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.


Pat R said...

Quantum of Solace was entertaining, but they could have done with a few less chase scenes

Bob Rehak said...

Jason, I knew you'd have a substantive and thoughtful review of QoS. Thanks for this analysis. I liked the film more than you did, but agree with you about its ratio of misses-to-hits. One question -- do you know David Bordwell's work on intensified continuity? Greengrassian claustrophobia and axis-of-action violations look a little better to me in light of Bordwell's generally convincing take on postclassical style.

dave_mcavoy said...

Finally saw it, and I wasn't a huge fan either. I agree with pretty much everything you have to say about QoS itself. The action scenes were a mess (the boat flip in particular inspired an unnecessarily long conversation after the film that attempted to justify those bizarre physics), and I'll agree to some extent that this is because they have been Bourne-ified. However, I'll have to disagree with you on Bourne itself: I don't particularly like the first one, but I love the Greengrass sequels. And I think this is precisely because of the claustrophobic and somewhat schizophrenic camerawork: this blends nicely with the general theme of the film that global politics has itself become claustophobic and schizophrenic. The lack of spatial continuity only emphasizes for me the movie's argument that we have willed an amnesia about how to move about global spaces in anything other than an aggressive manner. But Bond has never been about that as far I can tell, not even this new version of Bond (just look at the scene in which Bond and Leiter wax ironic about imperialistic one-up-man-ship in a post-colonial age), and the discontinuity of the action seems jarring as a result. Either way, I found most of the action scenes (except in the airplane, which I thought was pretty damn effective) just confusing, and I couldn't tell even what I was supposed to care about in these scenes. For instance, I only knew the stakes of the car chase at the beginning because I happened to know before the film began that Mr. White would be in the trunk: there wasn't enough set-up to get me invested in this (another huge difference from Bourne, I think, as every action sequence at least lets the audience in on the stakes of the fight first).