Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Skyfall and me


This piece is mainly about Skyfall and to a very small extent about depression (under the surface, though). First, let's start off with how I felt when I first saw it. Bear in mind that the reason for the unfairly rantish tone to the section that follows is that I first saw the film with unreasonably high expectations. Skyfall has suffered a most peculiar fate for a Bond film: it's been overpraised. Bond films are not talked about intelligently, yet  previously the assumption from dull critics was that we all found them naff. One of the reasons I fell so hungrily on Paul Cornell's review of Casino Royale on his blog (it's linked to the right of the screen) was that it was precisely the kind of thing that no journalist was writing: it made no assumptions that we'd always hated the Bond films, and drew on previous films and books without assuming we hadn't read or seen them. In the age of Simon Winder's execrable yet favourably reviewed book The Man Who Saved Britain (which opens with the author rewatching Live and Let Die and finding it to be crap before going on to tell us what he nevertheless thinks these films and books tell us about Britain) and interminable professional pundits like Bidisha appearing on Radio 4 to tell us all why she didn't think there should be a 23rd Bond film, here was an actual critique of the film. The Sam Mendes-helmed Skyfall, though, everyone's decided to praise, and its faults have been unilaterally ignored. It's familiar to anyone who remembers the aura of holiness that everyone placed around Danny Boyle following his Olympics Opening  Ceremony. An example of the smugness of this "we all liked that, didn't we?" culture is a ghastly tweet from Lauren Laverne during the ceremony: "to anyone complaining about this, please fuck off forever."

So with that in mind, here's my original rather misanthropic take on Skyfall:

What's odd about this is how magnificent it would have been had it appeared in 2002 instead of Die Another Day. There, the Aston martin's reappearance, the "no gadgets any more" theme and the death of M would make perfect sense. This would have been a phenomenonal swansong for Pierce Brosnan

Instead, this stars an actor too young to have been active during the cold war, who's only played Bond twice before and who's playing a version that didn't become a double-O until after 9/11. He He was already sold to us as 21st-century Bond: in Casino Royale, he says "do I look like I give a damn?" when asked "shaken or stirred?" and the only gadget he was given was a defibrillator. The death of M and the Goldfinger modifications on the Aston Martin are odd given that M was rebooted in Casino Royale and the Aston was just a car Bond won off a thug in a card game.

Four years is not long enough to start from scratch if you've got the same actor in the lead: the amount of time that lapsed between The Dark Knight films was about the same, and yet imagine if tthe last one had featured references to the days of Robin, King Tut and Aunt Harriet.

GoldenEye proposed that Bond remain an anchronism in a modern world, Skyfall tries to get back to that concept, despite having created a modern Bond in Craig's previous 2 movies. The scene where Bond points out his gadgets are pretty meagre and Q replies they don't go in for exploding pens anymore isn't surprising or poignant because we've already had two gadget-less films, and this version of Bond has operated in a gadget-less world ever since he became a 00. It's as if Captain Picard had started reminiscing about the time he fought the Gorn.

However, this could have worked If the film had the balls to bring back some of the old chutzpah, to begin with Bourne-Bond and bring in classic Bond more and more as the film progresses. Instead we get the dull Ben Whishaw as Q, who patronises both Bond and the audience when he says "what were you expecting: an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that anymore" prompting me to say "yes, but wasn't it better when you did?" Is this grown-up storytelling, or an adolescent making a big thing of throwing his toys in the skip? (and I can't help remembering that the first of Bryan Singer's worthless X-Men films has the line "what were you expecting, yellow Spandex?": as if that film - and its boring black costumes - were something more interesting, less embarrassing, more substantial than that.

Then there's the fact that Bond contributes so little to the narrative. His first scene with Silva sees him fail to save Severine's life - and yet literally seconds later he does the very thing that would have done so, before revealing that he's already radioed for help. The London setpiece is similarly flat: he arrives at the enquiry, opens fire...and contributes nothing. Once he's shot the fire extinguisher, Silva gives up and leaves. And what was Mendes thinking of in the scene where Bond watches his quarry assemble a sniper's rifle, but lets him take out his unknown target before attacking him?

