Friday, February 26, 2016

On The Boundary of Your Reality and Mine. You Brought Yourselves Here. (The Spy Who Loved Me)

fig. 1: Not James Bond

The Spy Who Loved Me is perhaps the quintessential James Bond film. It has every element that had by the time of its release come to define the series, and would continue to well after. On that level, it's kind of hard to find anything to say about it. The plot is bog-standard. Scheming supervillain, somewhat deformed? Check. Beautiful lady-spy with whom Bond forges a quick (d)alliance? Check. Towering henchman? Check. Convoluted plan to destroy the world? You better believe it.

The film is peak Bond. It's Roger Moore at the height of his powers, not hobbled by a Sean Connery impersonation as in The Man with The Golden Gun or burdened with too much silliness as in Moonraker. And as Star Wars would arrive to change the landscape there in 1977, it is more or less the last James Bond film not to be reacting to some filmic trend. What this film was reacting to was a pop-cultural fascination with the sea, spurred on by a decade of Jacques Cousteau on television and the 1975 World Expo in Okinawa. In fact, the Okinawa Aquapolis was intended at first to stand in for Stromberg's Atlantis, though that location proved too expensive, and a made-up undersea base was used instead.

fig. 2(a): The Aquapolis
fig. 2(b): Atlantis

I grew up watching Star Trek. With a couple of notable exceptions, whenever the crew of the Enterprise visited some place that wasn't some desert wilderness, that place was a sound stage, and frequently a redress of the existing sets. Alien city? Sound stage. Romulan battlecruiser? Sound stage. Particularly alien planet? Sound stage. Sometimes you got the Paramount back lot subbing in for an alien planet, meaning Captain Kirk and company had the habit of running past the same building, light-years apart.

This makes perfect sense. What other way to represent the future but through artifice? Nobody knows what the 2260's are going to look like, it might as well be crafted on some sound stage than made to squeeze into the shape of today. The same with Star Wars, which crafts its faraway galaxy largely through sound stages and matte paintings.

fig. 3(a): An underground city on Eminiar VII, actually just Enterprise's corridors redressed and done up in purple lighting

fig. 3(b): INT: ATLANTIS
James Bond occupies a liminal space between the artifice of the future and the landscape of the present. In dropping the Aquapolis, production designer Ken Adam crafted an Atlantis whose exterior resembles an alien from one of those science fiction productions, and whose interior juxtaposes their slick futurism with Stromberg's baroque taste in home furnishings. In a couple of years, Moonraker will do the same thing. Drax's jungle hideout and his orbiting space station don't adhere to historical architectural concerns. He hides chemical weapons factories behind Venetian glass manufacturers. For Your Eyes Only stashes a futuristic British listening post behind a grubby fishing barge. Octopussy imagines a Kremlin that would spring for a Politburo Lazy Susan. Fast forward all the way to Spectre, with its concerns about transparency in Intelligence literalized in the clear glass facade of MI:5's new digs. It was one of the things that struck me most about that film, which involves a made-up megalomaniac demolishing a real London landmark, pursued by a made-up secret agent working for a made-up department of a real organization

This is essential to James Bond. Call it the exploding pen aesthetic. The pen's not really a pen, it's a bomb. The camera isn't really a camera, it's a gun. The volcano hideout of You Only Live Twice. The car turns into a submarine, as here. The well-dressed man is, in reality, a trained killer for Her Majesty's Secret Service. These movies exist in a world where everything has the potential to be anything (although the things they typically end up being are either things that listen or things that kill). Corridors can be turned down, doors opened by the unsuspecting, and lead to a whole other world.

fig. 4: Wet Nelly

To an extent, of course, all movies do this. TV shows, too. The apartment on Friends isn't really an apartment. But the Bond films do double-duty, crafting a world that is recognizably our own AND a world that owes no such fealty. This aesthetic is the primary legacy of these movies, much more than the debonair super-spy character at their center: this other world at right angles to the one we know. It's all over the films of Matthew Vaughn, for instance, whose X-Men: First Class and Kingsman owe a stylistic debt to early Bond that borders on one hundred percent.

This aesthetic is felt most keenly in the Roger Moore and Sean Connery eras, where, though I'm rewatching in reverse-order, James Bond has not yet referred to himself as being with MI:6. He mentions British Intelligence, but prior to GoldenEye, which moves his HQ from a London office building to MI:6's then-fairly-new digs in Vauxhall Cross, he never made it explicit what group he worked for, name dropping much more frequently his front company, Universal Exports. He's less tethered to reality here, more a representative of that other corridor you might one day turn down than he would be in later decades.

