Wednesday, November 14, 2012
You Know His Name, Look Up The Number, Part Two: The Middle Eight
While James Bond was conquering cinemas around the globe in the mid-60s, his fellow Brits The Beatles were having similar success on radio, TV, and stage. One of their great hidden gadgets was what John and Paul came to call "the middle eight"-- the bridge between verse and chorus where musicals shifts could happen, taking the song somewhere surprising and giving new shading to what had come before (think of how John's "middle-eight" in "We Can Work It Out"--"Life is very short/And there's no time for fussing and fighting my friend"-- creates a brilliant tension with Paul's verses, to the point where it becomes hard to know where "verse/chorus/middle eight" begin and end). Paul would later admit that their use of "middle eight" amused producer George Martin, who told them it was not really a technical musical term. But it worked for them, helping to shape their work and find the bridges that not only connected the parts, but stood as fantastic pieces of pop in their own right.
That's how I see the films below, each of them adding to the mythos of the series in ways that are alternately brilliant, amusing, and occasionally horrifying; they stand as solidly crafted pieces that, within the Bond series as a whole, subtly refract, reflect on or against, or derange the whole enterprise. There was another term the Beatles sometimes used for "middle eight": "the third thing," the part that both brought the song together and also stood out from it. The rhyme with Roland Barthes' "Third Meaning" feels nice here: it's the excess that escapes categorization as symbolic or informational material, and becomes instead something, in Barthes' words "evident, erratic, obstinate. I do not know what its signified is, at least I am unable to give it a name, but I can clearly see the traits, the signifying accidents of which this - consequently incomplete - sign is composed." It is "the one 'too many,' the supplement that my intellection cannot succeed in absorbing, at once persistent and fleeting, smooth and elusive..." It is essential, yet uncategorizable-- the essence of cinema (or the essence of being shaken and stirred simultaneously).
16. You Only Live Twice (1967)
We were sitting in our old green station wagon in the parking lot of the Southland Mall as my father described the new machine to us. "It can record what's on the TV, so you can play it back later," he explained. "Anytime we want?," I asked, with a no doubt wide-eyed expression on my eight- or nine-year old face. Yes, my father said. Anytime we wanted. Aside from not quite believing that such a thing as a VCR could exist, I also knew what it meant: those shows that were unknowable, because they came on after my 9pm bedtime, would suddenly become accessible. And thrillingly enough, there was a James Bond movie on ABC at that time, the very next night.
It was You Only Live Twice, and I must have watched it four or five times in the ensuing days. Part of this was just the thrill the new technology created: Look at that! But it was also because, especially for a young, sci-fi-besotted boy, You Only Live Twice is a toy store exploding on the screen-- weaponized cigarettes, rocket ships stolen in space, hidden fortresses in volcanoes, and the glory of "Little Nellie" (Bond's souped-up, missile-loaded private helicopter) all make the mouth drop. And the film's fractured, messy narrative actually makes it perfect for home video: you can speed past the stuff an eight-year old would call "boring" (and older eyes might call "problematic", such as the retro portrayals of Bond's romances and the strange transformation of Bond into a "Japanese" man, even if it is a variation on something that happens in Ian Fleming's far moodier, more poetic novel), and keep playing back all the cool action. Ninjas! Donald Pleasence screaming at his minions to "Kill Bond!" The trap-door disposal of failed SPECTRE minions! More than most Bond movies, it is individual moments-- beautifully captured by Freddie Young's dense, almost color-blocked cinematography--that I remember in You Only Live Twice, a massive spectacle gadget that had to wait fifteen years for its best method of viewing.
These two films were supposed to open in the same summer of 1983, until Never producer Jack Schwartzman blinked and moved his entry to the fall. Still, I remember the great anticipation in magazines like the above Starlog, which made the face-off seem like some ferocious pop band rivalry, a stance which suggested just how much Roger Moore, ten years into his tenure as 007, had and hadn't made the part his own.
