Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bond All-Time Box Office

So, this is what happens on a lazy Sunday. Throughout the Bond blogathon, I was also thinking in the back of my mind about how the Bond films stacked up against each other box office-wise (in US box office, that is), once inflation was taken into account (and yes, my reservations about counting inflation remain--its a much more complicated matter than just comparing tix prices--but its still a useful and harmless academic exercise). It continues my recent fascination with how the dynamics of brand media texts fluctuate over time.

Once I typed in the information from Box Office Mojo into an excel sheet, and figured out the same basic formula using changing tix prices since 1962, it didn't take too long to get the results.

Initial Thoughts?

#1? Thunderball, not Goldfinger--though the latter's huge success probably laid the conditions for the former's even more phenonomenal performance (440 Million!--both Thunderball and Goldfinger each made more than Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace combined, and Craig's box office has been stellar).

Quantum of Solace will probably gain another ten million or so before it leaves theatres, but that would only move it up a slot or two at best, and not into the top ten.

I was not surprised to see that Craig's two recent films really didn't stand out relative to others, even though technically they are, as of this weekend, the two highest-grossing Bond films when looking at the raw data. Technically, Casino Royale has made more money than any others, but counting inflation, it barely cracks the top ten.

I was surprised to see that Brosnan's films ended up ranking so high. I had no idea just how much the tix prices had jumped in just ten years.

I knew Connery's films were far and away the standard-bearers, but never had the data to back it up. However, I was surprised to see that Dr. No didn't make more than it did (yes, it was first, but it also benefited from several re-releases in the 1960s). And I was also surprised to see that Moonraker nearly held its own against those films (along with Die Another Day).

If there's any doubt why Bond filmmakers keep occasionally making really stupid films, one needn't look any further than the fact that Moonraker, Die Another Day and You Only Live Twice represent half of the highest six grossers ever (and I'm tempted to throw Thunderball in that category as well).

I was surprised to see how poorly Moore's Bond films in the beginning (namely, Man with a Golden Gun). Moore's box-office performance actually seemed to gain steam over time, even if (in my opinion) the quality of his films steadily dwindled.

The performance of Bond films in the late 1960s and earlier 1970s was nearly as bad as in the late 1980s, and I am surprised that the franchise didn't fold. I never realized before how The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker (where I felt the franchise started to get a little overblown, silly and lame) actually helped save the franchise. Then again, all the numbers were strong relative to other non-Bond films then, just not other Bond films.

Finally, I was surprised to see Living Daylights so low. I had heard several times that Dalton's first performance was a strong hit, but relatively speaking, it really wasn't.

Only three of the top 10 Bond films (Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Casino Royale) would be on my list of the Top 10. Meanwhile, four of my personal favorites fill the bottom five (all but A View to a Kill). How did I end up being such a Bond fan with those contradictory tastes?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Christmas Story of Ritual and Repetition (Ideology?)

How does ideology work in media? The single tightest high-wire act I walk when I teach media is to negotiate the distinction between the fact that films, television shows, etc., are deeply ideological, and the seemingly opposed beliefs that these ideologies often work in contradictory ways and that such ideologies aren't really "transmitted" anyway.

At the risk of contradicting my other work on cinephilia, so little actually happens ideologically at the "inception" of a media text--when it is first made, when it is first experienced. At best, what happens is that the conditions for ideology may begin to shift, the potential that later on new ideological possibilities will begin to develop as much around a text as within the text itself (even while a text's contradictions feed and perpetuate those possibilities).

An unthinking (not mindless, just unthinking) repetition seems to be the key.

Bob Clark's A Christmas Story was a financial disappointment when it was first released to theatres 25 years ago. I know I didn't see it in theatres. It opened prior to Thanksgiving, and had largely passed by the time, ironically, Christmas came a month later in winter 1983.

But that wasn't the end of the Story. The eventual success of A Christmas Story isn't the tale of a film's theatrical life. Its a thoroughly televisual journey. My earliest memories of the film were of an obscure family film that I watched on cable as a child, probably only a couple years after it first appeared in theatres. I enjoyed it, because I got (some of) its humor, and I could empathize with the need for the one special toy.

But I also watched it over and over because it was always on. Then I watched again the following year, and then the next. Then after a few years, I was watching it several times during the same holiday season because it was broadcast several times during the season. The repetition culminated to the point of its greatest intensity--24 hour marathons on TBS.

For a while I had no interest in owning it, because I was only interested in watching it during the holidays, and I knew it would always be on TV anyway--that's when I would see it. The ritual of watching it was completely inseparable for me from the holiday itself, and vice versa.A Christmas Story became a classic not because it is a very good film--the content, the initial experience, is not irrelevant, but secondary. It became a classic because it became a part of a ritual larger than itself.

My own experience was hardly the exception to those among its emergent fandom. I watched it probably a dozen times over the span of 7-8 years before anyone came along and called it a "classic." By then, I accepted the statement as is--"of course, its a classic." Not because I had ever thought about its status before, not because it was socially-agreed upon, but because it had always been there on my television.

There is a certain kind of socially-constructed aura around the film now. Its a holiday classic now, because its always been. Its on TV not because its the holidays, but because its always been on TV. I get excited when I hear it will be on again less because its my favorite holiday movie and more because I always do get excited.

What is its ideology? What explains its appeal? Well, nostalgia, of course. But what about it? The film itself is a nostalgic look at a (illusory) white, middle class, Midwestern 20th Century life. No doubt that nostalgia (representational nostalgia) appeals to many who imagine having lived that childhood. But its also an insightful deconstruction of that nostalgia--Dad's a pervert, Christmas dinner is ruined, Ralphie's quite the potty-mouth, Santa's a creep, kids suffer through endless embarrassment, bullying, humiliation, etc. The film appeals to contradictory audiences which may embrace, and reject, nostalgia for a period that never existed.

But there is also the nostalgia I personally feel for the past--not for the 1940s as simulacrum, but for the 1980s. My childhood. That co-exists with the film's own critique of nostalgia. I never question that, nor what the film is "about." At some point, ideology begins to "naturalize," no matter how illusory it was to begin with. And when it reappears, we are ready for it. Its past success is its own justification, even if the film was rejected theatrically in the beginning. Now, its self-generating. Now it just is.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"you were right about Vesper"

I have received over fifty hits this weekend from these search words--"You were right about Vesper," Bond tells M in the final moments of Quantum of Solace. I can only assume that people are trying to figure out that final, cryptic line of closure at the end of the film. And I feel bad I did not offer my interpretation of it.

I think it refers to Bond and M's conversation at the end of Casino Royale, where M tells him that Vesper gave her life to spare Bond's. This was a possibility that Bond coldly rejected then, and again in the post-title sequence of Solace.

"You were right" means that Bond has come to accepts M's view of the situation, its no long "the bitch is dead," which is another way of saying that Bond has come to terms with the pain of Vesper's loss. I think this also links up to the one truly touching point, earlier in the film, where Mathias says to Bond--"Forgive Vesper. Forgive yourself."

"You were right about Vesper" becomes Bond's way of acknowledging the pain through M, acknowledging that--as Vesper told him, just before her death, that one holds on to the past long enough to realize that they cannot forget it--without letting his own guard down.

That's my read, anyway. Maybe there was another line of dialogue in Solace that I don't remember--"I don't think the dead care about vengeance," which ties better.

UPDATE 11/23/08

Thinking about it some more, there is another possibility: M says to Bond at the end of Casino Royale that she believed Vesper made a deal with Mr. White to spares Bond's life in exchange for the money (when LeChiffre is killed but Bond is not). But Bond, in his bitter grief, is skeptical.

That revelation may be one of the things Greene told Bond right before he dumped him off in the desert at the end of Solace. That we are given nothing of what they talked about is one of the frustrating things about the end of Quantum of Solace--we are given no hooks, or juicy leads, to bring us back for the probable third film.

This leaves a huge logical hole in the franchise, however. I've always had a problem with M's opinion of Vesper's motivations in the end of Casino Royale. I always believed that QUANTUM only let Bond live then because he was the only one who knew the password to get the money back from the Swiss bank (which, ironically, turned out to be "vesper"). They couldn't kill him not because of Vesper's love, but because of his knowledge of the password which no one else knew.

Any other thoughts?


Friday, November 14, 2008

Quantum of Solace

So. Finally.

I saw the film at midnight last night. I don't think there are any spoilers here. I would have typed this up sooner, but I had to teach this morning. Let me begin by saying that the film was a disappointment. A mild disappointment (would I have been more upset if my expectations weren't low going in?). But still a disappointment.