These stories bleed out their design sensibilities into other areas. I mentioned the rotating Lazy Susan of a Soviet Meeting Room in Octopussy. This film features one of those characters, (Walter Gotell's General Gogol, who would appear in every Bond film from here until The Living Daylights) who might as well run his operation out of a castle, for all the Romanesque sensibility the film gives his dwellings.

fig. 5: Socialist Realism

I mean, I don't know what Soviet spy chiefs were doing for digs back in 1977, but I somehow doubt it was this. Then again, nobody in America or Great Britain of the 1970's had any great idea what the Russians were doing for spy-chief aesthetics, so the film makers must have felt pretty comfortable crafting the Russians out of whole cloth as they do for Stromberg and the rest of the franchise's would-be world conquerors.

Of course this is a spy movie conceit. What separates spy fiction from other genres of adventure fiction is that secret language of code and signifier. That two people sitting on a park bench blithely discussing the weather can be, in fact, discussing something far deeper and more sinister. It extends outward from set and prop design to guys like Goldfinger's Oddjob, whose bowler hat rather famously doubles as a deadly weapon, and this film's hulking antagonist Jaws, who looks like a normal (seven foot tall) man until those chompers come out.

So many of the pulp adventure genres involve some kind of travel, be it to Ruritania, or Tatooine, or Hyboria. Spy fiction, High Fantasy, Ruritanian Romance, they're all about building a world distant from our own foundations. Spy films, The Spy Who Loved Me in particular, build their worlds out of the shadows and angles of our own, much like horror fiction does, and, America's current pop culture obsession, superheroes. This in mind, it seems obvious that Marvel Studios would fashion the TV end of its broadcast empire around a group of spies, and that other shows such as Supergirl and Arrow rely heavily on the iconography of Shadowy Government Agencies. James Bond shares much in common with superheroes, including, throughout the Moore era and particularly in next week's installment, the Badly Maintained Secret Identity. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Another Self-Aggrandizing Artifact (Moonraker)

fig. 1: Why We Fight In Space

It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that Star Wars was a game changer for movies. That between it and Jaws, those couple of years in the late 1970's basically invented the tent pole film. While that's certainly true, writing a personal retrospective on the James Bond series obliges me to point out that Doctor No's arrival to American shores in 1963 was the very definition of a blockbuster. That film made twenty-five million dollars at the Early Sixties box office, more than five times that of its closest rival, Doctor Zhivago. Its runaway success--and that of the franchise as a whole--inspired a legion of imitators that would shape the popular culture of the 1960's. That was then, however. This is "now."

It's not like James Bond invented the adventure movie. There were Westerns all through the 1950's and beyond, and, prior to Star Wars in 1977, audiences could count on a disaster picture like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno for thrills. Bond movies continued to come out at an even pace even as the spy genre died around them, like the occasional throwback Western. Then Star Wars arrived. Star Wars inspired its own legion of imitators, and like Bond's, very few of these were any good. Audiences--and movie studios--of the late Seventies went mad for space adventure, the result of which, at least for our old friend at the British Secret Service, was Moonraker.

fig. 2: Hang on. That's not it.

If you stuck around through the end credits of 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me, you'd have seen the promise that "James Bond Will Return in For Your Eyes Only." Not quite. The seismic event that was Star Wars forced the franchise to adjust. It's an uneasy adjustment. The novel upon which Moonraker is nominally based bears almost no resemeblance to what audiences would see on screen in 1979. The earlier work is all about British missile defense, with its antagonist Hugo Drax secretly a Nazi scientist aiming to blow up London with a nuclear missile.

It's not as if Bond hasn't played in other sandboxes before, or will again. Spectre borrows liberally from political thrillers. Licence to Kill is a gritty Eighties actioner, and Live and Let Die is James Bond walking off the set of his own movie and through the set of a Blaxploitation film from 1973. That malleability has helped keep the franchise running for fifty-plus years. Like the Star Wars films, the James Bond franchise is more a series of aesthetic decisions than a focused, coherent narrative. (Any doubt about that should be put to rest by The Force Awakens, if not the Prequel Trilogy.) Within those lines, however, there is a lot of room to color.

Moonraker as it arrived on screens, more or less follows the same plot beats as The Spy Who Loved Me, substituting Stromberg's plan to build a Utopian society under the sea with Drax's Orbiting Master Race. Metal-mouthed henchman Jaws even returns. Replace "kill off the human race" with "ransom the world," and you've also got the plot of You Only Live Twice and Thunderball, down to the former's massive shootout through a vast sound stage. Only this time, it's done with lasers.

fig. 3: I have a bad feeling about this.