What's missing is verve: the opening scene tries so very hard to be Casino Royale, but Mendes is no Martin Campbell, and stupidly insisted on replacing David Arnold with his regular conposer Thomas Newman. Music matters: this scene would have been a lot more exciting had Arnold done the score.

Like the Aston Martin and the ill-judged Goldfinger homage in Fields' death in Quantum of Solace , the scene where Bond, an opponent and a gadget fall into a pit with a komodo dragon is clearly the director adding what he thinks is a "traditional" Bond moment, trying to recreate some half-remembered scene from his childhood viewing. Here Mendes is clearly thinking of Live and Let Die and its alligator farm scene, but if only Skyfall had more of that film's brio and invention (I can't imagine, either, that this scene of CGI Komodo dragons and no notable stuntwork will stick in children's imaginations the way the very real crocodiles and the splendidly dangerous stuntwork stuck in mine)

Then there's the emblems of stale humourlessness: the things that remind me I'm not watching a Bond film, as I was with GoldenEye. That fucking gunbarrel still at the end of the credits, instead of the beginning where it was dynamic and inspiring. Newman's score, bland credits again (a huge improvement on MK40's effort for Quantum, but Daniel Kleinman - returning after Casino Royale, for which he provided the most beautiful credits sequence ever created - seems to be on autopilot: his gunbarrel - assuming it's his - is no better than MK40's either - remember how good the ones he did for Casino Royale and the Brosnan films were? )

All three Craig films have attempted to shoehorn two Bond girls into a script that only needs one: here, at least Berenice Marlohe's performance is skillful, never grating as Caterina Munro's and Gemma Arterton's did, but the idea of the Doomed Woman whom Bond cannot save is getting creepily misogynist as well as tedious. With both her death and that of the victims in the train Silva sabotages, I couldn't help thinking: no-one in this film really cares, so do we? There's more emotion in the destruction of the aston martin. Doesn't the film have the same casual disregard for life as in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie?

On to the film's redeeming features: Daniel Craig getting to play a damaged James Bond, an idea that Die Another Day fudged; the skilful way the character of Eve is constructed; a decent supporting cast for once; the most exciting climax ever seen in a Bond film, a decent villain for once (although due more to the actor than the script) the pretty landscape shots, the mythic tones (Mallory, Tennyson, Churchill and best of all the gag about the model bulldog: a lovely mixture of deflating humour, poignancy and stirring iconography). The splendid moment when the series uses the word "fuck" for the first time. The film having the guts to suggest that Bond isn't fazed or offended by homoeroticism. Not enough. The film may have some pretty "remember the Bond films? What a shame he's a thing of the past" moments, but the entertainment is meagre and no more intellectually rewarding than before. Depriving Bond of gadgets and thrills doesn't make him Hamlet. We're depriving our children of magic.

A few weeks later, things got so bad I was making up alternative titles:

Desperate Need for a Script Doctor, No?
Crush a Fan's Dreams with Love
Never Say "I'm looking forward to the new Bond movie" Again
For Kim Newman's Tastes Only
That Draft Was Not Enough

I've calmed down a bit now. The Aston Martin complaint is trivial, and the comment about rebooting M is unfair, firstly because the three post-reboot films have allowed us to get to know the character enough for her death to be moving, and secondly because right from her first scene in Casino Royale, the writers have skilfully created a different character - tougher, courser, with more of a bullshit-detector -  than the one Dench played in the Brosnan films. This is one is actually closer to Fleming's M - perhaps even closer than Bernard Lee's was. The comments about the title sequence are unfair, too, as Kleinman has produced a fine piece of work even though it lacks the gorgeous colour and texture of Casino Royale's titles. The comments about Whishaw aren't entirely fair too; there's enough spark between him and Craig to suggest this could result in good things in the next film, and it was a step in the right direction to bring this away from the standard quippery of the John Cleese (who was clearly cast to try and recreate the Desmond Llewelyn style, like the similarly too-obvious choice of Stephen Fry as ersatz Q in Stormbreaker) model, and into more character based-comedy by making him younger and his disdain for Bond believable rather than part of a pantomime routine.

