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Skyfall: Blu-ray Review

A Bond in Carnivalesque Revelry

[collage]

By Ian Dunross
September 8, 2014
For clarity, all book titles are displayed in small caps (Casino Royale), and short stories are shown in quotes and capitalized accordingly (“For Your Eyes Only”). Film titles, on the other hand, are italicized and shown with the capitalization used by the filmmakers (For Your Eyes Only). Quoted passages contain the styles used in the original source.
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Skyfall is that rare movie, raising the question perplexing film historians and critical theorists: namely, if Skyfall has the de-facto aura of an intelligent Bond film, then what level of nonsense did Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer manage to reach? This question has rattled all of academia, eventually leading to the formation of a glorious think tank, the Kropotkin Institute of Social Restitution.1 Its members, a cadre of intellectuals (i.e., anarchists, Marxists, militant feminists, community organizers, delusional revolutionaries demanding hefty entitlements), have made it one of their goals to find an answer. (And perhaps, on some down time, they’ll eventually map out a solid plan for their collectivist utopia, or even better, just get a job at one of many Lowe’s home improvement stores.)

For Skyfall, so the cultural tribunal dictates, is the profound action film of 2012 and, as its sonorous accolades would have us believe, here among us puny mortals, the paragon of cinematic heroes graces our movie screens—the One who not only redefines the modern action hero but even exudes the spirit of epic heroes in Greek literature. Personally, I think the character is the first ever effete 007, but then that’s why I’m not an intellectual proclaiming that a junk Hollywood movie is derivative of Sophocles. Nonetheless, a professor at a prestigious university (one Clifford Lemlar, PhD) wrote to enlighten me that “Skyfall and Daniel Craig’s Bond are the closest thing in our age to classical drama!” His delusion, along with the fawning reviews of the film, reinforce the effective snow job from the studio’s propaganda ministers: this 007 is not another flimsy cardboard action hero; instead, the character is deep and commands a serious look. We must look upon the character’s grandeur—and the entire film, for that matter—with starry eyes. Let’s recap the grandeur: this 007 botches an assignment in Turkey, manages to get shot off the top of a train by a colleague (none other than Moneypenny—yes, that Moneypenny), irresponsibly runs from the job (and, by extension, abandons his country), breaks into the apartment of the MI6 leader, fails a series of physical and psychological examinations required for secret agentry, and welcomes the homoerotic flirtations of the villain after he’s easily captured. Sam Mendes would have us believe this is all in accord with Terence Young’s vision of the enigmatic character in Dr. No.

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But what now the significance of this film, this sound and fury known as Skyfall? Just as other big budget products cranked out from the Hollywood factories, Skyfall opened big, grossing more than the GDP of Brunei and Indonesia combined in its first weekend, but faded fast barely a month later and now readily available in the disc bargain bin of the local Walmart, where it shares precious space with classics such as Jackie Chan’s The Spy Next Door. From what I can recall, upon the film’s release (it was about two years ago and therefore impossible for anyone to have vivid recollections) it happened to be the 50th anniversary of the 007 series. The festive mood was paralleled on screen by intricately choreographed “Gangnam Style” dance sequences performed by Komodo dragons. To top it off, Gareth Mallory (a British Intelligence bureaucrat played by Ralph Fiennes) is revealed to be Justin Bieber’s grandfather and joins the troubled sprout in a karaoke bar for a duet of the Beatles song “We Can Work It Out.”

Not true, of course; and I kid topical matters. Nevertheless, the carnival act continued: under the big top of overdone hype—with all the spectacles of commemorations, commercial tie-ins, the slobbering media attention—no one wanted to mention the film was so removed from Ian Fleming but close in spirit to Brokeback Mountain. On screen, a gay-friendly MI6 agent attempts to masquerade as the super cool red-blooded agent of 007 lore but, in a perturbing nod to political correctness, not once does he wince at the sexual advances of the pansexual villain, Raoul Silva. Had the filmmakers remained true to Fleming’s Bond, in tandem with honoring the machismo hero that Connery established 50 years ago, then this 007, if anything, would have inspired Silva to be straight. We’ve all come to know the adage, first coined by Raymond Chandler, that “Every man wants to be James Bond and every woman wants to be with him”.2 Despite the world’s amnesia, let’s make an effort to recall the character in Fleming’s Goldfinger: that 007 has the intense aura of manliness to motivate the lesbian Pussy Galore to switch to a heterosexual. Fleming wrote the novel in 1958 and the scenario would be controversial by today’s standards, to say the least. But such is the mythology of the so-called 007 magnetism, as intended by Fleming, an aspect of his fiction that the filmmakers have refused to acknowledge as far back as their inept reset of the series in 2006 with the messy adaptation of Casino Royale.

Yet this misfire in the Craig-Bond’s characterization takes a backseat to the most cringe-worthy image in all of Skyfall: I refer to the London attack sequence where, in the midst of the chaos, the Craig-Bond—ever more withered, with a sickly pallor—resembles a senior citizen struggling to run along the street, panting, the physical strain apparent in his decrepitude. This is not acting. Blown up on the massive IMAX screen, the image is an unflattering presentation of the actor. Moreover, he’s aged drastically since the last film, Quantum of Solace, and, unintentionally, the filmmakers emphasize not only his creakiness for the role but also the out-of-fuel, run-down feel of this latest entry in a long tired series. It doesn’t help either that M, as played by Judi Dench, denounces the assertion that her spies are antiquated in today’s terrorism landscape, an intriguing angle suggesting that the filmmakers may have once had a point to make before the decadence creeped in: “Today I've repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. ‘Why do we need agents, the Double-0 section? Isn't it all antiquated?’” Sad to say, this bit of dialogue has the adverse effect of reminding us that Craig and Skyfall are outdated and lack the vibrancy to enliven the series.