It's like the parable of the frog in boiling water, only the frog in this case is James Bond and the boiling water is camp. I remember back in the day when SpikeTV used to run its marathon of Bond films--Seven Days of 007--I somehow always seemed to turn on the TV right as this one came on. "Oh, crap. It's Moonraker." The film has the reputation as being the ugly stepchild of the franchise, which it got at least in part for existing for a long time prior to Die Another Day.

In fact, the film was a tremendous hit at the box office. It would remain the highest-grossing Bond film until GoldenEye unseated it, sixteen years later. Critics weren't as enthused, and hardcore fans raked Moonraker over the proverbial coals, but the fact remains it was a massive hit. It warped the language, in a way. Do the same Google trick I did with Quantum of Solace and see how far you have to scroll down before you find a picture of an actual moonsail.

fig. 4: Well...
The word "moonraker" has three definitions, and they're all pretty fun. First: it's the topmost sail of a square-rigged sailing ship. That's a wonderfully evocative word, of the exact same vein as "skyscraper," one of my favorite words. They're sails for ships built for speed. The second definition, tied to an English folk tale, has a bunch of smugglers trying to retrieve their cache by moonlight,only to be caught by revenue men.When asked what they were doing, the smugglers pretended to be trying to rake a wheel of cheese out of the water, and played at the reflection of the moon with their rakes. The last, befitting James Bond and his antagonists, is a term for a very ambitious man. So, pretty good word for your movie, and the space shuttle that features so prominently in it. This film, in fact, marks the on-screen debut of the space shuttle orbiter, intended to coincide with the shuttle's first launch, though in fact the launch was delayed until 1981. Laser guns, well, they're taking a bit longer.

In fact, while Moonraker gets flak for being "the space one," Bond and his fellow secret agent (ugh.) Dr. Goodhead don't make it to Drax's Space Refuge for Really Telegenic People until there's only about a half hour left in the film. Previous to this, it's as typical a 007 adventure as you're likely to find, and if you somehow managed to wander into the theater without ever seeing a poster for the film, you might not imagine that space was where James Bond was going to end up. Or, at least, not in the middle of a pitched battle between the US Space Program and a bunch of Eugenicists led by a hilariously dour Frenchman. I spent much of my rewatch thinking "When is he going to get to space so this thing can start sucking?"

fig.5: That's no moon.

The space bits are hardly the worst offenders in this film. If I had to pick where Moonraker went off the rails for me, it would be in the music cues. When Jaws first meets Dolly, one of Drax's buxom astro-nymphets, the score can't help but break in to Tchiakovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" theme, long-since lapsed into parody, and as Bond arrives on horseback (for some reason) at British Intelligence's Brazil HQ, wearing a poncho and cowboy hat (for some reason), the score (for some reason) sees fit to break into the theme from The Magnificent Seven. There's not taking yourself too seriously, and there's this.

The franchise would course-correct in the next entry, but by Octopussy, the familiar rhythms would be in place again, rhythms that would more or less persist in Bond's model of storytelling until Casino Royale. I mentioned in my look back at Quantum of Solace that that film represents a limit case of how far the Bond franchise can go in a certain direction (in this case the Conflicted Antihero route) and still remain recognizably itself. , then, is its obverse, showing how far down the rabbit hole of its own excesses the franchise can go, and still remain entertaining.

fig. 6: Damn it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Movie Trailers: Star Wars: Episode VIII

Over the weekend, Disney posted a teaser announcing that filming had begun on the eighth Star Wars installment. If you're one of the scant few Americans who somehow failed to see The Force Awakens in these past two months, the trailer opens on that film's pivotal final scene. Spoiler Alert.

What occurred to me after watching this bit--and failed to occur to me any of the three times I actually saw The Force Awakens in the theater, was how misguided a gesture Rey's proffering the lightsaber* to Luke seems. Rey, dude, the man has his own sword. One he built himself. Further, Luke Skywalker was unable to defeat his father using Anakin's lightsaber. It was only when he built his own weapon--when he began to move past his father's shadow, that Luke stood a chance of defeating Vader.

Not that Rey can be expected to know any of this. Though she grew up in the wreckage of that war, its details, like the details of any major conflict long gone, are smeared and indistinct. And though he defeated Vader, Luke still fell to the Emperor, saved only by the love of his father.

