Saturday, November 28, 2015

Wearing a Bit Thin (Skyfall)

fig. 1 Not a Bond villain

Spectre, and the James Bond film that immediately precedes it, Skyfall, are of a kind. They share the same cast, the same director, the same anxieties. Part of Spectre's unease has to do with the emerging surveillance state. Though, of course, not because the surveillance itself might be a violation of our basic liberties, but rather that such a thing could be perverted by some transparently evil bureaucrat secretly on the take from a shadowy international crime syndicate.

Similarly, at the heart of Skyfall is Silva, a man who announces his intentions by broadcasting on the Internet the names and cover identities of five deep-cover MI6 operatives. He is the terror of the digital age for a department run on secrets. WikiLeaks was founded in 2006, the year Daniel Craig arrived in the Bond role. In 2010 and 2011, they released thousands of documents pertaining to the US and UK's game of empire in Afghanistan and Iraq, including footage of a US helicopter gunship indiscriminately gunning down Iraqi civilians in 2007.  "We can't keep working in the shadows," Mallory tells M. "There are no shadows anymore." What could be more frightening to an army of spies?

Except, in the end, Silva is not Julian Assange. He is, as the logic of these movies dictate, a product of MI6's own ecosystem, an ersatz double-0 given up by his handler and left for dead. He does all this out of a personal vendetta against M. The little people that get in his way are just collateral damage. He is a stateless despot, a glowering madman in the tradition of the genre. There's no question raised here about the ethics of gathering secrets, or of upending the systems that run on them. For the twenty-third time in twenty-three movies, James Bond fights a cipher.

Silva runs his operation out of an island he took over by manufacturing a fake crisis. He destabilizes multinationals from his computer. He rigs elections. He hacks spy satellites, gas mains, and MI6 itself. Earlier in the film, Q tells Bond "I'll hazard I could do more damage on my laptop in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field." Thank God Q's on our side.

fig. 2: Still from 'Wes Anderson's James Bond'

Spectre will later rehash the counterargument Bond makes here. When asked what he needs Bond for in this brave new world, Q responds that "Now and then a trigger has to be pulled."

"Or not pulled," Bond replies. "Difficult to know which in your pajamas." It is this tension that animates Skyfall.  While the two computer geniuses, Q and Silva, play tug-of-war with their technological jiggery pokery, Bond absconds with M to his ancestral home, explicitly stating that he's going back in time. Faced with a monster from M's past, Bond retreats into his own, to a looming old house with no wi-fi, no phone, and only the deliberately low-tech defenses they can rig up themselves to aid in their defense. Indeed, Bond escapes through a priest hole, an old escape route dating back to the Sixteenth Century. Sometimes, as we're reminded by different characters throughout the course of Skyfall, the old ways are best.

At fifty years in, this feels like the franchise trying to justify itself, and it would feel even more so if Skyfall weren't such a beautiful, confident film. Bond is positioned again as a throwback, even though this version of him has barely been a double-0 for six years. He's distrustful of Q's youth, drives a car made before he was born, and shaves with an old-fashioned straight razor. The Bond films can't help but be self-conscious about their own age. Indeed, the film puts Bond on his back foot for much of its running time. He's haggard, worn out, the toll of the human dimension of intelligence weighing him down. He's nearly broken by starring in a spy movie in the post-Bourne Identity era.

In fact, he only seems to recover as his status quo grows closer and closer to the one we're familiar with. Moneypenny, in the field at the start of the film, takes a desk job. MI6 moves out of its slickly modern fortress into a cavernous bunker, and M, played by Judi Dench since 1995, is replaced by a stiff upper-lipped middle-aged white man. The final scene of the film is part of the Jungian memory of these movies: Bond in M's office, receiving a file, being sent out into the field. Even now, the landscape is shifting back.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thought You Were Going to Say He Was Your Secret Brother or Something (Spectre)

fig. 1: Not James Bond

Spoilers for the film Spectre, if you haven't seen it yet.

