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. 

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