Saturday, September 17, 2016

Clear Images, pt. 3 Synthetic Unity

This is what happens when you go mainstream, Richard.

1983 was something of a banner year for geek movies. There was the third Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi; not one but two James Bond movies, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again; and the third installment in the Superman franchise. Compared to the triumphant trilogy-capping of Jedi, or even the novelty of seeing original Bond actor Sean Connery back in the proverbial (and literal, in that super-racist bit in NSNA) saddle, Superman III is a bit of a limp noodle. It's a comedy-adventure, with the emphasis squarely on comedy, as evidenced by superstar comedian Richard Pryor prominently displayed on the film's promotional material. 

Make no mistake: Return of the Jedi this is not. Nor was it ever intended to be. The Superman films in the 1980's, in fact, can more directly be compared with, say, those James Bond films, where each installment is just sort of a new thing that happens. The connection to James Bond is a telling one, for me, and not just because of Peter Murton, who served as the Production Designer for this film as well as The Man with the Golden Gun, and as Art Director for both Goldfinger and Thunderball.

"I have no plans. No evil schemes at all."

Analogy time: Superman I is Dr No. Superman III is Octopussy. But whereas the James Bond franchise evolved over twenty years and three actors from Sean Connery's deadpan murder-quips to Roger Moore dressed as a clown, Superman, as is his wont, did the stunt faster than a speeding bullet, at just five years..

Superman III stands in contrast in particular to the first of the Christopher Reeve films and its grandiose American mythmaking. It's compared unfavorably to its immediate predecessor for the same reason. When people remember Superman II, I think they tend to remember bits of it. The Diner. Zod in the White House. The fight. The reversal. What I suspect gets overlooked or glossed over are the constant ways in which the action in Superman II, particularly in the climactic fight between Superman and the Phantom Zone villains, is undercut by little twinges of Richard Lester's idea of comedy. Superman II is a film at war with itself.

To recap: Superman: The Movie and its sequel were filmed concurrently, with an eye for releases closer together than what the public eventually got. As the budget and shooting schedule got out of control, however, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind pressed Richard Donner to at least get the first film done. Eventually, Donner and the Salkind's got into a public row over Superman II, resulting in Donner being sacked and replaced with Richard Lester.

It's not as though Donner's first film is devoid of any humor. There's a wry light-heartedness to Superman himself, and Lex Luthor is played as a camp figure, as performative and faintly ridiculous as he is affably menacing. But Lester's version doubled-down on the jokes, with numerous reshoots changing the depth of the shots as well as a general peppering throughout of little off-hand gags, which, in the particular case of Zod et. al.'s assault on Metropolis, manage to thoroughly drain that scene of any of the tension or horror you might expect from three people who can bench-press a city going to town on a human populace.

"People, people, please! Just because it's a dramatic scene doesn't mean you can't do a little comedy in the background!"

Superman III doesn't have this problem. Left to his own devices, Lester crafts a story that has far more in common with the 1960's Batman TV series than either of the two Superman films that came before. It's impossible, I think, to view the film without considering it through the prism of the fifteen years separating the release of this film from the Adam West Batman TV series. For decades after Batman went off the air, articles about superhero properties--especially those properties translated to the small or large screen--couldn't help but throw in a POW! BAM! or a "Holy Whatever The Hell, Batman!," or what have you. Lester has been quoted as saying he didn't grow up with Superman, and we can take him at his word on that, I suppose. But it's hard not to see the bones of West's Batman, here and in the original Superman.

The original film owes much to Batman. The villain set-up: well-known actor, henchman, mol, are a Superman-themed palate swap from Batman's rogues as they appeared on that program. The only difference between Gene Hackman in Superman and Frank Gorshin in Batman is Hackman's Luthor only has the one henchman, and no brightly-colored knock-out gas. It's a trend that continues here, though Robert Vaughn's Ross Webster owes more in his DNA to a James Bond villain than Lex Luthor, at least as Luthor was portrayed prior to 1986.

See Also: Goldfinger, Stromberg, Drax, Zorin

Comic books, and in particular comic book adaptations, have had an uneasy relationship with camp, particularly in relation to that Sixties TV show, and how it shaped the mass audience's perception of superheroes for almost fifty years. Batman existed in the frisson between ideas that were originally geared toward children and the adult sensibilities of the parents watching that show with their kids. Indeed, Superman III is only two years out from titanic shifts in the comic book industry that were, in large part, a reaction to the continued perception of comics as a children's medium.

