill Mantlo's ongoing financial and health concerns.

Never Say Never Again is an interesting film in part for the constraints under which it is forced to operate. There's no bullet sequence, no stylish overture full of scantily clad women, no title card announcing it's "Sean Connery as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007." There is an opening song, though it is played over an aerial shot of jungle before we meet up with our hero, rescuing a damsel in distress from kidnappers.

...Except he's not. It's a training mission, and Never makes the canny move of rolling with Connery's age. After it's all over (and Bond has failed the mission objective) the debrief pits Bond against a much younger and newly installed M, who is skeptical to the point of hostility of the whole Double-0 program, and has had Bond working as a teacher for some time. However, the theft of a pair of nuclear warheads puts 007 back in the saddle, because that's how these things go.
fig. 4: "You've got me so angry I'm poaching Stereotypical Black Police Captain lines!"

The orchestrators of this grand theft, and the extortion that comes after it, are SPECTRE, an organization that won't be seen again in the James Bond canon until 2015's eponymous film, and haven't been seen in any capacity since Connery's previous film, 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. This, again, is down to McClory, who created SPECTRE and its head Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in his treatment for Longitude 78 West, and whose legal wrangling kept the evil network off movie screens for a total of a total of forty-four out of the franchise's fifty-three years.

In its place James Bond faced any number of adversaries both memorable and not. Indeed, I would argue that the franchise is better off without SPECTRE, or at the very least that Spectre's bending over backward to reincorporate this piece of mythology after thirty-two years did the plot of that film no favors.

Still, there's something to it. James Bond is a fundamentally reactionary, conservative (and Conservative) figure. He fights for Queen and Country. He fights, he kills people, to preserve an order that is measurably the same as the order of yesterday. He perpetuates a system that is designed to keep people like him in power, people who are, on the surface, largely indistinguishable from SPECTRE's cronies.

So what do we make of the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, this shadowy group organized much like the British Secret Service (in my reverse rewatch, at least, Bond has yet to be mentioned as a member of MI6 prior to the 1990's) which gives its operatives call numbers and is run by a cabal of Old White Men in business suits? These profiteers, sitting above the fray of the Cold War? Spectre later goes full-on with this interpretation, internationalizing the cast of characters but, tellingly setting their base of operations in Rome, that crumbling center of an old empire that once ruled the world. Who better than a Briton to send against them? Tellingly, Blofeld isn't after chaos or destruction or any particular ideology. He wants cash. But if there's a secret message to Never Say Never Again, or Spectre, or any other iteration of that capitalistic band of evildoers, it's not one that Fleming, or McClory, ever intended. It exists at the margins.

fig. 5: Blofeld, less the Slimy Easterner of before, decked out more like a Proper English Gentleman

The margins, again, are where Never Say Never Again does its work. Forced to play within the constraints of Thunderball's plot (action bit/spa/things turn deadly/stolen nukes/casino standoff/Domino/boat/ underwater bits) it finds whatever it can to say by doodling around the edges. Like the younger M (and a Moneypenny that has likewise been de-aged), Q is on hand, played by a different actor and with a different demeanor. The film seems to hedge its bets on whether this is Q, having the actor refer to Q in the third person, and having Bond refer to him as "Algy." Instead of the usual annoyance played by Desmond Llewelyn, Alex McCowen's Q is a bona fide James Bond fanboy. "Now that you're on the case," he says, "I hope we can see some gratuitous sex and violence." It's the culmination of a speech that wouldn't seem out of place in the Brosnan era, or in Craig's Skyfall. Algy bemoans the rise of pencil-pushing bureaucrats, never going forward unless the computer says it's okay. It's a line that will be directly echoed in GoldenEye, and prefigures the anxiety of the computer age in Skyfall and Spectre.