Spectre is an uneasy film. It is an anxious film. At the heart of its anxiety is the place of James Bond in the world, both as a person in his universe and as a cultural artifact in ours, and for much the same reasons. Having just set up shop in Skyfall in a set of subterranean Churchill-era bunkers, a move which, along with most of the rest of Skyfall was meant to telegraph both "back to basics" and "this is a prequel, you guys," MI6 is upended and meant to blend in to MI5, which is presently run by the scheming, oily Max Denbigh. Someone makes the observation early in that Denbigh went to school with the Home Secretary. The actor who plays him, Andrew Scott, is thirty-nine, which would make him about twenty years younger than Great Britain's actual Home Secretary.

This is, of course, deliberate. Compared to Daniel Craig (47) and Ralph Fiennes (52 and looking older) he seems to have more in common with the youthful Moneypenny and Q. He, and the ultramodern, transparent glass building that houses this new era of British Intelligence are THE FUTURE, and it's something everybody at MI6, at least everybody with any lines, is concerned about. M gives a not-exactly-impassioned (he is British) speech about the license to kill being a license not to kill, in a sense arguing in favor of assassination so long as the assassin is a person and not a predator drone. Denbigh is unmoved. He represents progress. Progress, and the anxiety of a fifty-three-year-old film franchise starring a forty-seven-year-old man has about its place in the world.

He is also, of course, evil, and his scheme is so transparently a bad idea that it's a wonder it took this coterie of seasoned intelligence professionals so long to figure it out. He wants to share intelligence information with a dozen other countries, with vastly different aims and goals. All in the name of thwarting terrorism, the obvious byline for this sort of thing, and the tenuous connection this film makes to real-world events.

It is worth pointing out that this film was released the same year as Kingsman: The Secret Service, a movie that is chock-a-block with Bond pastiche. In fact, 2015 was a banner year for spy films. Mission: Impossible flew in another outing, and there was Spy and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which both also deal heavily with the classic iconography of 1960's James Bond films, and that's before films like Bridge of Spies and Sicario, offered more grounded, realistic takes.

It's that iconography that gets at the heart of Spectre's unease. If the Craig films represent a limit case for how far the franchise can stray from its roots, then throughout Spectre you can faintly hear the sound of the elastic snapping back, and much of this comes specifically in the form of Franz Oberhauser, or, as he will become known as later in the film, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Blofeld here represents two tropes I personally detest at work. The first being Surprise! This evil organization of which you've never heard is secretly behind all the seemingly-unrelated hokum with which you've been dealing! The second? Surprise! The bad guy is secretly connected to the good guy and hates him for something to do with their shared past. That's right, kids. Bond and Blofeld went to ski-camp together.

After James Bond's parents died, he spent a couple years with a nice man who taught him skiing and all sorts of outdoorsy stuff. The man's egomaniac biological son grew up to found--or at least run--a secret organization of evildoers that he probably would have anyway, because he was crazy enough to murder his father for being nice to an orphan boy. What it leads to is an interesting dramatic irony common in these types of mythology-heavy franchise films. We in the audience of course know who Blofeld is--the die-hard fans, anyway--but the characters obviously don't. To them he's just another lunatic

On the one hand, we haven't actually seen Blofeld in forty-four years, not since he met his end in Diamonds are Forever. On the other hand, his baggage is all over the place. The boxes of his iconography are conspicuously checked. The Nehru jacket, the cat, the scar, the position at the head of a (literally) shadowy table full of (figuratively) shadowy individuals. After fifty years of appearances, pastiches, parodies, and cultural pollination, we already know who this guy is. What his deal is. And to have the head of this worldwide terrorist cabal be Bond's old ski buddy seems...petty. SPECTRE is meant to be a larger-than-life organization. To ground it in such a low human concern seems disappointing. To me, Bond and Blofeld are meant to represent these grinding engines of empire for whom the fight eventually gets personal. To have it start this way feels like starting the song in the loudest possible register.

You can see the reasoning behind why they thought this was a good decision. SPECTRE and Blofeld are the last pieces of the franchise mythology to be fit in to place in this long prequel series, and the Craig era has been defined by giving James Bond a sense of interiority that he has conspicuously lacked through most of his film appearances. So why not marry the two? Why not have this guy you vaguely remember and vaguely understand is important be tied up completely in the main character's past? Isn't that just the most elegant way to integrate character-focused drama and action-movie mythologizing?

