Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Power, Perversion and Purpose

Where do we begin with Mr. Bond?

The success of his film franchise – some 23 movies in all – and his status as a cultural icon – one imagines people in the Amazonian rain forest know about the character’s choice of cocktail – is unmatched by anything in the history of cinema. People cheered when the lights went down in the theater where I saw the most recent Bond picture and the frustration about the financial troubles that delayed Skyfall in advance of its release were legendarily frustrating among devotees.

Exactly why the exploits of an officer in the British intelligence service, known as MI-6, should hold such sway over the popular imagination – and this is in not just Great Britain, not just the cousins in the United States or even the English-speaking countries, but of the entire world – begs examination. I propose the success of Bond is visceral (the films are a feast of effects and beautiful to behold), psychological (Bond does what we all secretly wish we could) and philosophical (Bond is a kind of Platonic Guardian of Western Civilization, whose wines and other products he clearly values and enjoys).

The Nature of Bond
In one novel, Bond is described as “certainly good-looking . . . Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.” Add to that the word “ruthless”.

The literary Bond has a facial scar. He fought in the Second World War, can throw knives. He drinks too much, not because it is fashionable, but more because he has no real friends and the loneliness must be filled somehow. He clearly relishes killing, both the build-up, which is often described in sexual terms by Fleming, and the act itself. But the killing takes its toll on him and the spent feelings – again, of an almost sexual vein – pay him back at unexpected moments, so he smokes more, drinks more, or tries to find solace in a round of cards or a drive in the country. These things alleviate his inner demons temporarily, but the only real cure is glimpsed in Thunderball, which opens with burnt-out James Bond recuperating in a health spa. What Bond needs more of is more of the job, more killing, and so he goes looking for it at the spa and finds both. Only then is he "cured" and re-animated.

The literary Bond then is an aesthete, something which unfortunately comes across as humor or snobbery in the films. The literary Bond enjoys the finer things because he does not often like people and the people around him either tend to need killing by him or end up being killed by others. Bond in the novels is closed off to others and he is almost pathologically non-communicative in the books, most of which contain pages upon pages without spoke dialogue, the action being all in Bond's head. He clearly views himself as a distinct being, separated from others by the secrecy incumbent in his job as well as the fact that he is a killer who operates in an artificial – perhaps self-made – world that is beyond everyday Good and Evil.

One philosophy professor writes that Bond is incarnate of a "He Who Eats Meat Wins" mentality, a walking incarnate of the masculine ego's successful overreach into the stratosphere (Bond is many things, but he is not a failure). According to this line of thinking, which I believe is right, Bond has a strong appetite because he is concerned about life and death in way other people are not. Bond could die at any moment, just like the people he himself dispatches. So there is a voracious Epicurean in Bond. Life, which does not hold much meaning to him, is easily extinguished. So he takes pleasure when and where he can...

This Bond does not quite exist on the screen.

The film Bond is the “man every other man wants to be" and "the man every woman wants to sleep with,” as one film critic quipped. On screen, the internal fretting in Fleming’s novels, along with the depictions of doubt and personal regrets, are almost entirely jettisoned. The Fleming anti-hero is thus reborn as a hero, and his uncomfortable flaws and coping mechanisms – that is, his drinking, his nearly sociopathic womanizing and his clear enjoyment of killing – are either softened into punch lines or made positive attributes that denote glamour. It is an interesting transition and one that I believe is critical to the franchise's success. Here, too, I must emphasize that much of the ugliness and raw power of Bond the human being is absent in the films. Ego is often discussed in the film, as Bond's will to act, but in a cinematic context the ego is essentially criticized. In Casino Royale, for example, we have a Bond who must learn humility, and does. On screen, in place of a man who is almost sheer action, we have Bond the civil servant, a man Dr. No calls a "stupid little policeman," which in essence, is correct. Bond therefore is a kind of Horatio Nelson, in that he is somewhat obscene and grandiose, for sure, but still well within society’s bounds of acceptable behavior, and we as an audience are willing to forgive him his trespasses for a handful of equally compelling reasons.

Bond strangles a woman. Pure Fleming moment.
Bond as Escapism
The first reason for Bond's cinematic success is simple. The aforementioned film critic's quip was right. On some level, we – and I mean more the men than the women here – do want to be James Bond (I leave it to the women to chime in on whether they want to sleep with a man like Bond). Or rather, we want to want the things he wants, the fancy cars, dangerous women and good champagne, and we enjoy vicariously participating in his over-sized pursuit of them. We also note Bond's confidence, his acumen and his style and again view these as positive worthy of striving toward. On a puerile level, who doesn't want to be handsome, successful and living an exciting life?

So in this sense, Bond thrills with his wish-fulfillment. Bond films are not documentary or anything like reality, rather they are escapist fantasies, laced with healthy doses of hyperbolic action and over-the-top situations. Bond is never shown filling out paperwork, filing receipts or being forced to grab a lukewarm cup of tea in the MI-6 cafeteria. He literally springs from one luxurious meal to another, from one fine hotel to another, and of course, from one unobtainable – at least to mere mortals – woman to another.

