Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skyfall's major problems (it's nostalgia) (Bond, Part 2)

It's uncomfortable when just about everyone agrees that Skyfall is a good movie and you are left with only the company of the New Yorker's David Denby, notorious culture scold. If I agree with that guy, I must be wrong, right?

Now, I didn't hate Skyfall. In fact, I found it entertaining enough to keep my attention; and there were certain issues that I think make for good changes to the Bond formula. For instance, the big one is that instead of some ludicrous high-stakes villainous plan--remember Tomorrow Never Dies, where the villain wants to start a war between the UK and China to help his news empire? Woof--Skyfall focuses on a more personal stake of friendship and loyalty and feelings of obsolescence.

And yet I can't help not loving Skyfall as much as, say, Roger Ebert. Now here's the part where I confess to loving Roger Ebert even though I don't always agree with him: he seems to perfectly balance a populist interest in entertainment and a love of the craft and art of film-making. But I don't understand Ebert when he says that "here is James Bond lifted up, dusted off, set back on his feet and ready for another 50 years." Let me count the ways that I don't agree with that sentiment (and give some spoilers on the way):

My problems with Skyfall
One is for the length. I wasn't bored through much of the film, thanks to the use of clear goals for the main characters. But seriously, there were certain sequences and certain shots that could be shaved down. How many times do we need to see an establishing shot of the London skyline before cutting to the MI6 location that we've already been told is in London?

Two is for the villain Silva, a blond-dyed Javier Bardem, whose motivation and character feel like a real step back. This is such a complex of annoying choices that I have to give it its own numbering system:

Problem #1: Silva's character design and backstory: Unlike some other Bond villains, this one comes with backstory (a backstory that's a little too close to Janus's/006's history in Goldeneye, if you ask me):

Silva used to be M's favorite when she ran the Hong Kong bureau, but he got a little fresh with the Chinese, so to preserve a peaceful hand-over (and a couple of other agents' lives), M gave him up; the Chinese tortured him and when he realized that M had abandoned him, he took his cyanide capsule, which only resulted in massively disfiguring his face if he's not wearing his prosthetic cheek bones; and now he is in charge of a ruthless and well-funded terrorist/spy network for hire and a master hacker.

The leap from tortured prisoner to head of network is one of many things that you'll just have to either take or leave here, because there's no explanation of it, and I just have to shrug. At least Janus's backstory of being a traitor to MI6 involved his secret Russian activities before he faked his death, which explains why he went on to run his own Russian-based intelligence operation.

And then there's Silva's pointlessly disfigured face--is that why he's out for revenge, because his cyanide didn't work right? Maybe he should see Q Branch about misfiring gadgets. It seems like a quick way to give a little visual pop to the confrontation scene with M, but honestly, if you need a visual pop, maybe that's because you skimped on the emotional pop.

Problem #2: What does it mean to Silva to get M? It's always clear that this Silva is out to get M, but the parameters of that "out to get" aren't particularly clear: at one moment, he's trying to torture her by attacking her institution and at another point, he's just trying to old-school shoot her.

It's not a problem that his idea here changes, only that it's not sufficiently examined or explained. His first plan is to attack her reputation by exposing an MI6 list of some NATO spies that are under cover in terrorist organizations. That would strain Britain's relation with her allies, which would be a problem for M. (Now, Silva got that information from a hard drive in Turkey in the first action sequence--and no fair asking why the British hard drive with that information is in Turkey rather than safely in MI6 somewhere. Like Silva's transformation from Chinese prisoner to terrorist world leader, SHUT UP THAT'S WHY.) He also uses "computer hacking" to leak gas and blow up part of the MI6 building.

So that's Silva's plan: ruin M's reputation. No, wait, because then Silva allows himself to get captured; confronts M with her crime against him; and then escapes and tries to shoot her at a committee meeting. Why has his plan suddenly changed from "elaborately ruin M and expose her powerlessness" to "shoot M"? (It's especially weird that he interrupts the committee meeting which is exposing her to the public--yech--in order to shoot her. Dude, why interrupt one plan with another?) You might say, "maybe after the confrontation with her he decided to change his plan"; which would be a fine guess except that his plan clearly was set up before he was captured and confronted her. (Or else how would he have contacted his minions to bring him a cop's uniform and meet up with him to shoot her?)

This issue of Silva's motivation becomes especially bothersome in the final act, a siege of the old Bond estate of Skyfall Lodge. At first, Silva seems like he wants to take M out personally--otherwise, instead of infiltrating a government meeting with a gun, he could just use his magical computer network to hijack some missiles or something. And yet, Silva's attack on the lodge plan is a) let faceless minions go in and shoot first; b) let his helicopter use its massive gun to shoot up the lodge; c) throw grenades into the lodge. Now, if you can spot the "personal touch" in any of that, you've got better eyes than me.