On August 18, 2014, about 272 million years since the film was in theaters, I plopped the disc into my blu-ray player (that’s your own stupid fault, I sense you are saying, and I agree wholeheartedly).3 The same impressions lashed at me again. Even worse, the intimate scale of a home theater only brings one closer to this bullshit of a film. Die Another Day is, quite obviously, the general blueprint, as Sam Mendes and company cobble together a story from elements of previous 007 films, right down to the renegade agent-betrayed-by-MI6 motif that fueled the first 40 minutes of that bygone film. Admittedly, those 40 minutes were refreshing, as Brosnan’s Bond takes center stage, the only human interest, before the film sinks into its antics. In Skyfall, it’s all rather trite, and one would think the film couldn’t get any worse. But leave it to director Mendes to embellish the wreckage with preposterous plot holes, a desperate attempt to emulate Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, and an annoying self-consciousness to ground the film in blatant political correctness.4 For the 50th anniversary of the series, we get a film so unimaginative, layered with an ornate uselessness about it.

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For a Bond film asserted to be serious and intelligent, its plot implodes in sheer idiocy. Raoul Silva, a former MI6 agent-turned-cyberterrorist, is fixated on pestering, humiliating, and killing his former boss, M, in revenge for her betrayal of him. Why can’t he just block her reserved parking slot with a trash can or write a nasty blog about her? Well, because he’s crazy. We’re left with the impression that he spends precious days plotting intricately coordinated terrorist schemes, acquiring in the process a fortress in an abandoned island near Macau, and hiring hapless bodyguards with, presumably, enticing benefits packages. Had he just broken into M’s apartment, which the Craig-Bond had easily done early in the film, and killed her, he would have avoided the costly overhead of running such a villainous enterprise. So right away, we’re dealt with a moronic premise: Silva, an ex-British agent, presumably has the same training as the Craig-Bond to break into apartments—but, no thank you, he’s fine with pestering her to death. (Incidentally, why the head of MI6 lacks a solid security system in her apartment is another element of idiocy.)

Despite Silva’s ramblings in wussy terrorist acts, who’s at fault, anyway? He is what he is—angry, tormented, miserable—because of his own doing: he committed unauthorized hacking of the Chinese back in 1997, when M happened to be the section chief overseeing Hong Kong's transfer of sovereignty to China. (And, strangely, she was supreme leader of MI6 in 1997, during the adventure of Tomorrow Never Dies—once again, this is testament to what a mess the filmmakers have done to the timeline of the series.) As the backstory goes, it all led to M exposing Silva to Chinese authorities, which landed him in a posh prison cell with complimentary interrogation and torture. Now, here he is, hell bent on revenge, which has something to do with a bland sub-plot about a stolen hard drive containing the identities of agents planted in terrorist organizations (shades of the first Mission: Impossible film!). Unfortunately, as the MacGuffin of the story, the hard drive, even if it happens to be solid state or serial ATA, isn’t exactly thrilling dramatic material in today’s computer culture, especially when one receives daily coupons for hard drives at the local Staples. In addition, this business of tormenting an elderly woman is grating, even tasteless for a plot device. Thus the entire backdrop for Silva is a weak catalyst for a Bond villain to be evil.

Javier Bardem plays Silva, easily one of the worst villains in the series. Apparently, when Bardem isn’t camping it up in quirky films such as Biutiful, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, No Country for Old Men (a BBC documentary on Craig’s old man Bond), or just struggling to be taken seriously by babbling political polemics against Israel, he’s chewing the scenery in B movies like Skyfall. The scene wherein he yanks his upper jaw from his mouth to spite M is unintentionally laughable (and I recall the round of snickers from the audience with which I’ve seen the film). Moreover, this character trait is futile; for nothing is ever made of the deformity again. We're left with the impression it was showcased for pure sensationalism because the filmmakers reached a dead end, unable to create a compelling villain.

With this drawback, the script relies heavily on the interplay of Silva and M to carry the entire film. This enables the filmmakers not only to make the most of Judi Dench’s acting chops but to cover up the lack of a solid caper for the villain. The late Richard Maibaum, who wrote some of the best screenplays in the series, gave a succinct description of what a 007 film narrative requires: “It must be new and contemporary. It can’t be small, it has to be of world-shattering proportions. It also must have a kind of underlying, sardonic humor to it” (“Scripting James Bond” 56).

Skyfall has none of these qualities in the villain’s scheme. It’s just a straightforward revenge ploy and none too thrilling, either. As for Silva, he’s nothing more than a disgruntled former MI6 employee turned garden-variety asshole, causing chaos in society. It’s not enough for a Bond villain to be a mundane anarchist. If that’s all I seek in a Bond villain, I can drop by the next Occupy Wall Street protest and say “Howdy” to any number of anarchists camping in filth, shooting the breeze with them, offering my harmless analysis of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, or just absorbing the cultural sophistication that seems to emanate from such an event. As it stands, the film forces us to confront one of its major stumbling blocks: we don’t believe Raoul Silva is a threatening but intriguing villain just because the filmmakers brand him as one. He doesn’t even reach the stature of a Bond villain. At best, he’s a second-rate hoodlum, quite moronic but with enough tech-savviness to package into cowardly acts of terrorism. A stupid Bond villain is not a major adversary at all. Moreover, Silva isn’t even an amusing anarchist. By contrast, the Tasmanian Devil (in the Looney Tunes series of cartoons) is an amusing anarchist. Although short-tempered and low in intelligence, he has a cool way of spinning like a vortex, destroying anything in his path and biting just about anything, thanks to his boundless appetite.

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Cooler anarchists than Raoul Silva: the Tasmanian Devil
and Pyotr Kropotkin.

