This is the tenth essay in a 24-part series about the James Bond cinemas co-created by Sundog Lit. I encourage everyone to comment and join in what we hope to be an extended conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
No Shame: Guilty Pleasures and The Man with the Golden Gun
The act of claiming a movie as a “guilty pleasure” is a pre-emptory apology. You’re saying, “I love this movie, but before you pause to temper the abusive response flitting through your head or question my sanity, I also have to tell you that I know it’s really bad.” On one hand it’s noble to confess liking a movie that we, as a society, have deemed terrible. We each have individual opinions. We should confess and stand by them with conviction. On the other hand, no matter how you sugarcoat it, you’re still calling the movie you claim to love “a shitburger.”
So that said, let’s talk about the ninth James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun.
While Golden Gun offers great potential and an exciting premise, it suffered because the filmmakers lacked the confidence to stick to their convictions. They added unnecessary humor. They made the villain’s threat global by force-feeding the screenplay, like a goose about to become foie gras, with a bunch of silly rigmarole about a stolen lens that can harness the power of the sun, rather than just allowing, per the initial draft of the screenplay, the threat to remain local (the threat to Bond). Other than squandering a perfectly good premise, they producers again wasted the opportunity to pave new ground for the Bond character and franchise. (They’d previously avoided using Fleming’s revenge premise contained within the novel You Only Live Twice as the cinematic response to the death of Tracy Bond.) A villain with no motive beyond besting Bond. Objectively, the movie’s more like the lazy scrapbook of a teenage girl who’s only scrapbooking because her best friend thought it would be a fun activity to share even though she’d really rather just people watch and drink an Orange Julius at the mall. Golden Gun takes on the appearance of a series of vignettes from a dozen different films slapped together into something that resembles a logical narrative. And by “resembles” I mean to say that it has credits to denote the beginning and the end.
Objectively, it’s a mess. Subjectively, I can’t help but love it. I suppose that would fit the definition of a guilty pleasure.
The Anti-Science Behind the Guilty Pleasure
The Oxford Dictionary defines the “guilty pleasure” as such: “something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.”
So is the driving force behind the guilty pleasure more like love, like an irrational emotional attachment? Is it the need to protect a much-maligned movie in the way we would nurture a one-eyed stray kitten that has found it’s way to our porch? If we return to the idea that calling a movie a “guilty pleasure” is a pre-emptive apology, how does that reflect the way we value the movie watching experience? I select a movie to watch. I watch it. And while I’m watching said movie I’m experiencing, at the most basic level, a joy or a lack thereof. All of these star ratings and numerical grading systems are inherently based on that approximate level of enjoyment. More joy = like. Less joy = dislike. It should be as simple as that. But it’s not. And this is because we are social creatures. We cannot watch a movie in a vacuum. Our outward opinions are not only formed by enjoyment, but also expectation and the perceived quality of a film by everyone else.
Genre also plays a role. If we attend a scary movie with someone and they are not scared and instead find it unintentionally humorous, it is probable that our connection with the content on the screen will also have been broken, thereby lessening our experience. It all has to do with the proximity to the source. If we are made consciously aware that we are watching a film, i.e. a projection of something that is not real, rather than being absorbed in the characters and plot as if they were real, our emotional connection has been re-rendered as an intellectual connection. Community influences horror as well as comedy. It has been proven that a comedy is more enjoyable, i.e. funnier, when the experience is shared with larger numbers of similarly entertained viewers. To share one of my own experiences, I saw Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story during a matinee with a group of seniors who had clearly just walked in to see whatever was playing at the time. Their distaste hovered like napalm in humidity. But my subsequent viewing took place at home with a number of like-minded individuals. I loved it. And I wondered how I could have been so affected by the crowd to have not seen the brilliance of “If you can dodge a wrench you can dodge a ball.” But this only serves to highlight the fickle and malleable nature of our opinions; this does not even begin to speak to the potential effect of public shaming.
I took an informal poll on Twitter this week. I asked people to first name their favorite “guilty pleasure” movie then explain, briefly, why. The third and final question proved the most telling. Objectively, do you consider this movie to be bad? The titles included Dune, Batman Forever, Beerfest, Biodome and Earnest Saves Christmas among others (I’ll share more of the “data” in another post dedicated to this pseudo-science). I offered my own in the form of Police Academy 3. But of the many responses, all were nearly unanimous (there were a couple of outliers) in that they didn’t think their “guilty pleasure” was objectively a bad movie. And the more I considered this, the more I wasn’t so sure I considered Police Academy a fundamentally bad movie either. What does it aspire to be in the first place? Does it succeed according to those aspirations? I think it does.