 But let's flash back to December 1995. I'm sitting in the cinema with my dad, waiting for the film I've been dreaming about -  GoldenEye  - to start. A terrific arrangement of the Bond theme accompanies a gorgeous new computer-generated version of Maurice Binder's Gunbarrel design by Daniel Kleinman. A splendid opening shot of a vast dam. A figure appears and there's magnificent bit of stuntwork as he attaches a bungee chord and leaps down the dam. Bond meets up with 006 (a slick introduction for the film's villain). The precredits sequence ends in equally spectacular fashion, as Bond drives a motorbike off a mountain in pursuit of a wayward plane. There's so much to list here.  Famke Jannsen as the ribcage-cracking Xenia Onatopp, knowing exactly the kind of full-bodied Camp her character needs to make her come to life, and pitching her performance perfectly. A marvellous introduction for Judi Dench as the new M, which begins with her calling Bond "a sexist mysoginist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war" and ends with her telling him to "come back alive."  The same flair for action that Campbell would later bring to Casino Royale, giving us a tank chase (a tank chase !) that's got everything: the Bond Girl barely concealing a "he's coming for me" smile, the Bad Guy guzzling from a hipflask and barking panicky instructions to his driver as the tank approaches, soldiers pirouetting though the air as their vehicles collide. The sheer, joyous, Christmasty, Bondness of it all. At the end of it my imagination was full of tank chases, tanks derailing trains, femme fatales with ribcage-cracking thighs, heroes bungee jumping down vast dams, exploding pens, fights atop giant satellite dishes, impeccably tailored heroes who grab machine guns, gun down countless Russian soldiers, remove their leather belts (which naturally doesn't result in their trousers coming down) and after a quick smile and a "trust me" to the Bond Girl, fire grappling hooks from them and then smash their way through a window without so much as ruining the line of their suit.

Compare the Q scenes: in 1995, we get the delightful Desmond Llewelyn in full-on Merlin mode. In fact, forget Merlin: he's Father Christmas. In 2012 we get Ben Whishaw in an Art Gallery. As Bond himself says, "Not exactly Christmas." And note just how well the exploding pen mocked by Whishaw's Q actually works in GoldenEye: it comes at a moment establishing that Natalya rather than Bond has turned the tables on the villans, and allows Bond to continue to advance the narrative (unlike the Bond of Skyfall) without diminishing Natalya's contribution. Minor baddie Boris has a nervous habit of clicking a pen three times: when he confuses Bond's pen for his own, Bond and the audience struggle to keep track of whether the pen is armed or disarmed.

In 2012 my inner child feels short-changed, despite Skyfall's considerable merits, and Brosnan is still my favourite Bond.

Skyfall is the slickest, cleverest example yet of the cultural trend that gave us Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, Quantum of Solace and the version of Doctor Who offered by the Death Comes to Time webcast and some of the New Adventures novels, just as Craig-Bond is a slicker version of Dalton Bond. It's a more entertaining take than those cited, a stronger take, and one that gets far more mileage out of the concept, but it's still leading to a dead end. The great critic Adam Mars-Jones put a name to this phenomenon when discussing the film of Watchmen on Newsnight Review "It's sordid escapism that I don't understand: I get sordid, I get escapism, I don't like them mixed." The original Watchmen, of course, rather spearheaded this dubious movement along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but no-one understood - and continues to understand - this better than Moore himself, who delivered this magnificent rant against the Legacy six years after its publication (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJqLVsPD7Js 6;40 mark)