The trip to the health spa, similarly, has a different resonance with a much older Connery, what with the cracks about his diet/drinking habits and with the delicacies he sneaks in to the resort. In everything but the haircut, James Bond is showing his age, and really, you can imagine him as the man who wouldn't have changed his hair cut. He's a man out of time. At fifty-three, he's older than nearly everyone in this picture, including Never's villain Maximilian Largo, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer. Brandauer is forty years old here, just a few years shy of Adolfo Celi, who played Largo in Thunderball. But Celi's playing a older man: white hair, eye patch, one of those elegant little cigarette holders. Brandauer is a youthful svengali, flowing blonde hair and a cavalier attitude about life and death. If anything, he represents less the institutional evil that Max von Sydow's Blofeld in this picture, and Adolfo Celi's Largo in Thunderball, does. He's a fresher face. As a sign this movie was made in the Eighties, he's a computer genius who designed a video game based around world conquest.

fig. 6: Bond and Largo, the latter about to don the Red Beanie of Utter Global Crisis.
The man in this film who is almost exactly Connery's age is Max von Sydow, who plays Never's iteration of Blofeld. Rather than sit behind a screen and stroke that cat of his, he's an open, almost gregarious figure, ransoming the world by video. Von Sydow is around the age of the other Blofelds in their heyday of the 1960's. Bond has caught up to him.

Sean Connery has yet to return to the role of James Bond. He almost played the Kincaid role in Skyfall, which thankfully went to Albert Finney. An Octagenarian James Bond would be an interesting choice, (especially if they ditch the tired conceit of him seducing some nymphet), as the series has been particularly concerned with James-Bond-as-relic at least as far back as 1995. Even as his age slides backwards, James Bond is a man out of time. Connery, particularly as the originator of James Bond on the silver screen, is a figurehead for a certain brand of masculinity that the character's continual reboots and reimaginings have caused to escape the ravages of time, even as the world has moved on around him. It doesn't look like Connery will ever return, but like the song says...

Friday, January 29, 2016

You Will Be Upgraded. (A View to A Kill)

Roger Moore is on record as saying this is his least favorite Bond film, and while it would likely have been his last either way, a number of factors contributed to signalling to the Third 007 that it was time to put away the martini shaker.

The first was, of course, Moore's age. He was fifty-seven at the time of filming View, and felt squicked out over being paired with twenty-nine-year-old Tanya Roberts, almost thirty years his junior. Moore had been rumored to depart the series as early as 1981's For Your Eyes Only, but eventually came back for two more installments. The violence in this film was also a tremendous turn-off for Moore. The accelerated bloodshed of 1980's action movies, which would overwhelm Bond completely in 89's Licence to Kill, first rears its head here in a scene where Major Antagonist Max Zorin and his henchlady May Day gun down dozens of mine workers.

As baroque plans to destroy the world go, this one's pretty baroque. A View to A Kill follows James Bond from recovered microchip to race horse tampering to a plot to blow up the San Andreas fault. The plot plays less like a linear progression and more like a word association game. Bond recovers a microchip that can withstand an electromagnetic pulse, which leads him to Christopher Walken's Max Zorin, and a subplot involving horse racing and whether or not Zorin is using steroids on his horses. He's not, he's controlling them with microchips--somehow--but the emphasis on breeding and technology is an interesting one.

Ever since the eponymous Dr No, James Bond has been dealing with the strange. It's part of the trappings of his genre. Spy fiction grew out of adventure fiction, and these films owe a great deal more to the latter tradition than to the procedural nuts an bolts of, say, a John Le Carre novel, or The Americans. It's unlikely the character would have endured in anything like the same way if he had been grounded more in reality.

What Zorin and Dr No and Jaws represent--and what later on Gustav Graves will represent--is a particular strain of transhumanism, especially as tied to cybernetics. James Bond's role, as ever, is as the reactionary, to keep the status quo, in this case the status quo of the human race, intact. Zorin is the product of Nazi experiments to produce a superior human through chemistry. No and Jaws are cyborgs. Graves is a sort of post-racial designer human, able to assume the identity that best suited his plans. Both previous Moore-Bond villains Stromberg and Drax hinge their own plans on fomenting a war between East and West and then escaping (to the Sea, and to Space, respectively) to create Utopian societies out of the ashes of that conflict. And Bond, that old stick-in-the-mud, can't have that.

