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.