Tag Archives: Sam Mendes

New Life in Misogyny — “Skyfall” and the Bond Reboot

Skyfall collapse

by Russ Schwartz

The message reads, “Think on your sins.” Then MI6 blows up.

The institution is archaic and corrupt, and must be overthrown, says the villain of Skyfall. Yet it wasn’t long ago that the Bond series blew up its own foundations – twice in recent memory. Reinvention, rather than innovation, is the 007 series’ lifeblood, as on each go-round it renounces its formula only to cannibalize it, and then renounces the cannibalization, and so forth. On occasion, it will think on its sins, but not all of them.

Everyone thought it was pretty cool when Daniel Craig, his first time out, said he didn’t give a damn how his martini was made. A decade later, he accepts his perfectly shaken martini, presented to him by the same off-screen angel who throws Indy his hat at the end of Last Crusade. Within the Craig-era Bonds, we’ve seen the agent grow from a parkour ‘n’ poker thug into an assassin who says “England” before the profiler finishes the word “country.”

If Bond has grown into his role within three pictures – enough so for them to re-introduce series staples Moneypenny and Q – what is the next phase of his evolution? None of the other Bonds ever got further: not Connery, who at last wearied of the schtick; nor Moore, who leeringly failed to; nor Brosnan, whose final outing, Die Another Day, was a comic mishmash of everything Bond, a narcissistic, nearly apocalyptic celebration of the series’ continued existence (its momentary bid for relevance being that it pissed off North Korea, in lieu of having Brosnan take on Osama bin Laden).

Skyfall reboot

Until now, though, Bond hasn’t been about evolution, but reboot itself. And so if the current set of handlers, which will again include director Sam Mendes, continue to pursue evolution, eventually they will also pursue death. I have a funny feeling that it will take them two more movies: one to cap the overwhelming success of Skyfall (and maybe pick up the plotline about the Quantum organization), and one to say goodbye. Any change that happens to Bond the man kills 007, and 007 needs to outlive Bond; the way must be open for a fresh reboot.

There are seven movies across the last two Bond runs, and more than half of them – Goldeneye, Die Another Day, Casino Royale, and Skyfall – are principally concerned with the institution of Bond itself. Two of these are reinventions, and two are celebrations. In all cases, little occurs that is not designed to show how the old Bond is new, or how very Bond the proceedings are. The franchise is its own subtext.

You can see a similar pattern in any of Hollywood’s dozens of remakes, reboots, and popular adaptations on offer every year. While the source material varies widely, the filmmakers tend to have the same mix of priorities:

1) To reward the filmgoer for recognizing the characters.
2) To briefly convince the filmgoer that something is changing.
3) To reward the filmgoer for recognizing the brand.

This last one is particularly important here, as the series’ primary concern is finding new ways to configure the Bond brand. That sounds cynical, but I don’t dislike this element. I enjoy being in on the joke when Craig balks at the gun-and-radio toolkit provided by Ben Whishaw’s Q (namely, that Craig’s forebears all received extravagant gizmos to destroy). I remember being 10 and knowing that Super Mario Bros. was a terrible, terrible film, but still not wanting it to end because it had Mario and Luigi in it. (That was not an easy admission to make.) In the Bond series, nearly every moment, every scene, every line of dialogue strives to gratify in this way, even (especially?) in the strongest entries.

Is this self-involvement – a charge usually leveled at Bond himself – the series’ own sin on which to think? Hardly. If writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan are making a statement, it’s that they will not brook betrayal of all things Bond. Old ways will stay the best ways, and James Bond Will Return. But in affirming this, they commit to committing another sin, perhaps in perpetuity.

Berenice Marlohe

Was Pierce Brosnan’s debut in GoldenEye all that long ago? Yes, yes, I know that Spider-Man was back at square one after just a decade, but in Bond years, 1995 is a bat of an eyelash. Part of the campaign to kick the series back into gear for the post-Cold War era involved lip service to the notion that the series was with the times, even if Bond was behind them: the film introduced the first female M (Dame Judi Dench), who in short order took Bond to task for being a chauvinist pig. Of course, that’s the same film that introduced the Russian leg-strangling sex killer Xenia Onatopp, so perhaps M’s own handlers – Eon Productions and director Martin Campbell – were not-so-subtly informing us that Bond is only as behind the times as the films themselves (or that the times aren’t what they think they are, or that Bond simply doesn’t care what the times are).