Zorin's objectives aren't quite so pie-in-the-sky. He's out to make money, to corner the microchip market, and if that means blowing up San Francisco, well, omelettes and eggs. He's stopped by Bond in the requisite climactic fight, and whatever anxieties the present day of 1985 has about computers and cybernetics are put to rest. It's almost a ritual, these things. Zorin is sacrificed in the same way Elliot Carver and Franz Sanchez will be, as effigies for our cultural unease.

fig. 2: Too Old For This Shit

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Past Is Another Country (The Living Daylights)

fig. 1: There's no chance I'll regret this in twenty years
It's 1987. Twenty-five years out from Dr No, twenty-five to Skyfall. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has raged for nine years. We're forty years from the British pulling up stakes from India, the Jewel of the Empire, a country for which Afghanistan was used as a buffer against the Russians. More than a century since the British Afghan War ended with Britain in control of Afghanistan's international affairs. Sixty years since Amanullah Khan declared independence from British influence. Thirty-four years since the first Soviet economic and military aid arrived, in 1933. The US invasion of Afghanistan is still fourteen years away, but American influence is felt all through that country. US weapons are used to equip Afghan mujaheddin fighters, so they can fight the Russians, America effectively taking the place of Britain in the long proxy war that has raged through that country.

Roger Moore is out. A new James Bond, Timothy Dalton, is in. Like his successor Pierce Brosnan, Dalton fairly haunted the casting announcements prior to his landing the role. Though his path to succession wasn't nearly the public back-and-forth Brosnan's was, Dalton was seen for the role as early as 1967, demurring at first because he thought he was too young, then later in the early 1980's due to other commitments. Though he's remembered for a performance that bordered on the dour, this is I think largely in contrast to Moore's twinkling eye and talent for double-entendres. Dalton will turn in a much darker turn two years on in Licence to Kill, but here he plays the part with a lighter touch than he's remembered for.

The James Bond films are like period films. They take the broad concerns and conflicts of an era and use them to paint the backdrop of whatever latest spy adventure is in the offing. Only in the case of these pictures, it's never 2016 or 1987 looking back to 1945 or 1962. The Living Daylights is a period film about 1987 made in 1987. There's never that Mad Men-style irony and remove, just a whole list of signifiers repurposed as backdrop. Though he appears for the first time since Live and Let Die, Bond's American contact, Felix Leiter, is nowhere near Afghanistan. He's in Morocco, tracking an American arms dealer who made a deal with a Soviet defector to supply the Russians with high-tech weapons of their own. In fact, you could be forgiven for watching this film (and a similar film from just a couple years previous, the Chase/Aykroyd Spies Like Us) and coming to the conclusion that Afghanistan is nothing but desert and mountains and bearded guys fighting the Soviets on horseback. It is sharply contrasted to the chilly refinement of Cold War-era Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Britain, and to the more cosmopolitan Tangier where the film's main antagonist, Brad Whitaker, is holed up.

fig. 2: Not a Bond villain. I mean, probably.

Whitaker bears more than a passing resemblance to the execrable Ollie North, and The Living Daylights, a film preoccupied with an unscrupulous American selling weapons to be used in the Middle East, premiered a year after the first news of the Iran Contra scandal broke. Though, of course, in this film, Whitaker is a non-state actor, a cartoonish parody of American militarism who has statues of all the great war criminals throughout history remade with his face. The cartoonishness lets everybody get away with their hands clean. The British and American meddling in Afghanistan, even the Russians come off looking good in the form of John Rhys Davies General Pushkin, who forms a temporary alliance with Bond to defeat Whitaker and the Soviet defector who is helping him. Like Tomorrow Never Dies a decade later, this film doesn't bother with any of the ambiguity of James Bond's profession or of the imperialist tug-of-war he wanders in to.

Watching The Living Daylights with the benefit of almost thirty years of hindsight is a surreal experience. It's impossible to imagine a film made today set in 1987 that would treat Bond's chummy alliance with a cadre of mujaheddin fighters with anything like the complete lack of irony and self-awareness this film does. They're noble savages led by a guy who sounds like he could have studied at Eton with Bond. (I looked him up, and the actor, Art Malik, is in fact from Pakistan, which, by the standards of these types of blockbusters, is eminently Close Enough).

fig. 3: The actual line here: "I'm sorry we're late. We had some trouble at the airport."
In a year, Afghanistan, the USSR, and the United States will sign treaties and the Soviets will gradually begin to pull out of Afghanistan. In two years, the Berlin Wall will fall, in four the Soviet Union will collapse. In five years Afghanstan will plunge into civil war. In nine the Taliban will control most of the country, erasing reforms that existed for decades and instituting strict religious law. In fourteen years the United States will invade Afghanistan in what will be the longest military engagement in US history. We still haven't left.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

You Can Always Judge A Man By the Quality of His Enemies (Licence to Kill)

fig. 1: Why Spies Really Wear Tuxedos.