Problem #3: Silva's queerness: This is a complicated topic, but let me just tell you my experience: here in West Texas, when the villain starts to caress Bond's chest, neck, and knees, there was laughter that seemed to be about the very expression of queerness. For comparison, when a man touches Bond: laughter; when Bond touches a woman at a bar or in a shower: nothing.

And for further contrast, when Silva makes a comment about Bond trying homosexuality for the first time, Bond archly asks Silva why he thinks this would be Bond's first time--and the biggest laughter in the audience was from my girlfriend, not from the people around us. ("Homosexual villains are all well and good, but a hero who engages in homosexuality--you go too far, sir.") If I had been watching this movie alone in my house, I might have thought "well, that's a character choice that seems antiquated." But seeing it in a theater where the primary response to homosexuality was uncomfortable laughter, that makes me uncomfortable with the stereotypes of homosexuality as predatory, weird, laced with trauma and sadism.

Silva's fourth problem is actually a problem everyone shares, so:

Three is for how everyone has to act a little stupidly in order for the plot to go on as needed. Silva may be the prime example of this: he controls a well-funded, well-armed, and well-staffed network, but nothing can ever be done simply. This might have been fun if they had established him as a game-player, the sort of villain who needs to prove his mental superiority; but as it stands it just seems unplanned, chaotic, and a little crazy. (And after Heath Ledger's Joker, if you're going to bring a crazy character to life, you better bring it.)

But everyone has to act a little stupid:
  • When Bond fights with three bodyguards/captors of Silva's ladyfriend Severine, one of them knocks him into the Komodo dragon pit and the other two... stand around instead of shooting him?
  • In fact, why do they even care about killing him when their main job should be to keep Severine from running away? Why is she even allowed off of Silva's secret lair on an island? (Some of this could be explained by saying that Silva needs to lure Bond to capture him and bring him to London, but there are easier ways to get captured--and easier ways of getting to London.) 
  • Why does Silva hire an assassin to kill an old man when Severine is in the room with the old man, so he's clearly gettable? (Again, this might be a crumb Silva leaves for Bond, but it's just another odd thing. At the very least, when Bond notices that Severine is in the room and in the casino, he might think "that's odd" because he's superspy who is supposed to notice things like that. So maybe this is Bond acting dumb instead of Silva.) 
  • Why does the Bond family's old gamekeeper shine a flashlight when he's trying to hide from Silva's minions? 
  • Why is the new M glad to hire 007 when, let's review: Bond played dead and went AWOL for a while; he failed his physical and mental reviews; his plan to kill Silva by using the old M as bait resulted in her death? Who looks at that record and says, "I'd like to offer you a position"?
  • If M's philosophy is that it's better for one person to be given up than for a whole group of people (which is what she did when she gave up Silva to save six other spies and preserve relations with China), then why doesn't she just give herself up to Silva at the first possible moment? Because the longer she fights, the more spies and civilians are going to end up killed and wounded. (Honestly, M trying to sacrifice herself while 007 tried to protect her against her wishes would make a pretty awesome character dynamic.)
Maybe not all of these questions show how these characters have to act idiotically; but they do show that the plot requires these characters to act strangely, unrelatably, or contrary to their characters.

Four is for the nostalgia and the cheap nods to Bond's history and fandom. The problem of nostalgia is thematized here with the conflict between the old and the new, the conflict between raw human spirit (fuck yeah!) and intermediated computer networks and technology. There are quite a few lines here about how espionage is a young person's game and how the new Q--a hipster Sherlock knock-off--can do more damage than 007 without getting out of bed. We're clearly supposed to be on the side of the aged here: Judi Dench's soon-to-be-retired M, 007 who knows when to pull a trigger or use a knife, the old gameskeeper Kincade and the historical secrets of the old Skyfall Lodge (like M, the house is referred to as an old lady). And then there's the tedious arguments about whether or not the world has changed and how many shadows there are left for spies to operate in.

Of course, that line is undercut by the fact that Silva has bridged this gap: he's capable of computer manipulation and shooting a gun. He even makes a show of using antique pistols. He lives in the old shadows still, but uses cutting edge tools. In fact, we could also point out that Silva is only beaten by Bond when he cooperates with the young Q; and the final images of the film involve Bond purposely destroying the old house (thus symbolically clearing the trauma of his family loss, with the trip through the underworld of the priest's hole as a symbolic rebirth, blah blah). So all this rah-rah nostalgia for the old days that people talk about--it's not upheld by the action of the film itself, except in a few key ways that are so obvious they might have hung a neon sign flashing "symbolic triumph of the old."