Now, we’ve reached another critical point in this conversation. “Bad” is a highly subjective term and often just tossed about as a matter of opinion rather than objective criticism. To remove some of the frivolity from the notion of good vs. bad, let’s define a “bad movie” as a movie of relative filmmaking incompetence, specifically considering how it endeavors to entertain its target audience. When you toss about the idea of bad movies a certain handful of hall of fame entries immediately come to mind such as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Manos: The Hands of Fate, the latter of which was made infamous by the riffing of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Being such low-budget features, Manos and Plan 9 had their own share of production difficulties that contributed to their innate competency (or lack thereof). Again, consider for whom those movies were made. Did they incompetently miscalculate their audience? B-movies (perhaps Z-movies) such as these complicate the argument. It’s hard to call them failures despite it also being impossible to call them successes, unless you consider the fact that we’re still watching them and talking about them fifty years later, whereas better, more competent films from the same era have long been lost and forgotten. What difference does the quality of a film make when no one watches it or talks about it anymore? And yes, I absolutely mean to recall a closet full of sad, lonely old reels of celluloid kibitzing about how “kids these days just don’t respect their elders.”
The fact remains that the movies that people name as their favorite “guilty pleasure” are loved because they entertained with at the very least a marginal amount of competency towards their target audience. They were all mostly well-budgeted (the cinema version of well-endowed?) movies, often with slick production values. It could be argued that the least buzz-worthy movies are the forgettable ones at the intersection of marginal intent and marginal quality. But that might require some more frivolous high-concept consideration in an entirely different conversation.
The roundabout point being made here, specifically as it relates to The Man with the Golden Gun is that all of these opinions come with baggage, the baggage known as “frame of reference.” I learned from my survey that depending on their depths of cinematic exposure, the quality of the movies people named as their “guilty pleasures” varied wildly. This isn’t a knock against anyone’s devotion or exposure to cinema, merely a subjective observation. There are no right or wrong answers because, as I said, the confession of a guilty pleasure carries with it a certain garden-variety brand of shame. I’m not doing the judging. Those that answered the question were, in no small part, judging their own opinion relative to their own opinion of what is “good.” By and large, the more movies people had watched, the more often they chose movies that were universally considered terrible.
But this “universally terrible” branding comes with another caveat. If we love a movie that is widely considered rubbish, why is that movie not merely “underrated”? This is the fear of social criticism. If you stand to proclaim that Jaws: The Revenge is a beloved piece of cinema you are probably going to stand alone. And there will probably be judging. As people are generally social creatures who fear rejection, they will also unite to criticize an outlying opinion to reinforce that community. The differentiation between an “underrated” film and a “guilty pleasure,” however, is not only insecurity. The underrated movie is one that you have deemed misunderstood or under-heralded. And this is where we again return to objectivity. The true “guilty pleasure” movies then are movies that we enjoy, but which we also deem to be objectively terrible, ignored and appropriately-heralded because they’re just not worthy of a broader audience. This removes the confusion with being underrated.
But what of the shame?
The term “guilty pleasure” is a uniquely American idiom rooted in our culture of shame. In Spanish, the best approximation is placeres prohibidos (direct translation: forbidden pleasures) – a term that speaks nothing of shame, but rather sounds like a tawdry telenovela. It suggests something illicit, which is also a bit of a misnomer (unless you’re one of the many that claimed an affection for Showgirls). It is, however, less concerned with the assignation of shame. Even this is merely a work-around to explain the meaning of the American idiom. The Germans are too concerned with Schadenfreude (pleasure in the failures of others) to need to any further shaming. When I tried to research whether Eastern cultures have an approximation to the concept of guilty pleasure, I found nothing (but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it means the Interwebs have not been kind of my searches).
This American idiom has become so commonplace that we’ve swept the “guilt” part of the phrase under the rug. We know it’s there but choose to ignore it. We openly assign “guilty pleasure” to any form of entertainment we deem lowbrow to position ourselves as better or intellectually above it. We want to differentiate ourselves from the people who enjoy Britney Spears un-ironically. At face value, it seems like such an innocent term, but under increased scrutiny the term “guilty pleasure” is a particularly loathsome and mindless reflection of the unique ways in which we appreciate and enjoy culture. After all, it’s not like snacking on The Adventures of Ford Fairlane will eventually go to straight your hips.
The Inherent “Guilt” and “Pleasure” of James Bond
Many people consider the James Bond films to be low entertainment. When I’ve described this project, it has been occasionally met with some confusion as if to question why, of all things, would James Bond be worth so much time and effort. I get it. I hope after reading the eventual finished #Bond_age_ project they might have a change of heart, but I understand from where this negativity might come. In that Bond has spanned fifty years there is a wide swath of quality and a natural ebb and flow of cinematic competency influenced by contemporary ideologies and cinematic trends. Depending upon your perspective and time of introduction, the Bond oeuvre offers many reasons, if taken out of the context of the whole series, to disparage the entire enterprise.