The Superman film franchise sputtered with its third outing and nearly came to a halt. And while I'd hesitate to call this film "good," exactly, Superman III gets a bum rap for bringing such a tonal whiplash to the franchise. In today's era, where superhero films are so thick on the ground it's hard not to trip over them, the film might have fared better, simply for the variety it brings, the lack of pompous self-seriousness that informed other superhero films, both flops and successes.

If nothing else,that Brainiac scene at the end gave me nightmares as a kid.

Fucking. Terrifying.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Clear Images, pt 2: The Problem of Lois

Man, to Hell with these script revisions...

What does Lois Lane see in Clark Kent? It's sort of obvious what she sees in Superman, the alien demigod who effortlessly saved her from a helicopter crash in the previous film. He's otherworldly, powerful, and masculine; the journalistic story of a lifetime; and a stark contrast to nebbishy Clark, who has apparently never so much as thrown a punch in his entire goddamn life. That's generally been the dynamic in the comics, and while it gets briefly upset in Superman II, everything eventually resets.

This is a problem. Of course, these are Superman movies and not Lois Lane movies, but, for a character that is arguably the most important one other than the title character in the whole Superman mythos, Lois Lane gets shockingly little to do, and a dim and foggy sense of her motivation to boot. Everyone else's motives in this film are clear: Clark wants to be with Lois. Zod and Lex Luthor both want power. The President wants to save lives. Even Perry White, Trucker Guy, and Superman's Dead Mom have recognizable through-lines in this film, whereas Lois' just evaporates around the first hour mark.

To her credit, Lois Lane starts to get the idea that Clark Kent is Superman fairly early on in Superman II. He makes a little slip-up and she becomes dogged and relentless in her pursuit of the Story of Him. And then she finds out. She confesses her love, and then...nothing. Once she uncovers the truth, the film essentially robs her of all agency. She becomes a prop, a McGuffin to be kidnapped by Kryptonian supercriminals.

Do The Thing or the Broad Gets It!

It's probably impossible to talk about Superman II without discussing the film's troubled production history, but the Lester version is superior to the Donner one in this respect: it gives Lois Lane something to do, before all her agency is drained away. Long before interlocking cross-promotional juggernaut that is Marvel Studios' superhero franchise, both Superman and its sequel were filmed back-to-back. Unfortunately, both for Superman director Richard Donner as well as the sequel itself, Donner was sacked midway through the production of Superman II. Much of his work was reshot under director Richard Lester, including the film's beginning. Donner ties the release of the film's three Kryptonian insurgents to that nuclear missile Superman hurled in to space back at the climax of the first film. Lester, instead, drops that plot thread, and, needing a new space-nuke, concocts a plot by vaguely-defined French terrorists to blow up Paris with a hydrogen bomb.

This leads to Lois Lane's best scene in the film, when she talks her way past an incompetent French policeman into the Eiffel tower, where the terrorists are planning to set up their bomb (natch). She's not quite fearless, in fact she's terrified, but she's going to charge in there anyway. Margot Kidder comes under a lot of fire for her portrayal of Lane--some of it deserved--but here, she shines.

Say it with me: "P U L I T Z E R."


Unfortunately, that's about all we get. The next time we see her, Lois and Clark are on some vaguely-defined investigation into a shady hotel at Niagara Falls, which requires them, in the tradition of many the sitcom and the softcore, to pose as newlyweds.

It's there that the movie briefly segues into the plot of any given Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane comics from the 1950's, where the Daily Planet's Star Reporter tries some ludicrous and potentially dangerous method of proving that Clark Kent is Superman. (In Lester's version she hurls herself into the river. In Donner's she shoots Clark.) Then she finds out, and it's Date Nite at the Fortress of Solitude. After having The Talk with a hologram of his dead Mom (who was presumably reading "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" by Larry Niven) Clark resolves to give up his power in order to be with Lois, romantically. At one point, Lois nearly speaks up, walking in on this Last Son and Dead Mom gab session, but she doesn't. What was she going to say?

Note that while Clark parts his hair on the right and Superman parts his hair on the left, this version of Clark/Kal wears his hair in an unruly mop, similar to Clark's old hair but also to Jeff East's as Young Clark in the first film.