Too outrageous, you say, this comparison to the Tasmanian Devil? Let us consider an actual anarchist, one Pyotr Kropotkin (yes, I hark back to the chap I alluded to earlier—wow, I’m on fire!). At least the former prince Kropotkin leaped into anarchy with grandiose intentions, eventually becoming the grand pooh-bah of communist anarchism: it was he who envisioned, most likely during bong hits, a socialist utopia based on voluntary cooperation without centralized control, asserting that such interactions formed the underlying mechanism in animal survival, not the fierce competition in nature proclaimed by Darwinists. In true anarchic spirit, Kropotkin hobnobbed in radical political circles, spent time behind bars, gained praise from fellow anarchists, wrote revolutionary pamphlets, helped kick start socialism in Paris, and advanced collectivist thought with his number 1 hit, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (published in 1902). He was, in the eyes of fellow radicals, a cool dude even though he sported a Santa Claus beard. The point is, if the Bond makers are resorting to an anarchist for a villain rather than the totalitarian madman seeking world domination, then they need to craft a compelling anarchist, one who struggles to subvert the present course of the world for a dreamy utopian cause. Silva, on the other hand, is nothing remarkable. Prone to overdramatic outbursts and bizarre childish tantrums, he meddles with absurdly complex plans, hacks into government computers, blows up buildings and derails London trains—and all for the sake of pestering M; but we see no deep conviction in something bigger than himself, no effort to join the community of like-minded anarchists, no subversive publications to boast. The guy’s a crybaby in need of good Adlerian therapy.

More disturbing, Skyfall delves into leftist political statements, suggesting a negative view of Western powers: the palpable evil in the world—as manifested by a former British secret service agent who’s gone astray—doesn’t arise from other countries but from within the confines of the West. Betrayed by M and, by extension, the British government, Silva is essentially shaped and provoked by the internal structures of Western authority. This is a variation of the credo asserted by progressives that the West is the primary threat to world peace. Oh, great—let’s just blame the West for all things evil; and on that note, we sense a preachy, condescending tone in Skyfall, as if the filmmakers are wagging their fingers at Western culture, ashamed of its stature in the geopolitical landscape. Regardless of their politics, must they exploit a Bond film to showcase their views? It’s superfluous, and their approach is a misdeed in storytelling.

Back to the plot: realizing they didn’t have one, the filmmakers pile additional useless elements into the Silva character in a desperate attempt to make him appear threatening. He is captured by MI6, outfitted in the latest fall fashion in men’s straight jackets, and held in one of those high security prison cells reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter’s cage in Silence of the Lambs (oh, how original!). The cage, I’d imagine, would price out at about £85 million—all financed, of course, by taxpayer’s money. But we need to consider other expenses such as staffing, maintenance, the straight jacket, and any electroshock therapy that he might need—all crucial accommodations for such a distinguished guest so that MI6 experts can study the effects of pointlessly stupid movie plots.

Speaking of MI6 experts: the new, young Q, who we gather is a bit light in the loafers—and why he is presented in this manner is unnecessary—fiddles with Silva’s notebook to decrypt it and, as any computer genius would do, inadvertently configures it to access the MI6 systems, allowing Silva to escape from the Hannibal Lecter cage. It’s a weak segue into one of the main action sequences of the film (the chaos in the London Underground). Nevertheless, Silva’s escape is enough for the Craig-Bond to realize that Silva wanted to be captured as part of a plan to confront and kill M. Again, had Silva just broken into M’s apartment about five minutes into the film, he would’ve been done with his revenge scheme, and we all could have gone home sooner, our minds free of the kitschy track that the songstress Adele belted out for the title sequence. Then again, Silva’s escape is a convenient plot device for hack writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade to cram an elaborate action sequence that unfolds beneath the city, replete with explosions, gun shots, and a train wreck, all presented in supposedly cool Batman-Christopher Nolan-style cinematography of utter darkness, with Daniel Craig delivering about three lines of dialogue, which is apparently a god-like feat that commands gushing accolade from the fan boys locked in the Internet forums.

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An example of the cinematography
in Skyfall.

On disc, the dark scenery doesn’t translate well. The same can be said of the version I noticed recently on a premium channel. It’s an aesthetically dark film, with excessive shadows, gray exteriors, dim interiors, and daubs of inky blackness. Even at 1080p at 24fps, the imagery is bleak and, ultimately, schmaltzy. It’s an imagery that only accents the striving of the cast to be “dramatic.” With all their pretentious line readings, I always feel I’m watching actors suffering from the need to be taken seriously. Ultimately, the dark cinematography negates their strivings: when actors are obfuscated by utter blackness, we don’t have any characters worth caring about, simply because we can’t see any of them! Mendes must be congratulated for cleverly bypassing a weak story by presenting a film we can’t see.

Somewhere in the dark, Craig gives another awkward performance as 007. Just as he did in his last two entries, he’s dragging a safe in a role that’s way over his head. It’s when the explosions stop, the stuntmen move aside, and he’s required to display a commanding presence that we realize he has no idea what to do with the character. The result: the stone-faced mug, the deadpan voice, are overly done. When he says, “007, reporting for duty,” his inflections come off all wrong, and the delivery is gratingly corny. Likewise, it’s when the inner pain of this 007 has to be showcased that the actor’s down-turned mouth, frail voice, and sad eyes are borderline maudlin—he gives us this strange feeling that he’s attempting to pattern his Bond after Screech in the episode of Saved By The Bell in which the harmless nerd is distressed when his lucky beret—crucial to his victory in the high school chess competition—has been stolen.

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Dustin Diamond as Screech:
the inspiration for Craig's Bond
in Skyfall?

Put another way, Craig’s discomfort with the role is too apparent; but we must applaud the filmmakers for acknowledging that their star is ineffectual to play a hero molded in the dashing, romantic archetype—hence, more than ever, the downplay of the 007 playboy merriment and the emphasis on rapid-cut Bourne-style editing to keep the narrative moving in a frantic pace. In the midst of it all, Skyfall wastes time on the character’s childhood/orphan backstory. It only underscores the desperate tinkering to flesh out Craig’s Bond: the implication is that this Bond suffers from a painful childhood and still carries some trauma from the past. Yet this is in complete discord with the character in the books. If anything, the literary Bond is nostalgic of his childhood and cherishes it (witness his recollection of a childhood summer holiday at the start of On Her Majesty's Secret Service). The filmmakers, we must admit, have twisted the character by their disregard of Fleming’s fiction.

