Sunday, December 06, 2015

SPECTRE vs. Spectre

Number One (Blofeld) and his Persian feline friend, From Russia with Love (1963) 
Before getting into the SPECTRE milieu, let me weigh in on the possibility of a black James Bond. Of course James Bond can be black -- simply tweak the backstory and bring us into the 21st century. Yes, Idris Elba, David Oyelowo or any number of other black actors could play Bond. As for Daniel Craig's run as 007, he's done a good job and seems close to Ian Fleming's conception of his character in the early novels. 

Regardless of who plays Bond, the earlier films to date are much more interesting to me. Why? Because of the writing, and the greater complexity of worldview. The first batches of James Bond films were more layered and enduring, like The Iliad. The latest, including the new Spectre (2015), are written much more like Scooby-Doo Where are You!  The main reason for this oversimplification in the newer ones, the great narrowing in number and variety and scope of characters, is undoubtedly financial: by make the SPECTRE organization a vague and fairly generic international crime syndicate that does not include real world animosities or historical backdrop, it can be sold anywhere from the USA to China and all over the globe without offense. As an investment strategy, this generic approach works -- Spectre is on track to rake in the equivalent of more than one billion dollars worldwide at the box office by the end of 2015. 
Claudine Auger -- Domino in Thunderball -- as Athena/Minerva (1960)*
As for The Iliad angle, one can imagine 007 (as played by Sean Connery, say, or George Lazenby), being plucked from lethal situations by the last-minute intervention of the goddess Athena, or encouraged to sleep with a beautiful enemy through the wiles of the goddess Aphrodite, or punished by one of the same goddesses for some arrogant slight on Bond's part (as in the loss of his wife in On Her Majesty's Secret Service). In the newer story lines, how does Bond escape sure death? Who knows? For there is no sense of wonder, or magic . . . just simple-minded writing. We are supposed to believe that Blofeld's entire animus toward Bond is due to his father's affection for the orphan boy Bond when they were kids. In the previous film, former 00 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) was supposed to carry an identical hatred toward Bond because of a Freudian conflict regarding their mutual surrogate mother and boss, M (Judi Dench). Pitiful. What works in a Sergio Leone film does not work in a Bond film.

In the earlier Bond films, there is a sense of a greater, interlocking world with numerous conflicts going on, any number of which may blow up at any time. SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence,Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) exploits Cold War tensions and other historical animosities. One catches glimpses of old and new conflicts, ones involving Turks vs. Bulgarians, Greeks, Russians, Koreans, Germans, British, Americans, Chinese and various organized crime syndicates. It's a big world, complex, and nationalism is treated in a tongue in cheek way. James Bond notes as much when he quips to "Bond girls" he's sleeping with: "What I did this evening was for Queen and country" (Thunderball) and, "The things I do for England" (You Only Live Twice). Any number of seemingly patriotic nationalists are, in fact, mercenaries, willing to do anything for money, power or revenge. These are valuable lessons for living in the world. One must always be on guard as to actual intent.

Besides the international intrigue and possibility, there's technology and its impact. This is a constant theme throughout the entire series -- including the limits of technology. (I'll write more about this, the importance of theme music and the mystique of hotel rooms at some point).

In the earlier films, I like the way they typically culminate in special forces assaults on a villain's castle, or secret lair. Bond is merely the frontman for larger backup forces. Again, in the new Spectre, there's none of that -- just the little Scooby-Doo band of oddballs working in conjunction with 007. And man, where is Oddjob (Harold Sakata) when you need a truly memorable assassin to contend with?
As of this posting, the closest thing to the spirit and range of the earlier run of James Bond films may be CNN's Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013-present). Bourdain is like a real James Bond for the here and now, a cultural explorer who carries himself with grit, humor, curiosity, and an intrepid nature. Rather than a license to kill, he has a license to travel, drink, sample various cuisines, and engage with people of different backgrounds and histories, all the while making a serious effort to understand both historical context and future possibilities. And so the circle is complete -- Bourdain, Anthony, vs. SPECTRE-like chaos. Can you dig?

*In Jean Cocteau's Le testament d'Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi! (1960). 

Today's Rune: Wholeness.     


Barbara Bruederlin said...

One of the more thought-provoking Bond film reviews I have ever encountered. Now I must ponder the prospect of Anthony Bourdain as an early Bond incarnation. Interesting....

Charles Gramlich said...

I still have some of the original novels around here unread, although I've read quite a few. I should get back to reading them. The movies were always just eye candy to me anyway. I do like Craig pretty well.

Erik Donald France said...

Thanks, y'all ~ cheers ~ ~ !

jodi said...

Erik-I am not a fan of Bond movies, no matter who is 'Bond'! It's just the overall genre. The men in my life, however; love them!