At face value, the 23-film series seems to offer little consistency. The tone wavers between camp and legitimacy, according to the whims of the producers who’ve always overreacted to public criticism, no matter how misguided that criticism. The consistency is found in the character of James Bond. And while there are a handful of outliers that generally find their way onto most Top-Bond lists, every fan seems to have that one disparaged entry that they consider their own unique rough gem. Even the objectively bad Bonds are made watchable, even enjoyable based on the charisma of the actor playing Bond. And no actor rescued more questionable Bond films from certain doom than Roger Moore. (Some might disagree with this point. I will present my argument in full sometime in the near future.)
The Man with the Golden Gun took the simple core story written by Tom Mankiewicz in the first draft —a freelance assassin ($1mil per kill) wants to prove that he is James Bond’s equal by challenging him to a duel of (sociopathic) wits. Perfect, except that Eon refused to abandon the established formula to create something tense and local, a drama isolated around James Bond alone. Go ahead. Try to describe the plot of Golden Gun to someone unfamiliar with Bond. “So, British intelligence receives a golden bullet in the mail with 007 inscribed on the shell, making them think that Bond is the next target of the legendary assassin Scaramanga (a perfectly cast Christopher Lee, by the way), so Bond decides to track down Scaramanga before he becomes another notch in the assassin’s belt.” Pause. “And then there’s this thing about a ‘Solex Agitator’ which harnesses the power of the sun and, I guess it destroys things. If it falls into the wrong hands and… yada yada yada… bad things.”
(I apologize in advance for all the caps that are about to happen.)
And that someone who’s unfamiliar with Bond should, if they’ve been paying attention, question how this could be the same movie because THEY’RE COMPLETELY UNRELATED. Legitimate query. The “solex agitator” is like the MacGuffin that all MacGuffins aspire to be. Bond fans who’ve long suffered the megalomaniacal and irresponsibly broad Blofeld schemes can probably shrug off the incompatibility. Blofeld’s MacGuffins spoke to a consistency of character. But this isn’t Blofeld. This is Scaramanga. A modest recluse of a villain who lives on an island in Thailand and employs Herve Villachaize as his henchman. Some villains get Jaws. Jaws bites people. Nick Nack serves champagne and hides under couches. It’s completely bonkers!
And the legitimacy of the whole enterprise just goes down from there. The number of set pieces and plot points that are, well, apropos nothing continue to pile up like the mad cash Bond would have given the kid who fixed his motorboat had he not, instead, CHUCKED HIM IN THE RIVER. There’s a kung fu fight at a dojo that Bond escapes due to the benevolence of passing schoolgirls WHO BEAT UP AN ENTIRE DOJO OF MARTIAL ARTS EXPERTS. Sheriff Pepper, the hillbilly redneck sheriff last seen in the Louisiana bayou, JUST HAPPENS TO BE VACATIONING IN THE SAME CITY. IN THAILAND. And again joins Bond on a madcap Dukes of Hazzard-esque car chase that concludes with one of the best stunts in the history of James Bond. And that stunt, a 360 barrel roll (no special effects) off a crippled bridge across a river, is completely undermined by a SLIDE WHISTLE that John Barry included in the score of the film. The only known characteristic of the mysterious Scaramanga is A THIRD NIPPLE. Bond traipses around Thailand asking about the man with three nipples and everyone’s like “Oh, three nipples, yes. I know the man with three nipples – he is not one to be trifled with, nor is his freakish third nipple. Have you seen a man with three nipples before? Three nipples, wow. What a three-nippled freak.” I said it before, but I think it requires repeating. BONKERS. ABSOLUTELY BONKERS.
I’m just scratching the surface of how bizarre The Man with the Golden Gun really is. I didn’t even mention the wax museum and hall of mirrors. And despite all of these eccentricities and just incomprehensible filmmaking decisions, I end up defending this movie. In fact, before beginning the #Bond_age_ project I considered Golden Gun to be my favorite Roger Moore Bond. I have since gained a greater appreciation for how The Spy Who Loved Me perfected the Roger Moore Bond film, but that in no way cheapens my irrational affection for the three-nippled liquid insanity that is Golden Gun.
So I’m now going to ask myself the three questions I asked everyone else when investigating this guilty pleasure phenomenon and adjust it for #Bond_age_.
1. What is your favorite guilty pleasure of the James Bond series?
The Man with the Golden Gun
2. Short reason why you like this movie:
Despite a most frustrating refusal to pursue a potentially brilliant narrative, Golden Gun turns miserable failure into a bonkers joie de vivre. Christopher Lee plays Scaramanga completely straight (three-nipples and all) in the middle of a post-modern maelstrom of dissociation.
3. Do you consider this movie to be objectively bad?
But I feel no guilt.