And that’s where the reboot cycle comes in. Skyfall is meant to refine the Bond formula, and one of its core tactics is to reduce all female characters. It’s a decision, as opposed to a by-product, an oversight, or some other term people use to excuse misogyny. This is the most polished Bond movie ever made, sporting a rock-solid story structure (admittedly cribbed from The Dark Knight), the lush, opulent visuals of cinematographer Roger Deakins, gripping action set pieces, and near-perfect pacing, all in the service of a crusade to refine Bond like a good whiskey; Bond’s country is England, and Skyfall‘s country is Bond. It takes Bond to interesting places, dares us to think he’s slipping, and even manages a strong third act, a rarity for the series. Yet all this careful planning reserves only degradation, dismissal and sadism for the film’s female characters.

Skyfall Severine

Bond is deft enough to sneak onto a boat in Macau and make love to Severine in the shower (because hey, she’s already a lifelong sex slave), but he neglects to sneak off the same way. He casually presents himself to Silva’s thugs, dooming her to die in a shooting competition: Bond aims for the whiskey glass balanced on her head, and Silva (who has seen Bond’s wavering marksmanship scores) simply aims for Severine. Bond’s next line, “Waste of good Scotch,” is meant to throw Silva off, but it’s also the only epitaph Severine gets.

Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) accidentally shoots Bond in the intro, but the act is nearly a term of endearment between them by the end, as they leverage her incompetence – spurred by M’s impatience – into a bit of aggressive foreplay. Perhaps he is allowing her to redeem herself when he hands over his “cutthroat razor” and lets her shave him (good job, darling). But at the end, her flaws in service prompt her to withdraw from field work, deferring to Bond’s paternal suggestion that it “isn’t for everyone.” A scene later, he watches her happily recline to her desk, submissive, the point of entry to the now-male-again M, her sniper rifle removed for good. Not that Moneypenny is new to sexual humiliation (the Brosnan films were progressively meaner to actress Samantha Bond, culminating in her virtual-reality sexual fantasy in Die Another Day), but in the Craig canon, she is a woman who learned her place.

Skyfall Moneypenny

Now, I can think of a few other ways this could have gone. How about having Moneypenny redeem her initial error by helping out in the big fucking shootout with Silva’s guys in London, and getting rewarded with a job closer to M? Heck, if the team absolutely needed to cover all their bases, they could have had her wounded in the process, so she could say something like, “This will do while I’m on the mend.” Q gets to be a hacker now – why not adapt the role of Moneypenny to an intelligence position worthy of the M office? Perhaps this is in store moving forward, but after Skyfall, she is not off to a good start.

Again, these were not accidents in the writing. The movie is concerned with Bond losing his mojo and re-empowering himself, and for him to succeed, women must fail, it seems. All of them do, even M, whose sins (on which she and we are meant to think) are the root of the film. Yes, she can defend why she betrayed Silva, but the film still forces her to pay with degradation, punishment, and death. (A note: When she dies, does it mean Bond has failed her, or that she has paid the price for her ruthlessness? Or has Bond failed to save her from paying the price for her ruthlessness? I must consider.)

Skyfall M

Already mortally wounded, M is threatened with death at Silva’s whim, in a sequence as charged as Severine’s murder is dispassionate. It is the film’s most intimate violence, and in this it threatens to break the Bond world. Silva presses the pistol into her hand and begs her to kill them both with one bullet, suggesting an eerie death-rape only prevented by Bond’s well-aimed throwing knife. She dies peacefully in Bond’s arms, her last words harshly praising a job well done.

M’s fate rankles me a bit less than those of Severine and Moneypenny because she’s given space to develop and resolve her character in a film that explores her relationship with Bond as boss/mentor/mother. Facing public humiliation in a government hearing, the defense she presents for her work also serves as a defense of the series (with shades of Gary Oldman’s concluding speech in The Dark Knight – and for the record, I think Skyfall‘s version plays better).

Yet I am still confronted by the fact that all three female characters are ultimately forced to submit, in one way or another, and that this defines the role of women in an entry meant to set the series’ priorities in stone. Back to basics, it says; old ways are the best ways.

Skyfall insult to injury

Wednesday Collective – Bollywood Evolves, Shark Attack, The Lion in Winter, and So Many Jake Gyllenhaals

We’re running 3-5 articles a week here now, so there are some efforts to simplify the blog – browse down the left hand side and you’ll see a new Categories section that breaks articles down by type: Awards, Guest Writers, Movie Reviews, Television, and Wednesday Collective, which I hear is pretty fantastic. There will be some bigger moves toward streamlining, and the eventual transition to a more full-service website down the road.

For now, please enjoy this week’s collection of the best articles on film and storytelling from around the web.

