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.

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