The film has its moments--the unexpected reconciliation and closure with Mathias. The classic Bond hotel upgrade scene (definitive proof that Bond is not Bourne). A surprisingly rich relationship with M, who finally seems to have a real narrative purpose with the younger, more reckless Bond, after 40+ years of just "here's your assignment." An effective, if rushed, final scene of closure: "you were right about Vesper." A wonderful, but brief, chat with Felix Leiter--convincingly suggesting a catching up between old friends that manages to never stray from narrative progression. However, that scene also proves a nice contrast to the film's best line, one which is both humorous, and yet prophetic and all too true--Camille: "A friend of yours?" Bond: "I don't have any friends."

Notice two things--for one, the best moments seem more tied into the lingering narrative fragments of Casino Royale. Quantum of Solace works well enough as an appendage to its predecessor--as a quick fix to a powerful finish of the other film that leaves its audience wanting more. And perhaps that is why I ultimately cannot hate the film--it gives me what I wanted, just not very well. But within that framework, Quantum of Solace works. It provides a measure of comfort to those die-hards like myself who can not come down from the high which was Casino Royale.

The reader may also note that none of the best moments had anything to do with the action scenes--and for a 1:44 film which is 75% action, far more than any previous Bond, that is not good. The action sequences are terrible. The opening car chase scene is a case in point--in addition to be a very lame, predictable conceit for Bond's pre-credit sequence (the filmmakers are not even trying to be original or interesting), there is no clear establishing of spatial contexts, no respect for the classic Hollywood style of continuity editing (sorry this is a Hollywood action film, not French New Wave avant-garde), and I feel like I was watching a series of random images with little point of reference.

Let me give you one specific example--at the climax of the chase scene in the beginning, Bond forces the last car chasing him through a guard rail and off a steep cliff. Its potentially spectacular, but its very jarring to watch. When I first watched that scene online a couple of times, I couldn't put my finger on why it didn't work. Then I realized that right in the middle of this spectacular crash, it cuts (the first mistake--don't disrupt your money shot), and looks now like the car is suddenly spinning in the wrong direction--a continuity error. But then I looked again and realized that the car isn't spinning in a different direction--its that the cut violated the 180-degree rule! We move suddenly from one side of the car to the other, and thus it feels like two juxtaposed crashes, rather than one breath-taking one.

Another example, when Bond and the main villian, Greene, first confront each other in a hallway near an opera house, there's a great moment, shot/reverse-shot, where they look at one another. But they Greene nods in the opposite direction of Bond as Bond leaves to his right. Greene's nod should indicate the next cut and the next scene, but he seems to indicate "let's go the other direction." But suddenly, his henchmen have not only followed Bond into the next room--but we've jumped into that room without any continuity of how either Bond or the henchmen following him got in there. And to make it even more jarring, everybody's shooting at each other in seemingly random directions, with a large group of innocent bystanders every which way--and the film is now in a blurry, almost slo-mo style, being made even more disarming when the film cuts back and forth with the opera. (say what you will about the rest of the film, but Godfather III did the same thing but much, much better, because it had a clear sense of pacing and diegetic space).

That kind of sloppiness with both cutting and framing (lay off all the close-ups, J.J. Abrams--they don't work in an action scene!) abounds and ruins action sequences which are not particularly clever or exciting to begin with. There is no way to make slow boats running around in circles on a lake, banging into each other, exciting, even if I could follow what the hell was happening. How does an anchor (if that's what it was) make a boat automatically flip over? I'm not saying there's no way. I'm just saying its not at all indicated in the sequence.

Contrast that with the end of Casino Royale--the final confrontation between Bond and Mr. White is a masterpiece textbook example of how to effectively use establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, shot/reverse-shots, low and high angle shots, and eye-line matches to convey not only narrative meaning, but thematic meaning as well. The final shot of Craig--"The name's Bond . . . James Bond"--is a great introduction. But it would not be half as effective were it not for the fact that it was framed explicitly from a defeated Mr. White's low-angle point of view, and set up by a nice shot/reverse shot to give the intro room to breathe.

The other reason that such sloppily filmmaking bothers me is because it gives credibility to one of my biggest pet peeves--that Craig's Bond has gone all-Jason Bourne, which stylistically, he has in Quantum of Solace. Until Solace, this connection was a myth perpetuated in each parts by Bourne lovers and Bond haters, but had no truth to it.

This bothers me for several reasons. For one, it reinforces the worst cliche for my about Marc Foster's work--that it's shamelessly and uninterestingly derivative. Monster's Ball felt like equal parts Dead Man Walking and standard, generic race melodrama. Stranger than Fiction was just an even more self-important, didactice version of Adaptation. I don't have a problem with people who try to reinvent the wheel every once in a while, but there's nothing interesting here.

For another reason, the connection to Bourne just wasn't true until now. Casino Royale was nothing like a Jason Bourne film--Jason Bourne doesn't stay at fancy hotels, chase women, exchange witty banter, drink martinis, drive fancy cars, wear tuxedos, or any of Bond's other iconic aspects that were still very at work in the first Craig film. The epic stylishness of Bond is completely foreign to Bourne's world.

And the biggest reason, I hate the comparison (and it ties into my earlier critique of Solace above) is that--sorry Bourne fans--the Paul Greengrass Bourne films really aren't that good. I like the original (2002). The first sequel (2004) was okay, but the last one (2007) was a mess, except for one superbly staged train station sequence, which worked only because the surveillance cameras--a key narrative point--forced Greengrass to maintain a rigorous sense of narrative space that otherwise gets disrupted in the other scenes.

Let me be very precise about my criticism here--Greengrass' claustrophobia aesthetic can be exciting. Its the main reason I think that United 93 was the triumph that it was--one of, if not, the best film of 2006. He well-deserved the Oscar nomination he received for his work on the 9/11 film. But, on a wider narrative canvas, where constant long and medium shots are needed to keep the action coherent, the claustrophobia does not work. Solace seemed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy after years of hearing about how great the Bourne films are.

In all, the only way the film stylistically makes any sense to me is if we see it through the lens of M's admonition early to Bond--"I think you are so blinded by inconsolable rage that you don't care who you hurt." If we take the amped up, schizophrenic, non-stop (and nonsensical) action in the film as a stylistic mediation on Bond's blind, inconsolable rage--it is a revenge film after all (although Licence to Kill did that route better)--then perhaps the film works. But I'm just not inclined to give Solace the benefit of the doubt here.

Most disappointing was the ending. It was too clean, too tidy. It doesn't leave the audience wanting anything. That's frustrating not just because it threw away one of Casino Royale's best attributes, but also because it comes dangerously close to throwing away the entire diegetic world which the previous film created. Why, in the end, should we care about QUANTUM anymore? There's no hook to bring us back, even though we've still discovered nothing about the organization.

They should have left Mr. White in after all (the original, cut, ending). It might have been gimmicky, but it's quite obvious that, after Bond and M, Mr. White's the third most important character in the series now. And he's nowhere to be seen in the second half of Quantum of Solace.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Timothy Dalton

part of the Bond Blogathon

One of the many pleasures of Edgar Wright's superb action satire Hot Fuzz (2007) was the brief but exciting re-emergence of Timothy Dalton as the villain. He was surprisingly funny and in surprisingly good shape for someone who is now over 60 years old (he still looked 40 to me). If not for the generally insane brilliance of the film overall, Dalton would probably steal the show.

I hope one day that people revisit Timothy Dalton's brief but effective run as James Bond in Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989). I was perhaps more open-minded about his work because those were the two films released theatrically when I discovered Bond, but they still hold up well today.

I feel the final act in Afghanistan of Living Daylights is ultimately a bit of a let down now, but Licence to Kill is one of the very best Bond films in my opinion, as it blends the best of old-school Bond--gritty nihilism, grotesque characters and settings, thrilling action sequences, and a story rooted in Bond's own evolution throughout the series (his relationship to Felix Leiter, his past marriage to Traci), without ever for a second being sentimental.

A lot of this works though because Dalton was a great James Bond. He was dead serious but still retained an inherent charisma. Likeable, but never silly. That's a hard balance for playing James Bond. He never quite mastered Bond's playfulness (as Craig did in Casino Royale)--he couldn't bring himself to say some of the cheesiest lines with a straight face, but at least (unlike Moore), he made an admirable go of it:

"You didn't think I'd miss this performance, did you?"--can you believe I saw Living Daylights thirty times as a kid and never once realized he was talking about sex there?

