Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Bond A Week: Shuffling The Deck



The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it. James Bond suddenly knew he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough, and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.
-- Ian Fleming,
Casino Royale

The scene is a suburban living room, circa 1957 (born in 1973, I take these stories on faith).

My grandfather sits in his easy chair, sipping a martini. Frank Sinatra blares on the stereo. He’s my grandmother’s favorite singer, after Bing Crosby. My grandfather, who played sax in swing bands throughout the 30s before going to college and medical school, is less impressed: “Anyone could sound good with that band behind him,” he remarks.

Between 1953, when his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity jumpstarted his film career and he collaborated with Nelson Riddle for the first time on “I’ve Got The World On A String,” and 1963, when the assassination of sometime Sinatra pal John F. Kennedy signaled the beginning of the end for that ultra-masculine enclave known as “The Rat Pack, ” Frank Sinatra’s persona is intense and alluring, and defines everything else around it.

Here’s one image, the cover of the soundtrack from the film Pal Joey—the stylish suit draping the body, fedora cocked, trenchcoat over the shoulder, the smile both inviting and slightly arrogant—“Life is a beautiful thing/As long as I hold the string…”


Sinatra’s is an image that appeals to millions of suburban men, by the mid-fifties a group dubbed by sociologist Daniel Riesman as “outer-directed,” and eulogized by the popular press as “the men in the gray flannel suits.” For such a man, Sinatra offers a powerful alternative persona, even if the outer-directed man can only enjoy it vicariously. In 1953, the year of Sinatra’s comeback, another outlet for masculine desire and discontent makes its debut—Playboy, whose code of masculine cool is also Sinatra’s code, or at least the role he chooses to play in public. In The Hearts of Men, Barbara Ehrenreich observes the way the Playboy code allowed its reader to affect a rebellious cool even as he conformed to consumerist models: "Playboy’s visionary contribution…was to give the means of status to the single man: not the power lawn mower, but the hi-fi set in mahogany console; not the sedate, four-door Buick but the racy little Triumph; not the well-groomed wife, but the classy companion who could be rented (for the price of drinks and dinner) one night at a time."



He sits at the baccarat table clad in tuxedo, cufflinks sparkling as he nonchalantly deals cards, the cigarette (above all, the cigarette) dangling from his lips, the very definition of fetish. His heavily lidded eyes have a bored look, his hair is greased back, he exudes a kind of existential charisma. His voice is utterly flat with contempt as he addresses his gambling adversary, the poor, deluded Sylvia Trench. In a series of shot- reverse shots, the woman in red raises an eyebrow and addresses him, but rather than his face, we see the hands, the cigarette case, the cards, the lighter, as if she is addressing a set of signifiers as much as a character. Finally, these objects are pulled together in the form of a medium shot of the man, but Trench’s slightly off-center positioning means that, when he addresses her, he looks off-camera to the right, rather than straight-on, his cool contempt extended to an ignoring of the audience, then, as much as Trench.

Along with Hugh Hefner and the reborn Sinatra, one more character makes his debut in 1953: Bond, James Bond, Ian Fleming’s reconfiguration of the spy as a kind of hard-boiled dandy, saving the world from evil and still knowing precisely how to make the world’s best martini. By the time Bond makes his big-screen debut in 1962, in Dr. No, eight years after the oaf in Casino Royale, the image of the witty, hard-drinking, gambling sex symbol is so ingrained in the consciousness of middle America that crafting Bond for the screen almost becomes a kind of automatic writing-- just fill in the missing pieces. And the biggest piece is Sean Connery, whose core of toughness gives Bond an air that makes the stylistic link with the Rat Pack explicit.

In an interview, Jean-Luc Godard laid out one of the basic questions facing a filmmaker: “The only great problem with cinema seems to me more and more with each film when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.” Godard’s quandary is certainly one that has faced the Bond series, whose elliptical editing style in the mid-sixties owes much to the innovations of the New Wave, and, in the larger sense, that of any film series, which must always respond to the question of “why make another one?” with innovations of plot, character, and spectacle.