I think that I'd have to echo what David Bowie said about his influence: this is the face that launched a thousand pretensions. At the time I hoped that Watchmen might show up a lot of the essential silliness and redundancy of the superhero genre. It wasn't meant as a revitalisation of the superhero, it was meant as a tombstone for the superhero, at least in my terms. I could 't see any point in doing superheros after Watchmen. Unfortunately, everyone else could, and there have been an awful lot of bad Watchmen clones. Not just specifically Watchmen ones: this would extend to Dark Knight [Returns] as well, people who were looking at those frankly grim and postmodern superhero comics of the mid-80s, and instead of moving on from there, have just recycled them again and again and again for the last six years. It's almost like postmodernism by numbers: you make a few references to William Burroughs, you make a few references to some currently popular band like REM that will impress your young readers with how hip you are, you throw in some garbled sub-psychadelic philosophy, and you've got a Modern Comic. Doesn't matter whether it has any substance, doesn't matter whether it has any direction... but it hits enough of the right buttons so that people will recognise this as something modern and experimental and daring, and of course it is not in the least bit experimental or daring. To me the people who have taken chances are not in the mainstream. The people who have taken the chances are the people like Chester Brown, the Hernandez brothers, Peter Bagge, Julie Doucet, all of those people.  They are not getting big royalties for this summer's giant Batman crossover, but they are doing the work that is dangerous and radical and innovative. They're the ones who deserve the credit.

In Watchmen Moore, unlike Miller, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, David Goyer or Purves and Wade (and Moore himself in other projects) wrote about human beings. No disrespect to those writers, of course, (I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, Batman Begins and Casino Royale immensely, and don't get get me started on what Blade means to me) but they are dealing with mythic, iconic rather than psychologically layered characters, and their work is at its strongest when it embraces this. It didn't say much for the comic world that they tended to lump Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns together, (I'm reminded here of Lawrence Miles's observation that Doctor Who and Quatermass are opposites rather than kindred spirits as is often lazily assumed). What Frank Miller did in  Dark Knight Returns  and Batman Year One was exactly what he later did in Sin City (which no-one ever claims as anything other than pulp): he retold Mickey Spillane and Dirty Harry stories, but with a dash more verve, and a refreshing willingness to push towards the more grotesque aspects always present but only touched on in the world of Mike Hammer and Harry Callahan. To argue that this made Batman a more plausible figure and was a work of great intellectual significance - let alone that it is fit to stand alongside Watchmen, Maus and American Splendor - is as preposterous as claiming that Sin City can stand comparison with The Wire. There's an element of wishful thinking here: fans like to convince themselves that what they enjoy has social, political or philosophical depth. It's easier to convince yourself that your favourite superhero story has something to say about the Iraq War then actually go and read a selection of books and articles about the Iraq War; a cultural equivalent of finding out you can work from home. The modern Battlestar Galactica is the most abhorrent manifestation of this: a slackly paced, poorly acted farrago of cardboard characterisation, predictable dialogue, macho top Gun dogfights and right-wing moralising, all dressed up as something that cares about serious issues (let's not forget George Monbiot's praise of Avatar as a pro-environmentalist movie here, or the those who suggested that Bane's "Occupy Gotham" movement in The Dark Knight Rises was based on the Tea Party rather than, say, Occupy Wall Street.)

I can't help but think of a quote from Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts: "a failure of the imagination that would see Miss Marple as a player of chess on a thousand different boards, just because she always turns up when there's a murder." Roberts was talking about the 1988-89 seasons of Doctor Who, which were directly influenced by Alan Moore and Frank Miller's work at the time, with Script Editor Andrew Cartmel even telephoning Moore to ask him to write for the show. Roberts's summary isn't quite fair, especially as a description of the televised shows (some of the best Doctor Who stories - Ghost Light, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Remembrance of the Daleks, Survival, The Curse of Fenric - were made at this point ) but it's certainly true of what came after them. Virgin's New Adventures novels and  the Death Comes to Time  webcast built  on the ideas from the 88-89 seasons, and did indeed turn the Doctor into a much less interesting figure, who referred to himself as Time's Champion with a straight face, solemnly told us that "my duty must take precedence over all", roared "your TARDIS is revoked!" and "I'm playing with a fire so dangerous I could scorch eternity," and allowed innocent people to die for the Greater Good.  In the New Adventures, he turned out to be a mystical figure called The Other who threw himself into a "time loom" and bonded with a Time Lord called Theta Sigma. He also turned out to have deliberately killed the sixth Doctor because he was in danger of embarking down "the road that leads to the Valeyard [the Doctor's evil alter ego]" and "someone needed to take over and become the Ka Faraq Gatri [destroyer of worlds, bringer of darkness, oncoming storm]." The one portrayed in Death Comes to Time, meanwhile, turned out to have omnipotent power to hold back the deaths of those he cared about and vaporise entire spaceships at a single command, but was  charged never to use this power. I'd have to agree with Roberts that this is a much less interesting version of the character. It may have gone wrong in the 1990s, but this "player of chess" movement started in 1988-89.