But then, I never found Blofeld to be all that interesting, and he's further undermined here by trying to color in a character between the thick lines of quirks and signifiers. And Bond has been fighting Blofeld, in one form or another, for all those forty-four years the latter man was missing. The franchise is littered with ersatz Blofelds, particularly in Craig's second outing, Quantum of Solace, which goes to all the trouble of creating an all new, even more preposterously named International Criminal Syndicate, only to pretty much entirely discard the thing by Skyfall and have it exist only in passing mentions in this film.

There's a reason for this, and a reason we haven't seen Bond's perennial arch nemesis since 1971, and that's entirely down to the vagaries of British copyright law. But that's another story, yet.

For now the question the Bond films grapple with is where to go from here. The movie theaters are crowded with knowing homages and sly winks to the classic series, as well as the kind of brutal, frenetic, grounded, personal action pieces Casino Royale was reacting to nine years ago. The franchise must negotiate between these two poles, while at the same time trying to keep the character relevant in a shifting political and technological landscape. M once called Bond "a dinosaur, a relic from the Cold War," and that was in GoldenEye, twenty years and a whole other James Bond ago.

I've seen all of the James Bond films. I wouldn't consider myself a big fan, but big enough that I've seen twenty-four motion pictures starring the guy, and I'm thinking seriously about going back through his back catalogue and figuring out why what works for me works, and why what doesn't doesn't, and trying to imagine how this old dinosaur might amble its way onward into a new and perilous century.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


When the elevator doors open, I'm seized by the urge to run. They haven't seen me yet. No one will notice if I don't make it in. Just go back to the airport, wait for the red eye back to Tucson, pretend none of this happened write off the seven hundred dollar planet ticket as lesson learned

It's hard when everyone you know is a superhero.

There is a secret elevator in the Empire State Building that fewer than a thousand living people know about. It takes you to the Eighty-Sixth Floor--the real Eighty-Sixth Floor--where once a year the costumed adventurer set gathers to take off their masks and pretend for a little while to be whomever it was they were before radioactive moon rock or mystical snake venom or divine alien heritage hit their lives over the head with strangeness. It's all art deco and modern furniture. Everyone else probably came in rocket cars or invisible helicopters. I took a cab from La Guardia.

Done up in cocktail dresses and dinner jackets, everyone looks different. There's an anonymity here for most of us, at least the ones who still wear masks, who weren't outed by the media or long ago gave up on having a private life. They're all here: Samson, the Hourglass, Immaterial Girl, the Yeoman. If the Tarantulist or Collapsar knew where this annual soiree was..but, then, I suppose Halloween is a big deal for them, too.

I'm late in arriving, which was of course the plan. I blend in to a sea of blandly attractive faces. This is, in fact, the first Halloween I've attended in five years. Where did the time go? Everyone looks so good. Everyone else looks good and I'm offering a silent prayer of thanks to whichever god of fashion deemed the button on my jacket should clasp at just the spot to obscure the nascent pot belly I've been carrying the past eight months.

With what I personally gauge to be a heroic effort not unlike that time I fought Azazel the Undying atop a speeding Amtrak train, I sally forth and try to mingle, first heading to the bar. Whose idea was it to add alcohol to social gatherings? I should ask Samson, he'd know. He was probably at the first one. (As if he knows I'm thinking about him, I hear that booming enfilade of the Antediluvian strongman's laughter. You wouldn't' now it from news footage or blurry cell phone videos, but up close, Samson's hair is all split ends.) Whose idea was it to get a whole scrum of people together and give them each a potion that would render the sullen ones more sullen, the belligerent ones more belligerent, and the happy ones completely insufferable?

Half the attendees don't process alcohol in the normal way. There are cocktails at the bar specially marked, full of more exotic stuff. "What'll it be, kid?" the man at the bar asks me I recognize him at once. It's hard not to with the blue-white hair (a little faded and thinned) and the cybernetic arm peeking out from the rolled-up sleeve of his pressed white shirt. He's put on weight in his middle age and I'm imagining what he looks like under that shirt, now that the rest of him doesn't measure up to the metallic muscular perfection of his robot arm. Back in the Nineties, when I was first starting out, this was Captain Extreme.

