Cinema Summer of 1989

Nostalgia and the Ghastly Beauty of Ill-Advised Hollywood Cinema

I’ve decided to start posting chapter drafts of my manuscript about the summer movies of 1989. In light of our current quarantine situation, my writing has become nothing but a chore. I know many won’t read these pages, but if you do, please share your thoughts. I hope our communication causes me to get back to writing. I hope writing once again becomes the distraction rather than the chore.

On the previous episodes of THE LAST GREATEST HOLLYWOOD SUMMER: The Preamble / Chapter 1: Die Hard on a VHS Tape

Chapter 2: Nostalgia, Hot to Trot, and the Ghastly Beauty of Ill-Advised Hollywood Cinema

I’d like to pre-empt this particular conversation with a little thought about nostalgia. The word “nostalgia” has been scapegoated by critics as a determination of derivativeness. Label something “nostalgic” and you’ve condemned it to a combative and somewhat abbreviated shelf life. The anti-nostalgists play whack-a-mole with any perceived dwelling in the past, while the the pro-nostalgia camp futilely attempts to explain the difference between nostalgia, reference, and just plain creative laziness. Here’s your cheat sheet: one’s a bygone story; one’s a nudge and wink; and the other uses a nudge and a wink as a stand-in for originality. And then there are the people who are still slinging Bon Jovi mullets and Slippery When Wet cassette tapes. They’re still making cassette tapes. It’s not exactly the battle over Roe vs. Wade, but there’s a war raging and it’s coming for our right to feel gooey, irrational benevolence for movies like, say, Hot to Trot (Michael Dinner, 1988). (You didn’t think I was headed for Bobcat Goldthwait, did you?)

In a New Yorker article based on a speech he gave at the Jewish Book Council, Michael Chabon – a writer who has himself been the target of such criticisms – fires back, “Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion[1].”

Nostalgia isn’t the offense. Nostalgia’s the result. Preying on nostalgia, selling “stuff” based solely on the purpose of stroking the id, that’s where it turns on itself, a snake consuming its own tail. Franchises trade heavily in the latter two elements. James Bond, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. call back to old familiar tropes all the time. South Park masterfully skewered this empty brand of referential nostalgia with Season 20’s “Member Berries” – small purple berries that speak in nostalgic phrases and words without any context. When they speak to Randy March they recycle Reagan-era talking points. “Remember AT-ATs?” “Remember Chewbacca?” “Remember Slimer?” The berries induce a kind of complacent contentment, but Randy stops eating them when the Member Berries begin queueing up less palatable talking points among the innocent pop culture baubles. “Remember when there weren’t so many Mexicans?” “Remember Chewbacca again?” “Remember when marriage was just between a man and a woman?”

Chabon’s nostalgia isn’t the “stuff” of regurgitation – it’s the actual connection to a thing or a place or a person. I don’t want Battle Armor He-Man in my life any more than the next fellow who doesn’t even know He-Man came in variant featuring a breast plate that spun upon contact and displayed varying degrees of chinked armor. I’m nostalgic for the feeling I first had when I made Beastman punch the living daylights out of He-Man and that flimsy hunk of plastic rotated to display armor dents and OH MY GOD THAT’S MAGIC!

We found wonder and magic everywhere when we were kids, from the most mundane events (You mean I can send in six box tops from my Mini-Wheats plus $1 and I’ll get a Bad Company cassette single in return?!?) to the truly remarkable, like gazing up a full-size skeleton of a Tyrannosaurs Rex and coming to terms with our puny, insignificant lot in time and space.

Here’s what I find to be the most interesting part of embracing nostalgia – we don’t have to have experienced something to be nostalgic for it. Each ping of nostalgia is a tiny trip back into the past to experience or relive something that cannot currently be.

