I really liked the thematic coincidences between Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” and the Skyfall title credits. So I mashed ’em up.
Bond[age] #7: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Pleads the 4th
This is the seventh essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas co-produced by Sundog Lit. I encourage everyone to venture over to Sundog to read other essays, 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. The entire collection of essays, live tweet digests and other Bond nonsense is housed on the #Bond_age_ website.
Of [In]human Bond[age] #7: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Pleads the 4th
I originally embarked on this voyage to watch and discuss all 23 James Bond movies because I wanted to look more closely at the temporality of the Bond adventures. A theme inspired by a moment in Skyfall when Daniel Craig retrieves the Aston Martin DB5 from storage, a car with which his Bond has had no prior relationship. Having had six different actors play the role with eleven different directors behind the camera, how did the series adjust from one actor to the next? Natural shifts in style and substance brought upon by external market influences and cinematic trends? How did filmmaking decisions attempt to explain the continuity from film to film? Or, conversely, did the filmmakers try to explain it at all?
Part 1: Unveiling the First New Bond
After Sean Connery quit the role of James Bond, Saltzman and Broccoli offered the role to then 22-year-old Timothy Dalton. Dalton declined, considering himself too young for the role. Lazenby meanwhile had moved to London in 1963, the year Dr. No was released. He became a used car salesman and then a male model before landing a commercial spot. In the Bond documentary Everything or Nothing, Lazenby said “I had nothing on my mind, night and day, except getting that job.” He purchased a Savile Row suit and a Rolex identical to James Bond’s and got his hair cut by Connery’s barber. Some stories suggest Lazenby met Cubby Broccoli at the barbershop and Broccoli liked the cut of his jib. Others suggest he snuck past the EON Productions secretary and once through the door introduced himself by saying “I heard you’re looking for James Bond.” Either way he willed himself into contention and survived the four-month Bond search. The picture below shows the five finalists for the role. (Don’t you just feel damn sorry for the other four gentlemen? Also, how did they get that far??)
Broccoli and Saltzman were often slaves to public opinion, or at the very least, their perception of public opinion, often overcompensating to relative success or failure. Connery had been such a success in the Bond role that they intended to repeat that success by casting another relative unknown, a move they would certainly regret, both due to Lazenby’s off-screen personality and lackluster box office return. They never needed to express their regret publicly; Lazenby abandoned his seven-picture deal before the release of the film (he felt that the Bond series was a dinosaur that couldn’t survive the progressive 1970’s). The further course-correction undertaken after the relative “failure” of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, however, speaks volumes.
I’d circled On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on my calendar because this would be the first film in which I could really focus on how the series shifted from one actor to the next (and back again, but that’s a chat for next week). Before watching the film for the first time in twenty years I did a little research about how Lazenby had been marketed. At the end of his tenure, Connery had been synonymous with Bond. The posters for You Only Live Twice put the phrase “Sean Connery is Bond” as large as the title itself. Advance posters for OHMSS, on the other hand,completely obscured Bond’s face in a portrait surrounded by eight bikini-clad women. (When in doubt, go back to the staples: guns and girls.)
The primary theatrical poster returns to the Bond basics. It boasts “FAR UP! FAR OUT! FAR MORE! James Bond 007 is back!” (See poster above.) A tuxedo-clad Lazenby postures with a gun on skis. Diana Rigg’s cleavage on full display (also on skis). Telly Savalas fires upward at him from a bobsled (spoiler!). Helicopters. Explosions. Skiers with assault rifles. The style of the poster itself is standard hyperbolic artwork (exceptionally so considering Secret Service is a return to a more character- and narrative-driven Bond film) consistent with the last Connery posters for the spectacle films You Only Live Twice and Thunderball. Lazenby’s name appears small and at the bottom alongside Rigg and Savalas. Rigg would have been the biggest star in the film because of her role as Emma Peel on the Avengers. Other than the foreign film roles Lazenby had lied about on his resume, his only prior acting experience had been a Big Fry Chocolate commercial. On these new posters, as opposed to the You Only Live Twice Connery poster, the James Bond character is the only attraction, just as it was on the first Dr. No posters where Sean Connery’s name is barely visible and the movie is billed as “Ian Fleming’s Dr. No.”
But even after fans were lured back by the Bond name and whiz-bang marketing, they still had to be convinced that Lazenby could be the face of the franchise. The series had reached a critical point. How would the filmmakers approach On Her Majesty’s Secret Service knowing they not only had to make a great movie, but also set the table for Bond’s future with an actor not named Sean Connery?