Moore's clown make-up in the film's climax is often offered as "Exhibit A" for its purported silliness, but it's actually a very tight thriller in many respects, and continues the glasnost narrative that shaped The Spy Who Loves Me and For Your Eyes Only: Stephen Berkoff's rogue general, obsessed with perpetuating the Cold War, is framed as an outlier, and the movie's unspoken joke is that both he and Bond are ultimately chaotic free agents whose minders can barely tolerate their excesses. Berkoff is marvelously strange, and a nice tonal contrast to Louis Jourdan's smoother, more conventionally Bondian bad guy (in typical series fashion, he's playing all sides against each other for his own gain). The split in villains is matched by the film's split in tone: the brilliantly staged action (a masterfully paced assassination at the start, a pre-credits dazzler with a small jet plane, a truly suspenseful climax) and intriguing political contexts sit rather uneasily with the colonial paternalism of the film's depiction of India, and the Moore pictures' addiction to goofiness (although Moore telling a tiger to sit is pretty funny). Director John Glen, whose debut two years earlier with For Your Eyes Only had done much to re-ground the character, doesn't blend all these elements smoothly, and Maud Adams' much-vaunted return to the series as the title character is mostly a bust; but the constant clash of tones and meanings creates its own internal combustion, and Octopussy is more fun than it is sometimes given credit for.
But is this the face on which to continue a franchise? Again, in the context of the film sequence, the clown make-up is ironic and eerie-- Bond wears it while trying to difuse a bomb at a circus--but out of context, it suggests so much more, especially to Bond purists: the Raggedy Andy hair has a throwaway quality, the flowered hat looks like Hilda the Horrible, and the crease of Moore's brow against that white face-paint creates something strained and pathetic. Octopussy was Moore's sixth outing as 007, and while there were some good films in his run, he never generated the kinds of excess-- physical, stylistic, sexual--that the character needs, cinematically speaking. Moore is simply too polite (even his clown bow-tie is perfectly balanced).
When it was announced that Sean Connery was returning to the role, it had the feeling of a king reclaiming his throne (Kevin Costner was smart enough to recognize this quality when he cast Connery as King Richard in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves all those years later). It provided a buzz of good feeling around Never Say Never Again that made up for the film's budget limitations and legal inability to use such staples as Q (here named "Algernon") or the familiar theme song. And the film more or less lives up to audience hopes.
For the first time since Thunderball, Sean Connery feels fully engaged as James Bond, and his energy, focus and good humor permeates the picture. It's a loose remake of the 1965 thriller, but finds its own spins on the material (Bond films are always much less about plot than how that plot is unwound and riffed upon). Barbara Carrera is the most unsung of Bond femmes fatale: her Fatima Blush is a stylish, campy delight that blends wit with genuine menace, and she and Connery have a ball playing off each other. Kim Basinger isn't any more lifelike here than she is in any other movie, but she at least has the good luck of playing many of her scenes opposite Klaus Maria Brandauer's Largo, easily the best Bond villain of the 1980s; Brandauer's casual chuckle when Basinger asks what would happen if she ever left him, followed by him pulling her close and muttering, "I would slit your throat" with genuine darkness, is worth a million world-dominating speeches. Edward Fox is a wonderful officious M, and while Alec McCowan's quartermaster has almost nothing to do, he does get off the film's best line: "Good to see you Mr. Bond. Things've been awfully dull 'round here. I hope we're going to see some gratuitous sex and violence in this one!"
13. Goldeneye (1995)
Watch him straighten the tie.
In 1982, Remington Steele debuted on NBC. Stephanie Zimbalist starred as Laura Holt, a talented private detective who dealt with the sexism of her industry by inventing a fictional detective, "Remington Steele," to be the mythical frontman of her agency. He doesn't exist, but his masculine name brings in business, and Holt can tell clients that "Mr. Steele" is away on business, and she'll be handling their particular case. It works well, until one day Remington Steele arrives. He's not Steele, of course, there is no Steele; we never do find out the real name, or much of the past, of the handsome con man who blithely assumes the name and insinuates himself into Laura's business and personal life. He's not much of a detective, getting by mainly on style, using his knowledge of old mystery films to unravel key clues, generally looking handsome and being very charming. Overseen by, among others, future Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron, Remington Steele lasted five years and shot its lead, Pierce Brosnan, to stardom.
