James Bond: Skyfall part 8
Act IV of Skyfall begins at 1:45:49 and opens with a stunning shot of Bond, with his Goldfinger car, as a tiny figure in a huge landscape, fitting as Skyfall‘s primary goal is to place the Craig Bond in context, not just in the Bond-verse but in the cultural landscape. The narrative asks “How does James Bond fit into the modern world of espionage?” but what it’s really asking is how he fits into the modern world at all. And I don’t think I’m “bringing this” to the movie, I think it’s quite intentional. The Bond movies have never, ever seriously asked us to consider the world of real-life espionage at all, they’ve always been colorful, absurd, high-flown escapist spectacles, the Batman of espionage thrillers. They didn’t offer a solution to the Cold War, they offered escape from it, they goofed on it.
And so, as with Batman, Bond must now be re-imagined, brought to earth, scaled back and made a resonant character. I’m not a grade-A cultural analyst, but one thing I’ve noticed in the past decade is that everyone has an opinion on Bond, and must have an opinion on Bond, and must be prepared to discuss and defend those opinions, and must be prepared to offer logical reasons why they prefer Dalton to Brosnan or why The Spy Who Loved Me is better than Thunderball or why Nick Nack is better than Tee Hee, all in spite of the fact that it’s all quite silly. James Bond, for some bizarre reason, bless his heart, matters to us as a culture. He obviously means something.
I think the cultural shift regarding Bond is the same shift that has presented itself to straight white men everywhere: he’s no longer in charge of everything, and the world is no longer his red carpet. Watching You Only Live Twice the other day, I was struck by how the whole narrative just unrolls for Bond to step into. There’s a scene where Japanese super-spy Tiger Tanaka takes Bond to his gigantic Ninja Training Camp, an idea silly enough by itself, but sillier still is the way it’s presented to Bond: here is a gigantic ninja training camp, we are all here to help you, do what you like with us. Guns, gadgets, vehicles, women, travel are all thrust toward the Connery Bond with the flourish of a fruit basket in a penthouse suite for a VIP. “Right this way, Mr. Bond, your fantasy adventure awaits you for you to partake.”
With rare exceptions, the Bond movies are nothing but fantasy comedies for middle-aged men with adolescent minds (which is why Roger Moore kept being cast long past his sell-by date – Bond on paper may be a young man, but Moore was the audience). The typical Bond plot falls apart with only a cursory glance and has the visual panache of a 50s Batman story: giant props, garish villains, shark tanks, volcano strongholds, indestructible henchmen. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond leads a chase into a stock-car race and no one bats an eye. The climax of You Only Live Twice hinges on a self-destruct device called “The Exploder Button.” They are movies made to entertain Don Draper, and, lest we forget, Don Drapers used to run the world.
Now the president is a black man and Bond’s boss is a woman and the Bond brand of leering sexism and casual misogyny is repugnant and off-putting. That’s why the Craig Bond has been re-imagined, brilliantly, as an underdog, a shadow living in a shadow, a grown child who dreads a trip home: he can’t escape his past, he must go home — in order to burn it to the ground. In fact, we could say that the plot of Skyfall exists as an excuse for Bond to go home and destroy it, to shed his past. Like Silva, he wants to finally be his own man.
“How old were you when they died?” asks M. “You know the answer to that,” says Bond, “You know the whole stoory.” An “as you know, Bob” scene in reverse, two characters discussing something the audience desperately wants to know more about, but in this case the lead refuses to play. There is a habit in Hollywood of the executive, or producer, or actor, or director, or marketing guy, saying “I want to know more about _____,” and the writer saying “Well okay, I’ll make sure that’s clear then,” and it’s a crying shame because it’s mysteries like the nature of Bond’s childhood that keep the character interesting, or better still, vital. Tyler Durden’s complaint was that he lived in a nation of men raised by women, that all our male instincts have been softened and abstracted, and this is where the Craig Bond comes in — he’s going to be a man, unapologetically, in a world where men are no longer fashionable. His “You know the whole stoory” line is a bitter acknowledgment that James Bond is cultural property, that he belongs to everyone now, that we “know the whole story,” but we don’t know the man. Skyfall seeks to crack open the perfect oblique eggshell of Bond and examine the secrets inside, but it also recognizes that in order to keep him vital we can’t know everything — because real people don’t want us to know everything. George Carlin once said that language is a tool for concealing the truth – well, culture is a language too, a language we use to talk about everything except who we are. It’s like examining a black hole, we can’t see it, but we know it’s there by the way it affects everything around it. “Orphans always make the best recruits,” observes M, because, like Bruce Wayne, like Don Draper, like Harry Potter, they have less attachment to familial structures and more attachment to institutional ones as they seek desperately to replace the thing they cannot have.
Bond and M get to Skyfall, Bond’s ancestral home, a dusty, empty baronial manor house surrounded by marsh. Is this a metaphor? Is Bond a decaying shell of a manse in a wilderness, steeped in history with only his 50-year-old car to remind him of his youth? What did Bond’s father do, that he owned such a remote, isolated pile? How old is the Bond money?
The shell’s caretaker, Kincade, is played by Albert Finney, but I have to assume the part was written to entice Sean Connery back to the franchise. How awesome that would have been, to find a bearded, bald Connery puttering around the empty shell of the Bond manse with a shotgun, ready for battle. As it is, Finney has no direct connection to Bond except through the Bourne movies, where he plays the head of the Treadstone program. When informed that his life is in imminent danger from an unknown number of trained assassins, Kincade reacts as though he’s been told that raccoons have gotten into the grain, as though defending the house from assassins is the most natural thing in the world. Obviously the part was written for Connery.
“Do we still have a gun room?” asks Bond. Kincade, suddenly a makeshift Q, performs an anti-Q scene, concomitant with the theme of privation in Skyfall — it’s an embarrassment on poverty, the guns are gone, just “your father’s old hunting rifle” and “a couple of sticks of dynamite.” The narrative, which not that long ago was leaping about neon-lit Shanghai and cruising through a fantasy casino in Macau, now becomes, strangely enough, a big-budget remake of Straw Dogs, with Bond, M and Kincade building home-made booby traps. The paucity of Bond’s tools set against the wealth and plenty of Silva’s computer-aided empire are exactly what Skyfall needs — there is no miniature helicopter or high-tech gadget waiting in a briefcase for Bond to whip out. And so when Bond goes to practice with his father’s rifle, his aim is now true: he’s out of MI6, he’s out of the modern culture, he’s home.
Elsewhere, folks have remarked upon Bond’s Catholocism, as his house has a priest hole. Me, I don’t buy it, Kincade says the priest hole “dates back to Reformation,” but I have a hard time believing Bond money is that old. Although it does give added resonance to Silva’s admonishment to M to “Think on your sins.” (Silva, being Spanish and having a Day of the Dead skull for his logo, is a more likely candidate for Catholocism.) I think the priest hole is simple escape-route planning, since the plot calls for an escape route, but the screenplay takes care to root the route in character, to say that when James heard that his parents had died, “he hid in here for two days.” We know nothing of how or when that was, whether Bond was eight or twenty-five, and how violent or unexpected the deaths were, and I hope we never do.