Director Sam Mendes invokes the Bard and a puppet for Skyfall
Cape Hatteras, 7:45 AM – The dawn fog is still lingering as I sit on the deck of a beach house overlooking the Atlantic. I'm several months behind on the news surrounding Skyfall. My intention is to get caught up during this summer sojourn, but it’s been slow going because photos of Ben Whishaw as the new Q, in tandem with the memory of last night’s circus-like opener for the Olympics, has thrust me into a sort of dopey Twilight Zone trance.
Emails have poured in from fellow Bond fans: yes, I saw the Anointed One, Vladimir Putin Craig, in his cameo with Her Majesty, the Queen. At the center of their parodic sketch is a clever premise, a droll nod to Britannic imagery. A bit of victory for Eon, too, for snatching some promotional tie-in with their franchise.
That’s the good news.
But the gag also underscores the bizarre atmosphere that has surrounded the 23rd film. Of late, comments from director Sam Mendes, who insists that the essence of James Bond is no different than what you’d find in the classic heroes of Shakespeare, have been disturbing. And the restyling of the gadget-meister Q into a young technology geek smacks of desperation to appear “hip” in this Internet age. Such acts suggest a struggle on the part of the Bond handlers to position the new film in today’s movie landscape; but what implicitly surfaces is an unclear path: we sense their inability to grasp a solid direction for the series as they stumble in their tendency to distance themselves from their own legacy and, indeed, even from Fleming's intentions.
In a BBC interview, Mendes proclaims that working on a Bond film has “quite strong similarities [to Shakespeare]. You have a kind of familiarity with it.” I wonder why Mendes did not make this shattering revelation public a while back, even during the early days of script development and pre-production. Immersed in his thoughts (and we sense that he is deeply moved by his own analogy), he reinforces his theme, revealing that it is “not an unusual feeling to deal with characters [like Bond] that already exist" (Eame). I take it he means that Bond is an established character, just like those in Old Willy Boy’s plays. Accordingly, four hundred years since he first appeared in the First Quarto (1603), Hamlet is never to be portrayed as a 500-pound sumo wrestler in Elsinore. He is always to be the melancholy Dane, a young university student brooding in the castle in black attire, tortured by thoughts of revenge and mourning the death of his father (the King)—in other words, a character set in stone, never to be tampered with. And so it is with Bond, Mendes seems to say. Then why in hell did the producers cast an actor who lacks any semblance whatsoever—both physically and in terms of character interpretation—to Fleming’s dark romantic hero? Craig and his portrayal, we must admit, evokes zero familiarity with the literary character. Moreover, to adhere to his analysis, why didn’t Mendes demand that the role be recast for Skyfall?
Let us recall that Sam Mendes is the superhero director who commands respect as he embarks on the solitary path to glory: it is he alone who must face the accolades of the Hollywood Leftist Elites for his devotion to enlighten us on what he discerns as the decadence of the American bourgeoisie. His magnanimity reached sonorous heights with Revolutionary Road, a dystopian view of suburbia (oh, that kingdom of menacing property owners!), based on the novel by Richard Yates, a tormented outcast who drunkenly set fire to his beard. Yes, Mendes offers a scathing look at American culture through the thoughts of a wack job, for which he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Director in 2008. Damn it, it’s a tough job; and it takes a genius auteur with far-left leanings to do it.
The Shakespeare angle, though, has been with him all along. Previously, Mendes was a wandering actor during the Renaissance (circa 1600), performing in pubs by reciting lines from The Bard with his ass—or rather, his donkey, although it really didn’t make a difference according to the reviews in the local papers. Nevertheless, he managed to stay in the theater circuit, lumbering around as a janitor at the Globe Theater until he met Sir Jean-Claude Van Damme—renowned dramatist and Lord Great Chamberlain to James I—who had the cool connections at the BBC. Now, in what can only be described as profound versatility, Mendes is developing—just as he is overseeing the editing of Skyfall—a batch of Shakespeare plays for “the Cultural Olympiad and the BBC's 'Shakespeare Unlocked' season” (Eame). It is this intricate tapestry of theater experience that qualifies him to make arty revelations about James Bond’s similarity to Shakespeare.
So how does this impact Skyfall? Well, I’d say we’re in for pretentious drama, for an overkill to pass the film off as “intellectual.” The statement’s worst fault is excess: the excess of over-interpretation. One can already see the effects in the full trailer: fragments of dramatic scenes with Judi Dench—and Craig, for that matter—suggest an overly serious mood, with the actors struggling to present “serious matter,” though sounding corny with every line of dialogue. Madonna will be asking Mendes and his actors for tips on how to be grating. Moreover, this babble about Shakespearean similarities is how kitsch-making interpretations shatter an author’s work. Some sixty years before our auteur imposed this trite analogy, Ian Fleming sat down at Goldeneye, his Jamaican retreat, to write the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, without any overtures to highfalutin theories. He understood not to take his fiction too seriously—“I’m not in the Shakespeare stakes” (Burns), he noted in a 1963 BBC radio interview—but approached thriller-writing with the intensity of a dedicated craftsman.
