Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Rethinking 007 (and again irritating female academics)
Here is a post I've been wanting to write for a while.
Let's talk James Bond. I've never been a fan of the man. He's always been as sappy as a British gay waiter, and he has that bloody side-looking smile seeming to suggest 'I am so much better than you at rolling a yo-yo' which drives me wild (firstly: I do not give a fuck about how well you can play with a yo-yo. Secondly: even if I did, would I actually make competitions out of it and put it in film?).
However, a couple of years ago I walked out of a Casino Royale showing feeling distinctly impressed. Shortly thereafter, I was joining the scholars on the internet discussions (read: negotiating with the retards) to claim that Casino Royale was in fact the best Bond movie ever.
I've said this so often now that I'd like to spend some space to explain why. Often when people defend the claim of 'Best Bond movie ever' (which admittedly is as significant to me as 'best Miss Marple episode ever' considering how much of a fan I am) they do so on account of the great action, increased realism and greater sobriety. I don't subscribe to these notions. 'Quantum of Solace' has pretty much all the same stuff and is still as flat as a pizza (leaving aside pizzas from New York and thereabouts, which are something like the chain of the Himalayas and you could probably use them to take down helicopters). (Also, 'Quantum of Solace' is the goofiest title since 'Moonraker'. That's the kind of expression I'd expect to find in an undergraduate essay trying to copy Derrida).
Look! The turtles are having a bit of Quantum of Solace.
Personally, I think Casino Royale really hits home and becomes memorable because of its depth. Even though on the surface it just looks like an espionage movie, there are some really creamy themes in there which reverberate through the movie and give real meaning to the action.
(This is, in fact, what people who claim to like the movie 'just because of the action' seem not to get. The quality of the action in a movie is directly proportional to the meaning that underlies it. The sophistication of the choreography and the quantity of the punches is really quite secondary. When you look at the first fight between Neo and the agent, it is far more exciting than when they meet again in the sequel because their fight becomes a metaphor for each character's assumption of his identity. Neo is affirming his being Neo (rather than Mr. Anderson) by means of his punches, while Smith is affirming his authority as agent by means of his own, and their conflict encapsulates the wider conflict of humanity versus machines or free will versus determinism that is at the heart of the rest of the film. The emotion that results from this action is called pathos, and it is the measure of quality in all action movies. In the sequel, when there's a million Agent Smith's, the choreography is in fact more elaborate than in the first movie and the fight lasts longer; yet it's as bland as a day-old cheese-grilled sandwich because those punches SAY nothing).
Going back to Casino Royale, then, what is the film actually saying that the other Bond films not only never said, but never even stooped to consider?
Let's start from one of the core differences - the representation of women and Bond's relationship with them. Usual Bond movies tended to have women as one of two kinds: 1.) Shag-dolls whose main role was that of affirming the secret agent's virility (and heterosexuality) by helplessly falling in love with his unsurpassed abilities at fighting and fucking (the two skills which define the guy's masculine identity - to excel at these two things is what makes one a 'man'). 2.) Female alter-egos of Bond, that is to say, female secret agents from other countries, assassins, soldier-operatives, WHATEVA. In this case the films are trying to make a concession to the female sex ('see? Girls can fight too!') but it ends up being a misappropriation anyway - it assumes that girls are not inferior to men because they are capable of mimicking (the) man, not because of qualities inherent to them in their own right.
Casino Royale, by contrast, seems to divide its female characters into flashy, glamorous dolls of the kind we were used to find in the previous James Bond movies (among others), and intelligent, classically beautiful women.
(Admittedly 'classically beautiful' is a bit of an arbitrary statement, since the fact that they are pretty even with toned-down make-up, hairstyle and clothes does not make them 'classical.' I think the prejudice may just result from the fact that I consider the female protagonist in Casino Royale to be as hot as molten lead).
What is interesting is how this dichotomy seems to correspond almost perfectly to the usual dichotomy of good and evil. Flashy dolls are situated on the evil side, and Bond displays a truly striking indifference towards them, while he falls in love (and out of his ego) with the good / intelligent one. One can even read a quasi-feminist message in the fate that is reserved to the first doll, the French woman – she ends up maimed and killed in a situation where she is completely out of control, and previous to that leads a life which she defines as unhappy (a statement which we can trace back to her being a doll). It is a harsh statement to women who think it 'wouldn't be that bad' to be a doll and be seduced by Bond (or a masculine equivalent). If you think that submitting oneself to seduction is a natural role to hold, then just look at where that leads you.
The doll / intelligent woman division is in line with the film’s general tendency to comment (critically) back on itself – see the reference to over-complexified tortures or the alteration of classic lines ('shaken or stirred?' 'Do I look like I give a damn?'). At the heart of this tendency is the foregrounding of gender issues - Vesper has a style which Bond defines as 'androgynous,' and her last compliment to him is that 'even if all that were left of you were your little finger, you would still be more of a man than anyone I have ever met before.' Their constant interplay within each other is foregrounded in terms of gender - she contests and attacks precisely his status / value as a masculine fantasy, the expression of which was the whole point of the other Bond films. Such a contest, or such a critique, invests a new meaning on other features of the film which otherwise seem perfectly in line with the notion of the male fantasy - for instance, Bond's physique, which loses its state as the part we 'take for granted' in a real man, and instead goes to underline the necessity of stepping out of normality in order to achieve one’s aim (or even merely professionalism). It is an expression not of fantasy but of natural truth (especially as it is implicit in the pursuit of our desires and ideals).
It is also a merit of the film that the female protagonist doesn't suffer from an inferiority complex towards Bond: she is “good” (morally and at what she does) in very different ways from him, and the film suggests that her not being a killing machine doesn’t make her in any way inferior to Bond (if anything, more humane at times).
Even as the film foregrounds questions of genre, it closes with a strikingly bleak statement on the possibilities of communication between the two genders. The semi-Utopian, topical happy ending that the film initially lulls us towards seems the resolution of the conflict between James and Vesper - the two have reconciled their differences and are now living happily together ever after. But the revelation that this was a false truth reveals that message as a fiction. The final part of the film has Bond rushing to save his girl - a typical 'knight in shining armour' scenario. But not only does he fail to save her, she does not want to be saved. The film refuses that fiction. This refusal is a direct implication of the statement which is made by that beautiful, poignant final scene - for me the most memorable scene in the whole James Bond filmography: Bond is trying to reach Vesper in an underwater setting, where language is impossible, under the slow movements and diffused illumination of a fairy tale, in a silent scenario where the mutism of the two specific characters becomes a metaphor for the condition of the two sexes - that is to say, both incapable of speaking a single word, for all their desire, their frustration and their resolve. Bond's and Vesper's incapacity to speak to each other is symbolic for the impossibility of communication between the two genders. Ultimately, the old-style knights are not enough to break through the barrier of man and woman, and through the wall of cold water and the iron bars the most that we can hope for is a fleeting, speechless kiss - a kiss which, alas, does not represent dialogue. It is given by Vesper as a disillusioned blessing, as Beethoven's 'it must be so,' as a statement of love despite and beyond the (linguistic) bars which divide the two lovers. It is condonement, but it is not innocence.
When Bond finally breaks through the barrier and reaches through the elevator, Vesper is dead. The fictional feat has been useless, and the (tonally) driest decease by drowning in the history of cinema comes in a form which unsentimentally acknowledges death as the end of dialogue.