The two of them get busy and head back to the States (Superman apparently stashed a 1977 Celica in the Fortress of Solitude just for this occasion, which rises to the level of preparedness usually associated with DC's other big ticket.

Who's a pirate's favorite Batman?

All the while this romance has been going on, those Phantom Zone criminals have been terrorizing a caricature of Middle America, before Zod finally travels to Washington and boredly installs himself as God-Emperor. Clark spends about a day as a Normal Man before finding this out, mere seconds after losing his first fist-fight, with an odious trucker, a small-time General Zod himself, that diner where Clark meets him his own personal Krypton. In the first encounter with a human being not explicitly in love with him, Clark Kent gets the shit kicked out of him, a scene that is a microcosm of the larger lesson General Zod was going to teach him anyway: there are bullies out there.

On a plot level, this scene is unnecessary. Clark was going to turn on the news eventually, and go back to the Fortress to regain his power because of it. The diner scene is all about themes. It's telling that Clark's first instinct in dealing with this idiot is to pick a fight with him, just like he used to do with bank robbers and would-be despots. It goes spectacularly poorly. When he returns from the Arctic, powers restored, however, he does the same thing: he picks a fight. Now: Clark Kent, a baseline human, has to be about as strong as Captain Odious, also a baseline human. His powers restored, Superman faces off against three people equally as able to wreck a city as he is. There wasn't much of a learning curve to these Phantom Zone types figuring out their abilities. He's more than evenly matched.

He wins, perhaps because he's his authentic self as Superman, and not as Clark. Indeed, by the end of the film, the balance of his life has been completely restored: through an unsettling use of his power set, Clark robs Lois of her memories of the past few days, returning everything to the status quo. This is her final indignity and loss of agency: she isn't even allowed to mourn her wrecked relationship. Lois, pre-kiss, knows they can't be together, that even if the world weren't governed by the rules of humorous Larry Niven essays, Clark will always be in and out, gone in a flash to some crisis somewhere. So, to spare her pain, he erases her memory.

Ugh.

This is, to say the least, deplorable, even moreso down the line in Superman IV and Superman Returns. One of the main criticisms I and other Superman fans leveled at Man of Steel is what we all felt was a level of character assassination, but that's just as well on display here. After spending the last act of Superman II as merely a cipher, Lois is arbitrarily retconned, disallowed from choosing her own path. Only the strength of the actors and a healthy, heaping dose of nostalgia rescue the film from this scene. It's completely fucking awful.

It also raises the question: What does Superman see in Lois Lane? Or in any human for that matter? Lester's version has the memory kiss, which is terrible, but Donner's version would have ended with Superman once-again reversing time and ensuring that the Phantom Zone criminals never escaped. What the hell good are any of his human relationships if they are devoid of consequence? If every slight can be wiped away with a kiss, every missed birthday taken care of with a bit of time travel, how can any meaning take shape?

The imagery of Superman is richly symbolic. Here's this guy, who keeps hidden the brightly-colored truth about himself behind a conservative, bespectacled, buttoned-down exterior. To quote Grant Morrison, who wrote probably the greatest Superman story of all time, "That 'S' is the radiant emblem of divinity we reveal when we rip off our stuffy shirts, our social masks, our nerouses,our constructed selves, and become who we truly are." I love this. It is one of my favorite aspects of the character. The problem with it, however, is its universality forces Lois Lane in to a similarly universal role: that of the Object, of She Who Reacts. It's unfair to her as a character, and the editorial mandate that returned everything to status quo at the end of Superman II is similarly unfair.

It seems clear no one at the time thought this was a bad thing. Indeed, it's shown as a sacrifice Clark is making, as is the earlier scuppering of his powers. Everyone making this film, and surely most people watching this in 1980, thought this was a tragic denouement with the hero giving up his love to return to his solitary vigil. With the benefit of thirty-six years of hindsight, however, it's a failure. Superman II utterly fails the character of Lois Lane, and in doing so damages the human core of what makes the character great.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Clear Images, pt. 1: Matters of Fact



I used to watch 1978's Superman: The Movie pretty often as a kid. We're talking around five or six years old. I still put it in from time to time. This was back in the days of video stores. It got so bad that I remember my mother, politely but pointedly, asking me wouldn't I like to watch another movie? Kids do this all the time. They fall in to patterns. I don't know what my own kid will be into in a few years so much as to render it insufferable/unwatchable. But, I know parents from the days of Frozen. I'm sure it won't be good.