The Formula Adopts a Variable
Self-awareness has been an expected and almost necessary part of the modern Bond formula. As I suggested in my introductory essay to the series, Skyfall is remarkable because it succeeds at being both a quality movie and at hauling the requisite Bond baggage from the 22-prior films (whether it is a great Bond movie is up for debate). Fans love to be rewarded for their loyalty with knowing winks. In order for the movie to succeed on its own merit, however, those knowing winks cannot interrupt or detract from the narrative itself lest they seem cloying or pandering. Director Sam Mendes included dozens of sly references to past Bond films in Skyfall but only one called attention to itself as nothing more than a nod to the past – that DB5 resurrection (apparently from carbon storage due to its pristine condition).
What screenwriter Richard Maibaum and director Peter R. Hunt depict in the pre-credit sequence of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service lays bare their concept for the series A.C. (after Connery). After Bond rescues a girl from the surf and fights off two would-be assailants, the girl drives away without a word leaving Bond stranded on the beach. Lazenby as James Bond then turns toward the camera and says, “This never happened to the other fellow.”
On one hand, the line is an easy joke, a quick one-liner in the wake of violence – a Bond series staple. On the other, the line is a profound statement of awareness. James Bond talked through the camera to the audience. He’s saying I know that you know I’m not Sean Connery and I want you to know that I know you know I’m not Sean Connery. It’s a brilliant filmmaking decision, one of the most daring in the entire 007 series. That said, as a cinematic tool, it wasn’t a new concept. The popular contemporary films Alfie (1966) and best picture-winner Tom Jones (1963) would have already established this filmmaking trick in the public consciousness, albeit in the comedy genre. Breaking the fourth wall has a long history in comedy, going back to Groucho Marx who regularly used asides and fourth wall tricks in the Marx Bros. comedies of the 1930s. While the Bond films use humor to palletize violence and sex, they cannot themselves be considered comedic. The moment is brief, but bold, and lingers for only a second before the film cuts to the traditional silhouettes of the Bond title sequence, which is, in itself, a montage of scenes from old Bond films without the appearance of James Bond himself.
Many fans take offense to this moment. They complain that it’s not a “Bond moment.” But I’m going to call this suggestion into question. It is absolutely a Bond moment. Because from this moment forward, Bond, to varying degrees, is linked to the self-referential awareness of itself as a series of films depicting events in the career of one 00-agent. If you, as the viewer, accept George Lazenby and Sean Connery as the same character then you are also a willing conspirator. The Roger Moore films stray temporarily from acknowledging the past before incorporating a number of references to the Sean Connery films (and a brief mention of his dead wife) in The Spy Who Loved Me. Like EON’s rebellion against the serious Bond film, against a James Bond with feelings, against James Bond movies too close to the source material, the temporary absence of self-awareness is also a knee-jerk reaction to the relative failure of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and an attempt to fully reboot the series. The modern James Bonds (Brosnan and Craig), however, bathe in self-awareness and in the tropes of Bond’s past. Audiences, for better or worse, crave this two-way communication. Do a simple Google search for “Skyfall Bond references” to find dozens of fan-made lists chronicling the self-referential moments contained within the film.
Furthermore, consider the scene in OHMSS that takes place when Bond resigns his post. As 007 cleans out his desk, he removes a number of items from his desk drawer, mementos of sorts: Honey Rider’s knife from Dr. No, the watch from From Russia With Love and the underwater breather from Thunderball. Even the janitor in the MI-6 offices is whistling the Goldfinger theme. Of course, these items aren’t mementos for James Bond – they belong to the audience (because Bond would consider such things frivolous). They’re tchotchkes we’ve collected and catalogued along our cinema travelogue. It’s an assault of references that are all again planted to remind everyone watching that George Lazenby isn’t Sean Connery, but he is James Bond. (He’s same character and he remembers the same things you do! Really. Honestly. We promise. Look. Here’s the stuff that belonged to the Sean Connery Bond that you, I mean, he, kept as souvenirs from his prior exploits!)
Part 2: Precocious Timelines
Not only does OHMSS introduce self-awareness into the Bond formula but the sixth Bond film also poses the first temporal anomaly in the series that suggests we cannot consider the Bond series to be linear. In You Only Live Twice Bond finally squares off against Ernst Stavro Blofeld face to face in what the Fleming books considered the climax of the Blofeld plot. Bond goes undercover as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray. Blofeld intends to lay claim to the title “Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp” – Bleuchamp being the French form of the Blofeld family name. Had Bond actually met Blofeld previously this undercover scheme would not have been possible. Had they met before they also wouldn’t have required a scene of formal introductions in OHMSS.