Imagine if the Daniel Craig era ended after Quantum of Solace, and you'd have Licence to Kill. Both films came on the heels of a highly publicized writers' strike, both are the second films of their respective Bonds, both follow on the heels of an entry pivoting the character as a more straightforward romantic figure, both feature James Bond out for revenge, and both reside somewhere near the stylistic limit of what one can expect from a James Bond film.

With Quantum, it was serialization, and the anti-hero. With Licence, it's 1980's action movies. James Bond spends the entire run of this film in North America, specifically the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and fictional Panama City stand-in, Isthmus City. Apart from a lone scene between Moneypenny and M, we never even set foot in Britain. Bond's entire aesthetic has been subsumed by that of American films like Commando, Lethal Weapon, and First Blood, among others.

Including, quite by accident, that decade's fascination with ninjas. The arrival of highly trained ritualistic assassins from the Far East isn't completely inorganic (it follows the reveal that Sanchez is looking to expand his operation into the Pacific Rim) but it's a holdover from an earlier version of the script, when James Bond was set to be doing all of this daring-do in the South Pacific as opposed to South Florida. Between the writers' strike and the expense of filming in China, the producers scrapped this aspect, but a vestige of it remains.

In fact, it was Bond who brought the ninja to the Western imagination, way back in book form in Fleming's novel You Only Live Twice, twenty-five years before this picture. That, and the reintroduction of Judo to the 1964 Olympics, and the meteoric rise of Bruce Lee and accompanying interest in Japanese and Hong Kong cinema. It's worht pointing out that the agents in this film are explicitly from Hong Kong, though coded as ninjas, a Japanese tradition.

fig. 2: Only slightly more racist than if we are still in the Pacific Rim.
The Hong Kong DEA team up at about an hour and twenty into this film to nab Bond and turn him over to the British, who want him back, until they're ambushed and promptly never heard from again. Licence to Kill plays almost as a shaggy dog film. Though Bond laser-focused on his vendetta against Sanchez, the film throws characters at the wall like spaghetti: There's Milton Krest, who is smuggling drugs for Sanchez under the guise of running a research outfit; Ed Kilifer, CIA turncoat; Truman Lodge, who acts as if he's interning for supervillainy out of some Ivy League university; Colonel Heller, who's some vague stand-in for Ollie North; Benecio del Toro's Dario, who fills in the role of Psychotic Henchman these films usually call for; and, strictly because he was keen to do it, Wayne Newton as Professor Butcher, who runs some kind of New Age cult out of a mountain temple in Isthmus which doubles as both a refinery for Sanchez's drug output and a coded messaging service for Sanchez's lieutenants in the field.

Looming over all of this is the character of Sanchez himself, a spectacular figure of urbane evil. With the Cold War winding down, producers chose instead to focus on the War On Drugs, and personified it in the form of a Pablo Escobar-type figure with whom Bond eventually ingratiates himself, in order to sow discord, Iago-like, throughout the organization. Like Quantum of Solace, Licence to Kill busies itself with more grounded concerns than the proxy war through would-be tyrants the character had frequently faced, and, much like that film, there is the slow creep of James Bond weirdness reasserting itself. Quantum doesn't quite land the job by the end, but Licence manages it admirably, with its shootout at a televangelist's mountain sanctuary that doubles as a cocaine chemistry experiment.

We spend almost as much time with Sanchez as we do with Bond, watching the inner workings of his empire and his paranoia as it begins to crumble. Though evil and sadistic, he lacks the overt flair of some of 007's more famous antagonists (with the exception of a truly amusing bit with, appropos of nothing, a pet iguana) and that, again, grounds him and makes him more real. I'd be tempted to say that intrusion of wierdness is what dooms him, but then the whole operation was his baby.

fig. 3: "You want a kiss, too?"