Supposedly Dalton was to take over for Sean Connery in the late 60s and play Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. That would have been a trip--my favorite childhood Bond starring in my favorite Bond film. He would have been a good fit for the material, but he was probably right to have turned down the opening because he felt at the time was too young (he was also supposedly intimidated by Connery's legacy).

Dalton only got the role in the mid-1980s, however, because Pierce Brosnan couldn't get out of his Remington Steele contract. Ironically, the rumor is that he was only offered OHMSS because Roger Moore couldn't get out of his The Saint contract. Its also ironic of course that Brosnan did end up playing the role to greater success, and with greater longevity, after Dalton.

Its unclear whether Dalton was never brought back in 1991 because legal fights over Bond rights postponed the franchise's production, and he just lost interest in the part while waiting, or if Bond producers waited out his contract so that they could hire Brosnan instead. It was probably a combination of both, as it seemed to have been a slow but amiable parting.

Dalton did follow up Bond with a memorable performance as a Errol Flynn-like Hollywood star-turned-secret Nazi in Disney's The Rocketeer (1991), but quickly fell off the radar thereafter.

Supposedly, Living Daylights was a hit for its time, which I didn't remember. Licence to Kill, however, was a huge bomb in a crowded 1989 summer marketplace (look up the franchise titles that came out that summer--Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future II, Star Trek V, Honey I shrunk the Kids, Ghostbusters 2). The darkness just didn't register.

I said in an earlier post that I believed then after Licence to Kill tanked there would never be another Bond film. I think this wasn't only because the film bombed, but because I remember having a feeling of Bond fatigue. One Bond film every other year for the last 26 years--by the end of Moore's run I think audiences were sick of Bond, and the box office success of Living Daylights was probably more rooted in the novelty of the new actor than interest in the movie or franchise itself.

I've always felt that Dalton's performances and legacy suffered from a certain Bond fatigue in the late 1980s--where people were just sick of this tired, cliched old character, especially as the Cold War was coming to a close. I think Goldeneye succeeded in part because of Brosnan's appeal and the fact that it was a solid film in the classic mode--but I also think it succeeded because the six year absence was enough time to rekindle demand for the character (a four-year layoff didn't hurt Craig in Casino Royale, either--Brosnan left just in time to avoid becoming the Bond who overstays his welcome, ie, Moore).

Monday, November 3, 2008

Bond and Nostalgia

Part of the James Bond Blogathon

Following Will's post on his own autobiographical approach to the series, I thought I would tell the story of my own life in Bond.

Among other things, my dissertation on Song of the South attempts to document how affective attachments to certain franchises and brands (Disney) are dependent less on content and more on what gets generated over the years through longevity, difference and repetition. Disney is perhaps the best example of this because they are so predicated on generational developments, and on parents' nostalgia at least as much, if not more so, than children's enjoyment of the texts.

My parents were big Bond fans. They were the children of Connery's phenomenon in the 60s. This sustained itself through the 70s and 80s, when I came into the picture. Living Daylights (1987) may not have been the first Bond film I saw in theatres, but its the one first one I remember seeing, at the age of 9. I was obsessed with it, and by the time Licence to Kill came out two years later, I was the one dragging my parents to Bond, even though my mother resisted taking me because I was 11 and it was the first Bond movie rated PG-13!

But it wasn't only Timothy Dalton in the theatres. Around the same time (before or after, I don't remember), I watched all the old Bond films during the ABC "Sunday Night Movie"--remember those? There was a time when the networks didn't think anyone watched on Sundays, except for football and so old movies got recirculated there. "Sunday Night Movie" was also where I saw movies like Lethal Weapon and Commando for the first time. Edited for television, of course.

Perhaps my earliest memory of Bond was not Living Daylights, but living in my parents' home outside Madison, WI, watching You Only Live Twice (1967) on ABC. It was past my bed time, so I pretended to be hungry to buy time, so my Mom would keep feeding me while I watched the movie. I watched most of You Only Live Twice from the dining room table. Finally, mom gave up and let me watch the rest of the movie, knowing I was apparently riveted.

After Licence to Kill tanked at the box office, I was convinced for about three or four years there would never be another Bond film. The franchise had run its course, and I moved on. I was genuinely surprised and excited by the news that Goldeneye would be made (1995), but I didn't have the same investment by my late teen years and into my twenties. I enjoyed the Brosnan Bond films well enough, but I didn't obsess over them. My cinematic tastes had gravitated elsewhere by then and it was mostly ritual and nostalgia that kept me engaged with the franchise's newest developments.

During that time (late 90s), I was more invested in rediscovering the older films. It was during this time that I really discovered and began to appreciate the 60s Bond films, and began to see the Moore ones more critically than I had during my childhood. My old favorites as a kid--Living Daylights, Thunderball, Spy Who Loved Me--were gradually replaced by others--On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Licence to Kill.

There's no question that Casino Royale reinvigorated my interest in the franchise--but it was probably the co-presence of my past love for the franchise with my present awareness of the quality of the film. If I had been approaching the film fresh, I would probably have thought it was an interesting movie, maybe a quality action film, and given it little more thought.

I'm not sure why? in all that I came to like the Bond films. The faults others find in its sexist, imperial ideology, and in its predictable formulas, are not things I would particularly dispute. I think my initial fascination with films was probably rooted in my childhood interest in spies, a fascination that transcended a wide range of both Cold War and World War II films and television shows. When I was young, I was quite the history buff. I think the cold war fantasies of Bond tapped into that.

But I don't really find myself gravitating to that stuff anymore (I think in retrospect it was mostly my father's influence as a kid), and in fact I find a lot of it deeply reactionary. Conservatives love history because it allows them to change the script, to think life is simple, because the complexities, the unknowns, of the present are too much for them (at the same time, progressives like myself are often guilty of looking too much to the future). At its worst, Bond feeds this reactionary impulse, too.

But I don't think its history anymore that attracts me to the Bond films, but a sort of ritualistic impulse, rooted in not only nostalgia, but in the possibility that even beloved texts can evolve into something new and different. That all films, have all fans, have several lives.

Friday, October 31, 2008

spoiler alerts

Part of the James Bond Blogathon

Not here, but everywhere else.

I now know how other people around the world feel when a new American film comes out, waiting weeks, even often months, for a film that's out, that everyone on the internets is talking about, but that I cannot see for myself.

Quantum of Solace has opened in the UK, but will not be in the states for another two weeks. Very frustrating, even more so now that the film was moved back an extra week, from the 7th to the 14th (for some inexplicable reason I still don't understand--though supposedly Harry Potter's to blame).

It also gives a whole new meaning to spoiler alert--there's already a lot of stuff out there on the film, and I'm fighting the balance between wanting to know more to feed my anticipation, but not wanting to know everything, or even to know enough that the film itself would hold no surprises for me when I finally do see it.

I'm starting to fear that this distribution strategy somehow, someway, will ruin the experience for me. But I don't know how yet.

I was going to post a blogathon round-up at Mabuse, but I don't want to step on Scott's excellent Halloween post. So I will probably post something on Sunday (I will probably blog before then in response to Will's interestingly introspective first blogathon post as well).


Sunday, October 26, 2008

the (other) Best and Worst of Bond

Part of James Bond Blogathon

I admit I was intrigued by Will's post on ranking the best and worst films in the Bond Canon. Top 10 lists (or Top 25, etc.) lists are pretty silly, of course, but they sure are a lot of fun.

I think by the time I was 12, I had seen every Bond film up to that point at least five times, and probably more like 10-20 times for the ones I really loved. I was that kind of Bond fan. I watched them over and over and over. Of course, some of the ones I used to like as a kid, I don't care for as much, and vice versa.

Since the mid-90s, I've not devoted as much time to them, but I've still seen each of the last five at least three or four times.

If there were enough Bond bloggers out there, I'd be tempted to do an unscientific poll of everyone to see what folks think overall.

I suspect, of course, that Goldfinger would be number 1 easily, but its not my number one. On that note, here's my superficial rankings, quite different from Will's, so it worthwhile and perhaps provocative:

1) On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): I have already said my piece, and too bad haters, I stand by it.

2) Casino Royale (2006): Quite possibly the best Bond film ever, or perhaps the best film that also happens to be a Bond film. A great Bond, a great narrative structure, an effortless manipulation and resistance to the Bond legacy. In 20 years, I may look back and say this really is the greatest one.

3) Goldfinger (1964): Not my personal favorite, but unquestionably the definitive Bond film, with everything in place--great Bond, great names, great villian, great car, great henchman. And truly iconic moments.