Elsewhere in 1988-89, Timothy Dalton was James Bond and Michael Keaton was Batman. To what extent can we see Dalton-Bond as part of this "time for our heroes to grow up" situation? It's tricky, because the spectre of Ian Fleming has always hung over any shifts in the franchise, and it seems likely that, as in 1981's For Your Eyes Only, Cubby Broccoli was motivated more by a desire to get back to the series's roots and to Fleming rather than anything to do with developments in the comics world. What probably does link the worlds of Bond, comics and Doctor Who are two things: postmodernism (in the vague bastardised meaning of the word), and the rise of fandom. Regarding the former, Philip Pullman's analogy of Adam and Eve realising they were naked is probably still the most apt here, accounting for that peculiar phrasing in EM Forster's "Dear me, oh, dear me, yes, the novel tells a story." Embarrassment and shame arrive, and we realise that we're allowing ourselves to be entertained. Novels like Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Paul Auster's New York Trilogy do the same thing with detective thrillers: we're solemnly told that the detective can never uncover the truth, that meaning is endlessly deferred and that no satisfying climax or denounement can be reached. The trouble is, an actual thriller writer -  Raymond Chandler -  did this so much better: and he could make his thrillers thrilling as well. A favourite teacher of mine at university responded to my suggestion that Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 would have been more interesting had it featured a scene where Oedipa is captured and taken by the Trystero organisation to their lair. "But that would be like something out of a 007 film," she replied. Yes, I replied (internally, a few weeks later), but wouldn't that also be better? Wouldn't that dramatise Pynchon's obsessions with entropy, conspiracy theories, and make them more interesting and vital? Wouldn't it breathe life into them, instead of dropping them into the narrative like stones? To be fair, the postmodern detective trend also gave us Dennis Potter's magnificent The Singing Detective, but that works because it's about the author of the mystery: the detective sections would be unsatisfying if broadcast on their own.

To move to the second point, the rise of fandom resulted in generations of fans demanding respectability, a situation still with us today. From the 1980s onwards, they've hated the casting of Bonnie Langford in Doctor Who, the bit with the miniature Doctor in Last of the Timelords, the batnipples on the suits in the Joel Schumacher Batman films and the comedy scenes in Superman 3, and they wanted a "back to Fleming" approach after the silliness of Moonraker. For Your Eyes Only started the dour/camp cycle (although You Only Live Twice/On Her Majesty's Secret Service prefigured it). The biggest fear in fandom is that of embarrassment: they want something they can show their girlfriends, something that the mainstream media can assimilate more comfortably. Steven Moffat's comments for a 1995 fanzine interview(http://nzdwfc.tetrap.com/archive/tsv43/onediscussion.html)
summed it up well:

It's not that I don't like it, but I wouldn't care to show it to my friends in television and say look, I think this is a great programme, because I think they might fling me out... Unless I chose my episodes very carefully, I couldn't sit anybody I work with in television down in front of Doctor Who and say 'watch this, this is a great show...What I resented was having to go to school two days later, and my friends knew I watched this show. They'd go 'Did you see the giant rat?!' and I'd have to say I thought there was dramatic integrity elsewhere.