It also indicates their overall cluelessness for the character. Together with Craig, they end up with an erratic approach, falling back on kitschy theatrics as they thrust a bizarre aspect onto the Bond character. Suddenly, about midway into the film, they resort to sensationalize the character with something risqué. Hence, in the most ludicrous moment in the series, the Craig-Bond calls into question his own sexuality, opening the door to a gay subtext. I speak of the aforementioned scene in which he is captured by the enemies and meets the villain, Raoul Silva:

SILVA [caressing the Craig-Bond]. There's always a first time.
THE CRAIG-BOND [tied to a chair but quite relaxed with the proceedings].
What makes you think this is my first time?

Ironically, this scene contains the very thing that producer Michael G. Wilson has prevented from entering the series: the ridicule of the Bond character. In an interview for Tomorrow Never Dies, the veteran producer described how the series could easily fall apart if others took the reins, pointing out, as an example, the bizarre ideas from established writers:

“There may be people who could do it better, but the way it would probably go, there’s more opportunity for it to be done worse. And I think all you have to do is look at some of the great writers we bring in and listen to what they pitch us. With the ideas they pitch, believe me, it would be very easy for this thing to go off the rails.”
Wilson cites the recurring need of writers in story ideas to ridicule Bond and his image. “It’s almost perverse and I don’t know why,” said Wilson, shaking his head. “They love to make him the butt of jokes or make him appear foolish. And that’s not Bond. I mean it’s always good to put him at a disadvantage—it makes it more interesting—but there’s a difference between being at a disadvantage and being ridiculed.” (Giammarco)

He apparently has forgotten everything he knows about making Bond movies. Now, about 15 years later, he seems to think so little of the series that he has tolerated a mockery of Bond, allowing Sam Mendes and main screenwriter John Logan to infuse the character with gay sensibilities. Skyfall marks a new direction for the franchise, with its strong awareness for political correctness and a reluctance to continue the traditional image of Bond. As Brian Moylan writes: “Of course we all know Bond is notorious for bedding everything with a vagina and a pulse in his path. But could he be so sexually voracious that he has been with a guy? No one in the audience even blanches at the fact that our hero could have kissed a not-girl and liked it, and that says something positive about the continued rise in gay acceptance.” This article, “Does James Bond Have a Problem with Gays?”, asserts the attitude of today’s audiences, and sort of explains the mentality of the Bond makers, or at least sheds light on why they’re so eager to change the character.

They also seem eager to position the franchise with the Hollywood leftist culture. I recall a Rolling Stone interview with Johnny Depp in which the actor is asked about  a “certain gay undercurrent” in his character Jack Sparrow, to which the actor reveals he deliberately approached the part with a suggestive homosexual persona, a tactic that foreshadows what Craig and the producers have done with Bond:

Interviewer: When people talk about your portrayal of Jack Sparrow, they generally mention Keith [Richards] but also point out a certain gay undercurrent.
Depp: Well, there was a great book I read . . . What was it called? Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. A very interesting book. I wasn't exactly going for that with the character. And Keith is not flamboyant in his actions. Keith is pretty stealth. But with Jack, it was more that I liked the idea of being ambiguous, of taking this character and making everything a little bit . . . questionable. Because women were thought to be bad luck on ships. And these pirates would go out for years at a time. So, you know, there is a possibility that one thing might lead to another.
Interviewer: Could happen.
Depp: You're lonely. You have an extra ration of rum. [Shrugs] "Cabin boy!"

(From “Johnny Depp: The Last Buccaneer”)

Apparently, the book he cites, which examines English piracy in the 17th century, is controversial in its largely speculative narrative.5 Nevertheless, one question nags me: is this the necessary approach to the character of Jack Sparrow, especially for a Disney kiddie film? However subtle, Depp’s portrayal opens the door to some sort of historical revisionism for swashbuckling heroes, forcing us to wonder if it’s also an effort to fit the film into a larger progressive scheme? I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of the purported Hollywood agenda and its adherence to political correctness but, in context to the rebooted 007 series, it seems safe to say that the Bond makers have entered that orbit. For one sure sign you’ve turned an established character into a gayish spectacle is by having him imply he’s welcomed homosexual encounters, or showcasing him in skimpy light-blue swimming trunks as he walks out of the sea, or presenting him gadding about in full drag in a Bondian tie-in commercial for the centenary of International Women's Day. Fifty years after the release of Dr. No, Craig and company have subverted the traditional Bondian image of dashing masculinity and virile sexuality. Thus the milestone of the series in its half-century mark.

In context to the Fleming books (which have been heavily referenced in Craig’s PR—“oh, he’s so true to Fleming’s Bond!”), the scene with Silva and the Craig-Bond is ridiculous. In the books, James Bond is typically silent in these torture scenes, as if he’s retreated psychologically into the confines of his inner self, his only refuge. Here he is, in the vicious torture scene in Casino Royale, confronting the limit of his humanity in his thoughts:

Bond closed his eyes and waited for the pain. He knew that the beginning of torture is the worst. There is a parabola of agony. A crescendo leading up to a peak, and then the nerves are blunted and react progressively less until unconsciousness and death. All he could was to pray for the plea, pray that his spirit would hold out so long and then accept the long freewheel down to the final blackout. (115).
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Timothy Dalton, in Licence To Kill, convey's the
literary character's agony when captured.

Timothy Dalton expressed the moment well, near the end of Licence To Kill, when his cover is blown and a henchman has seized him: Bond is silent, anticipating any pain, as the villain Franz Sanchez says, “Now, do you wanna make this hard or easy?” (Of course, 007 avoids a grisly death involving a cocaine-bundle shredder, when heroine Pam Bouvier arrives to save him.) 