If the Bond franchise existed only on-screen, this kind of anomaly would be inexplicable. What we have, however, is a series that existed first on the page and was then translated to the screen in an order determined by budgetary constraints and perceived marketability. The curious thing about this is that the filmmakers in charge of OHMSS (Richard Maibaum and Peter Hunt being the most influential creative contributors) chose, on this one particular occasion to create a Bond movie that remained very true to the source material. So true, in fact, that they even chose not to alter the pre-existing on-screen relationship between Bond and Blofeld.
If I were prone to wild conjecture (perhaps just this once) I’d suggest that as the editor of the first three Bond films and second unit director for the subsequent two, Hunt had formed a few strong opinions about the direction the franchise should take. And he was determined to follow through when he was finally offered the directorial job on OHMSS, his directorial debut. That said, whatever his reasoning, it can’t be discounted. It boils down to this. Blofeld didn’t know Bond, and therefore, OHMSS must, logically, take place before You Only Live Twice in the Bond chronology.
Return for a second to the drawer Bond empties out in his office. He removed trinkets from Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball and the janitor whistles the theme from Goldfinger, but the movie recalls nothing from You Only Live Twice. This omission is either a convenient oversight or a deliberate choice. I suggest the latter, albeit with one caveat. In the opening credit sequence that I mentioned earlier – the one containing clips from the prior Bond movies flowing through an hourglass – contains fleeting moments from You Only Live Twice. I excuse this because the clips are played entirely for the viewer and likely weren’t a choice made by Maibaum or Hunt, but rather from above, from EON Productions and Saltzman and Broccoli. Since the typical opening sequence contains silhouettes of naked women writhing to a suggestive theme song (something that doesn’t really happen on screen), it shouldn’t be difficult to write this off as something outside and unrelated to the Bond spacetime.
When he turned to the camera and uttered that one little phrase at the beginning of his sixth adventure, James Bond turned the franchise upside down. No matter your opinion of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as a standalone film, it must be conceded that the film serves as a fascinating turning point in the series. Not only is it the first time the Bond role changes hands, but it is also a distinct departure in tone, style and substance from the movies that immediately preceded it. That many fans now consider it to be an upper-echelon Bond entry (meanwhile others wildly disagree) makes for a fascinating discussion about the value of hindsight and OHMSS’ lingering repercussions, both as a result of its perceived box office failure and the introduction of self awareness, a brand new variable to the tried and true formula. A strong case could be made that Daniel Craig’s Bond films have become a spiritual successor to Lazenby’s only outing. Consider the serious tone, the more personal look at the emotion and motivation behind 007’s actions. Also, lest we forget that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service introduced the tchotchkes that Bond must now carry around with him and scatter throughout his missions for our viewing edification. You can be quite sure that the contents of Daniel Craig’s Bond baggage fills far more than just a tiny little desk drawer.
This is the fourth essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas co-produced by Sundog Lit. I encourage everyone to venture over to Sundog to read other essays, 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, etc. The entire project will be collected on the #Bond_age_ website.
Of [In]human Bond[age] #4: Subtext and the Rape of Pussy Galore
The following essay intends to discuss the cinematic subtext and potential cultural factors that may have influenced the creation of the “barn scene” in Goldfinger. It is not meant to undermine the real horror that many women have had to overcome as a result of rape or sexual assault. I hope to treat the topic with sensitivity but still allow for a clinical but frank discussion about how or why the way we view this scene has changed in the nearly 50 years since its release.
James Bond confronts Pussy Galore (played by Honor Blackman) in a barn. His aim, of course, is to have a figurative and literal roll in the hay. She is reluctant. She flips him. He flips her. It is aggressive yet supposedly playful courting, punctuated by a Mickey-Moused score (just in case you didn’t grasp the supposed innocence of it all), the stubbornness of James Bond’s womanizing and Pussy Galore’s shield of chaste cynicism (a chastity we presume to be false), mano a femano. With both of them on the ground, he forces a kiss. She struggles beneath him before, inevitably, giving in and returning his embrace.
Taken outside of the context of the Bond oeuvre, particularly the 60’s-era Connery films, the scene leaves the viewer discomforted. Red flags go up, sirens go off, many triggered by our modern sensitivities on the topic of rape and sexual assault. It’s been a healthy number of years since I last wrote a paper concerning anything resembling feminism in cinema, but I’ll do my best to avoid blundering over specific turns of phrase that might prove offensive. And since this is a blog format and not a thesis, pardon the shorthand that is required to keep this under 15,000 words.
The first complication we must consider is historical perspective
…both inside the velvet walled of the cinema and out. Goldfinger was released in 1964, the doorstep of the sexual revolution. Sexuality had yet to become fully politicized, gay and lesbian liberation remained a few years away, but the “permissive” attitudes towards sex and the depiction of sexual activity had crossed over into popular culture, ushered in by film (the growing popularity of European cinema introduced more liberal depictions of sexuality), mass marketing and literature. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, for example, purported that women should rebel against the role of nuclear housewife and that they should engage in and enjoy more frequent sexual relations. Considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century, Mystique sold more than three million copies and helped catalyze the second wave of feminism in the United States.