My wife and I have developed an attachment to Horn & Hardat automats. The walk-in, self-serving vending machine/dining room popped up in New York and Philadelphia starting around 1902 and disappeared completely in 1991. We’ve never set foot inside one, but we’ve romanticized the idea of the automat. We cannot relive what it felt like to receive freshly cooked meal components through mail slots, but we can imagine, and maybe we were just born in the wrong era? But then again, I’ve never fancied myself confident enough in my prowess to call myself the greatest anything, let alone the greatest generation. That’s just not Gen X’s strongest trait. Orienting one’s own existence within time and space in relation to the heyday of the automat seems mildly shortsighted.

Due to the wealth of culture, information and programming at our fingertips in a connected world, we have the ability to conflate our documented history into a finite window. Our learned nostalgia for these connections before our time, the ones we could not possible experience firsthand, cannot hold up emotionally against the active connections we make with the people and places and things of our childhood. These resonate most deeply.

Nostalgia’s not a dirty word. Nostalgia can save the world by giving people a perceived place of order and familiarity among chaos. These feelings of loss inspire us to tell stories without irony. They inspire novels and movies and all kinds of earnest longing for disappearing culture. Each subsequent generation needs a tether to the past, else they’ll only understand or know the world immediately around them. Nostalgia, in this respect, forms an identity, which in turn fosters a generational community. Our parents walked up hill both ways. We watched R-rated movies, unsupervised, at the age of 7 because who was around to stop us from watching Beverly Hills Cop? Or the other five hours of afterschool game shows and soap operas that kept us latch-key kids company?

Now, returning to Hot to Trot — what insane studio executive allowed such a movie to happen? And better yet, why do I feel a fondness for it?

An idiot son played by Bobcat Goldthwait inherits half a brokerage and a talking horse, much to the dismay of his heinous, bucktoothed stepfather (classic 80’s jerk, misogynist, antagonist Dabney Coleman). The talking horse gives the idiot son stock tips. Idiot son gets rich. Horse tells idiot son to buy stock in a company that produces orgasmic oats. It turns out the oats are contaminated and the company goes bankrupt. Idiot son abandons his half of the brokerage. In order to get back in the red, the idiot son decides to race the talking horse. To be clear – horse racing has never been a part of this movie, except for the passing mention that Dabney Coleman owns racehorses. Idiot son then bets his horse against Dabney Coleman’s horse and all his other horses. So even if he wins the race, what does he have? Not money. Not the brokerage. He has more horses.

Love or hate the 1980s, here’s the best example for both sides of the argument: Hot to Trot felt like just another day at the movies and not something completely insane. It’s Francis the Talking Mule meets The Secret of My Success meets the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races starring Bobcat Goldthwait. A completely unnatural film cocktail that should have been shot down immediately by any kind of studio exec who wasn’t completely addicted to cocaine. But they were, so we get Hot to Trot.

I’d like to point out that the budget for Hot to Trot exceeded $9 million. This movie includes original music from Danny Elfman. It also involves the cost of a total reworking and re-recording of the horse’s dialogue. Originally voiced by Elliott Gould, test screenings found the film lacking in laughs so Warner Bros. hired Saturday Night Live writer Andy Breckman to punch up the dialogue and John Candy to be the new voice of the horse. Candy discarded the dialogue and improvised his lines anyway. This explains quite a bit, but the fact remains that Hot to Trot was never going to recoup its budget. Would you like me to name some contemporaneous films that cost less than $9 million to make?

Look Who’s Talking cost $7.5million and made close to $140 million at the domestic box office. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? $6.5 million. Heathers? $3 million. I’m not out to shame Hot to Trot, because I enjoy what it represents. A rather large sum of money spent on a movie of no consequence and low box office expectations. Raiders of the Lost Ark only cost two Hot to Trots. Two.

During the 1980s studios took bigger risks on smaller movies.  Some of them, like Hot to Trot were wildly irresponsible gambles, but the point is that they took them. They invested in wildly creative ideas and star power and less on brands. (That was just around the corner.) To put this in greater perspective with our current era of moviemaking, all of the top 20 grossing movies of the 2010s are a remake, a sequel or part of a planned franchise. Every single one. Only six of the top grossing films from the 1980s were a sequel, remake or part of an established franchise and four of those six belonged to the original Star Wars trilogy or Indiana Jones. (I’m not counting Tim Burton’s Batman as a franchise entry. Despite the comic book origins, sequels were not planned and the character had been dormant for 30 years. Few expected its massive success, but I’ll get back to Batman in a couple of chapters.)