Moreover, the literary character would never make light of his sexuality. But here we are, in this 50th anniversary film, with a Bond who’s tied to a chair, a situation in which he’s powerless, and his captor is a psycho making overt gestures that sodomy is in the works, in addition to whatever torture he has in mind. Why is the Craig-Bond even making light of his sexuality, or suggesting he’s had gay experiences? It’s a completely inaccurate portrayal of Fleming’s Bond. Throughout the books, the characterization is a clear-cut presentation of a heterosexual, which underscores the author’s credo that he wrote the Bond novels for “warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, airplanes, and hotels” (“How to Write a Thriller” 2). There is simply nothing ambiguous in this aspect of the character. The literary Bond loves women, he even daydreams (in Goldfinger) about the women in his life who have died, and what it would be like to see them again, in Heaven. Yes, this is a Bond who dreams about playing the field in the after life:

There must be a whole lot of them, going up together…. And when it came to the point, which would he like the best? But perhaps it would be a big place with countries and towns. There was probably no more reason why he should run into one of his former girl friends here than there had been on earth. . . . Perhaps, with so much love about, these things wouldn’t matter. Perhaps one just loved all the girls one met. (176)

In the short story “The Living Daylights,” he is captivated by a young female cellist he sees each night through his sniperscope. He wonders about her, romanticizing her image, which lifts him from the grim reality of spying:

How old would she be? Early twenties? Say twenty-three? With that poise and insouciance, the hint of authority in her long easy stride, she would come of good racy stock—one of the solid Prussian families probably or from similar remnants in Poland or Russia. . . . Bond watched the blown golden hair and the fawn raincoat until it had vanished into the indigo dusk up the Wilhemstrasse. (84-85)

For Bond, romance is refuge from his dark world. Hence, throughout the series, Bond is a man in search of women, one of the patterns that Fleming adheres to in his storytelling. The Bond in the books, though he probably would never admit it, is quite the romantic. Raymond Benson, in his superb compendium, The James Bond Bedside Companion, summarizes this aspect of the character neatly: “James Bond represents an ultimate male sexual fantasy figure for women” and this is “a key element in the success of the James Bond character, as well as the series as a whole” (76).

Despite the nonsense in Skyfall, some apologists for the film have sent me loony diatribes, convinced that the gay subtext is all within the bounds of maestro Ian’s works. “You do understand,” writes an ardent fan, “that Fleming had gay characters in his novels? You’re crazy and stupid and illiterate.” 6 The email is from the very humble Mitchell LeBrock (flaunter of master’s degrees in computer science and linguistics from Harvard) and, above all, a profound defender of freedom of expression: “Your site needs to be shut down. Shame on you! Shame on you! You don’t understand the Ian Fleming books! You ought to be barred from writing reviews!” This chap was fuming over my first review of Skyfall and how I denounced the homoerotic scene between the Craig-Bond and Raoul Silva as outright political correctness. His rant is amusing:

“For example, [Fleming] presented lesbians and gays in Goldfinger and From Russia With Love, and it’s in Golfinger where Bond wondered about gay people and expressed how he felt about them. This is the book where he said he was sorry for them. You also don’t get it that the films of Daniel Craig are brilliant adaptations of Ian Fleming, so it’s natural to see gay characters in them, and it’s accurate for Daniel’s Bond to be in homoerotic situations because in Golfinger, Bond is described as sympathetic to the gay cause. He would fight for their rights. Damn it, I’ve got master’s degrees in computer science and linguistics from Harvard and it takes a lot of enlightenment to say what I’m about to say… damn it, I’ll just go ahead and say it…we could read into Daniel’s Bond that he’s kind of gay. Nothing wrong with that. My friends in the LGBT community applaud this new Bond. Your problem is you’re not sensitive and politically correct.”

Is the Enlightened One, the double master’s degree recipient Mitchell LeBrock, being funny or is he just irresponsibly stupid? I’ve got to hand it to him: he’s really funny, although utterly ignorant of the Fleming books. And so is another friendly correspondent, gender studies professor Triziana Rutledge (yes, another intellectual), who proclaims,

“You are an insensitive jerk and out of touch with society. All I can say [as if she hasn’t said anything yet] is your site is vile and worthless [so worthless, in fact, that she actually reads my articles]. This has been a wretched film series. But Daniel Craig gave it a new lease on life. It’s time this whole Bond sexist genre is taken down and replaced by Daniel’s Bond who encompasses gay qualities, making these films enjoyable for so many people, including gays and feminists. For the first time, we have a Bond who doesn’t marginalize women. For the first time, we have a Bond who doesn’t shun the gay culture, he stands with them in the struggle for sexual/gender justice. But it’s more than that because through the power of the visual medium, he’s really saying that he’s one of them. Let Skyfall be the start of the new path for the franchise. You are so politically incorrect. So was Ian Fleming, although he did describe that Bond is supportive of gays. Look at the novel Goldfinger, but that’s assuming you can read.”

We can assume I can read. More importantly, let’s read the passage in Goldfinger correctly: at this stage, Bond is trapped in Goldfinger’s lair, forced to administer the portly madman’s gangster convention, and is puzzled by the cold distant persona of a young woman, Tilly Masterton.7 In an effective stream of consciousness narrative, we encounter an almost cryptic line of thought:

Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterton was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and ‘sex equality’. As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits—barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them. (221-222)

Again, the novel was written in 1958, when mores were obviously quite different towards this subject. And it’s not only in Goldfinger where gay characters surface; however, Fleming typically keeps them on the villainous side: Rosa Klebb in From Russia, With Love, the ruthless assassins Wint and Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever, Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun. Such characters reinforce Fleming’s tactic: he is harking back to the archetypal characterization of the Villain: namely, the deviant or monstrosity in society (which many readers might find just as offensive). Hence, the physical oddity of the Bond villain; and, at least for some these characters, it seems Fleming depicts them with homosexual tendencies to underscore their “monstrosity.” Of course, in itself, this notion of the villain as a monstrous type, with its varied manifestations even depicted in art, is an old motif. Umberto Eco, in his encyclopedic guide On Ugliness, traces the history of the gruesome and sublime in the visual arts and literature. Right there, in the section “The Demonization of the Enemy,” is a reference to the Bond villain:

Then there are the enemies of James Bond in the novels of Ian Fleming who, more so than in the films, are almost always of mixed blood or communist agents, and are out-and-out monsters who seem to have been assembled in the laboratory of a mad scientist. (197)