Using Feminine Mystique to inform the barn scene subtext, one could read that Pussy Galore’s struggle and subsequent acquiescence represents the housewife’s struggle to break free from domestic shackles (the employment by a criminal mastermind), to think independently (fall in love with the enemy), to seek fulfillment in sex (the roll in the hay) and interests outside of domestic responsibility (aiding Bond in foiling Goldfinger’s plot to destroy Fort Knox).
To intellectualize away the discomfort
The early 1960s were a muddy, confused time for sexual politics. Thus, it stands to reason that a scene as uncomfortable as this would arise from a time of great transition. Having just unlocked the rusted chastity belt of the 1950s, minds were ready to embrace Bond’s serial womanizing (the success of the Bond films surely indicates this) but the filmmakers may have struggled to find new ways to titillate after the first two films. They upped the ante by keeping Pussy Galore’s name true to Fleming’s novel (Director Guy Hamilton reportedly wooed American censors by claiming to be a devout Republican), but depicting a woman named Pussy Galore as something other than a one-dimensional harlot was necessary for creating an interesting adversary for James Bond.
By this point, movie audiences were conditioned to know that A) Bond gets the girl and B) The girl, whether she knows it or not, wants Bond. Consider it a contract signed between the film goer and the filmmaker. Any other outcome is a breach of contract. If each flirtation is another miniature narrative, there must be some conflict, or impediment to success to raise the stakes before our hero wins the day, or in this case, the girl. In Goldfinger, Bond meets three women: Jill and Tilly Masterson and Pussy Galore. It could be argued that James Bond’s repeated missteps in Goldfinger result first from his drive toward domesticity (Jill) and then the subsequent reaction against it (Pussy).
If you watch Goldfinger with Bond’s repeated fallibility in mind, you’ll notice how many times Bond needs a refresher course in remedial tactical espionage. It’s a fragile argument and one that needs to be established alongside the many times that Bond bobbles this particular mission. The most repercussive gaffe takes place at the beginning of the movie when Bond interferes with Goldfinger’s card game by forcing him to lose and then sleeping with his girl, Jill Masterson. Surely a spy of Bond’s caliber could project how the dominos might fall… or he fully understands the consequences and pursues Jill Masterson with disregard for the repercussions.
What would drive Bond to do something so frivolous? I suggest that Bond has fallen in love with Jill, Goldfinger’s girl. The movie suggests more than casual sex through the subtext of the post-coital scene. The camera lingers on her in bed, a fixed gaze rather than a rapid cut or transition to Bond knotting his tie. Rather than departing, Bond returns to her side in bed, under the guise of Dom Perignon maintenance. The post-coital scene offers an unprecedented measure of damning domesticity. Bond in the kitchen, making idle comments about music. (Sidenote: His statement “That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs,” sounds bizarre to our ears, trained to consider the Beatles the I Ching of modern pop music. Consider, however, that the only two Beatles records released by this point were Please Please Me and With the Beatles. Not exactly timeless classics.) I say “damning” domesticity because the result of their temporary domestic stasis is that Bond winds up unconscious, clubbed by an unseen figure (presumably Oddjob). Jill winds up dead, the condemned housewife, painted entirely in gold. Thus begins the Goldfinger narrative proper. It’s not Goldfinger’s criminal plot that catalyzes the film; it’s a battle of hubris and revenge between Goldfinger and Bond.
But now, more about Pussy. (It may be a shock, but I’ve never been able to write that sentence before). She, on the other hand, represents an ultimate conquest. Not only a resistant target, but a resistant enemy target with the most alluring name of any woman James Bond has ever met. During their introduction Bond is unusually cautious. When Pussy tells him that she is Goldfinger’s “personal pilot,” Bond wants to know the specific nature of the relationship. He asks, “Just how personal is that?” Since when does Bond care about a woman’s ties to another man? Since Jill Masterson wound up painted gold. He’s been burned by Goldfinger before.
Once Bond has determined that Pussy Galore isn’t Goldfinger’s sexual property, he pursues her aggressively. Her resistance only fuels his desire. Not because he loves her, but because she claims to be off-limits and immune to his charms. This is anti-domesticity – the fling for the sake of the chase. Honor Blackman claims that she played the role with the understanding that Pussy Galore had been physically abused in her past, thus explaining Pussy’s initial reluctance. This explanation is complicated further by knowledge of Ian Fleming’s original text.
