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.