Darth Vader's legacy weighs heavily on Star Wars. Back in the late Nineties when George Lucas was backpedaling on older statements he'd made about a nine-part saga, he insisted that Vader was the main character of Star Wars, and that the six installments were all about a man falling to darkness and being redeemed by the love of his son. It's an awkward fit, and even though the new trilogy moves beyond him, the influence of Vader is felt pretty strongly in the narrative, even though he is absent from it. The First Order is modeled directly on his old job, and Vader's grandson patterned his entire personality on who he thinks Vader was. Both the sword and Vader's helmet are used as fetish objects, material ties to history and to the magic that powered that history, used to claim ownership of that history. In the climactic fight between Kylo Ren and Rey, Ren insists the weapon belongs to him. He's staking a claim--quite obviously--on ownership of Anakin Skywalker's legacy. By defeating him and taking the sword to Luke, Rey is refuting that claim.

But what is the legacy of Anakin Skywalker but one of failure? His own to live up to the ideals of his order, and Obi-Wan Kenobi's, who failed both Anakin, and later, after giving Luke his father's weapon, Luke himself. Obi-Wan sent Luke Skywalker to war on a lie**. It's telling that when Rey touches the saber, she's brought back to that fight in Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back, that traumatic moment of defeat and revelation for Luke, around which the entire original trilogy pivots.

Kylo Ren's fall parallels Darth Vader's pretty deliberately, and that lightsaber is a symbol not only of Obi-Wan's failing Anakin, but Luke's failing Ben Solo. He tried to do what Obi-Wan did, and he failed in the exact same way. That Kylo Ren so desperately wants to be Darth Vader will eventually be his downfall, but if Star Wars' far-away galaxy is ever to move beyond the endless cycle of fall and redemption, of Empire and Rebellion, it needs people who will stand on their own, out of the shadows.

* Or, since she's Space British, "lightsabre".
** Or, you know, a retcon.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Let's Not Be Ostentatious (For Your Eyes Only)

fig. 1: Ersatz Stavro Blofeld

From its bizarre, tacked-on opening scene through at least the first act, For Your Eyes Only is a deeply paranoid film. It's not politically paranoid; the Bond films remain resolutely apolitical. Rather, it's the paranoia of the classic spy film, of Alfred Hitchcock, even almost of David Lynch. Before settling in to more traditional action-adventure fare, For Your Eyes Only commits fully to a creeping dread of hired killers and death traps, of dangers lurking around every corner.

Let's start with that cold open. Though the man who has hijacked Bond's helicopter is never identified--or even properly glimpsed--he's clearly meant to be Blofeld, and the quick way with which he is dispatched was meant as a big Eff You to Kevin McClory, who through the Seventies was litigating his way toward putting together the film that would become Never Say Never Again.

The opener also served two functions of interest to Roger Moore. The first: James Bond begins the scene visiting the grave of his wife Tracy, killed in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, back when he looked like George Lazenby. He's unusually somber for this incarnation, ruminating on his loss when approached by a vicar who tells him there's a helicopter coming for him. Moore wanted that scene to demonstrate a continuity between actors, to showcase again that he was playing the same guy as Connery and Lazenby had, and by way of doing this to lay the ground for his departure. Though he would go on to make two more films, Moore intended, at least at the time, for this to be his last picture.

The dread in this movie starts with the vicar, who's giving Bond the sign of the cross in a loaded, strange shot that inserts a level of disquiet just before the helicopter is hijacked by Ersatz Blofeld. So the helo is hijacked, and Blofeld, through the radio before implementing his hilariously baroque murder plot, informs Bond that the guy piloting the thing--who has just been murdered via electric shock--was one of Blofeld's "less reliable people." So here's a guy who has the resources to place a mole in British Intelligence close enough to get to James Bond, and instead of using him to just shoot 007 in the head, he has him rig up a specialized helicopter that runs via remote so Blofeld can play with Bond all cat-like for one last go around. It works out about as well as you'd think.

Ordinarily, this would be just another example of the ludicrously involved Bad Guy Mastermind Scenes we've come to expect from the franchise. Coupled with what's to come next, however, it has an interesting resonance. After the opening title, we open on a fishing boat. Only it's not a fishing boat. Slide one door back and instead of grimy, rusting walls, there is a pristine computer nerve center staffed by British sailors keeping an eye on the Iron Curtain from the Aegean Sea. The ship brings up something in its nets, only it's not fish, it's a mine and the ship goes down.