I don't know what drew me to the character, then. I can guess. Of course, later on I wanted to be Batman, and then Indiana Jones. But what kid at that age, or at any age, doesn't want to fly?

I didn't see the latest cinematic outing for my childhood hero, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It didn't seem like it was made for me. I watched Man of Steel three years ago, and even kind of enjoyed parts of it until the whole thing seemed to catch up to me later, like food poisoning. I remember getting misty at those first trailers, all Terence Malick imagery and portentous quoting. Please don't fuck this up, I thought. Please don't fuck this up.

Ironically, both Man of Steel and 1978's Superman seem to have the same concern, and that is realism. Back in the late Seventies making the latter film, Richard Donner printed out signs with the word "VERISIMILITUDE" to hang in various production departments. In Donner's words, "It's a word that refers to being real--not realistic, yes, there is a difference--but real. It was a constant reminder to ourselves that if we gave into the temptation we knew there would be to parody Superman, we would only be fooling ourselves."

Superman: The Movie's tagline is, "You Will Believe A Man Can Fly." The first character on screen is Superman's father, Jor El, and his first lines at the beginning of the film are "This is no fantasy. No careless product of wild imagination." There's that idea again. Verisimilitude. But whereas thirty-five years later, Zack Snyder would seek to portray that verisimilitude through the lens of disaster porn and a general contempt for human life--and especially human life from, say, the flyover states--Donner's picture is concerned mainly with just looking grounded and realistic. Indeed, Jor El's words aren't the actual first lines in the film. The actual first words are a voiceover narration. A kid's voice. The first shots aren't of Krypton, or Smallville, or Metropolis. They're from a comic book. Even before that, just after real-life curtains parted in cinemas in 1978, a curtain parts within the film. Even as Richard Donner and the production team strove for realism, Superman keeps the audience at arm's length. The film can't help but keep up a layer of artifice.

At a remove

Superman: The Movie is preoccupied with the prominent concern of the so-called Bronze Age of comics, the negotiation between realism and fantasy. The Bronze Age started with Marvel Comics, with its introduction of flawed, bickering heroes in the Fantastic Four and its angsty teen flagship Spider-Man in 1963. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, et. al. made an astute judgment in launching Marvel. Kids age out of comics, or they used to. By pitching their stories at a slightly older readership, Marvel could hang on to those readers longer. DC, Superman's parent company, has spent the last fifty years trying to catch up.

The transition to the Bronze Age from comics' previous Silver Age--whose best exemplifier was Superman himself--reflects a transition in literature a century prior, from Romanticism to Realism. Intended to portray objective reality, the Realist movement was a reaction to Romanticism, with its rosy-eyed embellishment of the past and grandiose, operatic subject matter. Realism instead favored gritty detail and lower- and middle-class life for its depictions, shedding off a view of the universe it felt was overly sentimental, propagated by the Romantics.

Literary Realism owed much of is existence to the rise of photography and to the proliferation of newspapers. It's easy to be a Romantic with paints. Details can be fudged or exaggerated, the results all sweeping colors and self-imposed grandeur. But the rise of photograph technology changed how people viewed things like war, poverty, and just plain daily life. Similarly, the proliferation of newspapers throughout the United States brought a new style of writing--clipped, informal, concerned with down-to-Earth, daily matters--that drastically informed fiction going forward.

If Donner's Superman can be said to be a Realist work (if anything depicting a flying space alien with laser eyes can be said to be realist) than the Snyder-helmed Man of Steel owes more than a passing resemblance to Naturalism, the literary movement that in turn sprang from the Realists. I had a Lit professor explain the difference between these two schools of thought to me thus: "Realism tells you that life is a pile of shit, but there's a tiny little flower at the top of it. Naturalism kills the flower." I'm paraphrasing. Edwin H. Cady wrote that Naturalism "[...] took to be supremely real all that is sordid, squalid, dirty, slimy, repulsive, brutal, and pathetic in man and nature. Against this reality is poised everything ideal, generous, value-laden, clean, respectable, or gentle as sorry appearances, lying illusions 'the gentle tradition' making the past seem contemptible, a bucket of ashes, the residue of old dreams."

