Sunday, September 14, 2014

Some Work of Noble Note May Yet Be Done

What is the price and cost of duty? What is its pleasure?
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

— Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses

Ever since the release of Dr. No in 1962, the James Bond 007 films have acted as a touchstone and running commentary on popular culture and society. For over half a century, a parade of different Bonds, Bond Girls, and increasingly over the top villains have offered escapist fantasies of varying implausibility and ridiculousness which have served, inter alia, as travel brochures, fashion statements, and advertisements for the benefits, drawbacks, and terrors of technological progress. They have done this, for the most part, not because it was their makers’ purpose (or even within their power) to critique society, but rather because they were intended to be hip, with it, and relevant, even at the inevitable expense of any seriousness or credibility. (Roger Moore, anyone?) With various degrees of success, these pop confections have held a mirror up to society. It is no wonder not everybody likes what they see.

These thoughts were inspired by film critic A.O. Scott’s interesting essay on the death of adulthood in American culture, which seems to be making the rounds of the culturesphere. He says many things, but his major point seems to be that popular culture, moviemaking preeminent within it, has elevated a strain of anti-adulthood and fixation on youth long dominant in American culture to the forefront of everything we see. I am not qualified to judge the correctness of his claim, but it certainly does seem to me the flight from responsibility and adulthood and the joys and tribulations of perpetual adolescence have become a leading subtext or topic for a very large number of popular entertainments nowadays. In particular, this cultural conversation seems to be focused on men and boys and their refusal to grow up.

Interestingly, upon reading Scott’s essay, my thoughts turned immediately to the most recent film in the Bond series, Skyfall. It occurred to me this movie can be read as providing a very interesting commentary on the issues of growing up, responsibility, and adulthood for a man nowadays, even if—or perhaps because—it is wrapped up in a popular escapist spy thriller. I claim no special cultural profundity for the film, nor no searing insight for the filmmakers or screenwriters, but I think the mirror which this particular thriller holds up to our current zeitgeist is pretty revealing. Even if the cultural critique I read within it was unconscious, or only semi-intentional, that does not vitiate its insight or force. Perhaps it enhances it. You Delightful Readers can judge for yourselves. If Stanley Cavell can find deep commentary on Hamlet embedded in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I can certainly tease a bildungsroman out of a Bond film. It’s my blog, anyway.

* * *

I will not tax your patience by relating the plot or other details of the film which you can discover yourself if you like. Nor will I spare you any spoilers. If you have not seen it already, there is no plot element I can reveal that will diminish your appreciation of the movie as cultural critique. In my experience, anyway, it is a measure of the quality of a story that you are willing to reread or rewatch it even when you know how it turns out. Skyfall is that good a movie.

The key plot points I would draw your attention to are as follows:

  • At the beginning of the film, Bond is accidentally shot by his competent, no-nonsense assistant while attempting to recover a stolen data file from the top of a train barreling toward a tunnel of no return (cue Alfred Hitchcock and Sigmund Freud). Bond’s assistant, who happens to be black and female, shoots him on the explicit orders of their boss at British intelligence, “M,” who, while white and old, also happens to be female (Judi Dench). Bond, by the way, is an orphan who has a simultaneously fraught and close relationship with M which a casual observer could mistake for a mother–son dynamic.
  • After plunging to his apparent death in deep water (cue Carl Jung, opening credits, and Adele’s theme song), we later discover Bond is alive after all, although he appears to be hiding from M and MI-6 in an exotic backwater and spending his time in self-destructive drinking, meaningless sex, and taunting dangerous arachnids for thrills and money.
  • Bond comes back home to mother M when he hears she and MI-6 are under attack by a mysterious hacker who can penetrate British intelligence’s defenses at will. M displays no regret, casually informs Bond she has sold his home and all his belongings, and puts him into a crash course to get fit for active duty again, at which he struggles painfully. Nice homecoming.
  • Bond tracks the mysterious hacker through various exotic locales and the beds of one or two expendable women to an abandoned island off the China coast, where he discovers a platinum blond Javier Bardem who minces and lisps and puts the moves on our trussed up spy. Bardem, it seems, is Bond’s evil twin, who is pissed at M for betraying him to the Chinese. He has channeled his anger into a worldwide empire of computer intelligence and manipulation, which he sells to the highest bidder. Strangely, though, this evil computer genius uses data screens that look like video games.
  • After more plot machinations and an unsuccessful attempt on M’s life by Bardem (for an evil computer genius, he’s pretty lame with a gun), Bond flees with M to his ancient family home in Scotland, Skyfall, where he acquired what an MI-6 psychologist called his “pathological rejection of authority due to unresolved childhood trauma.” Bond himself tells M they’re going “into the past.” For transportation, they use Sean Connery–Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 from 1964’s Goldfinger. Into the past, indeed.
  • An epic battle ensues at Skyfall, in which Bond, M, and Bond’s old gamekeeper and surrogate father battle Bardem and his small army, resulting in the destruction of Skyfall (which Bond hates), the Aston Martin DB5 (which only seems to mildly irritate Bond), and Bardem’s army. Bardem tracks a wounded M to a chapel where, while trying to persuade her to shoot both herself and him in the head to end their misery, Bond literally stabs Bardem in the back with a large hunting knife. So much for homosexual tension with your evil twin.
  • Finally, after blessing Bond with her approval, M dies.
* * *