In the Fleming novel, Pussy Galore is a lesbian. In the movie, it’s not as clear, but it is suggested. I have to wonder how much the actors were aware of the novel’s discrepancies during filming. Pussy’s resistance (we are trained to understand that no heterosexual female can resist Bond) and her “Flying Circus” of fellow female pilots are two extraordinarily telling details. Again, consider where we are at this time in the 60’s: housewives have been given a green light to discuss their sexual activity, but gay and lesbian openness remains a few years away. It was open enough that Ian Fleming made Pussy’s lesbianism explicit in the novel, but the Goldfinger filmmakers shied away. Mainstream audiences weren’t likely to accept an openly gay character in a high-profile production like a James Bond film. With this now in our critical arsenal, the barn scene becomes, through the infinitely recursive powers of subtext, even more thrilling.
The reconciliation of theory with reality
These theories work very well to explain some of the marvelous subtextual components found throughout Goldfinger. There’s this sexual/domestic interplay and at least a few thousand words worth of Oedipal posturing between Bond and Goldfinger. Bring all of this knowledge into our viewing of the film. How does this, specifically, inform out understanding of the scene between James Bond and Pussy Galore in the barn? I am of the mind that we must respond from the basis of three different perspectives. Too much vigor in any one direction and we’re losing sight of the truth, delving too far into emotion or flaccid theorizing.
At the most basic level, we have the action depicted on screen. A man forcing himself on a resistant woman. This is sexual assault. We should feel uneasy. In Fleming’s novel “The Spy Who Loved Me,” the main character Vivienne Michel says, “All women secretly want to be raped.” This too should make us feel uneasy, because it is an oft-repeated line born of ignorance, but it informs the barn scene immensely.
From the perspective of film criticism, the scene is awkward, out of place and uncharacteristic. When has Bond ever physically forced himself on a woman? Since this was only the third Bond movie, the character has not yet been fully developed (at least in the way that we now understand the James Bond character). Still, the scene is strikingly unsexy. That the act of violence triggers acceptance feels like rushed narrative. Goldfinger is a packed film. To add yet another subplot where Bond gradually woos Pussy Galore just to get in bed with her would have caused bloating. (Not to mention that a drawn-out Victorian courtship would have been more out of character.) Though ridiculous, the instant conversion of Pussy Galore is convenient, but not comfortable. The comic score that punctuates the scene serves as the barrier between discomfort and revulsion. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Or in this case, the awkward and uncomfortable plot point.
Finally, the subtext. Subtext helps us understand what we can’t otherwise explain easily. Like religion. Like “the barn scene.” How many different ways can we pick this movie apart to look for explanations for the way Bond pursues Pussy Galore and Goldfinger (and, in turn, how Goldfinger toys with Bond)? Bond’s relationships with the women in Goldfinger provide fascinating fodder for conversation. The parallels between Bond’s girls and the real world sexual revolution of the 1960s allow us to wax theoretic, poetic and, lest we forget, critical. Placing these relationships in the context of the time in which they were filmed becomes a kind of sociological archaeology. The interplay between domestic and sexual. It’s all there, filling out a perfectly tailored suit.
If you analyze the plot of Goldfinger, it makes little sense. But because we are entertained, we go along for the ride, and the more we are entertained the fewer questions we ask. A film like Goldfinger becomes timeless because it thrills and there’s plenty of background noise to keep us discussing trivialities in long-winded blogs until the end of time. And these conversations feed our impulses to watch and rewatch, looking for the next great epiphany in a movie that many people wrongly consider mindless entertainment. Because it’s entered into the canon, overlooking moments like the “barn scene” becomes easy. As long as we can remember it’s always been there. We also inject our understanding of the Bond character. Of course he wouldn’t sexually assault anyone! He’s James Bond! It’s also reasonable to be offended, but scenes like this are more complicated. They were born in pop culture and vetted by censors and audiences for decades. That doesn’t mean they get a bye. They need to be discussed. And only by analyzing the film and the historical context can we obtain any real understanding of why nobody balked when Bond (allegedly) raped Pussy Galore.
(originally published by Squalorly)
a short story by James David Patrick
(click here to hear my reading of the story: Smartiecaine)
Nine years old. I’m sitting on my bedroom floor—orange berber—with my buddy Josh, listening to Michael Jackson’s Bad on cassette and plowing through packages of Smarties like Dr. Pepper, which was consumed in greater quantities than water. (Don’t tell our moms, as this variety of overconsumption wasn’t specifically condoned.)
But back to being an innocent nine-year old, back to Michael Jackson’s Bad. Back to the whirring sprockets inside my boombox and “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Josh and I debated who the “You” might have been in the title of the song. And what exactly was the “Way” they were making him feel? We came to the conclusion it was about everyone ignoring him because he was black. We were nine.
