Friday, December 4, 2015

Some Utterly Comfortless Place Where You and I Can Suffer Together (Quantum of Solace)

fig. 1: The first Google image hit for the word "quantum."

Let's start with that title, shall we? Everyone else did. "Quantum of Solace," as a title, makes no damn sense. Which, as director Marc Forster and star Daniel Craig took pains to point out on the press circuit preceding the film, isn't exactly a deal breaker with James Bond films. A View to a Kill? Antiquated and strange. Thunderball? What the hell is a "thunderball?" Octopussy? Bizarre and only just coherent based on an in-film mention, which, to me, is what sinks Forster and Craig's rationalizations.

"Quantum of Solace," as really any trivia page concerning the film will tell you, is the title of a James Bond short story as well as a phrase within that story, concerning the bare minimum of good feeling that must be present between two people for love to exist. Except, unlike Octopussy or GoldenEye or Thunderball, this phrase is not only not mentioned, it is undermined by the name of the latest ersatz SPECTRE, an international crime syndicate composed of government-toppling fixers. You can argue that the aforementioned "quantum of solace" is what James Bond achieves by the climax of this film, coming to terms with the death of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, though, again, the vibe Fleming was going for was meant to exist between couples. To say nothing of the fact that the term is beyond obscure. "Solace" is a word most people probably know, sure, but "quantum," at least as Fleming used it in 1960, to refer to "a tiny little bit of something" is far from in common use today. Mostly when used these days, "quantum" refers to "sci-fi hokum." Moviegoers were more confused than intrigued.

What they got upon arriving in theaters in 2008 was a direct sequel to 2006's Casino Royale, something that had until now (and, so far, since) not been done in a James Bond film. Already we're out of sorts, disoriented by a frenetic car chase that reveals the hero only in glimpses, and dropped square into the memory of a film from two years ago. It's been said, by the guys at the excellent James Bonding Podcast, that Quantum of Solace improves considerably as the second-half of a four-hour epic, but that's not how they were released, or how the films were planned. Q of S was hobbled by the 2007's Writer's Strike and much of the direct-sequel elements were added hastily to a barely-finished script. As a result, James Bond accidented into modernity.

The popular conceit is that this present Golden Age of Television and its focus on serialization and character complexity began with The Sopranos in 1999. (Nerds will tell you heavy serialization actually started with Babylon 5 in 1994, but, come on, it's not like anyone was actually watching Babylon 5.)  By the time Quantum of Solace premiered nearly ten years later, television was awash with intricately woven tales of complicated anti-heroes. This moral complexity bled into the rebooted 007, and the focus on serialization followed. Even though the subsequent films are less direct sequels, Spectre takes pains to connect all the disparate dots in the Craig era, from Le Chiffre to Mr. White to Skyfall's Silva. After decades of being handed files by M and going out to wreak havoc and screw, James Bond is caught up in a different type of story than the one to which he's become accustomed.

In fact, remove Bond from the equation altogether and what you're left with is a political thriller tied to Bolivia's recent water crisis, complete with a nebulous geology report, coup-happy general, and a sleazily corrupt CIA bureaucrat with his morally compromised partner. Drop James Bond in the mix and watch the situation warp. All of a sudden lowly MI6 filing clerks are showing up to the airport in nothing but a trench coat, before being theatrically murdered. Slickly ultramodern hotels run on hydrogen and sit out in the middle of the desert, and eventually explode.

There is a tension, then, to this film, as there is to all the films of the Craig era, between the franchise doing what it's used to doing and the demands of a new century. Quantum of Solace occupies an interesting position in the Daniel Craig films in that it is the least interested in responding to other James Bond films. Where Spectre and Skyfall are at least in part about reestablishing classic elements of the mythology, and Casino Royale is about showing this character we've followed for decades before he was as we knew him, Quantum of Solace is about James Bond the character, and how he might survive in the media landscape of the twenty-first century. Results were, at the time, to say the least, mixed.

Quantum of Solace represents a limit case, of sorts. Its political gamesmanship, its dour take on the series' main character, its frenetic action editing, they all seemed to add to the general bad vibe about this film, and would largely go unrepeated. Stack this against any film of, say, the Roger Moore era, and feel the whiplash ensue. This movie, then, represents a sort of limit case, the furthest out point the Craig era will reach from the consensus reality of James Bond pictures.

It is worth wondering, as a thought experiment if nothing else, what lies beyond those limits. James Bond is never going to fight Batman, for instance, or Cthulu, though I'd pay good money to see either. While he might be fallible, and human--especially in this age's focus on conflicted antiheroes, he's never going to be wrong. Not in a deep, intrinsic sense. He's never going to be something other than an escapist figure. To the extent that it gets anything wrong about James Bond, Quantum of Solace gets this wrong. James Bond is meant to be a figure of escape, for a man penning these stories to put off thinking about his impending marriage, for an empire crumbling into irrelevance, for people looking to visit exotic places, for "men wanting to be him and women wanting to be with him," James Bond is meant as a way out. If nothing else, that's why he's kept it up all this time.

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