The monster-creation simile is apt: these Bond villains, existing as if assembled by a mad scientist, embody madness, disorder, the grotesque. Nietzsche (of all people) alludes to this theme of a distorted individual-as-villain, during one of his attacks on Socrates (that most decadent of philosophers, in his view8):

Socrates was rabble. One knows, one sees for oneself, how ugly he was…. Ugliness is frequently enough the sign of a thwarted development, a development retarded by interbreeding. Otherwise it appears as a development in decline. Anthropologists among criminologists tell us the typical criminal is ugly: monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo [a monster in face, a monster in soul]. But the criminal is a décadent. (30)

The passage is from Twilight of the Idols (no, not one of the vampiric romance books in the Twilight series); and it always reminds me of what Fleming was attempting to do with his villains. Because grotesqueness, this disordered state of being, is a sine qua non in the Bond villains, it defines their individuality. But by the time he sat down to write Goldfinger, Fleming expounds on this notion of disorder, or at least considers it from another perspective. In the late fifties, existentialism was still the philosophy of the day, with its emphasis on alienation as the condition of the modern world. This is the key to Bond’s rumination; and, sad to say, contrary to the assertion of my cordial email correspondents, there is nothing in the literary Bond’s attitude to suggest he’s ready to protest and dedicate his life as an activist for the gay movement. No, no, what is interesting about the passage in Goldfinger is Bond’s view that a dimension of emptiness haunts what he calls “pansies of both sexes.” This emptiness is the barrenness and frustrations that he is sensing from these “unhappy sexual misfits.” Then again, as any card-carrying existentialist would assert, aren’t we all haunted by the emptiness of the world? We can never recognize ourselves in our actions: in doing what we have to do, we find our actions taking on a life of their own, becoming difficult to interpret, and the self has no sense of bearing. In other words, the self is always elusive, and we have no way of grasping it. Between the act and ourselves, a region of nothingness appears, and our struggles have only led us to a sense of futility. In Bond’s rumination, he seems to say that homosexuality is another manifestation of the confusion and uncertainty in the world and that such individuals, “confused, not knowing what they were” (221), are tangled in this force of disorder. It’s this existential dilemma that provokes Bond to feel sorrow for them.

On the other hand, the “pansies” in Skyfall have a different existential dilemma: one of them (Raoul Silva) can’t stop himself from pestering an old woman; the other (the Craig-Bond) realizes the situation is grave—so grave, in fact, that he’s lost all dignity by appearing in this stupid movie. Their final confrontation, a showdown at the Bond ancestral home in Scotland(!),9 is grounded in so much uselessness. The sequence lapses into incredibility when the Craig-Bond and M are left to defend themselves against Silva’s goons in the decrepit estate. I’ll restate that scenario: M, the head of MI6, is left without serious protection from the British government. The only backup is Kincade, a Scotsman who’s at least 110-years old. Yeah, that’s right: nothing says “security” like having an old civilian clutching a shotgun. Played by Albert Finney (who should have known better), Kincade is some sort of groundskeeper of the Skyfall estate, and not a very good one, I might add, considering how he’s let it all go to ruins. The fact that he’s still alive astounds the Craig-Bond. His first words to the old man are, “Oh, are you still alive?”, which is another unintentionally laughable scene, considering how decrepit Craig looks. I’d say it’s even out of context to the serious BBC-like drama that the filmmakers are struggling to convey. Personally, I believe their meeting should have played along this scenario:

The Craig-Bond enters the Skyfall lodge, and suddenly the crumbling estate transforms, by way of magical realism (think García Márquez fiction), into the interior of an ornate Victorian mansion. Even the characters are magically dressed in Victorian attire. The Craig-Bond doffs his top hat, tugs his silk waistcoat, smooths his walrus mustache, and takes some snuff when he happens upon Kincade.

“Pray tell,” The Craig-Bond smiles. “Isn’t this Mr. Kincade, that most excellent gentleman of the Scots Brigade during the Eighty Years' War? And by Jove! I do say he’s clutching an exquisite shotgun from the Indian Mutiny.”

And a genteel greeting it would have been, and truly in accord with the kitschy tone that Sam Mendes has struck in Skyfall. By contrast, the Craig-Bond’s remark about Kincade’s age is disparaging and crass. What’s he all high and mighty for? He’s no spring chicken either, looking even older than the groundskeeper and reminding us that it’s high time he wore the requisite old man’s houndstooth hat. The least he could have done is give a warm handshake to Kincade, who apparently has served the Bond family with loyalty (obviously he’s a variation of Wayne Manor’s Alfred the Butler). Instead, he tolerates Kincade’s gung-ho attitude without any concern for safety. Well, all right, the fact that the old bloke can still hold a rifle with steady hands, let alone shoot with accuracy, is remarkable; but the Craig-Bond could have at least advised M to steer clear from gramp’s firing vicinity just to be on the safe side.


[Image]
(left) Kincade; (right) Steven Berkoff (or Vladimir Putin?) joins the chaos.
(bottom) Finally, Bond comes to the rescue.

A couple of fans wrote in response to my first review that the point of this sequence is to show the Craig-Bond relying on his own wits and humanity, without dependence on technology and any resources from MI6. To them I say, “Egad”, and even, “Nyet!”, or perhaps a “Whoa, dude!” For is it really necessary to dramatize these attributes by crafting such a preposterous sequence? If that’s truly the intention of the filmmakers, then they could have easily inserted a fight scene early in the film in which the Craig-Bond has the perfect gadget for the situation but it’s knocked out of his hand and pummels twenty stories down, forcing him to use his own ingenuity to defeat the enemy. This is the brains-before-brawn attribute that has made the character unique. I think of how Bond electrocutes OddJob in Goldfinger, thanks to quick thinking. In the Spy who Loved Me, the fight scene in the Egyptian ruins showcases that Bondian “smarts” when the agent positions himself strategically so that Jaws inadvertently knocks a support beam, causing the entire structure to fall on the giant. Likewise, in Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond’s tactic to overcome the assassin/forensic expert Professor Kaufman is masterful: in the dim hotel room, he hands Kaufman his mobile phone—the remote control device for Bond’s car—which enables 007 to mislead the professor into activating the phone’s taser and giving him the opportunity to gain the upper hand.10 This is reminiscent of how, in From Russia With Love, he tricks assassin Red Grant to open the deadly attaché case, triggering its tear gas booby trap. Sadly, it’s a character trait that’s been missing from Craig’s portrayal, along with a lack of self-command. Instead, in his first two 007 films, we find a brick-stupid agent with metrosexual tendencies pounding the stuffing out of doughy thugs dumber than himself; and by the time we see him in Skyfall, he’s degenerated into a timid wimp, calling grandmother M frequently to seek guidance—an effete 007, as I noted earlier, devoid of independence and, metaphorically, emasculated. I was longing for that classic rebellious moment where he would defy orders from MI6 and take control of the situation, consequences be damned. This 007 is about as virile and bold as a lady bug.