A surefire way to induce cerebral hemorrhage – play ‘guess which certifiable classic films wouldn’t be made today under the modern studio system’? Nobody greenlights Ghostbusters – a $30 million movie about eccentric paranormal experts. Back to Future’s future would have been in jeopardy. The alternate timeline: $20 million dollar original idea from Robert Zemeckis whose only prior box office success had been Romancing the Stone – another original concept that probably doesn’t get made in the 21st Century – gets thrown into the reject bin because it’s too expensive for upstarts Netflix and Amazon and not bankable enough for $50 million of Universal’s money. Just consider how many of your favorite movies they’re just not making. (I’ll give you a clue: it’s all of them. They’re not making any of your favorite movies.)

I’ve focused on the massive juggernaut hits because these names resonate. Considering that we might live in a world without Back to the Future or Ghostbusters stirs emotions, but it’s exactly these types of successes that created the blockbuster culture in which we live. The downside to tasting this kind of success means that studios want their tentpoles to make $300 million dollars at the domestic box office, not including the international ticket sales and merchandising which skews most heavily to these bankable action and comic book franchises. Instead of stepping up to a roulette wheel with a bunch of small- to medium-sized bets, studios place two bets on each spin: $100million on red and $100million on black.

It’s easy to forget that every single original idea comes with risk. Now studios want the reward without the risk.

Back in 2010, Dave Itzkoff interviewed Mad Men creator Matthew Wiener in the New York Times about contemporary media culture, “It’s a bummer to see movie after movie where so many talented people get together and so much money is spent, and they’re just bland, lifeless, familiar, fake. I’m not a superhero, it’s not one of my interests. It’s O.K. for it be a fraction of the entertainment that’s out there, but it can’t be everything… something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million. That can’t be possible.”

The greatest casualty of this kind of tentpole filmmaking becomes the mid-budget, mid-aspiration adult-oriented cinema. Dramas, dark or R-rated comedies, offbeat thrillers, adventure films – things that can’t be sold to the average moviegoer in 10 seconds or less. Francis Ford Coppola made four of the best films in cinema history and he can’t get a movie financed. His last movies, made in 2007 and 2011 were financed by his wine business. It’s not just that bottom line cost of making the film, however, that provides the sticking point for movie studios – it’s the promotion, which even for tentpole productions of which everyone is aware sometimes costs 50% of the production budget. It just costs more to promote a movie that’s not already a brand[2].

In 1997, The New York Times ran an article based on industry hysteria that the cost of the average Hollywood movie had risen to $60million. Sherry Lansing, chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group said, “I’m horrified at these numbers. They don’t make sense. We’re killing ourselves[3].” (In 2007, by comparison, the average movie cost $106.6 million.) Despite this forgotten panic, take a look at a snapshot of the top grossing films of 1999. Only Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace and Toy Story 2 were reboots or sequels. Theatrical audiences were treated to (quality debatable) original thrillers (The Sixth Sense), original adult comedies (Runaway Bride, Big Daddy), science fiction (The Matrix), and horror (The Blair Witch Project). There was also Universal’s re-imagining of The Mummy, which recast the hero of the story as an Indiana Jones-type and turned the old horror classic into a matinee-idol adventure film.

Looking specifically at the early months of 1989, The ‘burbs, Kickboxer, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Major League stand out as well-regarded projects that wouldn’t have been made. All of which were mid-budget entertainment intended for adults; original R-rated comedies, expensive flights of fancy, and martial arts spectacles. Argue all you want about the merits of the individual films; my point is, however, that many people really like these movies and continue to value their existence.

As a slice of the available Hollywood offerings in the late 1980s, they represent the width and breadth of the ideas that studios were willing to bankroll. They represent risk. The modest success or minor failures of these films seemed like acceptable returns. You win some you lose some – but the studios would come to view each modest success as a failure and each minor failure as an unacceptable loss. In the new success or failure infographic, Hot to Trot would have been filed next to the instructions for hara-kiri.