A scene later, female lead Melina Havelock arrives at her parents' boat via chartered plane. The pilot, in fact, is a Cuban hitman named Hector Gonzalez, after making sure Melina gets off the plane with her Guy Laroche bag, swings his plane back up into the sky, banks back, and sets about murdering everyone, save Melina (though not for lack of trying). When Bond arrives in Cortina, Italy to track down the hitman's employers (after being rescued by out-of-nowhere arrows courtesy of Melina while tracking Gonzalez) the strange paranoia ramps up.

There's the secret message written on his shower glass, hired killers on spike-wheeled motorcycles, a glowering biathlete who can't help giving 007 the stink eye before trying to murder him, and, apropos of nothing, a group of killers done up as hockey players who ambush Bond mere moments after he's alone on an ice rink. They don't even have guns! They're just a hockey team that has suddenly turned deadly, the scenery around James Bond conspiring to do him in

fig. 2: It got so bad I was expecting this guy to be packing heat.
By the time he gets to Greece, things settle down a bit, though there's still a double-ambush on the beach following Bond's dalliance with a Liverpudlian lady passing herself off as a wealthy Countess. Lisl's an interesting figure. She's pointed out to Bond at first by Kristatos, himself introduced to Bond as an Anglophile Greek. Bond thinks Kristatos is on his side at first, and Kristatos feeds Bond information about the smuggler Colombo, information which turns out to be false, but based on Kristatos own shady dealings.

It's fitting, then, that the McGuffin at the heart of For Your Eyes Only is a decryption device. Everyone here is putting on some kind of front. Even Colombo may be lying about the extent of his own criminal enterprises. The movie itself is putting on a kind of front. Though its immediate predecessor, Moonraker, was a financial success, it wasn't a critical one and there was pressure from fans and critics to return the series to its roots. The result is a film that plays very much like Moore making his way through a Connery film. The gizmos are kept to a minimum, the stakes are deliberately lower than the global genocide threatened in the two installments previous, and while Moore retains the charm that propels his character, he's brought low by the grittier tone, to the point of his uncharacteristically cold-blooded murder of Warren Zevon-lookalike Locque, a stooge for Kristatos.

fig. 3: That's right, kids. I fought James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, AND Doctor Who. Oh. And those Stark brats.

Kristatos is no bloviating madman. He's a criminal, a businessman, a smuggler looking to play the Russians and the West off one another. Compared to, say, Moonraker's Drax, for instance, or A View to a Kill's Zorin, or Tomorrow Never Dies' Carver, Kristatos is nowhere near as transparently evil. It's concievable, at least at the start of the film, that he's telling the truth, that Locque and Gonzalez and the rest of those hired goons do not in fact work for him, which adds to that feeling of dread, of menace that can spring from anywhere. While Drax announces his intentions out of the gate ("Keep an eye on our guest. Make sure some harm comes to him.") Kristatos is played with enough ambiguity that is only the storytelling tics of a long-running franchise that might give him away. In attempting to return the franchise to its roots, For Your Eyes Only navigates through the classic concern of spy films: whom to trust, and what to believe.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

I Have Always Found Circuses A Little Sinister (Octopussy)

fig. 1: Not James Bond
I'm a big fan of the TV show The Americans, which follows a pair of Soviet spies embedded in 1980's Virginia as a middle-class married couple. They have two children, Paige and Henry. Paige was much of the focus of the most recent season, as the KGB put pressure on her parents Philip and Elizabeth to begin to recruit her into the KGB. Henry, almost as a running gag, is largely ignored by his parents.

Henry is also thirteen, or thereabouts, the exact age a young boy would be to pick up James Bond. I'm imagining Philip, in that long summer of 1983, taking his kid to see a James Bond movie, sitting in the dark watching Octopussy's tale of double entendres and daring-do, of megalomaniacal Russian generals and all-female circus troupes storming a castle, of an exiled Afghan prince played by a Frenchman and his glowering Sikh bodyguard.

Philip, who's killed people. Whose job on paper might look like James Bond's if you squint, but who differs from the character in nearly every respect. Who carries a laundry list of alternate identities. Who has one marriage assigned to him by the Soviet State and another he crafted out of necessity, a long con to get closer to the FBI, a sham marriage just now about to collapse all around him.

The obvious take is that The Americans is a more realistic portrayal of spying, and it is. It's a stretch to believe James Bond would have survived fifty-three years in the cinematic landscape as anything but an adventure character, nor does Fleming's conception of the character have very deep roots in any realistic portrayal of intelligence gathering. It was never going to be a half century of hushed conversations and muted betrayals and long, drawn out operations staged for a sliver of intelligence on a bomber plane. The best we get here is a disguise mustache.