His article “How to Write a Thriller” concerns his meditation on the genre. Here we find him seeking to elevate his own work to something he calls “Thrillers designed to be read as literature” (2). He points to its practitioners such as Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Graham Green as the benchmark for certain standards in thriller-writing. But, in self-deprecation, he describes his stature succinctly: “I have no message for suffering humanity.” Authors of high literary merit, he explains, aim their books at “the head and, to some extent at least, the heart,” while he targets his work “somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh” (1). This summary, I think, of his approach to the thriller is enough to spank Mendes’s pretensions: the evocation of Shakespeare is meaningless; it is enough here to grasp that Fleming never saw his work in such a lofty manner and that his intentions were foremost on just telling a good yarn.
I look at the Mendes statement again: could it be that he is also differentiating himself from previous Bond directors and, for his stamp on the series, he intends to make Skyfall the most intelligent high-art Bond film? In that BBC interview, he managed to call upon one of the great literary authorities of all time, thus implying that his film will be brilliant and, consequently, whatever flaws the Bond series has, justifies his involvement in it. Moreover, it’s also a defense mechanism for Mendes to ward off any potential criticism of Skyfall, regardless of how he shapes the film. After all, he is creating something in the vein of Shakespeare, so how dare we criticize his movie? Hence, he brings forth the young Q.
Sad to say, it’s a misfire in approach and just as disastrous as the casting of Craig as 007. The young science geek, bespectacled, gadding about in a white lab coat, is a cliché in itself; but under the guise of British actor Ben Whishaw, this version of Q resembles one of those marionettes from the old Thunderbirds television series—“Brains,” I believe, is the name. Or it may be “Boz,” or “Bahz,” or “Gummo” (I’m not quite sure). In a striking coincidence, he is the young genius scientist of a secret organization. The coincidence deepens when you consider that Brains’s sexual ambiguity (you couldn’t discern whether he was a man or some strange hermaphrodite circus performer) parallels Whishaw’s nerdy Q, whose got the look of being a bit light on his loafers. Then again, Daniel Craig paraded himself in full drag last year in a short Bond tie-in video that commemorated the centenary of International Women’s Day, so the circle is complete. We are back to the La Cage Aux Folles antics of Quantum Of Solace. All this leads me to point out that Skyfall appears to have levels of cool symmetry: we are faced with an arty movie and, for Mendes, the symmetries should matter like hell. So better to have a young effete Q to compliment Craig’s withered quasi-gay Bond than none at all.
In the full trailer, Whishaw appears uncomfortable in the role, as if he had given up and understood that Mendes and the Bond producers snapped and that nonsense, or rather kitsch, flooded the set. Once again, I am forced to question Mendes’s artistic genius: after taking a long hard look at this new Q, does any clinically sane person feel safe knowing that an annoying puppet-like creature with large eyeglasses and bushy hair is designing the weapons of the British Secret Service? Surely you’d be forced to smack this geek at the back of the head repeatedly. Don’t get me wrong: Whishaw, in the interviews I’ve read, is a pleasant enough chap and, admittedly, his Q, when projected onto a massive IMAX screen, could be one of the most Shakespearean things ever; yet if that is all I want—namely, to be dramatically enthralled by a geek—I can also stop by the cubicles at work (a large hi-tech joint) and say “howdy” to any number of computer geeks. I think Mendes and the Bond producers truly underestimated how aloof and hardened by life I’ve become.
