Tuesday, November 13, 2012

James Bond on the brain


But the weird thing was that I sent it from my brain to someone else's last night.

I was walking up the stairs from the parking garage to the main level of the Sherman Oaks Galleria, where I was planning to meet a couple friends for an 8:30 showing of Skyfall at the Arclight Theater. I started to anticipate not liking the movie as much as I think I should, and viewing that as more evidence that I'm not a huge Bond fan. Apparently, I want to like Bond more than I actually do, so this seemed to me a failure of some kind.

But as I reached the top of the steps I thought "But that's not really true -- I like that second Brosnan movie more than almost anyone I know." The title Tomorrow Never Dies did not immediately leap to mind, but that's the movie I was thinking of.

Apparently, so was someone else. As I continued on toward the main thoroughfare, I caught a lingering snippet of a conversation from the group of people I had just passed. The last words I heard one of the guys speak were "the one with Michelle Yeoh in it."

Which means that he, too, was thinking of/talking about Tomorrow Never Dies at that very same moment. And also not producing the title on the spot as he and his friends did a Skyfall post-mortem before separating to their cars. 

Now, I'm sure you are thinking "Vance, you just heard them talking about Bond, which is what got you thinking about Bond and predicting your reaction to Skyfall." But it's not true. I started to think about Bond before I even reached this group of people, and even if I had unconsciously heard them talking about it, it's still striking that I started to think about Tomorrow Never Dies before the guy ever mentioned it. And even if I had unconsciously heard them talking about Tomorrow Never Dies -- though not by title, because, as discussed, the guy referred to the movie only by mentioning one of its Bond girls -- that's not how I "got to" Tomorrow Never Dies in my own head. I started thinking about it by reassuring myself that I do really love some Bond films, and producing TND as an example. And it's not like we were both thinking of the most recent Bond film before this, which I haven't seen anyway. The film we were both thinking of is 15 years old.

Anyway, this funny little coincidence -- probably not a case of either of us sending messages with our brains -- gave me something to think about for the rest of the walk to the theater.

During one of the down moments of the first act, I got to thinking something else about James Bond and his own personal history. I'm sure this has been written about by untold Bond enthusiasts, but I haven't read their work, so it was occurring to me independently as I watched Skyfall. The question struck me as appropriate for the 50th anniversary of the character's appearance in movies.

The question was:

Is this James Bond supposed to be the same James Bond from Dr. No?

Setting aside the obvious problem that a secret service agent could not be in peak physical condition for field operations for a 50-year period of his life, is Daniel Craig, as James Bond, supposed to be the same James Bond who fought on the platform of a huge satellite dish (Goldeneye), the same James Bond who disarmed a bomb on a military base wearing a clown outfit (Octopussy), the same James Bond who cheated his apparent death the first time after being shot in a fold away bed in Japan (You Only Live Twice)?

There seems to be a good reason that the character doesn't spend much time mentally cataloguing his past adventures, all the ways he's evaded death and all the women he's loved. It's because clearly this is not meant to be the same man for 23 movies. But it's not overtly supposed to be a different man. I mean, clearly there is not more than one superspy named James Bond working for MI6.

I guess it's probably useful to think of it this way: Each actor who plays Bond has had the experience of all the things that have happened to him in his own films. The James Bond of A View to a Kill (1985) has the memories of the James Bond of Live and Let Die (1973), because both are Roger Moore. But if you ask him to remember what happened to him in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), he can't, because that was Sean Connery.

This isn't to say that each actor's first time as Bond represented the character as an agent new to MI6. Bond is a veteran agent even in Dr. No. Just that each actor's first Bond film represents the first cinema-worthy adventure Bond undertook as an agent. You'd assume his previous adventures were more by-the-book, even the harrowing ones. In that sense, the Bond series was mastering the concept of the "reboot" even before we had computers.

I'm sure Travis will have something to say about all this.

As for Skyfall, I was quite entertained. It's an unusual entry in the series in many respects, not least of which was the cinematography by Roger Deakins -- I kept noticing the wonderful composition and framing of shots, for which Sam Mendes also deserves credit. I commented to one of my friends afterward that after the first scene -- which may just be the best 15 minutes in any Bond movie I've ever seen -- the movie was notable for its lack of the kind of Rube Goldberg staging of action scenes that we have come to associate with the series. (You know, the kind that Aardman Animation has since perfected.) The finale of the film is a particular departure in that respect. Skyfall is a lot more raw and straightforward, which is not a bad thing.

I mean, the movie's whole damn point is that sometimes retro is better. As a guy approaching 40, that's an idea I'm starting to get behind more and more all the time.


Travis McClain said...

The Bond continuity from Dr. No ended with Licence to Kill. GoldenEye was something of a "soft" reboot. Bond discusses, for instance, the British betrayal of the Liens-Cossacks in World War II, to which Valentin Zukovksy replies, "You know your history, Mr. Bond." Fleming's 007 was a WWII veteran.

Casino Royale was a complete reboot, meaning that the Daniel Craig era is entirely independent of the films that came before.

As for Tomorrow Never Dies, I re-watched that last week on Election Day while the ballots were being counted on the East Coast. Rather than inundate your comment box with all that, I'll lazily point you in the direction of my remarks in my Letterboxd film diary entry. The short version is that I was pretty underwhelmed by it in 1997, but I've really come around on it. Part of that was realizing that my biggest problem at the time was that it wasn't GoldenEye and part of it has been seeing how prescient the film was. A media baron manipulating the world for ratings seemed far-fetched and lame at the time, but clearly Elliot Carver anticipated the rise of Fox News. One imagines Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes walking out of the theater high-fiving one another for finding their calling.

Vancetastic said...

So you're saying that Timothy Dalton, as Bond, was supposed to have been around for at least 27 years? Wow, and he was one of the youngest looking Bonds we've had.

Indeed, prescient. I should see that one again. It would be my first repeat-viewed Bond other than Octopussy.

I appreciate this analysis, but what I really wanted to know was whether you think I'm psychic or not.

Travis McClain said...

In Licence to Kill, Felix Leiter makes note that "[Bond] was married once", a direct reference to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It isn't completely far-fetched; Dalton was one of the actors considered to succeed Sean Connery when they cast Roger Moore for Live and Let Die.

The real question isn't whether you're psychic. It's whether you have the power to transfer thoughts of James Bond onto the brains of other people. I like to think you do. As mutant powers go, this is one of my favorites.

Vancetastic said...

I was trying to figure out how best to communicate the power, and "psychic," though inexact, was the best word I could come up with.

I think you probably could (and probably should) think of the Bond adventures as occurring in closer proximity to each other in his life than the 2-3 years it necessarily takes between movies. (Though not back in Connery's day -- he seemed to make about one a year.) I guess in that scenario you just have to ignore the fact that there are much larger changes in the greater world that contradict the condensed time interval I'm suggesting.

Travis McClain said...

Yeah, the passage of time is fairly curious. Someone pieced together a thing on YouTube where they took the first five minutes of Dr. No, then minutes 6-10 of From Russia with Love, minutes 11-15 of Goldfinger all the way through the last few minutes of Quantum of Solace. It's curious to see how the basic storytelling paradigm has been so consistent throughout the decades, because there really is a sort of discernible through-line.

It's also, of course, interesting because in the span of just 15-20 minutes, you can go from one era to another, with dramatic changes in fashion and other aesthetics.