Forty-six years after Eon Productions offered Dr. No, their first answer to Godard's question, they are about to offer the 24th: Quantum of Solace, the new Bond film starring Daniel Craig, which opens on November 7. In the 33 weeks between now and then, I'll be borrowing a page from Bully-- whose feature "A Wodehouse A Week" has offered wonderful readings of P.G. Wodehouse's work and related ephemera-- by beginning "A Bond A Week," an ongoing feature that will look at the Bond films and related books, spin-offs and parodies, marketing, soundtracks, and whatever else might relate in an interesting way to Ian Fleming's superspy hero.



To answer, in part, Godard's question of "why?" (and, perhaps, your same question), I'd offer two responses:

First, I really like these films. I didn't have a blog when the last Bond film, the marvelous 2006 remake of Casino Royale was released, and the imminent release of another Bond epic acts as the perfect excuse for me to audodidact on one of my favorite cinematic heroes on a weekly basis. But I do think there's another, perhaps more interesting reason.

Godard's question about filmmaking is also the challenge facing film and pop culture folk in blog-spaces like this one, faced with a massive archive of films and prior texts within which a blogger must situate him or herself. Why write? And how do we begin?

If a blog allows us, as Roland Barthes wrote of his own work three decades ago, to "write what we like right away," the question might be phrased this way: what does it mean to have fun? How do we define it? And what is the role such pleasure might take in a space like this one?



There are many kinds of pleasure, of course, but I’d like to suggest that such highly commercial, seemingly “light” films like the Bond series in fact offer us some interesting and perplexing challenges. We know what the payoff is with a movie like There Will Be Blood or Taxi Driver, films that wear their serious intentions on their sleeves. We might disagree about the meanings those films generate, but we’re pretty certain those meanings are there, and that investigating them will be worth our time. In other words, cinematically or academically speaking, those texts are asking us the “proper questions,” (about art, masculinity, genre, etc) to borrow critic Jonathan Culler’s phrase for a certain kind of rhetoric.

Speaking of “The Three Little Pigs,” Culler says proper questions might be “What did the pigs build their house of? What happened as a consequence? What does the hay of the house stand for,” etc. But because those questions stick to “proper” routes and systems of understanding, we know already the kinds of answers those questions will generate. What is needed, Culler suggests, is “improper questions” like “Why three little pigs?” The text can’t immediately answer those questions, but posing them might suggest to us new ways of thinking about the space of the text, and why we are reading “Three Little Pigs” in the first place.

Does Dr. No pose for us a series of “improper questions,” like, for instance, “why a tuxedo"? And do the films' uncertain, constantly shifting tones ask us to come up with a new way of thinking about them, one less reliant on metaphor (what does this mean? What does it stand in for?) than metonymy (where can this object or analysis take me)?

Like Bond, scholars and bloggers are in the position of the secret agent, licensed to explore the archive of film and poke our nose into anything that interests us. My hope is that each entry in "A Bond A Week" can help us to rethink our standard conceptions about the Bond films, allow us about how every object in the mise-en-scene can allow us to “stage an action” of film criticism that respects the odd glamour and humor of the films while still penetrating their glossy veil. Such an approach might lead to what Barthes describes as an aesthetic discourse: “What shall we call such a discourse? erotic, no doubt, for it has to do with pleasure; aesthetic, if we foresee subjecting this old category to a gradual torsion which will alienate it from its regressive, idealist background
and bring it closer to the body, to the drift." This, then, will be a series of theoretical, historical, and personal snapshots, using this image of Connery (and so many others) as an activator of anecdotes, connections, remappings of cinematic and historical space.

And hopefully, it will also be what "Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" always was (and is): a very good time.

Oh, and in case you were wondering (and just to kick off the fun with a potential argument in the comments section), here's my list of favorite Bond films, in order from best to worst:

1.Goldfinger
2.Thunderball
3.The Spy Who Loved Me
4.On Her Majesty's Secret Service
5.From Russia With Love
6.Casino Royale (2006)
7.The Living Daylights
8.The World Is Not Enough
9.Goldeneye
10.Dr. No
11.Tomorrow Never Dies
12.For Your Eyes Only
13.Diamonds Are Forever
14.Die Another Day
15.Live And Let Die
16.Casino Royale (1954)
17.Never Say Never Again
18.Moonraker
19.You Only Live Twice
20.Octopussy
21.Casino Royale (1967)
22.License To Kill
23.A View To A Kill
24.The Man With The Golden Gun

4 comments:

Campaspe said...