Still, it seems churlish if not impossible to really complain when the Bond at the heart of all this action is Roger Moore. Though he'd been eyeing the exits at least since the previous installment, Moore keeps the eye twinkle and the light touch that so defined the charm of his character here. Again, it's difficult to imagine what the characters of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings might make of this man, the only spy real or fictional whose most recognizable catch phrase is to tell you his actual given name. Of all of the actors to play the role, Moore seems the most to be enjoying himself, playing the character with an infectious joi de vivre. Granted, it's the joi de vivre of what plays today as an emotionally stunted man-child, but it's hard to argue with the man's charm. Moore has impeccable comic delivery, which suits the campier nature of this story, though he doesn't lose sight of the stakes. His performance as the character is anchored in a consistency that keeps everything recognizable, even when it tilts through to unbelievability.

fig 2: The KGB sure never splurges on mini-planes that run on 87 Octane

And, as unbelievable plots go, this one's a humdinger. I admit to losing the thread about two thirds of the way through, as I failed to connect the film's original mystery--the smuggling out of Eastern Europe several fake Faberge eggs, which is somehow tied to funding Soviet efforts to bolster its tank battalions across the Iron Curtain. More importantly it leads Bond straight into the clutches of Bad Guy Kamal Khan, the aforementioned "exiled Afghan Prince" [when did the Af monarchy collapse?] and his partner-in-smuggling, Octopussy.

fig. 3: Remember me? I was in The Man with The Golden Gun!
She's got a real name, of course, and a tie to Bond's past, which is an interesting character beat. Octopussy is also played by Maud Adams, the first--and so far only--Bond Actress to return to the series in a different role. Her story--of her profiteering father who was given 24 hours to turn himself in by James Bond and instead turned to suicide--reflects the actual short story on which this whole business is loosely based. She's grateful to the secret agent--whom of course she knows by name and likeness, making this possibly the first time in the series his habit of saying "Bond, James Bond" to Nearly Everyone He Meets actually catches up with him--for sparing her father the indignity of a court martial. This gives her an emotional connection to Bond that makes their eventual/inevitable romance an easier sell. There are instances in these films, Licence to Kill and GoldenEye spring to mind, where the turn toward romance is so sudden and arbitrary that it strains believability. Hopping in to bed with a debonair super-spy seems completely reasonable, sure, but falling in love with one before the second act break comes off as forced.

Luckily, Octopussy doesn't have this problem. It has a host of other problems, mainly down to the unfortunate exoticism of films made by Westerners set in non-Western countries. Though India is gorgeously deployed here, it suffers from the same problem Afghanistan did in The Living Daylights. It's a backdrop. It's a gorgeous backdrop, and this is one of the better looking Bond films for it, but to the extent that any of the Indian characters have agency at all, it's to help James Bond because they work for British intelligence, or to try and murder the shit out of him because they work for Kamal Khan.

fig. 3: Not sure when the Glowering Sikh Bodyguard first became a thing, but I've seen it often enough to suspect it didn't originate here

In fact, I'm hard-pressed after watching the film last weekend to remember where in India Bond actually went. According to the film's Wikipedia page, he goes to Rajasthan, which happens to be the largest state in India, so that isn't exactly a help. He's in a city at one point, but it's not said where, and in his attempt to escape Kamal Khan's palace (while pursued by guys on elephants) he runs through a checklist of Exotic India Tropes. Jungle? Check. Very Large, Presumably Venemous Spiders? Check. Tiger, Just, You Know, Walking Around? Check. Leeches? Check. It's the same problem as The Living Daylights, where Afghanistan was represented by one Soviet air force base and one dusty mujaheddin encampment and a whole lotta mountains.

Some of this would be less of a problem if Kamal Khan weren't played by a Frenchman. Louis Jourdan does a fine job here playing a smugly villainous ne'er-do-well, but Octopussy sits on the shoulders of a long-standing tradition of racebent casting going back as far as the history of film. Hell, in 1983 we're only sixteen years out from Sean Connery playing the Least Convincing Japanese Man Since Marlon Brando. So not only do the people in these countries not really get a say in how their lives are affected by this fictional tug-of-war between these powers (apt, if unintentional metaphor here), but if they have a strong enough role to play, they don't even get to be played by someone from the region. At least Daylights' Art Malik was Pakistani.

fig. 4: France. I come from France.
I'd love to see the franchise return to India. It's not as though the Bond films have become a beacon of cultural sensitivity in the intervening decades--they're no more or less racist than the society that consumes them--but an adventure in a place so informed by the British occupation could give this more introspective take on the character interesting resonances. Then again, like in Spectre, he may just show up at some culturally significant event just long enough to blow up a building and scamper off.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