We knew of racism and something or other about the Civil War from our Social Studies book. The actual content of the lyrics proved irrelevant. Or that if there was anything Michael Jackson didn’t have to worry about it was being ignored. We were fledgling intellectuals hyped up on sucrose. This made complete sense.
“But if he’s black, why is he so white?” Josh asked.
I pondered. “I’ve got to think it had something to do with all the cocaine.”
By then I’d watched at least four movies containing drug smuggling, use or sale. Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, a couple of Cheech and Chong movies and, most recently, the last half of Scarface (which I’d caught on HBO late one night when I was supposed to have been in bed). I felt like I knew as much or more about cocaine than anyone in the third grade. Per our D.A.R.E. presentation in school, I knew that drugs did bad things. So when I suggested Michael Jackson’s skin color had something to do with cocaine (his increasingly pale skin color, thus being the “bad thing” that drugs did), I think Josh believed me, even though my evidence, if you could call it that, was circumstantial at best and inadvertently racist at worst. That we lived in a rural farm community in southwest Michigan should explain some of our unfamiliarity with minorities of any color.
‘How do you think it’s made?” he asked, shortly after our epiphany and halfway through “Liberian Girl,” the absolute, inarguable, worst track on Bad. If you were to argue in favor of “Dirty Diana” you’d have been wrong. “Liberian Girl” was the last track a nine-year old wants to hear. Slow and falsetto. “Diana” had guitar, thus better. We would have scrubbed forward through the song had we not become preoccupied with cocaine.
Though I’d become a self-appointed expert on cocaine through a broader movie-watching regimen than my peers, I had no knowledge about its manufacture. I could recreate its airborne properties as propelled by rampant gunfire, calculate its worth by weight in precious metals, explain how you tested by taste—dip your pinky in the powder (“like Fun Dip,” I said), or how it was consumed. Scrape the powder into a line, ideally on a mirror, and snort the line. Simple.
Instead of dwelling on what I didn’t know, I got proactive. I took two of those circular, concave Smarties, one in each hand, and rubbed them together over a Rolling Stone magazine with Motley Crüe on the cover and, curiously, the promise of articles about Elvis and Whitney Houston in the header over the Crüe’s puffed and coiffed locks. I dove into this chore, so much so that now I imagine a focused overbite as I ground those candies into a fine powder all over Nikki Sixx, Vince Neil and Tommy Lee. With the edge of Michael Jackson’s cassette tape case, I corralled the powder into parallel lines. I reclined and admired my uniformity. Looking back I do not know what compelled me to sample the powder. I knew, clearly, that I had not in fact created cocaine by rubbing candy together, nor did I actually want to try cocaine. While I watched the powder collect on the magazine like an early fall snow, I had no intent of leaning over, pressing my nose into the lines and inhaling.
But that’s exactly what I did.
The pain proved palpable, but fleeting. Was there a rush? Perhaps, but the effects were immaterial over the amount of sugar we’d already consumed. I dubbed it Smartiecaine and urged Josh to take a hit.
At first he resisted. I shuddered—the sting had not entirely dissipated—and swiped at the remaining powder on my nose. Like any impressionable friend worth his weight in adventure, Josh eventually leaned forward and inhaled the second line, just as I’d done a moment before. The kid jumped off the roof of his garage earlier that week because his brother told him to; I knew he’d have a go.
“Just Good Friends” had almost gone unnoticed while we sampled our uncut, 100% pure Smarticaine. The outro bled into white noise and the capstan, passing the plastic polymer coated with ferric oxide across two electromagnets, ceased rotation. The boombox clicked, popping the play button back up to its resting position.
“Are we going to be whiter than we already are now?” he asked through a fit of coughing.
“Nah,” I said. “I don’t think that’s possible.” He looked at me. I looked back. “That only happens to black people when they do cocaine.”
“Are we high?” he asked.
“I doubt it,” I said.
“So you think Michael Jackson does cocaine for real?”
“Do you have another explanation?” I asked. He didn’t, so, again, we stuck with that.
We walked down the hallway to the bathroom. I removed my stool from beneath the sink, and we stepped up to see our reflections in the mirror. Our virgin noses, now laced with the damning powder, looked dull, a little cloudy—paler perhaps in the fluorescent light. We liked the way we looked. We looked like we knew something about the world.
Today I launched the first of a 23-part essay about the James Bond series of cinemas over on the Sundog Lit Mag. I encourage everyone to journey over to the Sundog Blog to read, 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, etc. The entire project will be collected on the Of [In]human Bond[age] Tumblr.