In 1986, Brosnan is approached by Cubby Broccoli, and enters into negotiations to assume the role of James Bond. Brosnan's wife, Cassandra Harris, has already been a Bond girl, playing the role of the doomed "Countess" in For Your Eyes Only, just before Brosnan starts shooting Steele. Born in Ireland, abandoned by his father as an infant, and raised largely by his grandparents in London, Brosnan has trained as a painter, worked as a fire-eater, and attended college on a boxing scholarship, where he breaks his nose and falls in love with acting. Remington Steele's ratings are collapsing, and Broccoli and Brosnan (who first met on the set of For Your Eyes Only) are getting along famously; "Good night, James Bond," Broccoli calls out one night after dinner. Agreements are made, announcements are announced, and the 33-year old Brosnan is ready to accept his license to kill. Suddenly, wanting to capitalize on the Bond news, NBC renews Remington Steele, holding Brosnan to his contract. A series of quickie Steele TV movies are made, to negligible ratings, and Brosnan sees his opportunity slip to Timothy Dalton.
Watch the way he straightens the tie.
In 1999, Brosnan produces and stars in a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, opposite Rene Russo. The film is sleek and lush, full of the stylish decadence one associates with the Bond series. It also cranks down on the violence of the original-- rather than robbing banks, Thomas Crown steals art, giving the movie a real caper feel. At the center of the film is the enigma of Thomas Crown, who leads a double life as financier and art thief. We learn bits and pieces of Crown's working-class Irish/English background, mostly lifted from Brosnan's own life, but only bits and pieces, and their veracity is always questionable: there is no "Thomas Crown" except for Brosnan's charisma, and what Russo sees, and what the audience associates from Brosnan's previous roles. The extended Magritte joke in the second half of the film is actually the movie's signature-- a well-dressed man without an expression.
Four years earlier, in 1995, Brosnan finally makes his debut as James Bond, in Goldeneye. He is nine years older than his first aborted time around, and carries on his face the loss of his wife to cancer in 1991. The movie cheekily incorporates Brosnan's history with the series, beginning in 1986 with a raid on a Soviet weapons installation and then leaping into 1995, as if the Dalton years had never happened. On the level of style and narrative, the film is about identity and betrayal, and what it means to be James Bond in a post-Cold War age. This will be the recurring theme of the Brosnan years, which amount to a running taxonomy of what fits under the name of "James Bond." The meta-jokes and self-consciousness about Bond's anachronisms function like the winks in Roger Moore's Bond films: although nominally more serious than those movies, both constantly draw the audience out of the action with nods to the character's long history, and the vague ridiculousness of the proceedings (bungee jumps, upside-down airplanes, tank chases, and an an assassin named Xena Onatopp). Even as Bond is updated and critiqued by the modern world, and even as the narrative and Brosnan's shadowed face grant him greater humanity, we are always reminded that we know nothing about Bond, that there is no "Bond," except for what each actor does and doesn't bring to the part, like a con man slipping in and assuming an identity when we're not looking. As a master of filling an empty space, Brosnan is actor-as-secret-agent, where character lies less in a line of dialogue than a gesture of style: the perfect re-adjustment of a necktie.
After the commercial success and uneasy, self-conscious aesthetic updatings of Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies is a far lighter affair, and all the better for it. Freed from the burden of justifying the character's re-introduction to the world, the producers and director Roger Spottiswoode are free to have fun and stage gorgeously impossible and joyously ridiculous action set-pieces-- this is the loosest and most confident the Bond films have been since The Spy Who Loved Me, whose opposite-number-spies/gender play Tomorrow Never Dies updates spiffily. Sean Bean's tortured double agent is replaced as the central bad guy by Jonathan Pryce's campy media mogul, a parody on Rupert Murdoch with more than a little of the newly-elected Tony Blair's Joker grin and oily confidence thrown in. From the blue and pink neon of the cocktail party where Bond meets a wasted Terri Hatcher, to the ZooTV bank of TV monitors that function as Pryce's secret fortress, to the slinky title tune from Sheryl Crow, Dies revels in the pleasures of artificiality. It's all neatly anchored by a cool Pierce Brosnan and the kick-ass intensity of Michelle Yeoh, whose dynamism plays beautifully off of his dry wit. Bond in the age of Britpop, it seemed, could be a very fun thing.