4) From Russia to Love (1963): The best Bond story from beginning to end, and quite possibly the greatest villain (Red Grant), perhaps the only true counterpart to Bond himself, though he doesn't often get enough attention for it. You could have built a whole franchise just around him and Bond.

5) Dr. No (1962): A wonderful mix of the incongruous elements that define Bond films--deadly serious nihilism with outlandish environments and characters. Bond films are at their best when they work within that schizophrenia, and do not attempt too much of one or the other. If I were making a Bond film today, Dr. Nowould be my narrative and affective model . . .

6) Licence to Kill (1989): Invariably, one's childhood plays a key role in an attachment to a long term franchise. And I suppose that was never more true with Bond for me than in my deep love of Timothy Dalton's work, given that he was the first Bond I saw in the theatre, and I can still remember all three times I did (I saw Daylights twice). But his work still more or less holds up for me. I think Licence to Kill is excellent for some of the same reasons that I noted with Dr. No above. Licence to Kill is bleak to be sure, but its also a much weirder film than it gets credit for. And I think that's good for a Bond film. Also its one of the few Bond films post-1960s to tell a meaningful story with resonance beyond just the isolated text with Felix Leiter.

7) Goldeneye (1995): Probably not deserving to be this high, but its the only Pierce Bronsnan film that still holds up well for me. Its greatest credit is that it took Bond back to the classic formula and didn't screw it up, while also providing a nice wink here and there to the changing times.

8) Living Daylights (1987): When I was 12, this was my favorite Bond film. A really damn good spy movie, featuring a great new Bond, for about the first two/thirds, and then it gets to Afghanistan and gets really silly, and even more so now when we think about the political climate there and then being represented.

9) Die Another Day (2002): Not as good on a second viewing, but I don't think its silliness gets enough credit. Its a true patische Bond film, not only in its over-the-top-ness but in its self-referentiality. And a welcome relief from the dreadful World is Not Enough.

10) The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): Moore's best film, but that's not saying much. I used to love this one the most as a kid, but it hasn't aged well for me. Kind of slow and undercut constantly by Moore's foolishness. There's literally a moment in this film where he rolls his eyes at what's happening. It is okay for a Bond movie to not take itself too seriously, but if Bond himself doesn't take it seriously, the movie is a lost cause. I appreciate that Moore's overall work essentially cemented Bond's longevity beyond Connery. But his take on Bond is just unbearably cheeky (and not even funny). When people crack on the cliches of how awful the Bond films can be, I always picture Moore's work in the 1970s and 1980s and kind of agree with them. That to me is Moore's Bond legacy in a nutshell.

11) You Only Live Twice (1967): Not a bad Bond film, but Connery's and company on autopilot here. Redeemed only by the first full appearance of Blofeld, one of the best Bond songs (Nancy Sinatra), and the infamous Volcano lair!

12) Man With the Golden Gun (1974): Actually the only Moore film I like increasingly as time goes by. Not terribly good, but a lot of good Bond elements in place, in particular a great villain (Christopher Lee's Scaramanga) and a great lair. And Moore hadn't yet packed it in (in more ways than one--sorry that was mean).

13) Thunderball (1965): Used to be my favorite Connery film as a kid. Amazing how underwater scenes that used to be so awesome are, 20 years later, painfully boring. But it has its moments. The jet-pack. Q's greatest entrance. Decent villain.

14) Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Like Thunderball, this one hasn't aged well. I used to like it more than Goldeneye--mainly I think because I used to really love the motorbike sequence. I still do, but the rest of the movie is pretty DOA now. I agree with Will that Rupert Murdoch is a great idea for a villain, and Price has his moments, but it don't quite work for me overall.

15) For Your Eyes Only (1981): No film has fallen further for me since childhood than this one. I used to love this one, but now I watch it and I find nothing particularly interesting. The revenge themes could be developed much more, as could the Cold War angle. Moore does some of his best work here, in fairness, but I find it overall kind of unengaging today.

16) Diamonds are Forever (1971): "Hi, my name's Sean Connery and I am here for my check." Actually, its not as bad as I remember, but still too silly (and more than a little homophobic). What does it say for the film when the only thing I find fascinating about it today are the cinema-verite-like moments of early 1970s Las Vegas--the moment right before it was transforming into the big corporate giant strip?

17) Moonraker (1979): This was the inevitable result of an actor and a persona that increasingly comes to resent itself and becomes more and more detached and campy. Just about the only time when the sheer silliness of Moore's Bond almost goes far enough to redeem itself. But not quite.

18) The World is Not Enough (1999): The kind of Bond film I guess I should like, but a textbook example of how awry a Bond film can go when it takes itself too seriously, but doesn't have an interesting enough story to maintain itself. My greatest fear for Quantum of Solace is that it will end up like this one (and look out because they do have the same screenwriters and they both feature directors who do not seem to be a good fit for Bond).

19) Live and Let Die (1972): Probably not as bad as some of these others, but the unapologetic racism of it--even by typical Bond standards--is unforgivable. Even worse when you think about the context in which it was made, particularly in America.

20) Octopussy (1983): "You Humans are all . . .

21) View to a Kill (1985): "...Stupid, Stupid, Stupid."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Further Thoughts on Quantum of Solace

Part of the James Bond Blogathon

Not every post of mine will be on the newest Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008)--how can it be when I've yet to see it? In fact, probably very few of them will be. But I thought a good place to start might be with that which initiated the idea for the Bond blogathon to begin with.

My initial thoughts on the film were underwhelming. Among other reasons, part of the concern was because I think Marc Forster has never made a good film--and more to the point, has made films which were terribly pretentious, self-important and shameless Oscar bait. Moreover, being an auteur, if one fancies him as that, I do not even see a coherent visual or thematic logic to his work (other than the aforementioned Oscar bait projects).

The other big reason I was ambivalent about Quantum of Solace was because Casino Royale was superb and its follow-up, almost by definition, must be a disappointment (and because the law of averages with Bond films has to catch up, even with the peerless Craig in the lead role).

But in the last couple weeks, I have let go of those anxieties--I still don't think Forster will acquit himself as a great director with this film, and I still don't expect to like it half as much as its predecessor. But I don't think about that stuff much anymore (for the time being--once I've seen the film, I may rethink it), and have instead come to just be grateful that the movie was even made, given how the other ended, and that shortly I will get a chance to see it.

The initial buzz on the film is both deflating and promising. Deflating in the sense that most don't seem blown away by it, but promising in the sense that it does sound like they are staying faithful to the new vision of Bond as existing within a complicated narrative world that spills across several texts--rather than the old Bond films (with the exception of the 60s ones), which were autonomous stories from movie to movie.

Mr. White (above right) is the key--as long as he is alive, Bond will never arrive at where he's headed. Part of the trick of Casino Royale was that the film's real villain only made three, brief appearances. Unlike every other Bond film ever, the film's central "villain," LeChiffre, was only a ruse--made all the more powerful by his sudden, unexpected departure.

This was the primary focus of my contribution to Chris Lindner's collection on Casino Royale, which I also excerpted here. Part of what I enjoyed about Casino Royale was not just Craig's performance, or its sleeker, darker tone (whatever that means, frankly; I grew up on Timothy Dalton's Bond, so this isn't as novel as some seem to think), but the ambition and care that was put into creating a whole new Bond world, with reoccurring storylines and characters.

More like a finely tuned television drama, crafted across several seasons, than a cookie-cutter movie franchise (to invert that, this is also partly I think why I love the Star Trek films so much--particular #s 2-6--much more than any of the several television series; it is all really one epic story).

Aint It Cool posted two early reviews of Quantum of Solace--one good, one bad. Most of the news on the film is likely to leak from the UK over the next few weeks, as the film opens there on Halloween, two weeks before it hits the States. In fact, the internet will be rife with spoilers by the time we actually get a chance to see it for ourselves.

Ironically, I get the sense that these two reviews are talking about the exact same aspect of the same movie, even though they came to opposed conclusions. One reviewer said narratively the film was a mess, that Bond's journey seems to have no goals, no destination, no ultimate achievement or point. The other reviewer, meanwhile, believed that this was merely the second act in a probable trilogy--which if true would confirm that Bond wouldn't quite be getting to where he wanted to be. That such resolution is saved for the next film.

Forster was quoted recently as saying that the original final scene of the film was cut to leave the ending more ambiguous. The old ending clearly established the film as a bridge to the next one, and defined the next one, but he decided against it because he wanted to leave it to the next director or writer to decide where he/she wants to take the character (it also sounds like the original ending was a little too much like Casino Royale's ending, so it might have been good to cut it).