It’s clear that the filmmakers no longer value the traditional Q and his trademark in the series: the amusing banter between the elderly technology wizard and the reckless James Bond of yore is now a remembrance of things past. True, in the first two films, Dr. No and From Russia With Love, the character was subtle (and the comic interplay with Bond would not appear until Goldfinger); but as played by mature actors (Peter Burton and Desmond Llewelyn, respectively), we realize that the character is essentially a throwback to Merlin, the old enchanter in Arthurian legends, and that Mendes’s approach with a young Q is another disregard of Fleming’s intentions: the author had lived long enough to see, in these first two films, the Burton and Llewelyn portrayals, which suggests he not only acknowledged the casting but also applauded the concrete presence of an elderly man for the character. For, in his books, the character Q never truly appears. John Griswold provides an insightful summary of the obscurity:
When Fleming mentioned ‘Q’ without the word ‘Branch’ tied to it, one might conclude that it was military shorthand used to refer to his fictional Q Branch. . . . What did this ‘Q’/Q Branch do at the Secret Service? It booked hotel rooms, made travel arrangements, provided referrals to a skin graft specialist, supplied watches, did some research and development, and made and supplied secret agent luggage. The ‘Q’ in Q Branch most likely means Quartermaster. (25)
A “Major Boothroyd” does appear in the novel Doctor No, who M summons into the mission briefing to present a change in Bond’s armory (the Walther PPK). In Fleming’s own words:
It is in this book that “The Armourer,” a certain Major Boothroyd, is called by “M” to give judgement on James Bond’s weapons, the inadequacy of which, at the end of From Russia with Love, so nearly cost him his life. (“James Bond’s Hardware”)
Here Fleming associates Boothroyd with the role of “Armourer,” but the character does not appear in subsequent novels. In the films, the character melded into the notion of a Q Branch, spearheaded by a so-called Quartermaster, evolving into a staple of the series—the character’s erudite no-nonsense manner is a humorous contrast to 007’s reckless playfulness. In a sense, the character is the voice of Ian Fleming, intruding into the film to offer detailed descriptions of technology that somehow accords with the detailed expositions that abound in the novels. This is the problem that Mendes has overlooked with the young Q: the absence of the authorial voice from a wise elderly man. What we’re left with is a low key interaction, as suggested by the full trailer, between Craig and Whishaw.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Mendes’s approach will work. But one thing is clear: it’s so easy to disregard the intentions of a dead writer, especially when you’re too busy throwing out sound bites to the media to reinforce your stature as a great arty director. Sad to say, when a dead person cannot fend for what he had wished, he vanishes more than ever in acts of manipulation, even exploitation. I recall Kafka: he asked Max Brod to destroy his letters because he feared their publication—and yet Brod refused Kafka’s deathbed wish to burn the letters and, consequently, he made them public. Other examples: after the premiere of his First Symphony, Mahler removed the second movement (the so-called Blumine movement), which cannot be found in any printed score. But in steps Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa and inserted the blasted thing back into the piece long after Mahler’s death, making us realize that the composer was correct to discard it in the first place. And, for the truly macabre, a gravedigger snatched Mozart’s skull from an unmarked grave at St. Marx Cemetery outside Vienna, not long after the composer’s burial, and gave it to a friend, which passed through several more hands before it finally reached the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg in 1902. The dead are treated as nothing, or appraised as glorious symbols. Either way, it’s after they died, when they cannot express their opinions—and their protestations are shut in silence—that the living can easily manipulate them.
Fans of Director Mendes will object that what I’ve gleaned from his interview misses the intended dramatic sophistication of Skyfall. To that I say, “Nah!”, even “Nyet!”, perhaps even a “Tisk, Tisk.” I assert that a Bond movie that distances itself from the staple elements of the series and avoids any adherence to Fleming’s intentions—while presenting itself as a showy intellectual piece—is a cop-out, a blatant convenience for Mendes and company to say, “If you like Skyfall, it’s because it’s brilliant, made by a guy rooted in Shakespeare. If you think it’s lousy, then you’re not sophisticated enough to appreciate it.” It’s a spineless way to make a movie, reminiscent of something you’d expect from Peter Brady before big brother Greg set him straight. Besides, we’re dealing with Sam Mendes, whose last film, Away We Go, is a cheap imitation of anything that could come out of the Woody Allen production line. This director does not get any slack from me. Face it, Mr. Shakespearean Director, you have a knack for kitsch that it’s so bad, it’s laughable.
Mendes’s statement does bring up the “rights of texts” and the rights of interpreters. A certain frame of mind, or awareness, is required in the interaction of the two. I wonder, though, if that frame of mind ever existed. Umberto Eco underscores my observation in a more erudite way:
In 1962 I wrote my [Open Works]. In that book I advocated the active role of the interpreter in the reading of texts endowed with aesthetic value. . . . In other words, I was studying the dialectics between the rights of texts and the rights of their interpreters. I have the impression that, in the course of the last decades, the rights of the interpreters have been overstressed” (23).
So there’s been too much leeway for the interpreter. Eco had this impression in 1992, in his book Interpretation and Overinterpretation, a collection of essays that explore the limits of interpretation. Over the years, I’d say that the frame of mind inclined to observe the rights of texts (or any work) has diminished, more than ever. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a Coca-Cola commercial underscored by Handel’s Sarabande. Nor would we have a Land Rover commercial accompanied by John Barry’s memorable tune, “Born Free.” Likewise, we wouldn’t see abridged versions of, say, Dickens’s novels or bizarre renditions of Fleming’s fiction. If there was still an awareness that acknowledges, even respects, the intentions of a dead author, people would wonder: Would Dickens agree to what’s been done to his work? Wouldn’t Fleming himself be angry at the irreverent adaptations of his characters, let alone his actual novels?
Ah, Director Sam Mendes! What have you done to Fleming’s fiction? It seems your movie Skyfall holds nothing but disrespect for its literary roots. As I sit on the deck, gazing at the ocean, I recall villain Karl Stromberg, in the film The Spy Who Loved Me, and his comment after killing two scientists in a helicopter explosion over the Sardinian coast: “The burial was at sea.” Under the auspices of Mendes and the brains trust of the film series, Fleming and his hero have been buried the same way, plunged into the depths of forgetting.