Now of course everyone who watches Skyfall knows all about James Bond. (All Bond movies assume it.) He is a charming, ruthless killer, a master manipulator with no empathy who treats friendly and hostile women alike like Kleenex and enemies like target practice. He is unmarried and childless, a man with no duties or responsibilities other than his job, which he often does grudgingly and against orders. Come what may, he always wins, usually punctuating his triumph with a cynical joke. As a cultural symbol of the last half century, James Bond is Peter Pan with a gun. For a British character he is as American as they come.

And yet in Skyfall he is betrayed and (symbolically) killed by women (including his mother), he falls into adolescent irresponsibility and self destruction, he is blocked and belittled by the genius avatars of today’s high technology (one of whom is gay or bisexual and the other is so young he still has spots), and he struggles not very successfully against physical and intellectual decrepitude. What more comprehensive list of challenges facing modern American man can one compile? What greater list of fears and blocks to maturity torture the brains of today’s man: emasculation, obsolescence, irrelevance, sexual confusion, self-indulgence, failure, age?

But Skyfall’s James Bond does not remain on the beach in India to sulk, boozing for breakfast and daring scorpions to sting him. He does not smoke pot and play Parcheesi with his stoner 30-something friends while the world burns or skip dates with beautiful women far out of his class to rearrange his vintage comic book collection. He is no Marvel superhero or genetically enhanced super soldier who can pretend to be invincible. This James Bond is the most vincible hero we have seen. And yet he picks himself up painfully, dusts himself off, and throws himself back into a game he is not sure—we are not sure—he can win, because it is his duty.1 This is the opposite of the flight from adulthood. This is its embrace: the embrace of duty and responsibility. If there is a bubblegum escapist fantasy thriller which offers a better critique of the flight from adulthood—yet does not shy away from depicting how difficult and costly adulthood is—than this, I do not know what it is.

* * *

At one point, as Bardem’s villain bears down on M’s public hearing to kill her and Bond sprints through the streets of Whitehall to stop him, Judi Dench–M recites the conclusion from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” at the top of this post. The effect is inspirational, as we fully understand by now the effort and will it requires for Bond to push his aged, broken-down body through the streets to rescue both the head of his service and the only woman he has considered his mother for his entire adult life.

And yet Bond is not Tennyson’s Ulysses, a selfish, vain old man who wants to abandon his aged wife—who waited patiently for him for twenty years of wandering—his dutiful son, and his own people, to fling himself onto the wine dark sea once more in search of glory and adventure. No, Bond is a soldier, a dutiful son who dons his buckler and sword to wade again and again into the blood and mud of the battlefield, risking life and limb for the country which is his only family and his only allegiance. At the end of the movie, Mallory–M welcomes him into his new office—the original Bernard Lee–M’s office, down to the paneling, soundproofed door, and paintings on the wall; a fine, full circle the filmmakers have crafted for us2—and tells him as he tosses a new mission brief onto the desk, “So, 007, lots to be done. Are you ready to get back to work?”

Bond replies with a smile, “With pleasure, M. With pleasure.”

That is adulthood, children. That is what it means to be a man.

Related reading:
A.O. Scott, The Death of Adulthood in American Culture (The New York Times, September 11, 2014)

1 I am not overlooking the element of revenge in Bond’s motivation; it is undoubtedly there. But this is just to say that Bond’s character’s motivations are multifarious and complex, as they are in real life. This makes Skyfall a better film, if a more complicated and ambiguous one in many respects.
2 Note how, having reset the location of M’s office back to its setting from the very first film of the series, the filmmakers have also given enough backstory and proof of Mallory’s personal courage and toughness to justify his position in M’s chair. No longer just a fat, slightly ridiculous old man behind a desk, M’s role as leader and father to James Bond has been justified to us and to Bond. This little bit of the patriarchy, at least, makes sense again.

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