Bond does this, and we get to watch him do it, because he is essentially a creature driven almost completely by his id, which is defined as "the part of the mind containing ... wants, desires, and impulses, particularly our sexual and aggressive drives. The id operates according to the pleasure principle, the psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse." Most people do not get to indulge their id as much as Bond, because we have duties and responsibilities and social norms we must pay attention to in complicated social settings. Although Bond is far from brutish, his restriction of his id and its impulses is far more limited than in most people.

This is a complicated way of saying, Bond lives in the moment and likes to have fun. And often, there are no consequences – or at least not normal consequences – attached to his actions. We would go to jail, for example, if we killed people. But Bond has his famous license to kill. Which leads me to...

Sex and Death
Make no mistake, Bond films are all existential struggles – isn't the fate of the entire world always at stake in them? – and the films all intentionally make a direct correlation between sex – a creative act – and destruction. If you do not believe me, go back and re-watch the infamous title sequences from the 1960s when completely naked women frolic around the silhouettes of firearms. What is going on there is much more than a crude metaphor for pistol. For on each of his missions, Bond stares death in the face and the plot hatched by the supervillain often involves the kind of negation death is itself. Consider that in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bloefeld utilized a gaggle of nubile young women to do what? To carry a plague that would sterilize plants and animals around the world. To, in other words, negate the creative act symbolized by their sexuality – and the sex Bond has with them – with death.

A penis-shaped laser tries to cut Bond's penis off. A metaphor you could not create on your own. But Fleming did.
That the sex in Bond film's has little or no consequences only furthers the notion that on some level what Bond is at war during the films lies within himself or with existence in more general terms. How many of Bond's sexual conquests are subsequently murdered? There are no awkward morning afters in Bond's world, no talk of promises and commitments. Women are unabashedly objectified and presented as tokens of Bond's dangerous lifestyle (or were until recent films). Just as he gets a great car, he gets great women. Nobody is saying this kind of fetishism is admirable (see Pygmalion), but the desire for this does exist somewhere within us all, just as the desire to murder and be a creature of assured violence exists within us all.

The reward?
Of course, along the way Bond is giving up meaningful relationships, of the possibility of, say, raising children, of having a safe and secure life. And in compensation he receives cars, slavish women, fine caviar, etc. This was Achilles choice and it is Bond's choice. It is not one many of us would make, but there is something primal and attractive about nonetheless, which both Fleming and the filmmakers understand, even if in the case of the latter it is by accident. Bond's brutal life is presented as a glorious procession in order both to tantalize us with the forbidden as well as demonstrate how satisfying and reckless the forbidden might be.

Personally, I am not sure which Bond I like best – the novel or the film version – but I am certain which Bond sells. This is another way of saying that I am certain that if more of Fleming’s Bond made it onto the screen, we would not be talking about a film franchise here of 50 years. Films are spectacles and audiences go to them for bedazzlement. They also go for affirmation. Bond gives audiences both. A Bond film is not a Bond film without almost hyperbolic action sequences (indeed, at one point the action became ridiculous in both the Roger Moore and Peirce Brosnan years). A Bond film is also not a Bond Film without what I will call Bond’s accouterments. By this I mean Bond the aesthete is transformed into a kind of showman for cars, watches, finely tailored suits and complicated drink orders, because these are all luxuries that people want and want to see. After 50 years, Bond and his preferences are now inseparable. The aesthetic eccentricity from the novels has been remade as “classiness” in an age that otherwise rejects such things.

Bond as Civil Servant
If Bond is a creature of id, confronting death and his own personal demons in a way we find entertaining, what ultimately makes him a hero? It boils down to this. As we know, the id "knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality." The id seeks only the discharge of satisfaction (think sex and guns again). And if this is all there is to James Bond, he would appear as the kind of monsters he confronts in his adventures. That he is not a monster is ultimately because Bond's desires are channeled toward the greater good. That is, the filmmakers shrewdly choose to emphasize the purpose of Bond’s existence at the expense of the power and perversion inherent in his character. The Bond in the films is a "hero" precisely because he is working to protect innocents. He is a Platonic Guardian in the purest of forms, because he is an elected elite who endures great hardship and is therefore granted great license and reward so that the Republic will continue to stand.

For Queen and Country
If Bond on-screen did not believe in the goodness of his country and his role in the stewardship of democratically-elected governments, then he would be nothing more than thrill-seeker, cashing in on his job's status to acquire and do things not available to others. But he is not. He is motivated entirely by a noble cause (the defense of freedom), unlike his adversaries. Bond's villains, while sharing much of Bond's will to act and over-sized appetites, are perverted creatures in large part because they do not have Bond's redeeming dedication to service. Fleming was careful to ensure all of his supervillains, for nothing else could stand in the way of a superhero but a supervillain, are both mentally and physically perverted creatures.