This leaves me optimistic that Quantum of Solace, whatever its ultimate flaws, will at least stay true to the narrative co-presence of drive and ambiguity which made the previous one so exciting in its execution and so thrilling in its conclusion.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

James Bond Blogathon (10/24-11/16); or, Cinephilias of Anticipation

Please help spread the word. I'm pleased to announce that Will Scheibel and I will be co-hosting a James Bond blogathon from Oct. 24th to Nov. 16th, in anticipation of the newest Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which opens in the UK on Oct. 31st, and in the States on Nov. 14th.

Will and I are fellow graduate students in the department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. We are also fellow contributors to Christoph Lindner's forthcoming collection, Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale(Wallflower, 2009).

I have written on On Her Majesty's Secret Service before over at Bright Lights Film Journal. I've also blogged on Bond in the past here and here. I also offered tentative thoughts earlier on Quantum of Solace, thoughts which were far from laudatory.

Will meanwhile has blogged on Bond far more than I have. The reader may find particularly interesting as a starting point his ranking of the best and worst Bond films last February.

Anyone who blogs or wants to start is welcome to join in. I will be posting my initial blog posts here at my personal blog, Jamais Vu, whereas Will's comments will be over at his blog, Camera-Stylo. We will post links to those and all other Bond posts here on Mabuse at regular intervals.

All aspects of every Bond text and Bond Culture--films, books and other media--as well as negative and positive takes, are welcome. I look forward to it.


Monday, August 25, 2008

why box office inflation is overrated

The recent backlash against The Dark Knight is centered on the question of inflation. While the movie is already the second highest-grossing movie of all time, detractors and other conscientious objectors respond that with inflation--the fact that tickets cost a lot more than they used to--The Dark Knight barely leaves a blimp on the all-time box office radar.

I agree to a point. And in fact that was my first reaction when it quickly became obvious that the new Batman movie was going to make some serious cash, maybe even challenging Titanic (though I was always skeptical of that, partly for reasons I explain below).

Its standard issue among film critics and scholars that--counting inflation--the biggest fish will always be Gone with the Wind, Jaws, Exorcist, Sound of Music, Star Wars, Godfather, and so forth. Even Titanic barely registers in that group of ticket-selling titans.

But here are some of the reasons I think considering inflation is overrated, and in fact think that Titanic and The Dark Knight's respective performances are every bit as remarkable as some of the above mentioned titles:

For one, the competition. Theatrical films today increasingly complete for attention from consumers with television, home video and new media. While films back when also vied with their own competing forms of entertainment, there's nothing then that's still not a factor today (print, radio, theatre, etc). The fact is, for audio-visual media, there have never been more choices than there are today.

People can be entertained just as easily (and often more cheaply) at home with TV and the internet, as well as their own collection of movies and shows on DVD. On that note, home video is the big elephant in the room--Is it any coincidence that a great deal of the all-time box office champs are from the 1970s (Exorcist, Star Wars, Godfather, Jaws)--ie, right before the emergence of the home video market in the 1980s?

For another, home video--which today is defined largely as various DVD formats--all but destroyed two key aspects of a film's possible long-term theatrical success--new business and repeat business. People who do not see a film right away, or whom only hear about it through word of mouth after the fact, can and often do wait to see the film on DVD. (Repeat business at the multiplex, for now, is gone, except for only the most fantatical--this is partly the reason why Titanic's success was so remarkably unparalleled.)

People who, for whatever reason, resist going to the theatres now have the option to wait and spend the money on home video. People who saw a film once or twice and love it to death, might well wait until the DVD release to purchase it and watch again. Movies in the past made money not because a lot of people went to go see it--it was because so many people went to see it again. And then again when the film was re-released, and re-released, in the pre- home video era. Movies didn't used to attract more repeat business because they were better, or because people liked them more--they made more money because people didn't have a choice if they wanted to see it again.

Personally, there are a lot of movies from just the last five years that I would have seen at least three, four, five, or even more, times had I not had the option to wait for the DVD and just spend the money on that. Why waste money and time going to the theatres again when you can wait a couple more months to have the movie available for your own convenience (and in the process you have not necessarily spent any more money in the process)?

Moreover, the dominance of the home video market today (along with the "big opening weekend or bust" mentality of theatrical distribution) depresses the time frame for theatrical releases. Part of the reason why Dark Knight's theatrical revenue will quickly fade is because everyone's already starting to turn their attention towards the DVD release date in time for the holidays. If Dark Knight held out until at least the Oscars next spring (hoping to cash in on nods), released it to theatres in February again, and then held out even longer to capitalize on the Oscar buzz (this is another reason Titanic endured), I believe the Batman film would break the record. But because Warner Bros. is no doubt extremely anxious to cash in on the home video market, and not lose out on Christmas shopping, Dark Knight's box-office window is remarkably small.

And I won't even go into the decreasingly novelty of the theatrical-going experience--although I will say that I think Dark Knight's extensive IMAX footage and promotion was no small matter in building the film's larger buzz as a theatrical experience.

In all, I find Dark Knight's and Titanic's box office every bit as impressive as any film every released. And I think the question of "box office inflation" confuses the discussion of "what was the most impressive box office performance," more than it clarifies it.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Time to Wander

"The moving eye in the moving body must work to pick out and interpret a variety of changing, juxtaposed orders, like the shifting configurations of a Victor Vasarely painting."
—Learning from Las Vegas

I am standing on the ninth floor of the Maccabees Building on the Wayne State University campus in the heart of downtown Detroit, Michigan. The ninth floor of this tower houses the English department. I came here, I went to graduate school, to study film because I was a cinephile.

Because I loved the images, the sounds and the cultures of the cinema. I have so much love for the cinema, but I just don’t know where to put it. Not just love for what the screen shows us, but a love for what the screen creates beyond itself—its affects, but also its communities, its meandering networks of ideas and of visions. But I see now that academia is not an easy place to be a cinephile.

I’ve come to accept with little reservation what Christian Keathley, in Cinephilia and History (2006), aptly described as a certain “cinephobia” in academia—the distrust of the pleasure, and bliss, of the film, and to take comfort in the more sensible proposing, testing, validating and affirming of cinematic hypotheses and theories.

It is easy to look out across the landscape of cinematic history and to organize, even perhaps correctly, how every text, event, figure, date, archival document, fits together—but somehow the passion, the everyday immediacy, is lost. On the other hand, I’ve come to suspect that love at first sight, it would appear, can on occasion be a bit misleading.

I think more often than not academia gets it right, and I’ve given myself to working under that assumption. And that hard work and patience pays off. But there is still so much hostility to a love of film (or better yet, a love of your own love)—and hostility to first-person. So, I’m trying to think of if, or when, I cease to be a cinephile.

Somewhere in academia—I can see the Renaissance Center tower standing out over the city’s horizon, buttressed right up against the Detroit River. I never gave much thought to what it spelled, at least not consciously. But I have often thought about how that structure supposedly stands in for Detroit—how it “establishes” Detroit.

Just watch The Upside of Anger (2005) and you’ll see what I mean. I see the Renassiance Center—I can assume I am in Detroit. Seems easier than getting out and walking. Or Robocop (1987)—the movie that used stock footage of the city in the opening moments, but otherwise was shot in Dallas. According to the Criterion DVD of Robocop, the filmmakers thought Detroit just looked too much like Detroit to play Detroit. Funny how that happens.

I remember standing on Belle Isle, recounting that anecdote about Robocop’s production history to a friend visiting from out-of-town. I think I always remember it not because it’s mildly amusing. But because it was really my first memory of Detroit, more so than Robocop.

I can see it now—someone’s sitting in the back of the old Mottier Hall, Indiana University. They are preparing their question for the end of my colloquium on what I am proposing as “the cinephiliac practice of everyday life”—

Yes, I enjoyed your talk. I’m curious . . . because . . . you said during your talk . . . you made the point that Dallas was where most of Robocop was filmed, right? And then you said . . . let me see . . . you said that that your knowledge of the film’s production history was your first memory of Detroit. But as you note the film’s not really shot in Detroit. It has nothing to do with Detroit. . . So . . . I’m just wondering . . . I guess I’m not sure how you reconcile . . . I don’t see how it can be both. . . . I mean I’m sure you’re talking about some kind of imaginary space that signifies . . .

“ . . . So, I guess it’s really not so much a question as a comment

It’s hard not to write about film and ideas without that voice in the back of my head. If I am reading this at a presentation, what is going to raise the red flags? Academia has trained me pretty good. And I’m not complaining. I just always hear that voice—I always try to incorporate that voice into my writing. “Where’s your thesis statement?” “I don’t know. Where’s yours?” (if they ever read this, my students would find me a terrible hypocrite).