The disc’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is outstanding, whether you care or not. It brims with the sort of sonic punch, power, and precision of a Hollywood action film. Even the Thomas Newman soundtrack, though unmemorable, is vibrant and mixed decently for the disc. The subwoofer output goes big and goes bold, emitting deep explosions and metal-rending impacts, all of which boast terrific low-end presence and strength. The rear speakers come alive as well, filling the soundfield with whizzing bullets, blasts of debris, and the chaos of a London citizenry in panic. Channel separation is dead on. Pans are wonderfully transparent. All the while, dialogue is clear, intelligible, and accurately directed from the center channel. We can truly hear Daniel Craig mutter lines such as “Look out!” or “Let’s Go!” Skyfall sounds better than it looks, making for a top notch reference disc for calibrating your surround system. Then again, it’s my understanding that the blu-ray of Carrot Top’s Chairman Of The Board also has superb sonic qualities minus the tiring explosions of Skyfall. It’s best to choose your reference disc carefully.

[Image]
Director Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig on
location in Scotland.

Skyfall was a troubled production. The studio was bankrupt and auctioned, development was suspended at one point, cash troubles forced director Mendes into an indefinite involvement (he was first brought onboard as a “consultant”), while a carousel of screenwriters took a crack at the story, with the first major contributor, Peter Morgan, leaving the project in disgust, long before the first day of shooting. The budget cuts are noticeable on screen, especially in the shortage of exotic locations and the obvious reliance on UK scenery to substitute for other faraway places. The script troubles are evident in the absence of an intriguing caper for the villain and an overall lack of narrative focus: for most of the film, there is little reference to the stolen hard drive and hardly any sense of ominous danger, but the filmmakers’s preoccupation with political correctness and the overt homosexual subtext—key players such as Bardem’s villain, Q, the Craig-Bond himself, are all presented with gay sensibilities—take center stage. An engaging adventure story, along with any solid context to Fleming’s creation, is simply discarded as the film struggles to emulate the recent Batman films while longing to be accepted in the sphere of progressive culture. Skyfall is one bizarre film, an unabashed celebration of a gayish James Bond toppling its own traditional imagery of a virile masculine hero. Perhaps the chaos of the film is rooted in a comment by Peter Morgan: “But I feel like it's a dated idea now. Having tried to do it, I'm not sure it's possible to do it. . . . He's a creature of the Cold War. I personally struggle to believe that a British secret agent is still saving the world.” Or a simple explanation is that a mysterious person showed up at the script meetings and sprayed an exotic air freshener, immersing the filmmakers in perfumed Indonesian pipe dreams and visions of a Bond film in the style of the Medieval Carnival. The similarity is striking: the Medieval Carnival is a raucous event where the masses—the marginalized voices—overturned established customs and made a mockery of the institutions that imposed so much authority over them.

On disc, Skyfall looks cheap and only reminds us of how stupid the series has become in its new direction. Its been two years since the film's release and already it’s dated and fallen into the arms of the world’s amnesia. Skyfall is about as relevant as Flashdance, a box-office phenomenon in its day but now completely archived in forgetting. To say something nice, this 50th anniversary film is not as useless as A Night at the Roxbury or Dunston Checks In (starring Sam the Orangutan as Dunston). Moreover, with its flamboyant carnivalesque spirit, Skyfall has a good shot at getting showcased with midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. It’s that kind of film.


[image]