"Whiskey and soda," I tell him, and he obliges. Back in the summer of 1994, Captain Extreme was the biggest thing going. Refugee survivor of a destroyed and abandoned future. Teleported to our time to beat the stuffing out of the likes of Deathcount and the Shrieking Violet. Now, here he was, pushing fifty, tending bar. My first Halloween was a couple years after Extreme peaked, when I turned sixteen. Jane and I and the rest of the Freedom Five, on special invitation to the Eighty-Sixth Floor. There were old timers tending bar then, too. The Silver Sentinel, maybe, or Mister Marathon. I didn't know. I swore that'd never be me. Something unsavory and depressing about it.

The Hourglass steps up to the bar. She never wears a mask in public, but nobody, here or there, knows who she is. The great misfortune of The Hourglass' life is that despite the fact that she has complete mastery over all of time, the only thing anyone in the media ever wants to talk about is how amazing she looks in skin-tight Kevlar. the time her suit got ripped on live TV during a fight with The Sideways Man is probably more deeply etched in the collective psyche of the United States than the September 11th attacks. She orders a club soda and Captain Extreme dutifully sets about.

"Know something I don't?" I ask, given she isn't drinking.

"Hello, Danny," she beams. Keep your eyes on her eyes, Danny. Keep your eyes on her eyes. Keep your eyes on her eyes.  "You're looking well. How's Tucson?"

"How did--?" I still haven't told anyone. After I got sidelined, I relocated. Best orthopedic surgeon in the Southwest. I could start my career back up once the physical therapy took off.

"You accidentally let it slip and it comes up again in conversation in sixth months."

I'm taken aback but it's hardly anything new for her. She doesn't experience time like the rest of us. I try and recover my footing, telling her that I suppose I should be glad they're stil talking about me in six months. "Wait, I'm not dead, am I?" the thought stumbles out as it occurs to me. "Is that why it comes up? In six months? Am I dead?"

"You know I can't tell you that," she says, dry as the air back home.

"But you can tell everyone I'm holed up in Tucson."

"Tucson?" It's--crap. I don't know who this is. i don't recognize him out of costume. "You meet the Horsefly yet? He runs out of there, I think."

Fucking time travel. The Hourglass just shrugs at me. I tell whomever-this-is I don't know who the Horsefly is but of course I know who the Horsefly is. Tucson, Arizona is a one-cape town. Smallest of the small time. I didn't expect some other mask to show up while I was convalescing. Imagine my surprise when I turn on the eleven o'clock news to find some guy wailing on drug runners out of a home-made ornithopter. I wonder if he's here. If this is him right now, running some sly self-promotional networking. I try my rusty detective skills. looking for traces of conspicuous Arizona sunlight. Probably a long shot. Some of us don't even make the trek. Street-level guys, especially. Guys like me. Like I used to be. Besides, I was never as good at looking for clues as I was at cracking heads

Whoever this is, he's turned his attention (naturally) to the Hourglass asking her if she wants to go out on patrol. I talk over him, chivalrous guy that I am, and ask her how often she gets asked for winning lottery numbers.

"How do you think I afforded this dress?" she asks, and smirks faintly.

"Are you serious?" I-still-have-no-idea interjects. "That's unethical!"

"Whoa, we got ourselves an Ethics in Time-Travel expert!" I interject, probably a touch louder than I need to be, but at that moment it feels cemented: me and her against the world. The Hourglass and The Lariat. All-American Team-Up. It's conceptual.

"I was there," she explains to me and to him and to the Nineties superhero from the 99th Century who's refilling her club soda. "I've been to the future. I already know I did it."

"You're saying there's no such thing as free will?" Seriously, who is this guy? It's maddening.

"Why did you want to be a superhero? she asks him, and before he can stammer out a reply she turns to me. "And, Danny, why did you fall in love with Jane? Out of everyone in your life, what was it about her?" I look for Jane instinctively, hoping she's nowhere close to where her name was dropped. "You were always going to be who you are. That's the way the world spins. There isn't any great mystery to it."

When I was a boy growing up in Oklahoma, my parents were killed. Not long after that, I met a man. The last true cowboy in the West. The Long Arm of the Law. He taught me how to fight, how to look for clues how to pick up the pieces of my life and shape it into something with a purpose. He was the best man I ever met. I was terrified of him.