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
The New Wave of Indian Art Cinema

Ship of Theseus

Janaki Challa at The Aerogram writes about the evolution of Bollywood, the independent film movement in India, and its burgeoning supply of arthouse directors (if not arthouse audiences) seeking to tell more realistic, socially insistent narratives. The article centers around Anand Ghandi’s new film Ship of Theseus, a relatively unknown film in the West that has jumped to the top of my radar.

The Wonders of GoPro

holyshit

It’s been a very good week for the phone-sized (and sometimes smaller) sports camera. It’s rugged nature and affordable price-tag mean everyone from independent filmmakers to divers can capture unique footage that proves the adage “everything’s been done already” dead wrong.

My favorite, perhaps of all-time, is spear-fisher Jason Dimitri’s recording of his reef preservation work off the Cayman Islands on March 13. While culling invasive lionfish, a 10-foot Caribbean Reef Shark gets curious. The pair engage in an extended battle that is enthralling, terrifying, yet safe for work/family-viewing. I have no qualms saying it’s among the best three minutes ever put to screen. Watch it full-screen, but not if you’re looking forward to the beach this summer. Thanks to Lara Hemingway for making me aware of this.

A cute narrative film comes from Corridor Digital, a studio that specializes in combining short films and visual effects. They combined footage from a drone with CG and ground footage to create a short film entirely from the perspective of Superman. Some clever editing gives the impression this is drawn from one long continuous take.

GoPro curates many of these user videos on YouTube. There’s this clip of a pelican in Tanzania learning to fly and this rescue of deer stuck on ice by two men with hovercraft. If those don’t make you tear up, there’s always “Fireman Saves Kitten,” which I’ve seen turn the burliest of men into balls of weep.

“The Lion in Winter: The Reason I Became a Medievalist”

The Lion in Winter

My favorite experience as a performer was as Philip, the king of France, in The Lion in Winter. It was during my first year of college and it was when I was still oblivious enough to think everything was running smoothly when, in fact, I’m pretty sure the entire crew was either killing or dating each other behind-the-scenes. The experience introduced me to a number of friends and a few mentors when it came to film and theatre.

The blog An Historian Goes to the Movies goes over some of the historical nuances of the Oscar-winning film version starring Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton, and explains why it’s enough to make anyone change their planned career path. The articles on The 13th Warrior and 300 are also worth checking out.

“Film as film: What’s the point of movie criticism?”

Rear Window 1

This brilliant article by Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson at Prospect Magazine asks the question, “In the digital age, what is left for a critic to supply?” His response is very close to my own view: the rote summarize-and-judge template of criticism is obsolete. There are too many audiences and too many resources available for viewers to do this themselves without reading 700 words.

The job of the modern critic is a difficult one – to fuse knowledge of cinematic techniques with emotional response and, through doing so, translate what the experience of the film itself is like. It echoes something I said in last week’s Wednesday Collective, that an ideal review should read two different ways before and after readers see the film: translating the experience beforehand to give the reader a sense of whether the film is for him or her, and drawing technique and meaning from the experience afterward as a further contemplation of what they’ve just seen.

Doppelganging Jake Gyllenhaal

Gyllenhaacalypse

Writer JP Hitesman got a chance to see Enemy, Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to last year’s Prisoners. It follows a milquetoast college professor played by Jake Gyllenhaal as he tracks down a bit actor played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Suspensefully paranoid hijinx ensue. Villeneuve got something out of Gyllenhaal in Prisoners that’s always been hinted at, but isn’t always realized in his films, so I’m very excited for an even more out-there story from the pair.

Hitesman wrote a reflection on Enemy and on the understated qualities of Canadian theatergoing.

Mica Levi on Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Speaking of actors breaking into new territory, Scarlett Johansson’s avant-garde Scottish nymphomaniac alien mindbender Under the Skin opens soon. I’ve heard some of the score by Mica Levi, frontwoman for Micachu and the Shapes, and it is a strange, brave thing all on its own. The Guardian has a brief piece on her influences and experiences while writing and recording the experimental soundtrack.

Mendes. Sam Mendes.

Jarhead

We’ll close with director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) and his 25 rules for filmmaking. I have a love-hate relationship with Mendes. His best, most raw film may be Jarhead (starring Jake Gyllenhaal, no less). American Beauty and Revolutionary Road are beautiful, but have some issues of staging, broad stereotyping, and overt showmanship. Skyfall is a discussion all in itself, a film shot so gorgeously it often forgets to give its viewers proper access into its action scenes. It also betrays Mendes’s perspective by replacing the nod-and-a-wink sexism of most James Bond films with an outright and unsettlingly violent misogyny. Nonetheless, that’s three successes and a popular miss, and much of this is good advice, so Vanity Fair‘s article on Mendes’s 25 rules of directing is worth checking out.