Monday, August 12, 2013

Casino Royale, a Structural Review (or review of structure)

I've been rewatching Casino Royale at the gym; and while it's a little long, I think it does some very interesting things structurally to keep the reader's attention and forward the reader's understanding. And I think attention and understanding are very closely aligned, even when the reader/viewer may not be conscious of what that understanding is.

  1. For instance, the movie opens with James Bond earning his 007 status by killing two people: one an Englishman who works for the government--and is betraying that government; and the other a long-haired assistant. Why does this matter?
    • First, it matters because the opening tells us that we're watching an origin story: Casino Royale is the story of how James Bond becomes James Bond. So we open with him earning his 007 status; and we see him bumble his way through a few of the tropes--for instance, saying he doesn't care whether his martini is shaken or stirred; and we finally see him at the end introducing himself with that formula we all know: "I'm Bond--James Bond." So that's a nice parallel between the beginning and end.
    • Second, Bond earns his name by discovering/killing a British traitor and a long-haired associate. So who does Bond take care of during this movie? Vesper Lynd plays a government agent and traitor; and Matthis plays another traitor, this one with the same long hair. That's not a connection the movie stresses; but by playing out a miniature version of the movie in the beginning, the viewer already has a template for what will happen.
  2. The plot is human-level, as Todd Alcott points out, having to do with stock market manipulation and a poker game rather than destroying the world or anything. However, it is still a complicated plot, which is why the film provides many assistants and associates to verbalize certain issues--sometimes in drips of info across the whole movie.
    • Le Chiffre's stockbroker notes that he's betting against the market in shorting the airline stocks; M will later explain to Bond what all that means.
    • For the poker scenes, there is always someone to explain things: the banker Mendel, the dealer, Matthis, Felix Leiter.
    • Note: There are certain issues--like Bond finding M's apartment or hacking into the system with M's password--where there are no answers, which is highlighted by the fact that people wonder about this. M asks at least once "How does he know these things?" This is a great example of "lampshading": by pointing out something that sort of doesn't make sense, the film is preventing us from balking by not believing. 
      • The answer to how James Bond does what he does is always: He's James Bond.
    • Or when Bond searches for information in the MI6 database, M's help often helps us by narrating his search, while M helps by reacting to the information. This isn't just an info-dump, as sometimes this information goes both ways, as when the MI6 organization helps Bond ID the bomb target at the airport or diagnose what he's been poisoned with.
  3. Scenes without action are enlivened by dialogue between characters at odds.
    • Bond and M spar over the dead bomb-maker, M lays out the business--including the exposition that they were looking for more powerful people.
    • Vesper and Bond spar--which also gives them a chance to introduce their characters disguised as a verbal fight.
    • Solange (Dimitrios's wife) pinpoints Bond's character during her seduction: he likes married women because he doesn't want to get attached.
  4. Scenes hook into each other, with almost every scene connected with a "because."
    • For instance, we meet up with Bond while he surveils a bomb-maker. (Again, there's no other explanation for this other than MI6 is surveilling this guy.) He chases the bomb-maker and kills him in an embassy, which makes the front page of newspapers. Because of that...
      • Bond gets the bomber's phone, which will give him a location to search next;
      • Le Chiffre learns the news, realizes he needs a new bomber;
      • and M is very angry because she's just been grilled by the government. (Note: we don't see that government scene because it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that M is angry.)
    • Even in little ways, one scene may explain the next. When Le Chiffre's stock option fails, he notes quietly "Someone talked"--and the next scene begins with Solange dead and tortured. (Which also tells us something about Le Chiffre: he tortures people. That will come up later.)
  5. One thing about this screenplay is that it seems to package large sections together. So, for instance, we have a long non-action sequence of how Bond learns about the bombing--then we have the action sequence about that. Then, after that, we have about four scenes of verbal sparring between Bond and M (in the Bahamas); and Bond and Vesper (on the train, in the car to the hotel, at the hotel).
    • This sameness/similarity might be problematic; but each scene of sparring gives us something different. For instance, the train scene shows us these two testing each other; in the car, there's more of a jokey tone between them; but when Bond makes a jerky move at the hotel (abandoning the cover), Vesper is angry. So we get a rollercoaster of their relationship instead of a change in the action.
  6. By contrast, the poker game is kept interesting by making the stakes clear (terrorism) and by intercutting between it and between some other action: the warlord attacks, Vesper is shocked in the shower, bodies are discovered in a car trunk, Bond loses his cool, Bond is poisoned, etc.
  7. Some people might feel that the multiple-endings of the movie is a flaw: first Bond beats Le Chiffre at poker; then Le Chiffre dies at White's hand; then Vesper's betrayal is discovered; then Bond shoots Mr. White. However, we should note that the first villain we actually see is Mr. White; and he shows up again at the end walking away with the money while Bond mourns Vesper. So there is something kind of repetitive about this ending, but again, the opening has helped set up some of it.

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