It wasn't long before I met others like me. Young recruits, the next generation in a story that had been going on for decades, that had deformed and reshaped the history of the world. Our mentors all thought it would be a good idea to corral us together to learn some valuable life lessons while cutting our teeth on third-rate evildoers. It was me, Kid Achilles, Unicorn Boy, Heat Sink, and Jane, aka Skygirl. You never think when you're in it that this is the best time of your life, that this is you peaking. You never see the top of the roller coaster until you're already pointing down.

We grew up. Poor Unicorn Boy died. Kid Achilles became the Hoplite, Jane became the new Laughing Owl when the old one retired, and Heat Sink retired at twenty-one to start a refrigeration company. I still get postcards when he travels.

I went out on my own because that's what you do. Fought crime out of Phoenix until I tore my ACL in a fight with all four members of the Obliterati. All these fucking immortals. The Hourglass has been the same age since 1958. Samson can bench-press a city. What am I supposed to do with that? I look around this room at the demigods in tuxedos and sequins and I see why people hate them. I still limp on damp days, which, thankfully: Arizona. I put the suit on once I got out of the hospital, and I felt stupid. Nothing seemed to sit in the right place anymore. I wanted to wear it under my clothes (some of us indeed do that), but, again, Arizona.

Then six months happened. Then a year. The suit still felt binding and uncomfortable. I drove around the city taking notes. Bought a camera. Field work. Gathering intel. All studiousness and diligence, signifying nothing. I haven't seen Jane in five years, except on the news. I meant to write, scribbled out dozens of torn-up post cards and typed out a hundred deleted emails The pebble of my procrastination became an avalanche of neglect. Once or twice or a hundred times she tired to call and I let it go to voice mail, until one day I saw footage of her with some new guy clobbering a horde of invaders from beneath the sea. The Aquamarine. I'm sure he's here, tonight. I'm sure he's here with her. At any rate, I wish him all the best, the s.o.b.

Why did I come here? In theory I'm invited to these things every year. An envelope appears in my mail box, regardless of my change of address, every year on the first of October. Orange and black. You are cordially invited. I haven't been in all this time.

The Hourglass and Whoever-this-is-seriously-I-have-no-idea are getting into the weeds of free will and determinism and I am, quite without realizing it, on my fourth whiskey-and-soda. God bless you, Captain Extreme. I venture back out to mingle. I rub elbows with refugee alien gods, with cybernetic posthuman adventurers, with mystical strongmen and half-human mutates. Maybe it's the whiskey-and-sodas, but I feel suddenly buoyed by the bonhomie of all all these heroic types. Everyone here belongs here Even me, I tell myself, a good feeling that lasts precisely long enough for me to run into Jane. She slinks up to me in a black, floor-length dress, her arms like sculpted marble, and hands me a glass of champagne, and I, who fought a triumvirate of forgotten Aztec gods alongside the Scariest Old Man in the World, I feel the floor drop out from under me.

"Fancy meeting you here," she says. Her voice is all angles and edges; I can't make sense of it. Or maybe I can but I don't want to. Maybe I want to read a whole story into what was once a high-school crush, but has moved on, left behind like all the other mile markers of youth.

"Anything for free booze," I reply, and drain my glass more swiftly than I suppose is typically called for.

"We missed you at these things, you know. Couple hours in, it's always the same. 'Where's the Lariat?' Then there's the crying and rending of garments."

"This crowd? Sounds like a party."

Jane laughs and for a moment its old times, unrehearsed, and I'm back in time, sipping from a flask of something bitter and smoky we took off one of the Galloping Ghoul's henchmen. The pair of us at nineteen, my red-white-and-blue cowboy outfit and her feathered metal wings. Watch out, bad guys. Everywhere.

"So where have you been keeping yourself? I watch the news out of Arizona and I never see you."

I want to tell her a lie, that I'm still out there, pulling my weight, to tell her the truth, to own up to the truth myself, that I'm giving up,, that its a glacial process but one that is by now inevitable. I want to tell her what those times meant to me, what they still mean to me, but a man in a rented tuxedo who may or may not be the Horsefly interrupts everyone to say there's been an 8.5 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan. All hands on deck. In a few moments, the room clears out Then it's just me and a few of the old-timers.

A while after that, its just me.