Monday, November 26, 2012

Notes On Blogging Aesthetics XXIX


It doesn’t take much. A deserted street at dusk, with the summer sunlight lingering on the upper floors of a row of buildings and the sidewalks down below already deep in shadow, may get some old movie in our heads rolling again. Since we are ordinarily better at forgetting than remembering, it is often a mystery why some such sight has stamped itself on our memory, when countless others that ought to have far greater meaning can hardly be said to exist for us anymore. It makes me suspect that a richer and less predictable account of our lives would eschew chronology and any attempt to fit a lifetime into a coherent narrative and instead be made up of a series of fragments, spur-of-the-moment reminiscences occasioned by whatever gets our imagination working.
-- Charles Simic

Friday, November 16, 2012

You Know His Name, Look Up The Number, Part Three: 008


No, no, no-- No more foreplay. Here are your final eight.

8. The Living Daylights (1987)
Timing is everything.

I was fourteen when The Living Daylights was released in the summer of 1987. I'd been watching James Bond movies since I was seven or so (Moonraker seemed to play on a constant loop on HBO in the early '80s), but it wasn't until I was twelve that I started reading the Bond novels (typing these ages out now, I recognize how nerdily precocious I was, but at the time, this all felt very adult). John Gardner had been hired by Gildrose Publications, the executor of the Fleming estate, to "bring Bond into the 1980s," and Gardner published his first Bond novel, License Renewed, in 1981. By 1985, he'd published five Bond books, and that was where I began, but I quickly start reading the original Ian Fleming novels, too, beginning with Casino Royale. They were very different than the films-- where Gardner's books had the pacing, tone and sudden action of a Bond movie, Fleming's novels were moodier, full of evocative description, lingering on odd details, often blunt in their transitions across scenes, and very English. Bond himself was, especially in those early books, an enigma: a cruel man capable of great tenderness, a libertine who brooded on the collapse of England, a man who craved nothing more than action but could never seem to escape his mental doubts. I wouldn't have known it in 1985, sitting in a seventh-grade reading period with The Man With The Golden Gun, but James Bond would be my introduction to existentialism, and to the kinds of noirish tales I'd grow to love at the movies.

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).

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

You Know His Name, Look Up The Number, Part One: The Back Nine


Oh, sure-- everyone else put out their "Best of Bond" lists last week. I distinguish myself by waiting, knowing that the best time to catch up a novice spy-watcher on the 007 oeuvre (say that three times fast, Miss Moneypenny) is just as he or she is coming out of a slam-bang new film like Skyfall, hungry for more. The first part of a menu of the tastiest Bond bits is below, in order of preference from worst to best (parts two and three will come later this week). It's easy to read the films explored here as the dregs at the bottom of the glass, but almost every Bond film has something-- a scene, a shot, a narrative twist, or just a great title song-- that makes it worth at least a glance. An existentialist hedonist like Bond is, after all, about living in a single moment of now, which is what makes him such a great axiom of popular cinema.

Or as Bond himself might put it more pithily, "Shocking. Positively shocking."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sensual Bluntness


Action-packed, brilliantly acted, well-paced and wittily dialogued, and more sensual than any Bond film since the glory days of the 1960s (and perhaps ever), Skyfall is awesome in every sense of the word. After the disappointing nihilism of Quantum of Solace (easily the worst of all possible James Bond films), Skyfall is like the mind-clearing cold showers the character regularly took in the Ian Fleming novels: it's bracing, cleansing, and refocuses the series on all the tiny details that matter more than you might think. Asked by a villainous Javier Bardem what his hobbies are, Daniel Craig's Bond stares at him coolly and mutters, "Resurrection." No kidding.