Licence to Kill would mark the end of Timothy Dalton's brief tenure as 007. Legal wrangling over character rights would keep Bond off the silver screen for six years, and in the intervening time, impatient and frustrated, Dalton quit the franchise. He's often overlooked (as is this film, for its stylistic divergence) but his take on the character--a little glum, his heart a little more on his sleeve--is very much the model that the Daniel Craig films would follow. They're worthy of a second look.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Envy Is The Beginning of All True Greatness (GoldenEye)

I have a fondness for opposite numbers, for that character, typically the main antagonist, who is the mirror image of the hero. I realize that this, as a plot and character device, has been by 2016 fairly completely played out on film, television, and in books. Fiction as funhouse mirror maze. You could blame this fascination with Evil Twins and Funhouse Mirrors on my growing up in America in the waning days of the Cold War. Even as late as the mid-80's, there was a sense that these empires would continue their grinding push against each other for the foreseeable future.

GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan's first entry into the franchise, is haunted by the Cold War. Six years out from the fall of the Berlin Wall and four years past the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is preoccupied by the Second World, and, further, by the idea of James Bond's opposite number.

Bond has faced competing spies before. And he will again, even as early as the next film after this, be paired with Chinese agent Wai Lin, herself painted very much as his equal counterpart. Here, however, the connection is as deep and explicit as it's ever been. Rather than the agent of a competing power or even a friendly one, Bond goes up against another Double-0, and one with whom he has a personal connection. We've heard of other 00 agents in the past--009 is frequently invoked right before he is killed--but this is the first one who gets any lines, whose agency and motivation in the story is the equal of Bond's. The first we see him, indeed, he is on a teamup with Bond.

fig. 2: I don't know how many shadows this is. At least four.
In fact, in a clever bit of foreshadowing, the exact first moment we see Alec Trevelyan, 006, he's half in shadow, speaking Russian. Because the mission at the beginning of the film goes south, of course, and while the film makes at least a tacit effort to convince us the plot is all about Bond going after General Ourumov, the man who ran the chemical weapons factory where Alec was killed, anyone who saw a trailer for this film in 1995 knew different, and the film drops the pretense early going. The next time we see Alec Trevelyan, the erstwhile 006, he's in some ruined park full of Soviet memorabilia, like a backstage prop department for some grand Stalinist theater. (Which, notably, is the same imagery used in the film's opening song.)

fig. 3: Political Theater
These visual clues tie in to the eventual reveal of Trevelyan's convoluted origin story, involving his parents being Russian Nazi sympathizers, who were betrayed by the British when the British decided they didn't need to use them against Stalin, or something. Though his route is more circuitous, Trevelyan is, much like Bond, an orphan steered toward the service of his adopted country, and though it's never stated when exactly he decided to betray that adopted country, his story changes shape in that fateful mission to Kazakhstan, and when revealed again he is the image of what James Bond would be like if he went bad.

Why does this approach work, and why employ it here? The latter question is easier: GoldenEye is the first Bond film released since the Cold War. Licence to Kill, released in the summer of 1989, preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall by just a few months, and has utterly nothing to do with the Cold War at all. Now that that war is over, and James Bond, who emerged on cinema screens in the US a mere seven months after the Cuban Missile Crisis (in the UK he precedes the Crisis by eleven days), has to define himself in this new landscape. That ties back to the first question: why do these parallels work? Or, at least, why do they work for me?

Moriarty was probably the first. The foundation figure of opposite numbers. His name even doubles now as a synonym for "nemesis." Certainly Moriarty is the most successful. Tumbling over the falls with Holmes in what Doyle intended, at first, to be Sherlock's final adventure, Moriarty accomplishes what antagonists of long-running serial adventurers rarely hope to do: he gets one over on the hero. Guys like Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, or The Flash, however evenly matched they may seem to be by their adversaries, always come out on top. The same goes for Alec Trevelyan. What power he exerts on the narrative is as a representation of another path. After being presumed dead he goes on to front an illegal arms company. In order to smoke him out (not knowing, yet, that it's him) Bond visits another Russian arms dealer, one with whom he's had dealings in the past. It's not difficult to imagine Trevelyan having similar contacts. It's not difficult to imagine Bond, in a similar position, seeking out someone like Valentin Zhukovsky, and starting a little empire of his own.

