Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Gambler With A Mad Thirst for Power (Goldfinger)

"To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization."

Stop me if you've heard this one: a master criminal, whose name is a play on words, plans the crime of the century, and the only person standing in his way is a stalwart defender of truth and justice, who happens to have just about the most tricked-out car in the world.

Just over a year separate the release of Goldfinger in the United States and the premiere of 1966 Batman TV series. The pair of them arrived on the heels of Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp," published in the preceding year, which brought to mainstream attention an aesthetic that would define both that TV series and the James Bond franchise. Roger Moore gets a lot of guff from Bond purists for the amount of camp his entries indulged in. Clearly, those purists must be misremembering Pussy Galore's Flying Circus, and the raft of old-timey gangsters Auric Goldfinger recruits for his attack on Fort Knox.

Goldfinger is awash with iconic moments. Oddjob and that hat of his. The laser drill scene. The Aston Martin pulling out all the stops: water jets, guns, ejector seat. Pussy Galore and her silly name. It says something that James Bond, whose name was picked by Fleming because it was so forgettable and unremarkable, should constantly run into people with names like Plenty O'Toole and Holly Goodhead and a guy who finds gold so nice he was named for it twice.

"Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century's surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture."

Auric Goldfinger is a standout antagonist for the series. (The gold standard, you might say.) Though Gert Frobe had to be dubbed, Michael Collins does good work infusing the character with the kind of urbane warmth we've come to expect from these sorts of supervillains. And his plan is a clever one: rather steal all the gold from Fort Knox, he's going to irradiate the lot of it, making it useless. He's been given a dirty bomb by the Chinese (referred to throughout this film as Red China) and with it will destabilize the US economy while at the same time making his own gold stores worth twice as much. The presence of a Chinese scientist in Doctor Ling and the small army of Chinese soldiers Goldfinger employs are this film's only considerations to real-world politics. As with SPECTRE, with whom Mr Goldfinger does not seem affiliated, the action is a shadow play, an artifice with nods toward the Cold War but not directly in the trenches. Auric Goldfinger is, first and foremost, a criminal opportunist.

The film is in fact a kind of a reverse heist movie, at least from Bond's perspective. He stumbles on to the thing after the planning has been done, after Goldfinger has brought his supplies in from different parts of the world, cleverly disguised, after the villain has recruited Ms Galore and her aviatrix squadron and planned his assault on the base in meticulous detail. We even get a scene where Goldfinger explains the whole thing, though, rather than the cliched "Bad Guy Explains The Plot To The Hero" business, it's him explaining the robbery to those gangsters, who from their own perspective thought they were in a crime film until the walls of Goldfinger's den start moving around and they realize they've stumbled into a James Bond picture.

That is, of course, before the eponymous bad guy murders them all, having got what he wanted. I guess that's the difference between when a good guy plans a heist and a bad guy plans a heist. Before his little killing spree, and right as the landscape in his den changes from "man cave" to "supervillain control room," Goldfinger explains that "Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He's fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor...except crime!"

Seriously, whose rogues gallery could that possibly remind you of?

"[...] Among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling."
It's easy to see how the success of James Bond would inspire the creation of the Batman series. The two share so many of the same sensibilities. The Bond films created a wave of spy action imitators on the airwaves and the silver screen, including out-and-out parodies like Get Smart, which premiered in 1965. Even now, as the James Bond franchise has almost fully transitioned out of its less-than-serious roots, fans have clamored for Christopher Nolan as an ideal Bond director. Nolan, whose chilly, grounded, serious, kinda-fascist take on Batman made arguably the high-water mark of superhero films with 2008's The Dark Knight. It's not hard, watching that film, to see what Nolan's Bond films might look like. Hell, The Dark Knight goes so far as to poach the sky hook scene from Thunderball and its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, opens on a skyjacking scene that is almost a direct lift from Licence to Kill.

But as far as Bond might stray from his roots, the character is fundamentally less elastic than Batman. With the exception of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which virtually every reiteration of the character across media sees fit to re-stage (one notable exception: Batman '66) Batman creators feel no particular obligation to recreate classic elements. Whereas the Bond franchise is more burdened by its own tropes. This film, as iconic as it is, casts a long shadow. Goldfinger is where all the elements that would come to define the franchise for decades are finally present and humming along beautifully. Which means, however, that it casts a shadow so large it is difficult for the character ever to entirely escape.

"Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of 'style' over 'content,' 'aesthetics' over 'morality,' of irony over tragedy."

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