Naturalism was the cynical offshoot of the Realist movement. Where the Realists sought to tear away the veil they felt Romanticism had pulled over Western Literature's eyes so they could see the mud in the gutter, the Naturalists wanted to play around in that mud. Squish it between their toes. Eric Sundquist wrote that the Naturalist movement "[reveled] in the extraordinary, the excessive and the grotesque in order to reveal the immutable bestiality of man in nature, Naturalism dramatizes the loss of individuality at a psychological level by making a Calvinism without God its determining order and violent death its utopia."

The destruction of Metropolis, 2013. It was this or the neck-breaking.

Man of Steel is a reaction against Superman, but how could it not be? Superman: The Movie was a watershed of a film. A lengthy, self-conscious bit of American myth-making in which the hero goes from the Book of Exodus


to Norman Rockwell


and Ansel Adams


to science fiction



to the mean streets of 1970's New York


and to that film genre endemic to the 1970's, the disaster picture.

 

Superman, arriving in 1978 on the heels of Star Wars, effectively closed out that genre of film, and while Star Wars had the more obvious and titanic impact, it's not hard (for me, at least) to imagine this film closing up shop on disaster pictures on its own.

Superman had other long-lasting impacts, as well, chiefly that in crafting this American Myth, Richard Donner and the film's numerous screenwriters somewhat clumsily grafted on this idea of their hero as a Christ figure, specifically in a bit of dialogue spoken by a simulation of the long-dead Jor-El to his son, in the Fortress of Solitude.

"They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you. My only son."

The immediate next cut.

The Superman franchise, in film and comics, never really quite gets over this. The TV shows (from what I remember) largely manage to steer out of it, but that's more down to the fact that the story of Jesus doesn't exactly work on a twenty-two episodes a year timeline. It's easy to see why Donner, Puzo, et. al. went in this direction. The basics are similar. Superman is an example of selfless good, sent from the Heavens by his Father, to Redeem Us. Just as Jesus is an aspirational figure, so is Superman, and for similar, Golden Rule-type reasons. But by making his morality imposed from an outside force, like Jor-El or God, the film's creators hobble some of Superman's greatness. Jesus' selflessness and nobility is because he's part of God, and to emulate Christ is to reflect the Divine. Superman's an alien, and the Heavens he comes from are metaphorical and the audience knows that. The films never quite then square that circle. Yes, there are surface parallels between the two characters, but to lean in to them as later sequels did does Superman a disservice. If I may deploy yet one more quote, it's this one from frequent Superman comic writer Mark Waid: "Gods achieve their power by encouraging us to believe in them. Superman achieves his power by believing in us."

Most big fans of Superman point to his fundamental decency as a person being our main draw to the character. By making Superman a character whose morality is imposed from Somewhere Else, Donner disconnects him narratively from this American Myth he's so busy crafting through visual cues. Throughout much of his existence, the Superman character has struggled for relevance in a landscape that shifted around him, and while these films are landmark blockbusters, they introduce a version of the character that is stuck in a rut, and only able to be considered from one angle, that of the lonely god. In Bryan Singer's sequel to the Donner films, Routh's Superman is sad and alienated (and a date rapist, but we'll get to that), while Henry Cavill in Snyder's Man of Steel is a sullen, churlish child-god, yoked to this idea of the character by someone who demonstrates a clear contempt of its core concept.

Maybe if Snyder wasn't so constrained by this idea of Clark Kent, SuperChrist, he might have turned out a different picture, though, if his versions of Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen are any indication, he likely still would have found a way to miss the point.

Last year I was so simultaneously disappointed and fascinated by the latest James Bond outing, Spectre, that I went down the rabbit hole of every previous Bond entry, looking for the points where the concerns that informed that movie started to blossom. This time out, I'm tracing the cinematic adventures of the Last Son of Krypton. (I meant to get this all started around Miracle Monday, but, hey, better late than never.) I want to track the reverberations of the seismic event that was the 1978 film, and how the character and franchise have progressed since then.

Because that first film was a seismic event. Despite the character's perennial popularity in other media (he'd been in movie serials, a famous television series, and a wildly popular radio serial in the decades before 1978) Richard Donner's vision and Christopher Reeve's performance continue to inform the character long after those reels were changed decades ago.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The First Faint Glimmerings (Casino Royale [1954])

fig. 1: James Bond

Stop me if you've heard this one: a man--a renowned card sharp--engages in a high-stakes battle of wits with a fellow player at a faraway European casino. The card game is a bit of realpolitik. The man's opponent, who goes only by the name Le Chiffre has embezzled funds from his organization, and needs to gamble them back. If the man, James Bond, can successfully bankrupt Le Chiffre, than Le Chiffre's organization will be humiliated, and down a man.