The process hasn’t changed. Not really. What’s changed is ownership. Starting in 1989, massive conglomerates began adding movie studios to their faceless, corporate entities. Instead of David O. Selznick, filmmakers have to answer to the board of Comcast. They’re minor cogs in a massive moneymaking machine. It’s not worth doing unless you’re talking Scrooge McDuck money.

Consider the “great” movies we’ll pass along to our kids or future generations. I know I’m biased due to the years during which I came of moviewatching age but I can’t think of more than a handful of post-2000 films I wanted to share with my daughters, but I couldn’t wait to put Back to the Future in front of them. Objectively great movies come from all eras of moviemaking, but let’s face the facts here – the most pure escapist fun happened in the 1980s.

Once upon a time, movies captured the hearts and minds of entire cultures and didn’t rely on formula and familiarity. How else can you explain a film staying at #1 for consecutive months (not weeks!) as in the case of Ghostbusters or Beverly Hills Cop or Raiders of the Lost Ark? I had the opportunity to see these movies four or five times over the course of a theatrical release. Of course, there’s that aforementioned home video release window I discussed earlier, which would decrease box office longevity in short order, but that’s exactly why 1989 stands out among its surrounding years. Not only did 1989 showcase both the spark of creativity that drove invention during the 1980’s, but it’s also the last gasp of theatrical box office longevity before the gap between theatrical release and purchase for home consumption narrows significantly. It also served as a harbinger for the future of the Hollywood box office with four sequels in the Top 10 domestic receipts. In as much as we can subjectively declare 1989 to be the best of all Hollywood summers, it’s important to acknowledge that it also, in many ways, represented the beginning of the end for the mid-budget blockbuster. The big studio rollercoaster paused at the apex and then inched down the decline before a final, wild ride to the finish.




30Hz Bl-g Cinema

Don’t Tread on Ghostbusters (1984)

The summer takes its toll on my sanity. Time, though more abundant, disappears in a blink. The kids are always there. Staring. Demanding food and entertainment. But as much as I’d like to blame the children for all that ails me, including this cough I just can’t shake… there’s something else that’s been bothering me, like a t-shirt with a scratchy tag.

It’s about Ghostbusters. 

Yes, again, goddammit. I’m stuck in a recursive loop.

IT Crowd - off and then on again



For my next trick I’ll write about Ghostbusters.

I’ve written about Ghostbusters (1984) a few times. (Here as a part of mental therapy and here as a thinkpiece about time passage and perception.) I’ve even written about the trailer and misplaced Internet rage for Ghostbusters (2016). I spend a lot of time thinking about Ghostbusters. Next I’ll discuss how amazing it is that Kate McKinnon’s hair in Ghostbusters (2016) is an homage to Egon’s hair in The Real Ghostbusters. 3000 words, minimum. It’s come to my attention that the four times I saw Ghostbusters in the theater in 1984 may have played too formative a role in my childhood development.

Just one more reason to love Holtzman.
Just one more reason to love Holtzmann.

But today, I’m going to pen a bl-g post that shouldn’t need to be written. Even now it feels like wasted breath… or more accurately wasted key strokes, but the latter sounds far less dramatic. Like writing about how the sky is f’ing blue.

I’m writing this to remind you that Ghostbusters (1984) is actually that good.

(From now on I will liberally substitute “1984” for Ghostbusters (1984) and “2016” for Ghostbusters (2016) to save on those wasted key strokes.)

I’m looking at you, asshole on Letterboxd who watched Ghostbusters (1984) for the first time and said “If this was your childhood, there wasn’t anything to ruin anyway.” That guy wasn’t alone; he was just the biggest asshole. Just scan the latest first-time watches of 1984 on Letterboxd and you’ll find a glut of viewers using similarly incendiary language. I’ve kept a sideways eye on these ongoing first-watch developments (which, I’ll admit is masochism on par with reading the comments on Huffington Post) when I should have run screaming from this activity like Ray Stantz from the New York Public Library.

library ghost ghostbusters
Get her, Ray.