I've Met You In Your Future Lives. (Never Say Never Again)

fig. 1: I originally had the impish intent to just use pics from Thunderball to illustrate this entire post. That was before Mister Bean showed up.
1983 was a banner year for franchise pictures. We take it for granted in 2015, which saw continuations of Marvel, Hunger Games, and Fast/Furious properties, and the revival of long-dead franchises in Mad Max, Jurassic World, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Star Wars, but it wasn't always this saturated. 1983, however, saw a third Superman movie, a third Star Wars movie, and a head-to-head contest between Sean Connery and Roger Moore in the Battle of the Bonds. You could have conceivably--if one theater actually held on to Moore's Octopussy for an absurd four months, have slipped out of one James Bond picture and in to another.

fig. 2: And while you're at it, check me out across the hall in Superman III! 1983 is Peak Gavan O'Hearlihy!

News outlets of the time made hay of it, used the aforementioned phrase "The Battle of the Bonds", and while odds-makers predicted Connery's return to the role after twelve years would beat out Moore's sixth outing, in the end Moore won out. But how did we get to this point? How do two versions of the same character end up in competition with one another in the same year? The answer to that, as well as the answer to at least one trivia question about Tom Jones, lies with Thunderball.

Ian Fleming approached screenwriter and producer Kevin McClory in the late Fifties to produce a James Bond feature film. The character had, in fact, already appeared on television in the United States in an episode of Climax!, (another trivia answer) which adapted Casino Royale, and Fleming knew there was money in the property. McClory and Fleming worked on an original screenplay after the former rejected adapting one of the previously existing novels, tentatively calling the film Longitude 78 West. Fleming eventually tried to force McClory out of the project, adapting the screenplay into the novel Thunderball and refusing to credit McClory for his work on the treatment. The whole business went to court. EON productions eventaully bought the rights to James Bond novels seemingly piecemeal, including a deal with McClory, to produce Thunderball as a movie, in 1965. This same haphazadery would result in Casino Royale being adopted as a spoof in 1967 and kept off movie screens as a proper James Bond adventure for nearly forty years after.

fig. 3: McClory, whose picture is the number one Google hit on the phrase "Longitude 78 West"

In the late Seventies, McClory tried to produce another Bond film, and the Fleming estate sued him. They lost the suit, and it was determined that McClory could make a Bond picture, provided he only use elements from his draft of Thunderball, making the film that would eventually come about, Never Say Never Again, a straight remake of the former film. Legal wrangling over the rights to the character would crop up again in the early 1990's, eventually dooming Timothy Dalton's third film, and again in the early 2000's, when McClory threatened to remake Thunderball again before the rights were finally bought out.

I know very little about British copyright law. What I do know is confined mainly to what I've read about this movie, and about Doctor Who, whose iconic monsters the Daleks were first conceived by writer Terry Nation (even if Nation had nothing to do with their iconic visual design) and, as such, had to abandon the monsters for several years when Nation took his ball to America and tried to get some other studio to play with him. It's hard to imagine coming from 2000's America and it's rigid rules on intellectual property zealously watched over by large media conglomerates. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster tried for years to wrest control of their creation, Superman, from Warner Brothers. Rocket Raccoon was in a movie that made Marvel Studios over three hundred million dollars. Bill Mantlo, who created Rocket, didn't see a dime.

Follow this link for more information on Bill Mantlo's ongoing financial and health concerns.

Never Say Never Again is an interesting film in part for the constraints under which it is forced to operate. There's no bullet sequence, no stylish overture full of scantily clad women, no title card announcing it's "Sean Connery as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007." There is an opening song, though it is played over an aerial shot of jungle before we meet up with our hero, rescuing a damsel in distress from kidnappers.

...Except he's not. It's a training mission, and Never makes the canny move of rolling with Connery's age. After it's all over (and Bond has failed the mission objective) the debrief pits Bond against a much younger and newly installed M, who is skeptical to the point of hostility of the whole Double-0 program, and has had Bond working as a teacher for some time. However, the theft of a pair of nuclear warheads puts 007 back in the saddle, because that's how these things go.
fig. 4: "You've got me so angry I'm poaching Stereotypical Black Police Captain lines!"

The orchestrators of this grand theft, and the extortion that comes after it, are SPECTRE, an organization that won't be seen again in the James Bond canon until 2015's eponymous film, and haven't been seen in any capacity since Connery's previous film, 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. This, again, is down to McClory, who created SPECTRE and its head Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in his treatment for Longitude 78 West, and whose legal wrangling kept the evil network off movie screens for a total of a total of forty-four out of the franchise's fifty-three years.