I’m not sure if that makes me a cinephile anymore, though. When I internalize digressions, reservations, caveats—do I express that love, that passion, still? It’s so hard to remain a cinephile when I am trained to be ambivalent. Indeed, after walking, driving, surfing, and exploring far enough, you realize the world itself is truly ambivalence embodied. There’s really nothing more to it than that. Well, that and waiting for Quantum of Solace to open on November 7th.

Cinephilia is making something of a comeback—both amongst some academics, and amongst contemporary cinephiles (many of whom now migrate mostly online). The last few years have seen Keathley’s Cinephilia and History, and the anthologies, Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory (2005), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (2003), and Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2008).

Online, cinephilia is much more rampant—Girish Shambu, Ted Pigeon, Zach Campbell, Andy Horbal, Dan Sallitt, Harry Tuttle, K. Silem Mohammed, Brian Darr. But much of this development seems—as with the blogs—opposed to academic progress. I contribute to two blogs myself—this one, and Dr. Mabuse’s Kaleido-Scope, “an academic media blog community.”

I think this is because I cannot decide whether I am a cinephile or an academic. Is it another new media play on identity? When I log on, do I ask myself—will I be a cinephile today? Will I be an academic? Will I be “just” a movie fan, and slum it at “Ain’t It Cool News”? (Will I be a Chicago Cubs fan? Will I be a progressive? Will I give myself to YouTube?). At what point do I set aside being a cinephile?

As an IU colleague in one of my PhD seminars was so fond of saying in the middle of discussion, “Okay, so let’s bracket that for the moment.” In The Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze wrote of painter Francis Bacon that he was a great artist because he was always sweeping away the clich├ęs of painting, what others did, or were expected to do. He attacked them right at the root and swept them away. His work was so shocking and provocative precisely because there was no point of reference—no easy safe distance at which to perceive what was being seen—and thus no way of easily comprehending the work. But perhaps that’s a bit too idealistic. Perhaps everyone has to start somewhere (I don’t know—I’m not a painter. And I like my vanishing points). And there is still the question of “so what.

The RenCen. “Renaissance.” As in to begin again—to start over. That probably didn’t take for Detroit. Not yet. I’ve written about nostalgia and Detroit before. A colleague said the essay was written like a blog entry—so ephemeral, so focused in its fragments, so first-person. Ever since I started blogging, I do think my academic writing has changed a bit.

The same architect, John Portman, who planned The Renaissance Center also designed the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in LA. In Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson argues that Portman’s work is representative of postmodern architecture which did not attempt to construct utopias of modernity, contemporary Babylons (maybe that’s not modernist, but Metropolis is, and that’s good enough for me), but rather attempted to enact the language of the city. That according to Jameson, is what we ‘learned from Las Vegas,’ to paraphrase Robert Venturi.

What did I “learn” from Las Vegas? For one thing, I learned not to underestimate what architecture theory has to contribute to film studies. Venturi wrote that Las Vegas was the location where we could first see just how much highway culture had so irreparably influenced architectural design. Buildings now had to be planned to attract people quickly—folks driving by at 40, 50, 60, miles per hour, and otherwise wouldn’t notice the nuances of elaborately detailed structures in their peripheral vision. Las Vegas (at least when Venturi was writing in the 1960s and 1970s) was all about minimalist, functional structures and the big sign—“the decorated shield”—out by the road to grab attention. There’s much to be said about how our perception fundamentally shifts in postmodernity—and on the highways. The cinema reflects that.

Cinephilia does, too. Too often cinephiles focus on the same national cinemas, the same critics, the same auteurs. Authorship is perhaps the single biggest reason that cinephilia’s been left behind in the academy. That, and the fact that there is no sustainable model for cinephilia, other than as historical periods of audience reception. Cinephilia could be a little more flexible, and a little more indiscriminate.

The paradox of intense desire, as Deleuze and Guattari explain in Anti-Oedipus, is that it is at its most simplistic at its height of greatest intensity. One used to have to be able to discuss Godard to be a cinephile. Now one must be able to discuss Haneke. Or Kiarostami. Fine filmmakers, and worth of virtual discourse. And it’s not a surprise they stick out—on the highway that is the internet, it’s hard to get someone’s attention.

Film blogs are everywhere. Few standout (Girish’s excepted, and mostly because it’s less a blog than a genuine community). But that doesn’t mean that one can’t be given to wandering. Cinephilia could exist in the gaps, the side streets. Eventually Las Vegas got so packed, people were better off getting out and walking. Perhaps the future of the internet holds such a similar overwhelming totality for the cinephile. Someday.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Islands of Detroit

Dave has blogged in response to my colloquium presentation yesterday afternoon on images, nostalgia, whiteness and Detroit, entitled, "The Islands of Detroit." I blogged about the introduction to the essay a few weeks ago. There, as in my presentation, I proposed:
a progressive, oppositional whiteness, but nothing spectacular, nothing which could survive only in theory. Rather, by looking back into the past and remember and re-examining one uneventful year in Detroit, Michigan, I wish to propose something more indiscriminate, but also more potentially resilient—an everyday, oppositional whiteness, one predicated on a thoughtful randomness, and which embraces the strange and unfamiliar.

Dave wrote:
his tone was much more personal, and, as a result, he was more willing to concede the point (so often ignored by other scholars) that, much as we want to critique the implications of nostalgia, it isn't going to go away simply because we're critiquing it. Such an argument would be the equivalent of Laura Mulvey's notorious claims from the 1970s that we as critics should actively work toward the destruction of cinematic pleasure. Not gonna happen. And, even if it could, that wouldn't be productive of any alternative affect that could take its place.

One of the other things intriguing to me is that Dave noted how much the essay felt like a blog post, which in retrospect I can see, since I first started those ideas as blog posts--though, unlike with other projects--none of that material appeared in the essay itself.
Not a minute passed in which he didn't use the personal pronoun "I" in order to define his own position in relation to the material. As a result, not only the tone but also the structure of the argument shifted: it was occasionally meandering into personal asides that became crucial to the overall argument a few moments later, an recursively worked backward at times to mimic the kinds of nostalgia he discussed. It resembled nothing so much as a blog (I mean this in the most affectionate way possible--I find I read much less "real" criticism ever since I set up my RSS feeds).

I really do feel blogging has altered my writing style in some ways, especially in an incredibly self-reflexive paper such as this one. The following is part of what I wrote in response on his blog:

I think to call it like a blog is appropriate, as it was--especially in its earlier phases--much more flowing and random than it has become through subsequent restructuring. In fact, the essay is literally laid out as a series of bullet points--each its own "island" as it were--and would very much resemble a blog on paper. And, having started to be a particularly prolific blogger at that point in my life (2006), I could see how that form of discourse now doubt influenced the essay--and now that I think about it, the first "sense" of the essay was in two separate blog posts I once wrote back then--one about WSU, and the other about first watching Michael Bay's The Island, and being struck by how much "instant nostalgia" took me over there (none of those posts ended up in the essay, though, even though I do talk about both those).

Everyone picked up on the "everyday, oppositional whiteness," which I knew they would. I put it in there in subsequent versions because I needed a buzz word, and something that the whole essay could be "boiled down to," so to speak.

But you are right to note that the essay is really about things more contingent and ephemeral. The islands are meant to be irreducible--i.e., there wasn't supposed to be a thesis statement. But that something some readers have had difficulty with.

And yes, as you note, it is all about affect (and since you probably know me to be a fellow Deleuzian, I'm sure it was not a surprise). In fact, in the first version of the essay I explicitly quote Barthes talking about a photo's affect--and really if one does not understand the logic of Barthes there, they will not understand my essay. But I cut the explicit reference to affect because there was too much Barthes in earlier drafts--too many theories in general.

Moreover, it was at a point in my career where I had done affect with everything (I suppose I still do)--and I was worried about becoming a parody of myself. So, I've tended to internalize affect in my arguments--everything I write about is following some kind of affective logic or potential, but its a point I no longer wish to belabor in my writing, which has slowly become more historical materialist and less overtly theoretical.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Quantum of Solace

It has been clearly established that I am a die-hard James Bond fan. I do not need to bother with the links.

That said, I am (as I noted in an earlier post) deeply ambivalent about the next James Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008).

But with my essay on Casino Royale now out of the way, I did want to offer my tentative thoughts about the next film.

