Monday, 17 May 2010

Thoughts on the directions the Bond franchise is moving in.

It’s obvious what’s happening to the Bond films. Phillip Pullman once suggested that the effect of modernism on fiction was analogous to the moment when Adam and Eve became embarrassed by their nakedness. I never did understand the shameful tone of EM Forster’s declaration “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story”. The Bond franchise, after delivering twenty shamelessly entertaining films, underwent a similar crisis, as it became apparent that the Bond films are quite nakedly constructed to entertain people. Something had to be done about this, and so with the rebirth of Bond as Daniel Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale, words like “darker”, “grittier”, “human”, “raw” wounded”, “tortured” and “emotional” become buzz words.
Fans like to believe that their favourite characters are complicated human beings, and that the narratives they enjoy are fuelled by tragedy and psychology. This is why The Dark Knight was so popular, despite featuring only one decent action scene and its utter absence of fun. Fans could see Batman as a Shakespearean tragic hero, and the film as a parable about America and its current status. In fact, it doesn’t actually succeed as a three-dimensional piece of drama because of the nature of the characters. Each character only has one aspect – Batman hates criminals, the Joker is mad and Harvey Dent is idealistic. This doesn’t make them less worthwhile: as long as they are used with economy, archetypical or mythic characters can tell us just as many interesting things about human nature, and can make for just as rewarding a narrative. However, when such characters are dealt with at the lengths The Dark Knight goes to, the viewer starts to notice repetition in the dialogue and the absence of character development. And while the film has been trying and failing to be an “adult” drama, it has abandoned the one other thing it could have achieved instead: excitement.
Bond, like Batman, is a mythical figure rather than a psychologically detailed creation, and the aspects of him that are alien to real life are essential. Just as Batman’s convenient wealth, the fortuitous presence of a batcave beneath his manor, his intelligence and physical prowess are coincidences that could never occur in reality, so too is Bond defined by those aspects of him – his ability to perform the most breathtaking stunts, outwit any villain and never fail to look magnificent – that no real person could possess. To consider him entirely realistically is to lose part of the man himself, as surely if we deny that Superman can fly.
The word that springs to mind when watching Quantum of Solace is stripped. There’s still no Moneypenny, Q or gadgets, but now humour, warmth and sex have been jettisoned as well. That iconic scene shot through the POV of a gunbarrel where Bond turns and fires - a work of art in itself – is missing from the pre-credits sequence (curiously, it’s been shunted off to the end credits). Most strikingly, this is the first Bond film for some time in which none of the action sequences offer anything novel. The previous film offered the extraordinary spectacle of a free-running chase through a busy construction site and an Aston Martin turning over seven times, but Quantum offers standard car, foot, boat and plane chases, numerous fights and a very straightforward attack on the villain’s base. The film poached its second unit director, Dan Bradley, from the last two Bourne movies, and their influence feels very strong on these scenes, with their frantic cutting and preference for close-ups rather than panoramic shots.
Although it is understandable, The Bourne influence is a step in the wrong direction. Ironically, this was well-put by one of the writers of Quantum of Solace, Robert Wade, who observed in an interview before Quantum was made that:

Whereas Bourne lives in the real world, we are talking about a heightened, intensified reality. You don’t want to be Bourne. He is a guy in hell. He hasn’t really got any joie de vivre. With Bond, you want to be Bond. You’ve got to want to be Bond.

Bond, as Wade says, is an essentially heroic character: there must always be an element of wish-fulfilment in his presentation, and for that reason a script can never expect us to sympathise with him entirely. Bourne is only after his freedom, but Bond seeks monsters to fight: Fleming described him as a latter-day St George. This is why the action scenes in Quantum are disappointing: car chases and brutal hand-to-hand fights are the most exciting things possible in Bourne’s world, but in a Bond film we expect something more exotic.
In fact, the Bond of Quantum of Solace has no more depth than the previous incarnations, just as The Dark Knight doesn’t really work as an allegory about fighting terrorism any more than the other Batman movies. The film proceeds like any action film, except that every now and then Judi Dench’s M offers a solemn pronouncement about Bond being “so blinded by inconsolable rage that you don’t care who you hurt”. This pays lip service to those that want psychological detail, but doesn’t really make the screenplay any more meaningful, or compensate for the toning-down of enjoyment.
This isn’t to say the series is going downhill: Casino Royale was a terrific entry in the series, managing to combine improved characterisation with invigorating thrills, and although Quantum of Solace isn’t as strong, it’s hardly woeful, and Craig is again excellent. But there are a few things that the franchise should take into account. Bond movies, like Indiana Jones movies and Bourne movies, create their own genre: they don’t need to follow the Bournes, terrific though that trilogy is. A full-blooded Bond movie will always be preferable to a Bourne imitation. But in order to get that, we have to come to terms with the fact that we love the Bond movies. We love them for their excitement, their audacity, the humour, their infectious love for their own hero and their sheer narrative drive. We also love the beauty of a Bond film’s structure, with the gunbarrel sequence, the action-packed pre-credits teaser and the animated credits exciting us as the opening of no other film can, before we settle into the many games that Bond must play in order to outwit the villain and win over the girl. We don’t need to persuade ourselves that Bond has to become “gritty” and “dark” before we can admit to liking him. Yes – oh dear yes – the Bond films tell a story.

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