One of the Bond series' great secret weapons-- the gadget in the shoe, if you will--was Maurice Binder, who designed the gun barrel shot that's opened nearly every "official" Bond film, and the title sequences for every Bond between Dr. No and License To Kill, before passing away in 1991. Balancing perfectly on the line between camp and sensuality, Binder's use of color blocks, silhouettes, light and movement (against both the floating words of the titles and the rhythms of each song) was often brilliant, and always set the tone for what followed. For Your Eyes Only was the first time the singer appeared in the sequence-- in this case, Sheena Easton, whose glittering eyes enhanced the synth-pop balladry of the lyrics. Slipping a real face in amidst the familiar bodily gyrations signaled that this was to be a more human Bond, scaled back to earth after being shot into both space and that horribly maudlin Jaws subplot in Moonraker.
It's a place that star Roger Moore occupies with surprising ease. For Your Eyes Only was one of his rare opportunities to stretch, and he makes the most of it. There's always been a snobbery about Moore's Bond, but it usually manifests itself comically, as if he were a wine commercial actor whose set had suddenly erupted in violence, and the only proper response was an arched eyebrow (if Moore's Bond were to be represented by a piece of clothing, it would not be a tuxedo, but a blue double-breasted blazer with gold buttons, the uniform of the seventies Euro-fop). Here, that elitism is placed in a world of very human greed, desire and bloody violence, and feels less like a parodic gesture and more like a necessary bit of armor, something that grants its user the distance needed to do a bloody job. In other words, it feels like James Bond, and Moore is magnificent throughout.
He is ably supported by the series' best cast in years. Topol brings warmth and toughness to his role as the smuggler Columbo, whom Bond initially thinks is the drug-dealing go-between for the Soviets that he's looking for; Topol's physicality and humor makes Columbo someone whose wryness masks his bruises and rage. The actual villain of the piece is Julian Glover's Kristatos, a smooth patron of the arts playing all sides off each other: Glover is convincingly avuncular in the early scenes, and darkly cruel in the later ones.
Real-life skater Lynn-Holly Johnson has the rather thankless role of skating ingenue Bibi, a sex-mad girl with an eye towards an age-inappropriate relationship with our hero (thankfully, the obsession is played for laughs, and Bond is surprisingly mature in his demurrals). John Moreno is a fine sacrificial lamb as Luigi, Bond's contact in North Italy, while Michael Gothard brings a horror-movie smile to Locque, the hired killer Bond kicks off the cliff, with pleasing abruptness, in the clip above. Best of all, Bunuel star Caroline Bouquet is one of the best (and emotionally richest) Bond women as Melinda, who Bond encounters when her mission to avenge her parents' murder dovetails with his search for the ATAC, a British sonar detector that's sunk to the bottom of the sea, and which all sides in the Cold War desperately want.
After the sometimes-childish hijinks of Moonraker, it's possible that all this genuine espionage was overrated by critics in 1981. After all, Bill Conti's overly-brassy score is grating (lovely title track aside), the Bibi stuff feels mostly extraneous (although there's a nice payoff in the climax), and I could do without the toothless Margaret Thatcher jokes. But in every other respect, For Your Eyes Only really is as good as advertised. Co-writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson effortlessly blend two Fleming short stories ("For Your Eyes Only" and "Risico") into something seamless and gripping, and John Glen (who'd worked as a second-unit director and editor on previous films in the series) makes a great debut as director, with a tight sense of pacing and an eye for staging action. The Moore films wouldn't sustain this momentum, but For Your Eyes Only-- the first Bond movie I saw in a theater, actually-- is a testament to what Eon Productions could do when they kept their eye on the ball.
10. The World Is Not Enough (1999)
"Together we can take the world apart, my love," Shirley Manson coos on Garbage's title song, and that's what Michael Apted-- the most interesting director the Bond films have ever had--is attempting to do here, using an epic frame to tell a very human story. In largely succeeding, his achievement highlights how rarely the Bond movies try to stretch into that territory, and how hard it can be to maintain a balance between the emotional and the spectacular.