Though it seems unthinkable now, the first James Bond was portrayed by an American, Barry Nelson. He portrays the character with an avuncular affability, to where I got the sense he'd be slightly more at home out of that tuxedo and in a polo shirt, mowing his lawn. Nelson really only seems to come in to his own at teh climax of the picture, when Bond is held by Le Chiffre and tortured. He seethes with pain and defiant rage in a way that makes you say "Oh, there you are."

fig. 2: It's not really made clear, but it seems as though they're pulling off his toenails. 


The rest of the roles are familiar: Le Chiffre is portrayed here by Peter Lorre in just the manner you'd expect. Felix Leiter, in response to Bond's being made American, is now an English secret agent named Clarence Leiter. Vesper Lynd and Mathis have been conflated into a character named Valerie Mathis, an old flame of Bond's who is a double-agent within Le Chiffre's ranks.

If the James Bond series can be read as an extended meditation on Western masculinity, than the contrast between Nelson and his successors is telling in how those portrayals differ between the US and the UK. Connery's interpretation of the character is much closer to the books, and his chilly remove distinguishes him from Nelson's Regular Joe. It's only later in the film that Nelson's Bond is shown as a Verified Secret Agent. In those first few scenes it's easy to imagine him simply as someone who won World Series of Baccarat and got recruited to clean out Le Chiffre. Nelson's character isn't portrayed particularly as a womanizer either, though that could be a reflection of the fact that Casino Royale only had an hour to tell its story, but he seems pretty hung up on Valerie through the course of the film, and their romance and reconnection is a major through-line. The silver-screen incarnation of James Bond is always held at a remove, be it Connery's chilliness or Moore's ironic distance. Nelson is much more American. His high competence as a card sharp and secret agent doesn't separate him from anyone. He's just a guy who's good at his job.

fig. 3: *shrugs*

The "Casino Royale" telemovie was broadcast on October 21, 1954, as part of Climax!, a TV anthology series. The novel had been out a little over a year, and while it sold quite well in the UK, it didn't do so well in America. The telemovie features an introduction by host William Lundigan and a focus on the mechanics of the game of baccarat, as the game has never been particularly popular in America. I learned more about how baccarat is supposed to work here, as Bond and Leiter carry out a conversation on it for the benefit of prying ears, than I did all through the later James Bond films.

In contrast to the later globe-trotting incarnations of the character, Bond here is confined to a handful of sets: the casino floor, the hallway outside his hotel room, and the room itself. "Casino Royale" was a live TV broadcast, essentially James Bond: The Stage Play, so these sets are more perfunctory than in aid of any sort of claustrophobic feeling. Much like the book, it failed to set the world on fire here in the States, and none of Fleming's succeeding novels would be adapted again in the following eight years before Dr No. "Casino Royale" remains an interesting footnote, but barely that. It's like an echo in reverse, a premonition of what was to come.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why Does Peacekeeping Always Involve Killing? (Dr. No)

fig. 1: Dent in the room.


One of the more interesting aspects of Dr No is how, in contrast to its successors, it holds off on the introduction of its villain until almost an hour into the film. The eponymous evildoer begins as a name on a file folder, then a name overheard, then a voice in an empty room, ordering one of his subordinates to perform a hit on James Bond. It's a microcosm of the introduction of SPECTRE, first referenced by No in his tet-a-tet with Bond, then glimpsed fitfully until Blofeld's full reveal, five years later, in You Only Live Twice. It is, also, a macrocosm of James Bond's own introduction.

Bond is introduced after a flurry of activity. The hit on Strangways, a malfunctioning rocket, and those files on Doctor No being stolen lead to a string of phone calls before the hero is seen, first from the back, then to the reveal, and that classic line.

fig. 2: Man, if everybody wasn't already smoking in 1962, they were by the end of this.
It's a moment of effortless cool. I gave Connery the short shrift through much of this blog, but it's hard to deny the sheer magnetism of the guy. It's no mean feat to make delivering your own name sound cool, and Bond's delivery, "Bond, James Bond" isn't even his own. He's parroting Sylvia Trench here, who introduced herself a moment before in just the same way. It's a way of trumping her, mimicking her style but signifying "I'm kind of a bigger deal."