But what really gets me about all this nostalgia is that it goes beyond "computers are hard." If nostalgia were just "I miss handwriting," I'd understand and accept it. But so many times, this sort of nostalgia comes along with a whole host of "good old day" baggage that should be left unattended at the airport and then destroyed as suspicious. That't the kind of nostalgia that Skyfall treats in and I don't like it.

Finding the old Aston Martin in a warehouse is fine; remembering fondly that Bond has a long and gloried history of misogyny is not. And the end of this movie sees a certain retrograde movement that does not make me happy: the female M replaced with a male M? The reduction of female field agent Eve to the status of secretary Moneypenny? The queering of the villain? Yay, it's the 1950s-60s again--let's dig up Alan Turing's body and pump it full of hormones again.

(Curiously, gay computer expert Turing died from his cyanide poisoning, unlike Silva; and Turing's contributions to the security apparatus of Britain were similarly hush-hush. So maybe there's some Silva-Turing connection to be made. Though let's further note that Silva's real name "Tiago" is a form of "Santiago," which is Portuguese for, ahem, James.)

It's funny to me that the last scene involves Bond demolishing his own house, as if he were wiping away the childhood trauma that produced him and coming out of the tunnels rebirthed, a phoenix free of the past. But this movie is so drenched with nostalgia that I can't see any way forward for this Bond. Roger Ebert says this Bond is ready for another 50 years, and I agree if we're talking about the past 50 years.


  1. So much to say! Okay, first of all, I did like it. It was no Casino Royale, but it was way ahead of QoS, so that was nice. I continue to love Craig's hard-working, ungraceful man muscles and head of a corroded baby. I don't see him as the man men want to be, but he's definitely the man women want to be with: He absorbs the gaze like a sponge, but he'll never be prettier than me. Most of all, along with all the trappings of masculinity, he visibly bears its burdens, more in this movie than in CR even. It's hard hanging onto all those elevators!

    I am going to stick up for the Bardem character, not because of the writing, which is exactly as murky as you say, but because of Bardem, whose commitment to camp is more dignified than most actors' commitment to straight. I’m not surprised to hear that where you were, people hooted during the campy Bardem come-on, and flatout laughed when Bond suggested he'd messed around, probably during his training days, possibly with Ralph Fiennes. I'm sorry, where was I?

    What I meant to say was that there was some tittering in Austin, but mostly the sound of held breath as every single girl in the theater, and quite a few boys, mentally ran home and typed out fifty thousand words of fan fic. Honestly, I thought Bond's return quip was a bit too much - for me, it hammered in what was already apparent, which is that Bardem could generate chemistry with a lamppost, with or without prosthetic cheekbones. Bond was probably just grandstanding with that comeback, but boy do I like him better than Batman for saying it.

  2. I also found the old/young stuff engaging, despite its inevitable climax in the symbolic torching of a manor house while rescuing surrogate parents (how about that completely useless Albert Finney character? "Hi, I showed up to show everyone that the missing patriarch has been there all along, sitting on his ass for forty years waiting to be re-animated by the Queen or whoever"). I especially enjoyed it since you had just reminded me about baby Bond in Casino Royale. In the second movie he rehabilitates himself as a dude, going rogue (cutting the apron strings!) and carrying a woman with little-girl bangs out of a burning building.

    I like the way the third movie moves right on to the next logical stage. Bond is getting old right alongside his M(om! to be obnoxious), spying is a "young man's game," and it's time for everyone to decide whether they want a handprint-activated gun or an old hunting rifle with initials burned into the stock or just a huge, rusty knife. Two or three people in the movie say the line "sometimes the old ways are best", but I disagree with you that this is where the movie ultimately comes down. The movie's pretty ga-ga over its new androgynous pretty-boy (seriously those are girl glasses he's wearing! Which I am fine with!), and his banter with Bond at the museum is straight out of the Harrison Ford/young whippersnapper playbook. Yeah, the third act takes place on the moor or whatever, but I think it’s clear that the old order is passing away and Bond’s choice is to stay in this world. At the end of the movie, the Aston Martin is blown up, the "old lady" on the moor is torched and Judi Dench is dead.

    But also I agree with you that the end of the movie sort of straightens up for return to patriarchy. I'm sad to see Judi Dench go, and I too winced when I realized that the cool, beautiful, only-woman-of-color-who-is-not-a-straight-up-"exotic"-love-interest agent was being groomed for the role of Miss Moneypenny. Also, what's with the shoulder wound mysteriously disappearing? Shoulder-wound Bond was my favorite, because not only did he make me truly realize how hard it is to hang off of elevators all the time, but also he spent a lot of time pulling his shirt to one side. I jest! Anyway I'm glad Ralph Fiennes is the new M if it had to be a man. He's a bit camp too.