Apted-- the director of Coal Miner's Daughter and Gorillas In the Mist, and most famous as the visionary behind the Up series--was a fascinating choice for a Bond film. As 007 was making his first mark on cinema, Apted was working as a researcher on Seven Up, an episode of the British television program World In Action, which looked at 14 children of the same age, from different socio-economic backgrounds in England. It was 1964, but this was not the Swinging London of the imagination. Shot in black-and-white, and intercutting footage of the children playing at the London Zoo with interview segments that are alternately hilarious, sad, and allusive (and always gripping), this is the flip side of Bond's technicolor hedonism; its pathos and eye for revealing detail suggests that the children of the England Bond is protecting are in for something far more perilous and exciting than one of his adventures.
The thrust of Seven Up is sociological and driven by class difference; when Apted took over as director and producer for Seven Plus Seven, and the five subsequent films, it became something more textured, strange and humanist, as the subjects' lives took turns that defied easy categorization or flip moral judgments. Revisiting the same 14 people every seven years (some drop out, others drop back in, and some stay for the whole thing), Apted uses the Up framework-- so brilliantly simple in its repetitive conception, so open to variation and change for the same reason--to craft the ultimate long-form suspense thriller. Each film incorporates clips from the previous one, to catch up new viewers or remind veterans of what came all those years before, but also as a form of delay: as older clip leads into new footage, we wait on the edge of our seats to see if our cast is doing OK, or falling into despair. As tense as Hitchcock and as funny and warm as a Lubistch comedy, the Up films are the most remarkable ongoing achievement in English-language cinema.
And then their auteur was handed a Bond movie.
"Give me something to play," Pierce Brosnan reportedly implored Apted, desperate for a more textured and actor-friendly 007. He's superb in the film, which asks him to be both hard-edged and deeply vulnerable, sometimes in the same scene (there's a lovely moment towards the end when Bond must perform a difficult act of violence, and the mixture of ruthlessness and regret on Brosnan's face is the essence of Fleming's hero). Bond is a bruised figure in the movie, both physically and emotionally, and he's drawn into an increasingly dense web of intrigue that pulls him between desire and duty. Brosnan was always underrated in the role, and his conception of the character caught both the snobby self-deprecation of Roger Moore and the mixture of charm and cruelty that defined Connery, but here Brosnan adds a tenderness and need, a genuine sadness that the series hadn't really had an extended glimpse of since On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Whether facing off against Robert Carlyle's Renard, a madman with a bullet lodged permanently in his skull (making him impervious to pain), seducing Sophie Marceau's emotionally damaged Russian pipeline heir, or protecting Judi Dench's M, Brosnan grounds the action and potential ridiculousness in the believability of his performance. He knows just when to play it straight and when to wink a bit.
(An aside about the glory of Judi Dench, always superb, but here thrust into the field and forced to see the violence that Bond routinely faces. It sounds potentially hokey, but it's very well-done, thanks to the expressiveness of Dench's face, and the sureness of her movement-- she conveys so much with a glance, a down-turned lip or a bent back. It's also a forerunner to the kinds of plot twists Skyfall will riff on thirteen years later.)
Make no mistake-- for all of its emotional reality, The World Is Not Enough still provides the moments of tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness and happy absurdity that one wants. Most impressively, there is the eight-minute boat chase in the clip above, the first example of Apted's genre-pulling. It begins with a shot of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, where Bond has come to retrieve money from a Swiss banker on behalf of M's friend, Sir Robert King (who is also buying stolen MI6 information). As the meeting erupts into violence, Bond cleverly crafts a makeshift bungee rope and escapes out the window, and we've seemingly had our pre-credits bit (one that's rare in its ties to the film's larger narrative). But this just is the prelude to Bond's return to England, King's sudden murder at MI6, and Bond's chase of the murderer down the Thames. It all climaxes with him leaping from experimental speed-boat to a hot-air balloon, from which he falls onto the Millenium Dome, Tony Blair's doomed act of expensive hubris (it was designed to be an ongoing tourist attraction after 2000, but failed to draw any crowds, so Bond's broken arm seems like a metaphor), before the fade into the gorgeously melodramatic title song by Garbage.