This general command of the room is what defines Bond in this first picture, and every film going forward. It's key to his appeal. He arrives in Jamaica and generally takes over the situation, issuing clipped orders to the help and his CIA contact alike. Seas of paragraphs have surely been sailed through about the fantasy appeal of the character, and it's on full display here. He's unflappable, he takes charge, he's adored by the ladies.

The spy film didn't begin with James Bond, or Dr. No. There have been espionage and intrigue movies as long as there have been movies. Much of the time, however, these films, particularly those made by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930's, were about ordinary people caught up in the workings of espionage, or of home agents defending against invasion and sabotage. Along with the more famous trappings of his sub-genre, James Bond turned a character that would have easily been a villain in, say, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and made him the center of the film. Rather than an invasion/sabotage picture, or the paranoid thriller of mistaken identity, Dr. No is an imperial film. The British agent heads out into the uncivilized world to set it all to rights.

Which, again, has been covered, by people more qualified than I am, surely. What's interesting to me, again, is this film's preoccupation with esoteric and removed spaces. This also is nothing particularly new for the genre. As early as Fritz Lang's 1928 film Spies, audiences were being introduced to the idea of secret headquareters. Where the Bond films of the Seventies would be the high point of this trend, Dr No finds the idea still in its infancy. The eponymous physicist's hideout is on a secluded island no one will willingly visit. Supposedly it contains a bauxite mine, and when Bond finally gets there he sees some of the trappings of this before being led inward into the place's truer and more sinister purpose.

fig. 3: I wonder if this is a radiation zone?

Inexplicably, the place is run by a bunch of cheery nuns, who serve no real purpose to the plot other than to accentuate the strangeness of the place. The same thing is true, generally, of the Evil Doctor's hands. Withered from exposure to radiation, Doctor No had them replaced with bionics, and while the threat of him crushing Bond to death is made explicit, all he manages in the film's finale is a couple of well-placed judo chops before the hero dispatches him.

No is an operative of SPECTRE. I'd forgotten how early on that organization rears its head. He makes his claims about the organization opposite this big fish tank. "Minnows pretending they're whales," Bond remarks. "Rather like you, Doctor."

"Depends on which side of the glass you're on," No replies. There's a host of aquatic imagery associated with SPECTRE in its early days. Doctor No and his fish, the octopus logo, Blofeld's Japanese fighting fish (as well as his boat) in From Russia with Love and his piranhas in You Only Live Twice. To say nothing of the entire plot of Thunderball. Even Honey Rider, here, is threatened with death by drowning. Minnows and sharks. Throughout this film, James Bond is never seen to be out of his element, or much more than inconvenienced by the threats against his life. It's only there, facing those minnows,that Bond seems as thoguh he's stepped into the middle of something.

fig. 4: That's some fish story.

It makes sense then that this would cast such a long shadow over the franchise. Fifty-three years on, Spectre rushes through this establishment. "You're a kite in a hurricane, Mister Bond," Mr. White tells our hero, subbing in wind for water. Ultimately, it's why the reveal in Spectre that Blofeld was, in fact, Bond's long-lost brother was so goddamn disappointing. There is no deeper water there. Doctor No refers to East and West as mere points on a map, and in its staking out a claim on the spy adventure genre, the Bond series' use of SPECTRE as antagonists played a crucial role. It emphasized the escapist aspect in a world beset by the Cold War, but also the organization served as the ultimate esoteric space. Like those secret labs and lairs just to the side of the world you know, SPECTRE is the ultimate criminal threat, existing just outside the conflict between East and West that Doctor No so quickly dismissed as petty bickering. Carried with those minnows and sharks is the promise of the strange future that is to come.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Photograph of Someone You Know...Years Before You Knew Them (From Russia with Love)

fig. 1: Chess is a metaphor, you guys!
Dr No introduced many of the Bond canon's tics that would be refined to perfection in Goldfinger. This leaves the middle of Sean Connery's three pictures, From Russia with Love, in a bit of an odd position. Though it deals with SPECTRE, introduced already in Dr No and curiously absent from Goldfinger, it is structured less like those other two movies, or Connery's other entries, which would all follow a similar formula. Bond never confronts Kronsteen, the architect of the plot against him, and only catches Rosa Klebb at the very end of the film. Blofeld, though depicted--this is his first appearance on film--isn't even named yet, and remains an enigma to the film's protagonist. There's less of what the later entries of the franchise would excel in: that preoccupation with hidden spaces.