In its place James Bond faced any number of adversaries both memorable and not. Indeed, I would argue that the franchise is better off without SPECTRE, or at the very least that Spectre's bending over backward to reincorporate this piece of mythology after thirty-two years did the plot of that film no favors.

Still, there's something to it. James Bond is a fundamentally reactionary, conservative (and Conservative) figure. He fights for Queen and Country. He fights, he kills people, to preserve an order that is measurably the same as the order of yesterday. He perpetuates a system that is designed to keep people like him in power, people who are, on the surface, largely indistinguishable from SPECTRE's cronies.

So what do we make of the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, this shadowy group organized much like the British Secret Service (in my reverse rewatch, at least, Bond has yet to be mentioned as a member of MI6 prior to the 1990's) which gives its operatives call numbers and is run by a cabal of Old White Men in business suits? These profiteers, sitting above the fray of the Cold War? Spectre later goes full-on with this interpretation, internationalizing the cast of characters but, tellingly setting their base of operations in Rome, that crumbling center of an old empire that once ruled the world. Who better than a Briton to send against them? Tellingly, Blofeld isn't after chaos or destruction or any particular ideology. He wants cash. But if there's a secret message to Never Say Never Again, or Spectre, or any other iteration of that capitalistic band of evildoers, it's not one that Fleming, or McClory, ever intended. It exists at the margins.

fig. 5: Blofeld, less the Slimy Easterner of before, decked out more like a Proper English Gentleman

The margins, again, are where Never Say Never Again does its work. Forced to play within the constraints of Thunderball's plot (action bit/spa/things turn deadly/stolen nukes/casino standoff/Domino/boat/ underwater bits) it finds whatever it can to say by doodling around the edges. Like the younger M (and a Moneypenny that has likewise been de-aged), Q is on hand, played by a different actor and with a different demeanor. The film seems to hedge its bets on whether this is Q, having the actor refer to Q in the third person, and having Bond refer to him as "Algy." Instead of the usual annoyance played by Desmond Llewelyn, Alex McCowen's Q is a bona fide James Bond fanboy. "Now that you're on the case," he says, "I hope we can see some gratuitous sex and violence." It's the culmination of a speech that wouldn't seem out of place in the Brosnan era, or in Craig's Skyfall. Algy bemoans the rise of pencil-pushing bureaucrats, never going forward unless the computer says it's okay. It's a line that will be directly echoed in GoldenEye, and prefigures the anxiety of the computer age in Skyfall and Spectre.

The trip to the health spa, similarly, has a different resonance with a much older Connery, what with the cracks about his diet/drinking habits and with the delicacies he sneaks in to the resort. In everything but the haircut, James Bond is showing his age, and really, you can imagine him as the man who wouldn't have changed his hair cut. He's a man out of time. At fifty-three, he's older than nearly everyone in this picture, including Never's villain Maximilian Largo, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer. Brandauer is forty years old here, just a few years shy of Adolfo Celi, who played Largo in Thunderball. But Celi's playing a older man: white hair, eye patch, one of those elegant little cigarette holders. Brandauer is a youthful svengali, flowing blonde hair and a cavalier attitude about life and death. If anything, he represents less the institutional evil that Max von Sydow's Blofeld in this picture, and Adolfo Celi's Largo in Thunderball, does. He's a fresher face. As a sign this movie was made in the Eighties, he's a computer genius who designed a video game based around world conquest.

fig. 6: Bond and Largo, the latter about to don the Red Beanie of Utter Global Crisis.
The man in this film who is almost exactly Connery's age is Max von Sydow, who plays Never's iteration of Blofeld. Rather than sit behind a screen and stroke that cat of his, he's an open, almost gregarious figure, ransoming the world by video. Von Sydow is around the age of the other Blofelds in their heyday of the 1960's. Bond has caught up to him.

Sean Connery has yet to return to the role of James Bond. He almost played the Kincaid role in Skyfall, which thankfully went to Albert Finney. An Octagenarian James Bond would be an interesting choice, (especially if they ditch the tired conceit of him seducing some nymphet), as the series has been particularly concerned with James-Bond-as-relic at least as far back as 1995. Even as his age slides backwards, James Bond is a man out of time. Connery, particularly as the originator of James Bond on the silver screen, is a figurehead for a certain brand of masculinity that the character's continual reboots and reimaginings have caused to escape the ravages of time, even as the world has moved on around him. It doesn't look like Connery will ever return, but like the song says...