James Bond: Skyfall part 4
James Bond’s aim is untrue. The bullet from Bad Guy is apparently pulling on his shooting muscles. Worse, he’s being subjected to a psychological exam. Parallels to Christopher Nolan’s Batman resonate as the psych exam is administered in an interrogation room eerily similar to the one in The Dark Knight. The psych guy looks like a Freudian out of central casting, and we can sense Bond’s eye-rolling dismay as he subjects himself to this humiliation. He knows, also, that an authority figure of some sort, probably M, is watching from behind the glass. So his answers aren’t exactly honest. They’re a performance.
The first word, “gun,” Bond replies “shot,” to remind whoever is watching that he’s in the field, taking real risks, not wasting time hiding in a bunker. Then “agent,” which Bond answers with “provocateur.” Assuming he’s not referring to the lingerie line (although, why not), he’s referring to an agent who “seeks to discredit or harm another by provoking them to commit a wrong or rash action.” Which would seem to be a reference to M, who spurs people to commit wrong or rash actions on a regular basis, most recently with telling Eve to shoot Bond. The word “woman” prompts “provocatrix,” which, unless a simple echo of “agent provocateur,” suggests that Bond sees himself a victim of temptation, manipulated and helpless before a woman’s wiles. (Including M, but more likely women in general — he cocks an eyebrow while saying it.) “Heart” prompts “target,” which refers both to his recent scrape with death (we could say that Bond would be dead now, except his heart is in the right place), but also his license to kill. “Bird” prompts “sky” (rather than “woman?”), “M” prompts “bitch.” Which, if I’m reading the familial tracing of Skyfall correctly, means that Bond is a son of a bitch. “Sunlight” brings Bond to “swim,” perhaps casting him back to Turkey, or plunging down out of the sky into the river, or perhaps back to that lovely day in Casino Royale, when Bond emerged from the surf like Aphrodite in a reversal of Ursula Andress’s entrance in Dr. No. “Moonlight” prompts “dance,” although it’s hard to imagine Bond dancing in the moonlight, “murder” prompts the sly, demure “employment.” Not “job,” mind you, but “employment.” Which implies that murder isn’t his job, exactly, but is a career opportunity. A job is something you do for someone else, employment is something you trade for a skill. The difference subtly implies that Bond, should he decide to do so, could easily leave this rat maze and go murder for some other people, or for himself. Except that “country” prompts the adamant response “England,” which tells us that Bond is, beneath it all, a patriot. The word “Skyfall,” which obviously isn’t a word the audience is familiar with, prompts the response “Done,” at which point Bond terminates the exam. On the one hand, he’s refusing to be the dancing monkey; he knows that this examination is a rigged game and he won’t play. On the other hand, he is also “done” with Skyfall, as we will come to learn. (M and Mallory and Tanner watch from behind the glass, a little trio of power: M knows that Bond is giving his answers directly for her benefit, he doesn’t know that he’s also humiliating her in front of Mallory, and he doesn’t know that she can’t defend herself because it would mean exposing herself to Tanner, her junior.)
Exasperated, Bond digs the Bad Guy shrapnel out of his chest — a clue! — and has it analyzed by whoever does that kind of thing for MI6. The expunging of the shrapnel indicates a rite of passage, that he’s washed that wound right out of his chest, that his aim will now improve, that he’s ready to move on.
There’s a wonderful shot of Bond pacing M’s waiting room, like a caged rat, really, the man of action made to wait. Eve comes to fetch him, also brought low (suspended from the field for “killing 007”), every bit Bond’s equal in wit and intelligence. (I’m guessing she’s not a 00 agent, since she had to ask permission to “take the shot” back in Istanbul.) The chemistry between the two actors is so strong you almost wish they would become a team. Bond is surprised that Eve wants to go back out into the field after killing a man. “It’s not for everyone,” he murmurs, and we cast back to that night on the beach in Turkey, the sex with the stranger, the drinking, the scorpion. What kind of person is right for a license to kill? Not a family man, not the marrying kind, but a man who lives for the moment, a man who knows that every moment might be your last, because someone like him might be looking to end it. He doesn’t want that life for Eve, whom he seems to have a yen for. It’s the first time we’ve seen him be protective of another woman, or for another person, for that matter.
M tells Bond that he’s passed his tests (although he has not), he’s in good graces again, a favorite son, and Mallory asks him “Why come back?” Indeed, if the 00 life “isn’t for everyone,” why partake in it at all? There are bars and women and gambling to be found the world over. But Mallory is approaching the question from a different tack, suggesting that Bond should have quit because he’s over the hill. “You’re sentimental about him,” Mallory says to M, underscoring her maternal impulses. Wonderfully flipped, that the father figure wants to protect the son and the mother wants him to get back into the field. The real issue, of course, is not Bond’s safety but who he is: it’s clear that he would rather die in the field than live behind a desk, and that’s the life his mother wants for him. It’s like a scene from another English drama, the one where the northern son wants to be an artist and the father wants him to be an accountant, and the mother loves the father but wants the son to be happy.
Bond is a little stunned by Mallory’s and M’s fight over him — he knows something is going on but he can’t quite figure out what. Luckily, the shrapnel report comes in and Tanner breaks the tension. The bullet that struck 007 is — a clue! — an extremely rare make, allowing Bond to immediately identify his Bad Guy (whose name is Patrice — just Patrice, like “Cher”) and learn his whereabouts through the Batman-level detective work of Letting Tanner Tell Him.
Bond heads over the National Gallery to meet Q and get his gadgets. Longtime readers of this journal know that I have little patience with the whole idea of Q; as beloved as Desmond Llewelyn was, the idea of a quartermaster who thrusts gadgets, unbidden, into the hands of a secret agent with the admonition that he not break them has always struck me as a bridge too far. When a gadget is introduced into a narrative, we know that, like Chekhov’s Gun, it’s imperative that it be used at some point. The more gadgets introduced, the more the script will have to sweat in order to run down the list. The fact that Bond never asks for his teargas-laden briefcase or his exploding pen makes the whole thing ridiculous: why spend the time and money creating gadgets unneeded in the field? That said, I’m quite happy with Ben Whishaw as the new Q, and I very much like the idea that Q is younger than Bond, a skinny nerd instead of a clucking uncle (or, by the end, loony grandfather). The gadgets Q presents to Bond are eminently usable: a personalized gun and a radio transmitter (two actually). The joke, eventually, will be that Bond’s low-tech gadgets will be so crude that the high-tech monsters he’s fighting won’t see them coming.
But first, Bond and Q have to discuss a painting, Turner’s The “Fighting Temeraire” Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up. Bond either sees himself in the painting of the old warship being towed away, or perhaps M, or perhaps the whole 20th-century spy game. There is a lot more to be said about the significance of the paintings in this scene, all quite interesting, here.
Q and Bond also discuss their relative usefulness. Q, who is apparently Top Nerd at MI6 as well as Head Gadget Designer, represents the “pajama” side of espionage, the 21st century model, where worlds are built and destroyed with keystrokes, while Bond, the blunt instrument of policy, is there when “a trigger has to be pulled.” It’s great to see a Q who’s a genuine threat to Bond, it’s hard to imagine a fate chillier for a man like Bond than one decided upon by a nerd in his pajamas. “Brave new world,” muses Bond, quoting either Huxley or Shakespeare.
And that is the end of Act I. Forty-one minutes, in three distinct sections: Bond Falls, Bond is Absent, Bond Returns, a little three-act drama. The remaining three acts will follow a similar pattern.