It's fantastically staged and narratively overstuffed, and that establishes the pattern for many of Apted's setpieces, which include a spectacular ski/paraglider chase, an exploding nightclub, a booby-trapped missile silo and a sub chase. But it's less the setpieces I remember than the power of isolated images-- Bond glancing up at Q's computerized 3-D image of Renard's head, and tentatively sticking his finger into the bullet hole; Sophie Marceau's PTSD manifesting itself in an eerie, sadomasochistic bed ritual with Bond; the gray of a London funeral towards the beginning of the film; Brosnan's hooded dark eyes as he contemplates his life as a killer for the state; and the final, poignant appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as Q, gracefully descending out of the frame while warning Bond to "always have an escape route."
No, it's not perfect. There are so many narrative threads that it's easy, especially in the middle part, to lose track of story. Its attempts to blend the human with the explosive might seem strained compared to what the series will accomplish with Daniel Craig seven years later. And the less said about Denise Richards' absurdly named Dr. Christmas Jones, the better (especially since the name leads to the single-worst closing line in the history of the series). But the film offers so much that I'm almost as grateful for those moments when it stumbles over its ambition as I am for those when it soars-- given Apted's interest in exposing us to every possibility of human fate, I'd really expect nothing less.
"You disappoint me, Mr. Bond," the titular villain tells our hero, in the first of many "discuss world domination plans over dinner" scenes the Bond series will delight in. "You are nothing but a stupid policeman."
Dr. No might have been speaking for a decade of film and television studios, producers, writers and actors who approached and rejected the Bond novels as potential film properties, before this first Bond movie made it to the screen in 1962. The first option on the books had come in 1954, when CBS produced a 67-minute TV production of Casino Royale with Barry Nelson and Peter Lorre that owed more to Gilda than Ian Fleming, and was not well-received. Fleming had worked with producer Jack McClory on a Bond script, James Bond of the Secret Service, in the late 50s, before funding fell through and Fleming cannibalized the script for his next novel, Thunderball. When producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman got the rights to the books in the early sixties and started casting, they faced numerous rejections. Cary Grant, their first choice for the part, wanted $1 million, and would only do one film; David Niven would only do two. Then, one day, Saltzman spotted an actor pacing on the street before his audition, moving "like a prowling jungle cat," Saltzman would later recall. He was rough-hewn, working-class, and Scottish-- the seeming antithesis of Fleming's Eton-educated hedonist. But there was a charismatic spark, and he was relatively unknown (and much cheaper than their other choices). Director Terrence Young-- whose exquisite taste, eye for clothes and elegant visual sense led many to call him the real James Bond on the set-- took the actor to his barber, his tailor, and worked a bit sanding down the Scottish brogue. And that's how we got the greatest introduction of a character in post-war movie history.
The hands, the case, the back of the tuexdo jacket and the wisp of smoke: we see Bond as a set of signifiers before we see his face, or hear the voice whose sangfroid and dripping contempt hold the whole package together. Cigarette dangling from his lips like Belmondo, Sean Connery's face is both alluring and menacing, both qualities enhanced by the condescension of his hands gesturing near his cheeks, luring poor Sylvia Trench into his trap. In retrospect, casting Sean Connery is a stroke of great good luck: Dr. No is released in England on Oct. 5, 1962, the same day that the first Beatles single, "Love Me Do," hits record stores. Together, Bond and the Beatles-- along with the burgeoning Mod movement and the mid-sixties explosion of fashion designers, writers, actors and theater and film directors--will signal the coming of "Swinging London," and Connery's jungle cat movements, like the Beatles' Scouse accents, will be a reminder of how rooted in the working-class this transformation of global pop life is. There are all kinds of good jokes in Dr. No-- from the lead's one-liners, to the interplay with Trench (a semi-recurring foil), to the appearance of the recently stolen Goya painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington in Dr. No's Jamaican hideaway--but the greatest is the one that goes unspoken: that the fate of the very stuffy, snobby, traditionalist British Empire lies in the hands of this angry young man with the fuck-you stare, who would just as soon give in to pleasure as save the world.
UP NEXT: 008