Of [In]human Bond[age]: Skyfall and the Question of Spacetime
originally published on Sundog Lit
The Bond film franchise, now aged fifty, has endured long enough to have had the luxury of multiple reinventions and course corrections, informed, directly, by the rapid shifts of the sociological and political tides. Bond is both a reflection of our deepest fears and of our guiltiest aspirations. Women want him and men want to be him, so the saying goes. Or went, perhaps. Our modern cynicism and over-intellectualization has re-rendered that phrase. James Bond has become the man that women want, in theory… if he weren’t such a serial womanizer with a thrill-addiction. He is still, however, the man that men want to be, no caveats. Draw your own assumptions about how the collective male id has evolved over the last fifty years. Bond has become a character in our modern commedia, played by six different actors (all informed by the original on-screen Bond, Sean Connery) and parodied and re-imagined the world over, no more or less human than Pierrot the fool.
Taken at face value, however, James Bond’s cinematic escapades in international espionage are a collection of stories taken from the career of one man. Independent scholars John Griswold and Henry Chancellor have taken it upon themselves to assemble the original Ian Fleming novels into chronological order based on the events contained within. The films, however, prove more problematic. If the latest, excellent entry into Bond’s resume, Skyfall, has cemented one notion about chronology it is that the Bond films cannot be treated as isolated escapades along an individual timeline. Not even suspension of disbelief can atone for Skyfall’s temporal incongruities (even within the movie itself). Must we then consider the Bond series as multiple serials distinguished only by the actor playing the role? (Also made problematic by recurring, self-referential leitmotifs.) Or is it something more complicated, like the intertwining plots of a collection of linked short stories with no particular start or finish?
To offer a simple comparison, consider the various cinematic iterations of the Sherlock Holmes character, widely considered the most prolific character in the history of film. Holmes has been played by Ellie Norwood, John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch among many others. None of these film series extend beyond the character playing Sherlock.
What director Sam Mendes has wrought with Skyfall forces a re-interpretation (or at the very least encourages a more scholastic examination) of the Bond film chronology. The first Bond film, Dr. No, offers no origin story of the character. Bond is, already, an experienced and expert British intelligence agent with a weakness for the ladies. It is, per say, in medias res. It is only in Skyfall, Bond’s 23rd film that we are offered a glimpse into his past with any clarity. And it wasn’t until Daniel Craig assumed the role in Casino Royale (the 21st movie, but 1st Fleming novel) that the Bond character was considered a newly minted and irresponsible rookie agent with more significant depth. Bond has been irresponsible for decades, but only now was he considered a “rookie.” The fact that audiences simultaneously balked and swooned at the novelty of James Bond falling in *gasp* love and then seeking revenge for the death of that significant other, speaks volumes about the character development up to this point.
*Skyfall spoilers ahead*
Furthermore, Skyfall introduces audiences to a James Bond with deceased parents, motivation for joining the British Secret Service, to his childhood home in Scotland and the underground pathway in which James Bond hid after the death of those aforementioned parents. James Bond has a childhood home!?! Inconceivable. But these facts aren’t problematic for the character’s chronology, necessarily. They are only problematic because of our external assumptions that James Bond is immune to emotions that would detract from A) womanizing and B) eventually, complete his assigned mission. If Spock had any desire to chase tail, he might be closer to our collective understanding (or previously held understanding) of James Bond.
Skyfall’s specific chronological schisms occur, however, because he is allegedly a bit of a green agent. Bond has been given his first big break, two films earlier, in Casino Royale and spent the entirety of Quantum of Solace as a bit of a vengeful rogue. A major to-do has been made in Skyfall that James Bond may or may not be forced into retirement because he’s lost his edge. After a particularly botched mission to open the film, James is alienated, lost and considered dead by British Intelligence. In reality he’s experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis and drinking himself into oblivion somewhere along the Turkish coast. When Bond at last returns (somewhat reluctantly) to defend Britain from a mastermind cyber terrorist, he’s a shell of himself and the film dances around (albeit rather eloquently) the “I’m getting too old for this shit” over-the-hill hero catchphrase. The notion has traction because as an audience we have knowledge of Bond actor Daniel Craig’s age (44) but it runs contrary to the earlier assertion of Bond’s greenhorn status. At this point I’m not even prepared to acknowledge the chronological disturbance brought about by a sprightly 58-year-old Roger Moore appearing in A View to a Kill. But how are to reconcile that even within 143 minutes of Skyfall Bond waffles between being a unpredictable rookie and a potential retiree?