There's an attraction to the bad guy version of the hero. He or she is loaded with the same signifiers, but none of the constraints. They don't have to be good. They don't have to obey the rules. That's true, though, of any bad guy, really, and certainly goes in to our current national obsession with the anti-hero. The Moriarty, though, represents a path not taken, a glass through which the hero is glimpsed darkly. In GoldenEye, absent the West's usual foil, the Bond films invent one out of the mythology of the series and the wreckage of the duel between empires that inspired it.

It's notable that this very same bag of tricks would be brought out for Skyfall, seventeen years later. Silva is very much in the Trevelyan mold, and both films wrestle with the question of James Bond's place in the world. Spectre, too, a film even more concerned with how Bond fits into the new world, reinvents the Blofeld character as stemming from the same roots as Bond, his shadowy double.

Two roads, the poet says, diverged. What if you could take them both? What if you could see that other path, complete with all its consequences, laid out and personified for you? The 1990's were an uncertain time, especially for James Bond. The West is, for a brief time, burdened with the unease of being the last man standing at the shootout. (Later on, we'll be burdened with a whole other type of unease.)

There's another facet of this obsession with duels and dualism: the fact that this is Pierce Brosnan's debut. Though he is the fifth actor to play the role on the big screen officially, Brosnan has haunted the Bond films since the early 1980's. He was introduced to the producers while visiting the set of Octopussy in 1983, and his high-profile near-miss at the franchise a few years later could not have escaped moviegoers' attentions when he strode out to that first teaser.

In a sense, every James Bond is in a duel with another opposite number: himself. His other incarnations, particularly the long shadows cast by Connery and Moore. GoldenEye leans in to this by placing him square against another Double-0, literalizing the conflict within the story. By the end, of course, Bond emerges triumphant. Though we're not sure which way the ship is going, the captain sounds awfully confident about the whole thing.

fig. 5: Not James Bond

Sunday, January 3, 2016

io9 Concept Art Writing Prompt: 12/31/15

No one knew why they died out. The Croatoans. All they knew was the great beasts weren't native to Roanoke, that they had tried to colonize the planet some centuries earlier. They left their cities behind, a snarl of abandoned colony forts left to molder in the intervening years. Some bacterial apocalypse was thought to be the culprit: a microorganism in Roanoke's atmosphere that did them in, War of the Worlds-style. It had happened on human colonies before, too. Otherwise hospitable planets whose microbial life held some kind of time bomb interaction with the flora human travelers brought with them. Typically a population could inoculate itself in time, but one or two ghost towns did exist, places like this left abandoned to be found by some luckier generation.

There were twenty-seven viable Earthtype planets, and Sandoval had been to half of them. He collected the bones of the native creatures living at each planet. Right now he only had an acoustic guitar, but back on his ship, the Badiniere, Sandoval had hundreds of intricate flutes and harps and drums made from the remains of a dozen worlds' worth of alien life. Mirabel thought it was ghoulish. She thought, too, he spent too much time listening to himself talk. Though he carried a guitar, he was listening to the wind pass through the bones of the lost Croatoan, trying to imagine what sound he would fashion from them.

Sandoval carried the notes to the Bone Concerto in his head, a lengthy and complicated string of verse and counterpoint. Mirabel had been enlisted to show him to skeleton beach, and in the dying hours of sunslight on the planet, she listened to the plaintive strums of his searching melody. Not many people came to Roanoke. She reminded herself this was an experience she would feel lousing  having missed.

No one knew where the Croatoans came from. They must have been born on a world much like Earth, but no other colony planets of theirs had ever been found, viable or otherwise. Their writing was impossible to decipher so far, and they left precious little behind that would indicate a point of origin. Sandoval didn't seem to care about this mystery, and truth told, most of Roanoke's human populace didn't care much either. You can only live with a mystery for so long before giving up on it. She wondered, if he went out far enough, if Sandoval would in fact be the one to find them.