Friday, November 6, 2015

Spectre, or rebuilding the "Big Picture"

First the good news. My personal copy of Flickers of Film arrived in the mail this week. It’s a study about the possibilities and limitations of a consumer-driven nostalgia within the restrictions of late capitalist Hollywood. I’m very excited about this book, and hope that the occasion arrives in the near future for me to say more about it—especially regarding its long, deeply personal, production history. We’ll see.

By way of transition, I will say that Flickers of Film (then titled Haunted Nerves) found a lot of its focus around the same time in summer of 2012 that I composed this popular piece about the anticipation of Skyfall (2012)—though, importantly, none of that really ended up in the book.


It’s no secret that the Bond franchise has long held a special place in my heart, though as the years go on, I increasingly find myself wondering why. I blogged about Skyfall three years ago here, and on Quantum of Solace a few years before that (in the seven years since that film came out, I’ve written on countless subjects—and many of much greater consequence—than the modest piece about what Bond meant when he told M at theend of QofS that she was “right about Vesper.” And yet to this day, it remains by far my most popular blog post, which might make one wonder what they’ve been doing with the last decade of their life. Might).

I also blogged a fair amount about Casino Royale back in the day, but I think most of those pieces are gone as they eventually made their way in some fashion into a book chapter I wrote for Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale (2010), a narratological study entitled “Hardly the Big Picture”—the contents of which make for a good starting point in approaching Spectre’s many failings.

There are many reasons why Casino Royale remains not only Daniel Craig’s best Bond film, but one of the two or three greatest Bond films ever. For now, I will restrict myself to two—the film was a smart example of the “reboot” before the reboot became a trendy cliché (in a sense, the franchise was always good at that, hence its longevity), and the solid beginnings of what media scholars now call “world-building.” It wasn’t just a successful stand-alone movie—it promised so much more to come with its iconic final moment. Bond had become “James Bond,” and only at the very conclusion does he at last confront the movie’s true villain in a sequence that offers (in a good way) more questions than answers (not unlike, for comparison, Nick Fury’s cameo appearance a couple of years later at the end of Iron Man).

So where did the franchise go from there? Admittedly, Quantum of Solace is not as bad as its detractors argue (including myself in the past) and has arguably improved over time. It is a first rate action film, perhaps the best of the entire series in that regard—but the problem may ultimately be that it’s really *only* an action film. Its emotional depth (which I wouldn’t quickly dismiss) is based entirely on the way it brings closure on a number of fronts with the events of Casino Royale. It’s not only a lesser film than its predecessor but, to make matters worse, it’s very narrative DNA begs the comparison. But I would argue its failings ultimately were not that it relied too much on Casino Royale—which are frankly my favorite moments of the movie, and which cause me to revisit it at least once a year.  Rather, I’d suggest that QofS’ shortcomings are rooted in the fact that it didn’t also continue to lay the narrative foundation for that “big picture” of which Casino Royale was so fond.

So, this brings us to Skyfall. Its too bad the filmmakers felt the need to start over narratively. I have to say, I am not a huge fan. Its quality definitely puts it in the top half of all Bond films ever—maybe even the top third. But that would be as much a reflection of the other Bond films (*cough* 1970s *cough* Roger Moore) than on Skyfall’s inherent attributes. Skyfall was the first Bond film—at least since the Pierce Brosnan era—that felt like an overthought, high-concept, mess. That’s not to say that aren’t a lot of things to admire, but just that the entire story didn’t feel organic—the unnecessary Dark Knight twists, the returns of Q and Moneypenny which seemed to serve no purpose other than they are expected to be there, the rebooting (again), Bond as old relic (again), the shock ending, and so on.

So, this brings us to Spectre—and I’ll state upfront that there are FULL SPOILERS ahead. I toyed with the idea of trying to write around them, but they are ultimately too central to my problems with this film. But I will add if you’ve been keeping up with the trailers and some of the gossip around Spectre, absolutely nothing will surprise you . . . and that right there is the first of many problems with the film. 


Spectre seems to exist in one of those maddening fictional worlds where everybody not only conveniently knows everyone else but also where (more conveniently) everyone seems to be related to everyone else (by the end of the film I was half-expecting the villain C to reveal to M that he was the elder’s long lost son, and the whole conspiracy was rooted in the son’s revenge for his abandonment).