These comments exist as a hyperbolic reaction to the “you’re ruining my childhood” idiots. (Disclaimer: I do not condone the “ruining my childhood” behavior either.) But what gives you the right to fire back at me, the innocent bystander championing both 1984 and 2016, to claim my childhood experience was the rippled Charmin to your mindless Internet dump. Don’t unleash your cynical me-first derision unless you have something constructive to say — the one little caveat here is that your cynical me-first derision, by nature, offers nothing constructive whatsoever and is really just a plea for attention.


The Internet Troll Quarantine

I compartmentalized these comments in my “Internet Troll Quarantine,” which is like sending the lepers to Crete, except in my head and less sunny. I could manage the troll queue, but then I read the following comment in the New York Times, courtesy of one of my favorite film critics, A.O. Scott:

I have to say it makes me very happy when big commercial movies provoke serious political arguments, but before we dive into that particular fray I want to make a few statements I trust will not be terribly controversial. 1) Kate McKinnon should be in every movie from now on. 2) The new “Ghostbusters” is like the old “Ghostbusters” in that it gives comic performers who gained popularity on television and in more provocative projects a chance to widen their appeal and increase their earning potential with a mainstream action-comedy. 3) The old “Ghostbusters” isn’t that great to begin with.

Yes. Mm-hmm. Kate McKinnon should be in every movie. And totally. The new Ghostbusters is in many ways like the old Ghostbusters. Right on, A.O. BUT HOLD THE PHONE. “The old Ghostbusters isn’t that great to begin with”? You’ve been a lighthouse of reason and sanity in these dark and foggy cinematic times, A.O. Scott. And now you’re shattering one of the few unassailable truths in my cinematic worldview? Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.

Sky is blue. Grass is green. Rain is wet. Ghostbusters (1984) is great. No? What’s with this sudden reassessment?

Quite frankly its about damn time we saw some proton packs back on the big screen.
Quite frankly its about damn time we saw some proton packs back on the big screen.

Let’s first get a few things straight. I’ll speak plainly so not to confuse anyone. I’ve always been in favor of reviving the Ghostbusters franchise. New actors, old actors. Whatever. The franchise for various reasons was never allowed to reach maturation. The choice to cast all women was a logical and somewhat inspired twist on the formula. Casting Kate McKinnon was the best decision anyone in Hollywood has made this year.

I’m not here to offer a point-by-point comparison between 1984 and 2016. They are different entities. But I will highlight one specific failure of 2016 to prove a point.


Now to use Alton Brown to make a random point about screenwriting

The original Ghostbusters screenplay by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis has been heralded as one of the finest examples of Hollywood screenwriting. Every scene contributes to the film’s forward momentum. I argue that not one scene is wasted. But how would I define a wasted scene? A scene that exists for one reason alone. Alton Brown would call them unitaskers and explain why unitaskers have no place in his kitchen. Unitaskers are scenes that hit narrative beats without conflict or humor… or vice versa. Unitaskers are exposition. Find me a scene in 1984 that doesn’t function on multiple levels. A good movie minimizes the use of these one-purpose scenes, but sometimes they’re inescapable. Great movies avoid them altogether.

alton brown unitasker

1984 also benefited from a largely extinct collaborate creative process. The screenplay as blueprint allowed freedom for improvisation. Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, confirmed that most, if not all, of Bill Murray’s dialogue was improvised. Outside of Adam McKay, who allows his actors that kind of freedom? To take this one step further, what studio would allow such a thing on the set of a big budget film? The improvisation works within the framework of the script due to the focused momentum hurtling toward a satisfying, logical finale. Modern moviemaking has been castrated by the big business of making movies. Mass appeal. Managed and massaged for  global consumption.

It is precisely this satisfying finale that sets 1984 apart from other frivolous blockbusters and Ghostbusters (2016) in particular. 2016 meanders toward its end. It dwells in scenes that function only as comedy with no forward push. I’m thinking specifically at the moment of the two scenes of back alley gadget trials. 1984 demonstrated proton packs, traps and other gizmos on the job, in scenes that furthered the narrative.