So, why am I leery of the next Bond film--especially when I have literally, intensely, anticipated every single James Bond film since Licence to Kill (1989), having been obsessed with The Living Daylights (1987) when I first saw it, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus at the age of nine?

(for those keeping score at home--that anticipation includes Licence to Kill, Goldeneye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World is Not Enough (1999), Die Another Day (2002) and Casino Royale).

I do not get leery of forthcoming Bond films easily (I do not get leery of Bond films, period).

My reservations about Quantum of Solace:

  • The title--if you are going to steal another Ian Fleming title, at least make some attempt at interogating the origins of said title. And "Solace" . . . there's a fine line between a darker, even more emotional, Bond and a Bond who just feels sorry for himself. I have no interest in the latter. The emotional pay-off at the end of Royale was well earned, but I do not want to see a whole Bond film wallowing in self-pity. This may not be the plan, but the lame title does not give me "a measure of comfort."
  • Producer Michael Wilson (longtime co-producer of the franchise) is on record as saying there will be twice as much action in the next film. This bothers me for some reason. I think its almost the apologetic tone of it--the idea that, don't worry, there will be plenty of action (i.e., not all that plot stuff we saw in Casino Royale).
  • Director Marc Forster--plainly put, I think the guy's a hack. I think Monster's Ball (2002), Finding Neverland (2004), and Stranger than Fiction (2006) are not just overrated--there are out-right bad. Moreover, his body of work annoys me because every film of his strikes me as the work of a would-be auteur who is trying to guess which type of film will win him an Oscar. Some might see his work as electic--I see it as indecisive, slightly desperate. I always felt Forster was picking projects based on what he guessed was the trendy project. Post-Craig, post-Casino Royale, James Bond is trendy again, and I worry that that's why Forster agreed to do Quantum of Solace.
  • Besides, even if you like Forster's work--great directors do not automatically make great Bond directors. Case in point--Michael Apted and The World is Not Enough. That film, too, tried to be darker and more serious, but the result was just a narrative and thematic mess (I would argue that the film was clearly the worst of the Brosnan Bond films, even if it was trying so hard).
  • On the other hand, Martin Campbell is a completely uneventful action director--and yet he is responsible for two outstanding--two very different--Bond films--the two best Bond films in the last twenty years (Goldeneye and Royale--one, a textbook-perfect epitomy of the classic formula, and, another, that formula's thrilling reinvention).
  • Lastly, I confess, I know that Quantum just cannot live up to the standard set by Casino Royale. The only thing more enjoyable than the anticipation of Casino was that the film somehow surpassed even those expectations. It might be my all-time favorite Bond film, and I'm smart enough to know that the sequel is doomed to fail. Am I just trying to set the bar low?
Anway, that's why I am concerned about the next one. Of course, I am still anticipating it. I like that Quantum picks up right when Casino leaves off, making it the first direct Bond sequel in history (no small deal). I like the fact that it will develop the plot of the unseen organization further, picking up the pieces of Bond's chase of Mr. White and Vesper's past. I like that fact that the hiring of Forster at least aspires to a certain degree of legitimacy and credibility.

And, of course, I will follow Daniel Craig and his version of Bond to the ends of the Earth.

But I just cannot quite give myself to Solace [. . .] just yet.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Highways, Deja Vu, and Randomness

Late last year, I was driving through Indianapolis. I just happened to be driving in a part of town I hadn't been to in a decade or so. In fact, I wasn't even yet sure if I had seen this particular part of town before, but it was a major stretch (Michigan Ave.), through an area (NW Indy) that I had known pretty well, so I assumed I had.

There was a weird moment of deja vu as I approached the intersection of Michigan and 71st. Suddenly, I realized I had been here before. Something told me there was a Taco Bell coming up on the left--and sure enough, there it was.

Why does this matter?

In the spring of 1997, I was driving back to the west side, where I lived and worked, from the Castleton Arts Theatre (now demolished). I had just seen a double-feature of Kissed and Hard Eight.

I had gone to see Kissed. But once it was over, I didn't feel like driving back home yet, and so I decided to catch another movie (this wasn't uncommon, as I saw a lot of movies at the Castleton Arts Theatre back then--in retrospect, it was where my more traditional brand of cinephilia first developed).

All I knew of Hard Eight was that Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel Jackson were in it. That seemed good enough for me. I did not think of it as PT Anderson's first film. I didn't even know who PT Anderson was--approximately seven months later, with the release of Boogie Nights (1997), everyone would know who he was.

I was blown away by Hard Eight. But I took special joy in the idea that I had "discovered" it by accident. And that I had "discovered" PT Anderson long before Boogie Nights and Magnolia would later make him famous.

I loved the taut neo-noir-ishness of the story. And I was captivated largely by Phillip Baker Hall's face. It seemed like someone had found the older William Holden again.

Secretly, I loved Hard Eight more than Boogie Nights or Magnolia. I appreciated the minimalism of it more than the artistic and melodramatic excesses of the latter two. It was only with Punch-Drunk Love that I found a PT Anderson film I loved more.

I think its because Punch Drunk Love managed to balance what I loved the most about PT's entire body of work--the narrative and character-driven minimalism of Hard Eight with the non-sensical and creative excess of Boogie Nights and Magnolia (a confession--as much as I love PT overall, I always find myself fighting a begrudging, even reluctant, admiration, and ultimately even ambivalent feelings towards Magnolia).

But I think I also held Hard Eight in higher regard for years afterwards because I held on so long to that memory of stumbling upon it--not just with no clue of who PT was, but with no clue about any aspect of the film. It looked like a crime film and featured Jackson--(post-Pulp Fiction) that was good enough for me.

So on my way home, I decided to finally visit with my friend, whom I worked with at the UA Eagle Highlands multiplex on the West Side. He suggested that if I was passing through I should stop by and see him at work.

He worked a second job at Taco Bell. Somehow I followed his directions and managed to end up there.

I still clearly remember that night, sitting in the fast food joint. He took his break and we sat in a booth, and I told him about this movie that I had just seen. I tried to describe to him why I liked it so much. I don't remember what I said, but I know I said it with great passion. "You have to see this movie." I still remember him pulling out a piece of scrap paper from his wallet and anxiously scribbling down the title:

"Hard Eight."

Its a memory that has particular power for me now because it was a moment that feels like what cinephilia is supposed to be, or what its supposed to feel like. Two young cinephiles talking passionately about a film without being able to find the words to describe it--and sharing information about a film that so few had seen or even heard of.

Those moments now seem few and far between since I committed myself to academia. The old joke between Scott and I when we started at Oklahoma State was that we used to watch so many more movies before we became "film scholars."

Now, I have to take the day off, consciously tell myself I am not going to work, and then drive an hour out of my way to go see something major like There Will Be Blood, which I had been anticipating for a long time, at the new Arts multiplex in the upscale Keystone Mall. The new theatre, by the way, is also the theatre that drove the Castleton Arts Theatre out of business (actually, the former bought the latter, and then closed it)

Then again, the trip did give me a chance to go back, and take a picture of the insection of Michigan and 71st.



Friday, February 1, 2008

"Bond [. . .] James Bond"

Here is an excerpt from my essay on Casino Royale, tentatively, “Hardly the Big Picture: The Ellipsis, Narratives of Control, and Interruption in Casino Royale (2006),” which hopefully benefits from the clip of the movie which is discussed below. Some of the excerpt’s significance is lost here—the discussion of anticipation, “ellipsis,” the “big picture,” voyeurism and control, and the use of low/high pov angles throughout the film. Guess you’ll just have to wait for the whole essay:

In the end, finally, James Bond admits he trusts no one. After being betrayed by Vesper, M asks him if he trusts anyone. “No,” he responds bluntly. “Then,” M quickly responds, “you’ve learnt your lesson.” Like the villains, but inverted, Bond has learned who he can trust. The villians prioritize trust and connection; the "good" guys disdain it—"the bitch is dead." M says that “trail has gone cold” in this scene. Narratively, the trail has gone cold. MI6 and Bond have yet to discover the film’s true villain, Mr. White. Yet “cold” in this moment really speaks to Bond’s emotional state in the wake of Vesper’s betrayal and death. Bond, too, literally on the narrative trail, has “gone cold.”