The problem with Oberhauser . . . sorry, I meant Blofeld:

(To start out, however, I will say that I give the press a lot of credit for keeping this one under wraps, even though it was pretty obvious all along. . . . or maybe because it was so obvious all along)

This “mystery box” strategy, at least when it comes to iconic characters in well-known franchises, has . . . got . . . to . . . stop. And I don’t say this simply because it’s a tired promotional strategy—no, there are deeper problems with it by now. For one, you are just setting up the movie for disappointment by creating a lot of unnecessary hype and anticipation. Bond sells Bond just fine by himself, thank you very much. 

But for another, you end up wasting more than half the film building to a moment that the whole audience is already expecting—so, you’ve wasted half of a (very long) film by putting off the actual story you claim to be telling. Blofeld is Blofeld—embrace it, and given him more to work with, and not just have him be an interchangeable third-act villain (the scar was a nice touch, btw, but entirely predictable--yeah, right, Blofeld totally died in that explosion and isn't in any way coming back).

The other problem with Blofeld is this idiotic, grade school psychology business about him being Bond’s long lost adopted brother with a serious chip on his shoulder. So, we are meant to believe that everything we’ve seen in the last four Bond films can be traced back to one kid who was jealous that daddy didn’t love him as much as the other kid.

It's not just that this weakens the film—it’s that you don’t even need this easy, obvious psychobabble junk to make the film work. Skip it. Blofeld works just fine as a villain without any tiresome motivation (and it’s not that motivation isn’t something to strive for, but the writers could have tried to be a little—lot more—creative). 

So, in the end Blofeld’s mad at Bond because he keeps interfering with his plans for world domination? Or, is it because of Daddy issues? Maybe, he’s also repressing homoerotic feelings too, like a couple of the other past Bond villains? Why not? What an over-determined mess.

Finally, Blofeld doesn’t work because, to bring this conversation full circle, there is just way too much retrospectively tying up of the previous three films—Blofeld’s narrative function in the end is basically, “yes, I was there all along (take my word for that). . . . and, oh, and I killed all the women in your life for retaliation (take my word for that too). How do you know? . . . . Because I have lots of pictures of those people!” Ironically, Mendes could have constructed a more cohesive world for Daniel Craig's Bond here, in retrospect, if he hadn't spent all of Skyfall rebooting Bond.

(casting a fine actor like Christoph Waltz, too, was a misfire, as his bad guy persona is a bit of an obvious cliché by now—and partly what made him such a welcoming revelation in the otherwise uneven Django Unchained)

There are other problems with the film—way too many people who just happen to be in the right place at the right time, with often little explanation, let alone a plausible one. And that got on my nerves too as the film wore on. Even for a Bond film there seem to be a few too many plotholes. Also, I do not find the happy ending terribly convincing—the chemistry between Bond and Swain isn’t terrible, but it’s hard to see Bond running off with her in the end. It's an unearned stretch. This is magnified by how much effort the movie makes to suggest he's still haunted by the ghost of Vesper, and incapable of finding much personal connection with anyone, which is conveniently dropped at the end.

Finally, I will say that are moments, at least for me, there were, literally, laughably bad. We don’t need Tanner to tell us someone is dead after falling straight down 10-15 stories onto a rock hard surface (it was at this point, I honestly began to wonder if Mendes and co. was playing a big joke on the audience, but I hope not because that would be even more infuriating).

OK . . . I don’t hate Spectre as much as it probably seems right about now. I'd put it in the top-half of all Bond films. Maybe even the top third! I do appreciate the fan shout-outs (my favorite was the reference to OHMSS’s “Hildebrand”). The initial Spectre meeting was a wonderfully effective throwback, without feeling like an anachronism. Some moments work—like the Billy Wilder-esque talking to the rodent scene which better highlights Bond’s fragile psyche than the countless dialogue meditations on the same subjects (and serves a useful narrative function). On that note, I too love the use of the mirror during the “Bond . . . James Bond” moment. And Craig is still as good a Bond as there has ever been, and I know I’ll revisit it several times in the future. 

But this was a real missed opportunity overall . . . and, more to the point, I’m beginning to wonder the same thing about the entire Daniel Craig era these days.

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