Disfigured and without restraint.
Dr. No is a prime example. A cultured and intelligent man, his mind is nonetheless twisted by feelings of rebuke and he harbors an overwhelming desire for revenge that his distorted his entire reality (notice how surreal the Bond villain lairs always are). At the same time, he is a ghost of a human being, with little or no normal emotions and missing hands. In this sense, the Bond villains are evil doppelgangers of Bond, who indeed in The Man with the Golden Gun is openly exposed to this very obvious metaphor when Scaramanga presses Bond to admit how much he enjoys killing and therefore how similar the hitman (Scaramanga) is to the intelligence officer (Bond). Bond, of course, refuses the comparison, but it should provoke audiences to thinking a bit more about the man they have chosen to elevate for half a century. He is, if nothing else, complicated and what he represents about the society that produced him and continues to revel in his exploits is no less complicated...

The Best Bonds
Everyone has a list, of course. On this one, I have avoided what I will call the contemporary Bonds and tried to stick to what I consider the “classic” era of Bonds:

1. Goldfinger (1964): Of all the Bond Films, this ranks top. It is, quite simply, all that a Bond film should be and it is the last Bond film in which the character of Bond himself is not swallowed by the scope of the action or subject to using increasingly ridiculous gadgetry (which thankfully Skyfall jettisoned). The now-established Bond tropes are all introduced here, but they are not distracting yet: We have a wronged woman seeking revenge, a sports car with gadgetry and another maniacal, cultured and somewhat charming villain (Dr. No was not charming), assisted by a bizarre henchmen (Odd Job) who kills people in a fantastic way. There is something important at stake (Fort Knox), but for Bond the battle is more personal, as it would become again when Daniel Craig took up the role. For Bond in this film, it is about beating Goldfinger at his own game rather than “saving the day.” There is also the small matter of the quintessential Bond song, sung here by Shirley Bassey. It was never surpassed, though her sophomore effort in Diamonds are Forever comes pretty damn close.

2. From Russia with Love (1963): Probably the most traditional espionage film in the series, in that this is a real spy film, with a plot that involves a code machine and a honey trap, both classic Cold War espionage devices that have real-world corollaries. The scenes in Istanbul and the chase at the film's conclusion both still stand up, even if the deranged women with the shoe in her knife does not. The opening scene is also a classic, and no doubt worked better on the original audience, who did not know there would be 20 or so more films.

3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): George Lazenby as Bond continues to divide, but leaving aside his uneven performance, this efforts soars with emotion as Bond meets his match in Diana Rigg’s character, falls in love and actually marries. Along the way, there are two great chases in the snow and some real emotional depth to what is clearly the most faithful adaptation of a Fleming novel. The pattern of the woman in this film being the equal of Bond became commonplace in later efforts, but it never worked as well it as does here. When Rigg skates up to help bail Bond out of trouble when he is at the skating rink, he is actually scared and out of ideas, something that does not happen anywhere else, I believe. It would have been interesting to see the filmmakers continue the thread begun in the last scene of this film with a revenge picture as a sequel, but instead we got Connery back in the rather glib Diamonds Are Forever.

4. Thunderball (1965): Sure, the underwater scenes are somewhat slow, but the rest of the film races along and Bond on several occasions faces real jeopardy. Connery is at the top of his game here, too. He is suave, provocative and full of a carefully calculated wit. The role does not bore him yet and the filmmakers are still giving him interesting things to do in his scenes that are not cliched. The outdoor shots work well, we get a great Casino scene and a villain who is creepy in a subtle and refined way.

5. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): Surely, the best of the Roger Moore offerings? There is no real silliness in the film, aside from Jaws (who is no more or less preposterous than Odd Job) and the soundtrack’s disco-music accompaniment. Barbara Bach is amongst the best Bond girls to look at and more than a match for Moore’s casual approach to … well, everything really (does this man even run in action scenes?). The plot involves an underwater lair, stolen submarines, détente and an arch villain who wants to cleanse the world by destroying it. In case you are not following, this is essentially a remake of You Only Live Twice with a few updates. No matter, because it works. There are some good effects, some real moments of tension, excellent sets (designed in part by Stanley Kubrick) and a great conflict between Bach and Moore.


  1. Nice article on the Bond phenom! I totally agree with you that The Spy Who Loved Me is among the very best of the series. Though I loved Connery, Roger Moore was the Bond I grew up with, and he is so suave and smooth and charming.

    Since seeing the recent Bond retrospective and documentary on BBC America, I need to see the Timothy Dalton films. I totally stopped seeing the films after Moore's departure and did not see another until Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.

  2. I recently re-watched both. They stand up better than I remember, though I still find Dalton the weakest of all the Bonds. The Living Daylights has a great plot, while License to Kill gives us a very cold and calculating Bond, much more like Fleming's. Dalton just can't quuiiittte pull it off...