That's the kind of peer pressure-conscious response (is there any more detestably unDoctorWhoish phrase than "my friends in television"?) that filmmakers are so keen to avoid, and why Moffat's own run on Doctor Who is careful to avoid the idyosncratic, the untested and the non-audience friendly (Twilight good, Sylvester McCoy bad: that's how the sworn enemies of this blog think, and while you'll never get another Love and Monsters under Moffat, which is their triumph and my bane). Skyfall is the slickest, cleverest example of FEP (Fanboy Embarrassment Prevention) yet. As I've said elsewhere on this blog, will we see a dark, gritty reinvention of Harry Potter in a couple of decades' time?

Yet...Skyfall is good-natured entertainment , made with loving care. Its quietly elegiac tone is affecting, and it's a fine lesson in how less is more: the climax, which as someone said to me on Twitter, resembles an
explosion-filled episode of Last of the Summer Wine, is the stuff of legend. It's got Bond returning home, it's got Bond hiding in the same priest hole where he took refuge when he heard his parents had died, it's got Albert Finney as a grizzled gamekeeper who taught Bond to shoot and was there when his parents died, and must now do both again, it's got the Aston Martin DB5 and its modifications appearing again in such an Excalibur-like fashion that it doesn't matter at all that this makes no sense in terms of dating or continuity, it's got Bond's surrogate parent dying yards from the grave of his original parents. Bond's line "I never liked this place anyway" before the most satisfying explosion I've seen in any action movie, the way Bond looks at Kincaid when he realises M's gunshot wound is terminal and M's line "I fucked this up didn't I?" are the stuff of iconic heroic drama. The film knows that Craig and Dench performing scenes like this together is as good as any FX fireworks.

Daniel Craig's triumph is in his ability to get dramatic weight out of taciturnity: compare the film with the duff scene in GoldenEye with Bond and Natalya on the beach. Bond is sitting there looking very taciturn indeed, and Natalya asks how he can be so cold. "It's what keeps me alive." says Bond. "It's what keeps you alone," replies Natalya. They then embrace, and the moment of taciturnity passes. The scene screams "interlude": you sense that everyone in the cinema is thinking "let's move on to the action," but in Skyfall hearing that Bond hid in the priesthole for two days after his parents were killed is as gripping as the action. Die Another Day featured a neat revelation: Gustav Graves has modellled his new appearance on Bond. "Just in the details," he taunts Bond, "That unjustified sneer: a defence mechanism concealing such inadequacy."' The trouble is, it's only there for that one scene. Skyfall manages to dramatise Bond's taciturnity, so that it feels like a poignant theme central to the entire film rather than a few lines that sound cool when heard in the trailer but which just sit there in the film (Miranda Frost's "a man no-one can get close to" speech in Die Another Day is another example of the latter, which was indeed plundered from for the trailer, and Scaramanga's suggestion that the two of them have much in common in The Man With The Golden Gun is yet another). The word-test scene in Skyfall may have proved ideal for the teaser trailer, but it's clearly not just there for that reason: it's part of the emotional core of the story, it sets up the theme as well as the narrative of the climax, and Craig is able to convey, in his reaction to the key word, the sense that this means something to him, whilst Brosnan was unable to respond to Graves's slurs with anything other than a quip (raising his pistol: "my defence mechanism is right here" - a moment that also compares poorly with the splendid moment in Skyfall where Bond is entirely unintimidated by Silva's come-on and even teases back with the line "what makes you so sure this is my first time?" It's a little moment that makes Bond a more three-dimensional, interesting figure.

   The use of humour has also vastly improved: instead of the "quips" of Brosnan, Connery and Moore and the humourlessness of Dalton, we have humour based on warmth and character details. Bond's "deep water" line is my favourite: the quips are now portrayed as something Bond - rather than the audience - likes, and this exchange becomes a splendidly poignant final moment between Bond and M. Equally good is the exchange between them about Bond's obituary, the ejector seat gag, the shooting practice scene with Bond and Kincaid and the aforementioned payoff with the bulldog figurine. This is proper humour.

Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, even more so than Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, shaped the dreams of my boyhood. It's not their fault this film was spoilt for me by overpraise