The inversion of issues of trust points back out to the film’s larger narrative ambiguity—M and Bond’s final conversation, focused on trust, also ends with her belief that “we’ll never how who was behind this. The trail has gone cold.” While the unseen organization controls events through a priority of trust, Bond moves out further and further to uncovering the mystery by virtue of refusing to trust anyone. Yet Bond thinks to double-check Vesper’s cellphone, which then leads to another scene, another clue. “Being dead,” Mathis tells Bond presciently at an earlier point in the film, “doesn’t mean one can’t still be helpful.” Vesper tells Bond late that his presence makes her “feel reborn,” and indeed Bond’s final actions in Casino Royale foregrounds her lingering influence beyond death—both these moments and the sequel will see Vesper “reborn.” Thus, one final time, the traces of “Vesper” as both character and name manages to unlock a mystery for him, as a message on her cell finally calls his attention to Mr. White.

“We’ll never know who was behind this.”

There are at least three climaxes to Casino Royale—the defeat of LeChiffre, the defeat of the unidentified villains in Venice, the defeat of Mr. White. Moreover, the film’s multiple potential ending points—LeChiffre’s death, Vesper and Bond’s consummation, Vesper’s death, Mr. White’s Capture—also force us to consider the irresolvability of the film’s actual plot (which carries us behind the end of the film). The extended love affair between Bond and Vesper, as they take off to Venice, also undermines the traditional ending of the Bond Film, by showing us what happens after Bond’s—eventual and inevitable—sexual conquest of the main female lead, which is usually how a Bond film literally climaxes, the final image being of his seduction. But in Casino Royale, such a moment is only the beginning.

[ . . .]

After Mr. White is shot in the leg by Bond (proving he’s taken M’s earlier advice that it’s important to question a suspect, “not to kill them”), the film cuts to an ambiguous long shot of White dragging himself across the gravel. The shot may well be Bond’s implied point-of-view, which reinforces the thematic possibility that Bond, now the watcher, has replaced Mr. White in the omniscient position of power. As White makes his way to the edge of the bottom of the stairs, his weakness is reinforced by the high-angle shot looking down on him. Standing upright, Bond’s feet move swiftly past him in the frame and up the stairs—literally signifying his literal usurping of White’s power. The camera than tilts up to solidify formally and thematically Bond’s new found power. The film cuts to White looking up, matched then by the iconic medium-close-up of Bond. Unlike in the earlier moments of the film, when Bond had been physically overwhelmed by elements of the “big picture,” he is now the one empowered by the low angle shot.

It is not a coincidence here, then, that Daniel Craig finally makes his “introduction” by uttering the famous line we anticipate throughout the entire movie: “The name’s Bond [. . .] James Bond.” Craig has not only earned it by excelling in his performance throughout the film; Bond as a character has earned it, too. He has begun to figure out the larger mysteries which the film has presented him with, thus literally anticipating the sequel. Of course, because it is a James Bond film, we expect a sequel anyway. But the end of Casino Royale, and the abrupt but all-too-fitting cut after the iconic line, literally shows us how and when the next film will begin.

It is not a coincidence either that the film plays with this anticipation of Bond’s name. “If the theatrics are supposed to scare me,” Dryden (Macolm Sinclair) says in the film’s opening scene, “you’ve got the wrong man, Bond.” This is the first reference—pre-Double O status—to Bond’s name. The “James” is missing. It is only “Bond [. . . ?].” Moreover, the emphasis on the “wrong man” plays to the initial uncertainty of the new actor, and of the fact that Bond has yet to become “Bond [. . .] James Bond.”

M says twice to Bond that people know that “you were you.” On the beach, M says simply, “Well, I knew you were you.” Later, in case we missed it, M reminds Bond that Vesper too “knew you were you.” The idea of knowing “you were you” is both ambiguous and redundant. We don’t yet know that Bond is “Bond [. . .] James Bond,” because we haven’t yet heard it, even while we do know of course that this is James Bond. Hence, “You know my name”—if not necessarily the best Bond song ever, at least perhaps one of the best song titles in the history of the franchise. Here again rests the co-present redundancy and ambiguity of Bond both being and not being “James Bond.” "You [already] know my name"—prolonging the ellipsis. We do not need to hear him say it (and, too, we do not need Craig to prove that he is "James Bond" just by stating it). That the film closes with Bond’s introduction (to the main villain of this film, if not the next, whom he has only just met) reveals and completes the film’s incompletion, and disrupts the entire franchise by offering us that perfect ellipsis which is nearly as memorable as Connery’s introduction in Dr. No. Indeed, it may be the most powerful moment in the nearly fifty years of the franchise—framed definitively from the low angle.

Bond . . . James Bond.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Why I am a postmodernist

During my PhD oral exams, I was asked what the difference was between "postmodernism" and "postmodernity." I answered that the former was an aesthetic category; the latter was a historical moment.

One of my exam areas was postmodern theory (the others were Reception Studies, Critical Race Studies, and Disney Studies). All, of course, perfect preparation for a dissertation on a reception history of Song of the South, even though I wasn't really talking about the film in my answers--nor did I want to. It was important to me to prove to myself and to the committee that I had a breadth of knowledge in each area that extended beyond just the narrow focus of my dissertation topic.

Postmodernity has been very important to me for a long time. But aside from publishing a couple of articles on Ghost World and American Splendor, I've never really been formally reaffirmed that I actually knew what the hell I was writing about. Postmodernity has been something of a hobby.

So, there was a certain satisfaction in passing the postmodern theory question. And it was a doozy about the role of history and the simulacrum. I ended up talking about Baudrillard, Harvey, Massey and Deleuze. I now really feel like a postmodernist expert.

Of course, the catch with that is that nobody gives a damn about the postmodern anymore. After the exam, I met with my advisor in her office and she very politely tried to suggest what I had long ago figured out--that postmodernism has no currency in the marketplace of ideas that is academia.

Partly why postmodernism/-ity is still important to me, even for the dissertation, is because the Disney theme parks will be one of the central areas of focus--"Splash Mountain" being one of the most visible lingering reminders of Song of the South that has been officially authorized by the corporation. And scholarship on the theme park remains the only place where the lingering ideas of the postmodern still sometimes matter.

On the other hand, I have long ago accepted--even embraced--the idea that my dissertation would be a reception history, more about Song of the South than Splash Mountain. And indeed the history of Song of the South (which I have only begun to explore in the last year) is of course far more interesting, or at least more far-reaching.

I had originally thought that a reception history of the film could be posited as an intervention into postmodern thought--that the history of the film offers a challenge to ahistorical notions of the simulacrum.

But my advisor--even while understanding the logic of my tentative ideas--is adamant that ultimately the two methodologies are irreconcilable (or at the very least the two will be too much work to balance across the entire project).

Of course, I'm too stubborn to out-right give up the specter of Baudrillard, even while we both agree that a reception history works better for so many reasons.

So, I suggested to her that perhaps the postmodern be thought tentatively as one historical discourse--postmodernity--in which the film operates. Postmodernity here would then be not methodology or aesthetic category (would that be "postmodernism"?) but as a body of scholarship which could potentially act as a material site for interrogating historical discourse.

The difference is huge, of course. Its partly why the committee member asked me the question he did.

* * *

Why am I a postmodernist? Its a question I asked myself again this morning. I think its because that is literally the historical milieu in which I grew up.

My earliest memories of childhood (the 80s) were not of a warm fireplace or of bucolic countrysides--they were of malls and theme parks. When I was four, my parents drove to Florida to be at the grand opening of EPCOT Center--yes, I was there, and, yes, I have a distinct memory of riding Spaceship Earth then.

I still remember my first trip to Disneyland in 1986 (and again in 1989).

And when I think of growing up in and around Madison, Wisconsin, I think of the capitol building and of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. But mostly I think of malls.

And seeing movies at theatres located in mall parking lots.

Like the Hilldale Mall, which I probably last re-visited around 2003 or 2004. (By the way, "Malls of America" is the coolest blog ever. There is a whole online culture of mall aficionados, in which I am destined to be embedded sooner or later).

The picture at the top is something I actually took in Hawaii last summer because I stumbled upon an un-remodeled portion of this one mall that looked just like something I would have experienced as a child. That is to say, it was taken in 2007, but could pass for 1977.

My whole life emerged from a radically hyperreal sense of space. So, its hard for me not to see that as "real"--as a real culture in which people lived and experienced life. And that this resolutely postmodern sense of space has some lingering effect on how we perceive time, commodities and culture.

But as I get older I am better seeing it as a particular moment in the evolution of American culture--the decimation of the downtowns, the emergence of highway life. But that moment did happen, even while we are somewhere different now.

(Of course we are still a mall culture--but the historical moment and cultural exigencies, everything around this moment, is now slightly different).

Certainly, its also easy for the reader to see how and why nostalgia would have been my fifth exam area.