Ghostbusters proton pack elevator

“It just occurred to me we really haven’t had a completely successful test of this equipment,” Ray says as he, Egon and Venkman ride the elevator up. Egon switches on Ray’s pack and backs away. While the gadget porn scenes in 2016 offer a fun detour, they contribute nothing to the narrative progress. They’re throwaway bits of comedy.

These wasted unitaskers likely contribute to the long, overblown effects-laden finale (an all too common pitfall of modern blockbuster cinema). Distract with effects and noise and maybe the audience won’t notice that we haven’t earned this ending. The new Ghostbusters resolve their respective paranormal crisis by using a vaguely established nuclear device on Ecto-1. Toss the hearse in the pit and blow it up. Bingo bango. This, of course, functions parallel to “crossing the streams.” Each is treated as a brash, irresponsible last-ditch gesture that threatens humanity should it fail. 1984, however, established the perils of “crossing the streams” way back at the beginning of the film when busting their first spook in the hotel ballroom.

“There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.”


“Don’t cross the streams.”

Thus, when facing Gozer and the team of paranormal exterminators has run out of available options to close the dimensional portal, “total protonic reversal” has already been established. The audience recognizes the logic, feels as if they too could have come to the same conclusion. The most effective resolutions are the ones that the audience *would* have expected if they weren’t too busy being entertained. Meanwhile when 2016 tosses the Ecto-1 into the abyss and lights the radioactive fuse, this choice comes from nowhere.

The screenplay in Ghostbusters (2016) completely breaks down during the final third of the film. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. I don’t mean to single out Ghostbusters (2016) as some sort of anomaly. How many movies have you seen in the last year alone that fall apart while trying to conclude a narrative? It’s a screenwriting failure that can be traced to the scenic level. Plant the seeds for the ending in Act One or early in Act Two. Harvest in the finale. When that doesn’t happen, however, the quick fix is misdirection through effects and noise. I’m oversimplifying the screenwriting process, but this lesson was cribbed directly from the lecture I received on the second day of my undergraduate Screenwriting class.


I forgive you A.O. Scott, but I won’t forgive the nostalgia-shaming trolls.

Too many writers. Too many ideas. Too much interference from studios. There are many reasons that even great  scripts fail between conception and reaching the screen. If it were easy, every movie would at least portray a sense of narrative competency and Ghostbusters (1984) wouldn’t be a quintessential piece of Hollywood escapist filmmaking. It’s actually 1984 that remains the anomaly. And yes, A.O. Scott, it is that good. I’ll let your momentarily lapse in judgment slide.

Ghostbusters is also an inextricable part of my childhood. It is actually perhaps my most vibrant slice of personal nostalgia. Remakes, reboots, spinoffs cannot change that — but don’t you dare troll 1984 by casting unwarranted derision because you want to set yourself apart, to elevate your opinion above mine by using my nostalgia against me.

Lewis Tully possessed ghostbusters
It just makes me so mad.

I’ll admit that nostalgia plays a role in my affection for Ghostbusters (1984), but appreciating Ghostbusters does not require nostalgia. Sure, some of the matte effects look dated, Gozer’s dog puppets are comically rooted to the floor, and maybe the gender politics seem slightly questionable… but don’t you dare doubt the reasons that 1984 remains excellent entertainment. Nostalgia is not a dirty word. It’s also a legitimate reason that someone can enjoy a movie. No one’s frame of reference is less important than yours. If you care to read more, I wrote about Nostalgia and moviewatching in my #Bond_age_ essay on Moonraker.

Oh and a few more truths.

The 1980’s f’ing ruled and Ghostbusters remains one of the best things ever. If you disagree, I wouldn’t open my fridge tonight if I were you. Someone might get the munchies.

zuul dana's apartment ghostbusters



30Hz Bl-g Essays Of [In]human Bond[age]

Of [In]human Bond[age]: Skyfall and the Question of Spacetime

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

Daniel Craig in Skyfall

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.