Some of that is down to production designer Ken Adam--almost single-handedly repsponsible for the "look" of James Bond through the Sixties and Seventies--doing Dr Strangelove instead of this film, but also it's down to director Terrence Young, who was keen to make a more grounded, realistic film than the one that preceded it. There is one bit, a periscope in the catacombs of Istanbul (not Constantinople) that looks into the Russian embassy, but otherwise, the world is presented pretty straightforwardly.

There is, however, a first for the series, and that's Desmond Llewelyn's Q and the gadget briefing. The previous entry had a Major Boothroyd, but he came along just to switch out Bond's Baretta from the books for a Walther. The gadgetry is a bit tame by the standards the series would later rise to: it's a brief case with some hidden pockets for a flip knife, gold sovereigns, and a bit of exploding talcum powder for the unwary thief.

Bond gets the brief case in advance of his latest assignment: meet up with a Russian defector in order to secure a Lektor decoder. He's walking in to a trap and he's pretty sure he knows it, though not a trap organized by the Russians. Again, this is the work of SPECTRE, and it's a targeted bit of business in retaliation for his killing of Doctor No in the previous installment. They're out to humiliate Bond, and then murder him. The conceit advanced to the British is that a Russian cryptographer has fallen in love with Bond over a file photo of him. The British don't believe it, but figure what the hey, any chance to get a Lektor, right?

No.

The odd thing about it is, this clearly telegraphs that Bond has been made. He's a secret agent of whom the Soviets have a good enough photograph of that someone could semi-plausibly fall in love with him from it. It would seem to me at least that his value as an asset in the field is effectively zero. This becomes the first in a running gag that proliferates throughout the series: Bond as a well-known commodity. He's well enough known that SPECTRE can create a false mask of the guy to use in training exercises, because apparently you need someone who looks just like Sean Connery to teach you how to murder Sean Connery, and because it didn't occur to renowned chess master and also supercriminal Kronsteen that a fully convincing mask of James Bond could do some of this humiliate-and-discredit footwork all on its own.

That opening scene is of a piece with many of the other entries in Connery's tenure, in it's funerary bait-and-switch. It's only until the mask is pulled that the audience understands it's not James Bond, but some other schmuck. Likewise, Thunderball opens with a coffin clearly marked "JB;" You Only Live Twice begins with an elaborate fake out to both the audience, and the world of the film, that James Bond has been murdered; and Diamonds Are Forever has that bit where Connery is nearly cremated alive in his funeral suit. More than any other Bond, Connery's is the one threatened with death, even from outside the narrative.

From Russia With Love follows a form that the series more or less abandoned: that of the travelogue. Part of what made these movies so popular back in the Sixties was their ability to transport audiences to exotic locales when air travel was still a thing many Americans couldn't easily afford. Bond spends a not-at-all-germane-to-the-plot amount of time faffing about Istanbul (not Constantinople), befriending the local branch manager and getting into scrapes at a gypsy camp. It never feels overly long, but the film is clearly taking its time, luxuriating in the sense of place that would be out of character for a film today, which structures its location-switching more like video game levels: Find the thing in Port-au-Prince, move on to the Bolivia level.

If you've got a date in Constantinople...
It's fitting here as it gives the romance between Bond and Russian agent Tatiana Romanov time to breathe, even though both of them are conning the other. This makes the film structurally different than Dr. No, and than every subsequent Bond film. Indeed, the series hasn't quite yet found out what it wants to be, and From Russia presents an interesting alternate take on what the series might have become. Rather than this film climaxing at, say, a secret island base, or a volcano fortress, or a stealth boat, there is a long denouement after Bond faces the main heavy Red Grant. He and Tatiana square off against Klebb in Trieste, and a gaggle of SPECTRE goons off the Italian coast later on.

The fight with Grant, a series highlight, is interesting too in the regard that Red Grant is essentially Bond's opposite number, which is to say he's a functionary. He's not a gold-irradiating criminal or a power-mad despot. He's just a guy who's pretty good at his job. This, too, would be something the film series would largely eschew going forward. Much more dramatically satisfying for Bond to be deposing the heavy-hitters. Not only that, but the megalomaniacs Bond eventually routinely pits himself against are allowed to have some personality, some different flavor of world-conquering, which Red Grant can't. In its deliberate low-stakes, meandering storytelling, From Russia with Love represents a path not taken, a series of possibilities before the franchise became set in its ways.