Notes

1 Motto: “We deserve your income, so we don’t have to work.” Present whereabouts of the organization is unknown, although Berkley, California is the most likely location.
2 Chandler’s phrase appeared in his review of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, published in the Sunday Times in 1963. For more information, refer to the site James Bond memes at http://jamesbondmemes.blogspot.com/2012/04/women-want-to-be-with-him-men-want-to.html.
3 How and why I received the blu-ray disc was pure happenstance. In short, it was a gift. But all personally connected parties have made it clear from the start that they don’t want to be mentioned in this article. But, for review purposes, I can gladly reveal my home theater gear:
  • Pioneer Elite BD-62 FD blu-ray player
  • Mondial Acurus ACT 3 preamp processor
  • Rotel RB-985 THX 5-channel amplifier
  • speakers: B&W CDM 7SE (front l, r); B&W CDM C SE (center); surrounds: B&W DM 602 S2; (left rear, right rear); subwoofer: B&W ASW 1000.
  • Sony Bravia 55-inch LED HDTV
4 By political correctness, I refer to a movement that strives to regulate new norms and denounces those who dissent from this new establishment. A rundown on the history of this movement is available at http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/viewSubCategory.asp?id=552.
5 This book on seventeenth-century piracy, first published in 1983, was written by historian B. R. Burg. I haven't read it. But based on a quick scan of reviews by casual readers, I can see why the book has gained a controversial reputation. The gist of the controversy is the lack of solid historical accounts and Burg's approach of pushing his sketchy sources to arrive at conclusions. A sample reaction from a layperson: http://dmarley.dreamwidth.org/13949.html
6 Full disclosure: for my first review of Skyfall, I received responses from about four disgruntled individuals in this over-populated world of eight billion people. Since this site’s launch in 2007, I typically receive large numbers of friendly emails from fellow Bond enthusiasts. The ones I print in this article are representative of the occasional oddball letters from wack jobs obsessed with Daniel Craig and the rebooted series. And “oddball” is putting it mildly. Let's just say they're nutty—and creepy. But one thing is consistent: these responses convey outright idolatry of the actor’s Bond tenure and the sheer fanaticism to defend it. In one sense, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the delirious minds of those on the verge of psychological meltdown, and I’m tempted to explore this bizarre aspect of the 007 film fandom in a future article.
7 In my copy of Goldfinger (the Berkley paperback edition), the character’s last name, along with her sister Jill’s (the gal who ends up dead, covered in gold paint) is printed Masterton. In the classic 1964 film, the last name was changed to Masterson.
8 For Nietzsche, decadence refers to any system of thought that tends toward weariness for life. Socrates was decadent because the ugly Greek committed a philosophical blunder. Thanks to this villain, the error took Western civilization down the wrong path for 2500 years. For just when Greek philosophy was at its most magnificent, Socrates suddenly filled Western thought with the notion of an absolute good. This led to the Platonic notion of an unchanging form or idea, reinforced in the Christian belief of a universe under the sway of a transcendent divine power. The results of this absolutist way of thinking were, in Nietzsche's view, disastrous. It sacrificed the rapture of being alive: the individual is compelled to withdraw from, and forsake, this world and long for that otherworldliness.
9 No such Skyfall estate exists in the Fleming canon. This is a blatant attempt to copy Wayne Manor in the Batman franchise. Mendes even went on record to proclaim that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were the template for Skyfall.
10 This scene in Tomorrow Never Dies has it all: it’s suspenseful, always forcing us to wonder how Bond will get out of the situation; yet the dialogue is witty and the banter between Kaufman and Bond is layered with a touch of the comical. Both actors are deadpan, with Vincent Schiavelli just giving the right amount of sinister quality, blended with implications of the perverse. He is an eerie villain. In addition, the scene is reminisicent of the ending in the novel Casino Royale, when Bond discovers Vesper Lynd's corpse in the dim hotel room. The scene also has an element of the macabre: there’s a dead woman on the bed (shades of Poesque Gothicism), which, in one sense, suggests sex because we recall that she and Bond had spent the night together. All the while danger and death loom over the scene because Kaufman is pointing a gun at Bond. Sex, death, suspense, humor, and that unique Bondian style of quick thinking all converge in this scene. It’s one of screenwriter Bruce Feirstein’s finest contributions to the 007 film series.

List of Illustrations

"Blu-ray collage." Designed by the author.
“The Kropotkin Institute.” Designed by the author.
"50th Anniversary Collage." Designed by the author.
Raoul Silva and Stuart Smalley." Online Images. 18 August 2014
from <http://www.movietalkies.com/news/15456/javier-bardem-to-be-honoured-with
-%27walk-of-fame%27- star> and <http://www.creative-culinary.com/about/my-own-awards-show/>, respectively.
"The Tasmanian Devil and Kropotkin." Online images. 25 August 2014
from <http://s21.photobucket.com/user/Arturutus/media/taz-tasmanian-devil-looney
-tunes-car-sticker-21cce.gif.html> and <https://libcom.org/history/mutual-aid-foraging
-mode-thought-re-reading-kropotkin-khoisan-alan-barnard>, respectively.
"Cinematography Example." Designed by the author.
"Dustin Diamond as Screech." Online Photograph. She's a Maineiac. 3 Sept. 2014
<http://shesamaineiac.com/tag/saved-by-the-bell/>.
"Timothy Dalton-Bond Captured." Online Photograph. Public Transportation Snob. 6 August 2014
<http://www.ptsnob.com/2012/12/review-licence-to-kill-1989.html>.
"Kincade." Online Photograph. Internet Movie Firearms Database. 20 August 2014
<http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Skyfall>.
"Bond at the Skyfall Shootout." Online Photograph. Internet Movie Firearms Database. 20 August 2014
<http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Skyfall>.
“Old man with rifle.” Online Photograph. The Vulgar Curmudgeon. 22 August 2014
<http://bustednuckles.blogspot.com/2013/09/you-have-got-to-be-shitting-me.html>.
“Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig in Scotland.” Online Photograph. Digital Spy. 4 Sept. 2014
<http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/at-the-movies/a553947/the-movies-that-never-win-oscars-harry-potter-
james-bond-more.html#~oPbFuyJiDmcG6v>.

Works Cited

Benson, Raymond.  The James Bond Bedside Companion.  New York:Mead & Company, 1988.
Binelli, Mark. “Johnny Depp: The Last Buccaneer.” Rolling Stone. 11/12/12   08/14/14
<http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/johnny-depp-the-last-buccaneer-20121112?page=2>.
Eco, Umberto. On Ugliness. New York: Rizzoli, 2011. Paperback edition.
Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. 1953. New York: Berkley, 1986.
---.  Goldfinger.  1959.  New York: Berkley, 1983.
---.  “How to Write a Thriller.”  1955.  Rpt. in Bondage 13 (1984): 1-7.
---.  “The Living Daylights.”  1965.  Rpt. in Octopussy: The Last Great Adventures of James Bond 007.
New York: Signet, 6th printing: n.d. 57-93.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
Skyfall. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench. 2012. Blu-ray.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Columbia Pictures, 2013.
“Scripting James Bond.” A View To A Kill Official Movie Magazine 1985:86. Print.
“Writer Peter Morgan talks at length about his involvement on Bond 23.”   MI6 The Home of James Bond 007.
10/25/10   08/21/14   <http://www.mi6-hq.com/news/index.php?itemid=9005>.
Using any text or paraphrasing any of the ideas on this web site without proper citation is plagiarism. It is a serious misconduct that can range from failure in an academic course, even dismissal from school, and litigation. To avoid plagiarism, refer to the MLA citation styles described at The Owl At Purdue, the web site of the Writing Lab at Purdue University.