I love Bond too. For me it isn't about the character as a sex symbol; in fact until Daniel Craig came along I always found him quite off-putting. It's the look, the atmosphere, the music.

anyway, I am so there for this series, even if you did rank The Living Daylights way too high and You Only Live Twice too low. :D

Jonathan Lapper said...

As we've discussed before we're pretty much in agreement on Bond. So much so that my only change to your top five would be to reverse Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me. But I think those three, at least for me, define Bond.

Goldfinger has the humor, gadgets, over the top bad guy, over the top bad guy sidekick, all time classic Bond girl name, etc. It's the, no pun intended, Gold Standard for Bond.

Then with The Spy Who Loved Me the franchise ramped up the irony for a new era of Bond beyond the sixties and changed the way the Bond films were made.

As for Thunderball it's just a damn good spy action film. It could've been any spy movie really, but I'm glad it was a Bond one.

Bob Westal said...

So, we both like musicals, geek stuff including Buffy/Firefly, and now spies. Yet we also, I keep seeing, disagree about the specifics. (Like, on the blog post above, I loved "Sweeney Todd" but I guess you didn't. I really didn't even see where Emerson was coming from on that.)

As for the list, well, I absolutely agree that "Goldfinger" is the Bondian zenith, but after that, it all goes to hell. Like Campuspe, I'd definitely rate "You Only Live Twice" a LOT higher. My bottom two would be Octopussy and, probably just above that, 1967 "Casino Royale" -- an absolutely miserable, unwatchable film for more than ten minutes at a time, but if you break it into small enough chunks, kind of interesting.

I loved "The Man with the Golden Gun" as a kid, but haven't seen it since. I do have one friend with odd tastes who loves it (and he's seen it more recently).

I don't care for "Thunderball, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"all that much (though I think it might have been a really great entry without George Lazenby or that miserable opening gag that basically says "this movie doesn't count," odd considering it's ending). However, I'm relieved to se that you rank "Diamonds are Forever" far higher than most. I've never quite understood why that most brutal of all the Bond films gets such hatred when I find it such a hoot.

Did I say I didn't have that much time? I'll definitely be checking in with this series and forcing at least on friend to as well.

Brian Doan said...

Hi All!
Sorry to not respond until late-- I am out of town and haven't been blogging as much.

Campaspe, I love Bond for the same reasons you mention, so I hope you will enjoy the next several weeks of posts! I like the Living Daylights as it's the closest (until, perhaps, the Craig film) that the producers have ever gotten to the Bond of Fleming's novels. It's quite different than the Bond of the films, which might be one reason that film is sometimes underrated. But I quite enjoy Timothy Dalton, and think the narrative is strong enough to make it a crackling good spy film.

Jonathan,
I like THE SPY WHO LOVED ME a lot-- it's the one film where Moore's sense of humor balances the action, instead of overwhelming it. Add in a great pre-credits sequence and a wonderful carly simon title song, and I think it's a smashing success.

Bob,
I didn't hate Sweeney Todd (which isn't my favorite Sondheim, anyway), but didn't think it was as successful as it could've been-- it's odd when your most sympathetic character is Judge Turpin (because Alan Rickman is so good in the role). I think I would've been more upset if they'd mucked up Follies or Sunday in the Park With George. As for the various list rankings-- one of the fun parts of doing this, I think, will be going back to rewatch all the films, some of which I haven't seen in years, and I'll be curious to see if my old impressions add up. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE has a lot of good stuff, but I agree with Raymond Benson (who wrote the essential critical study, THE JAMES BOND BEDSIDE COMPANION) that Connery just seems bored throughout. Whereas DIAMONDS, for all its flaws, is a romp where Connery's tongue is firmly in cheek.