Follow me further down the rabbit hole. Bond fans are then treated to the return of the Aston Martin DB5, the vehicle most identified with James Bond, the vehicle that first appeared in 1964’s Goldfinger (starring Sean Connery). It is unveiled to the audience as if Craig’s James Bond has a pre-existing relationship with the car. In truth it is not Craig’s Bond that has a relationship with the car, but us, having brought our collective knowledge of the entire Bond oeuvre into the theater with us. The same principle functions when a supporting character in the movie, an agent that has followed Bond on his globetrotting, reveals herself (after resigning from field duty to a clerical position within MI-6) to be none other than Eve… Eve Moneypenny. A character played by Lois Maxwell in the very first Bond adventure, 1962’s Dr. No.
The temporal mischief makes almost your brain hurt more than the time-travel narrative in the Terminator series. Almost. But we are rescued from certain brain cramp by the above-stated notion that these Bond movies are interweaving and unlimited, bridged, almost seamlessly, by our own pre-existing knowledge of the character – a proto-prescience perhaps. This proto-prescience encourages James Bond filmmakers to break the fourth wall with nudge-nudge-wink-winks that make no sense in the isolated conditions of the individual film. Not only are we carrying around the baggage of all other Bonds, but so too are the filmmakers.
That Skyfall succeeds at being an excellent film despite gleefully throwing about the requisite Bond baggage is no small miracle. Of the recent films, say from the Brosnan-era forward, only 1995’s Goldeneye really succeeded at being both. If you go back further you’d be hard pressed to find a film that qualifies, objectively, as both solid filmmaking and a solid Bond film (according to the standard set by the Connery-era) until arguably On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. The entire Roger Moore-era can largely be chalked up to a shift in aesthetics brought about by a response to the cinematic trends of the 1970’s, nevermind the challengers and parodies threatening the Bond status quo.
That’s a lot of baggage in between and a lot of baggage left unsaid. And based on the small examples taken from the latest Bond films, that’s a lot of incongruity. The notion of a infinitely recursive character with increasingly larger baggage has inspired me to go back and re-watch these movies in order from the very beginning to see what threads might evolve from movie to movie, to see what kind of specific evolution of the character (internally or externally imposed) I might have missed by watching them out of order. It’s possible there might be some thread to reconcile and bind all of these different Bonds and temporal anomalies under one roof. It’s also possible that we’ve all just been duped by our own over-intellectualization of a fundamentally two-dimensional character. Either way, it’s an excuse to watch a lot of Bond movies and wax philosophical.
Please visit Sundog Lit to leave comments and join the discussion. Sundog will be hosting a regular screening/live tweet series for each of the James Bond movies starting with Dr. No. Details to come. The result of those live tweet conversations will inspire my subsequent essays on each of the films.
(a version of this story was originally published by P.Q. Leer)
a short story by James David Patrick
“I’m sorry, sir. We don’t have a bellboy,” the concierge said.
Westinghouse demanded that his bags be sent to his room. “My hands are my life,” he said. “They could cramp. The muscles could tear. I could be left with a claw! You’ve never seen a national champion with a distorted grotesquery like a claw, have you?” Westinghouse asked.
The concierge, who was really just an Art History major with a pregnant girlfriend named Kimmie, shook his head. “No,” he said, “I’ve never seen a dude with a claw. Let alone a rock, paper, scissors champion with a claw.” But he couldn’t leave the desk, he said, being the only one on duty. “At a bar in Philly, I did see a guy with a club foot, however.”
“First. The bag is heavy,” Westinghouse said. “It contains my clothes for an entire three month roadtrip and my best suit, my only suit, for when I’m the guest of honor at the Champion’s Dinner. And second. I think I speak for everyone when I say we prefer the term Rochambeau.”
The Art History major looked at the bag. “Hmm.” He pointed. “Use the shoulder strap there.”
Westinghouse laughed at his own oversight. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just so focused. I’m just so focused I can’t function. You might wonder how I can focus so entirely.” The Art History major didn’t wonder but Westinghouse told him anyway. “Every day I tell myself to ‘Shoot like you’re awesome,’ until I believe it,” he said.
The Art History major asked for a demonstration.
Westinghouse placed his bag on the floor and closed his eyes. With his fist pressed into his palm he repeated “Shoot like you’re awesome” until he believed it. Once he believed it, he opened his eyes to find a white-haired woman with nearly-transparent skin now sitting behind the desk. She flipped through a Redbook Magazine and looked like a blue-haired Valerie Bertinelli.
“Carl left,” she said.
“Wow,” Westinghouse said, “I’m just so focused, I didn’t notice.”
She flipped the page.
“You might wonder how I can focus so entirely.”
Blue-hair Valerie looked up from her Redbook. The corners of her mouth rose, but nobody could have called it a smile. “Honey,” she said, “I’ve been listening to that crap for nearly an hour. I think I got the picture. I even tried it myself for awhile.”
“How’d that go?”
“Well,” she said, “when I opened my eyes, I was still here, listening to you.”