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.

You're a journalist? Well, make it up! (Tomorrow Never Dies)

fig. 1: James Bond vs. Fox News. How can I resist?

There's a datedness to Tomorrow Never Dies, another 007 film with a nonsense title, whose nonsense title in this case is actively contradicted by the march of history. The tomorrow that Tomorrow imagined withered on the vine sometime around 2006. The villain of the piece--hammed up to the hocks by Jonathan Pryce--is bent on manufacturing a war between Britain and China to boost the ratings of his fledgling news network while at the same time manufacturing a coup in China to make sure he gets exclusive broadcast rights there. Lots to unpack.

Looking back at Pryce's Elliot Carver with the benefit of almost twenty years of hindsight, his plan seems almost quaint. He's fixated on an old model of news distribution "I want TV, I want radio, I want magazines, I want books, I want films..." that simply doesn't exist any more. It seems almost as though all James Bond would have had to do was wait the guy out. The film reminds me in fact of Empire Records, perhaps the quintessentially 90's movie, and a film that just can't exist today. The entire plot of Empire Records revolves around the plucky staff of an independent record store trying to keep their business from being gobbled up by a Tower Records-style conglomerate. All of this drama only a few years out from Napster and iPods. Nowadays, the Tower Records of the world have long since blown away like tumbleweeds with the chain bookstores and Circuit Cities. Again, the solution seemed to just wait the bad guys out. Watching this movie in 2015, I noticed the Internet doesn't even get a word in. It has less of a footprint in this film than it did in 1995's GoldenEye.

Tomorrow Never Dies isn't about tomorrow at all. It's about yesterday, both the recent past and the past of a century gone. In 1997, the year of the film's airing, the first Gulf War was only six years old. CNN's twenty-four-hour-a-day coverage of that war put the cable news outlet ahead of all its broadcast network competition for the first time in history. Carver resembles both CNN's founder Ted Turner as well as Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch, whose own channel went online just a year before this film aired. Beyond those two men, the film draws an explicit parallel to William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism scheme surrounding the Spanish-American war.

The anxiety that Tomorrow Never Dies posits is a natural and long-standing one: what if some unscrupulous ne'er do well got his hands on a media empire? Again the film feels quaint. Today, in America at least, we generally assume anyone at the tip of these media icebergs is corrupt. Liberals all bemoan Fox and its lying scare tactics, and Conservatives cry foul at CNN, MSNBC, and literally every single news outlet from satellites to carnival barkers as part of a Liberal Media Elite conspiracy. The only thing anyone can agree on is that everyone else is lying.

What's curious, then, about this film, is its ending. After Bond has dispatched Carver and thwarted his plan, M issues a press release saying that Carver died aboard his yacht in an apparent suicide, another line of dialogue that references a media baron, this time the deceased British magnate Robert Maxwell. No effort appears to be made to dismantle the Carver Media Group or to hold anyone within it to account for their actions in regards to the murder of sixteen British sailors earlier in the film, or the bald-faced manipulation of politics and markets that Carver and his cronies engaged in all through the margins of this film. Everything goes back to status quo.

This is, as ever, a problem in these films, though not a surprising one. Super-spies and superhereroes are always invested in the status quo. The status quo keeps James Bond in shaken martinis and beautiful women, and to the extent that he changes at all, it is through the reinvention that recasting affords, dragged along by that long march of history.. The Brosnan era, in particular, occupies--at least in retrospect--a holding pattern between the largely failed experiment of the Timothy Dalton years and the gritty reimagining of the upcoming Daniel Craig era. To go back through these films is a sort of pop-culture archaeology, as much as a personal one.