Quantum of Solace and being a Bond fan, of sorts

Let me get some of the background out of the way first — I am, by any stretch of the imagination, a fan of what might best be called James Bond as phenomenon. This despite the fact that the older I get the more ‘uh?’ I am about most of what went into James Bond to begin with. Much like, say, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, to name both a forebear and one of any number of parallel situations, what seems to be an immutable description of a time and place in fact turns into, under closer study, something that is much more of a product of it and a reaction to it. And there’s plenty — plenty — about Bond as character and how the social milieu he moves in and through that is compelling repulsive. But more on that in a bit.

Like nearly everyone after a certain point in history, I came to Bond via the films, and there’s been enough of them and enough Bonds now to ensure that it’s how you encounter Bond for the first time that in large part will shape your perception of the character or how the character ‘should’ be, if one has a positive reaction to it. Perhaps fortunately, in retrospect, my first Bond was one of the most unusual and successful, easily Roger Moore’s toughest turn as Bond in For Your Eyes Only. Having only known about Moonraker from the ads, which I dimly remember from mainlining TV as an eight year old, I wonder a bit about what I first thought of For Your Eyes Only when I started watching it obsessively on cable repeats three years later. While the film unsurprisingly expanded the scope of the original story, it did so while remaining reasonably faithful to it and the other short work it was based on, the Cold War overlay fitting in comfortably, while the mix of glamour, setpieces and more fit in with the general film template that had been long established. When Moore contemptuously kicked a dangling car over a cliff after a sneering, dismissive comment for the hired killer he himself was about to dispatch, it didn’t strike me as going against Moore’s conception of the character earlier — this was the character, learned then and there.

Later, around the time of The Living Daylights, I found myself reading most of the books for the first time; in combination with Timothy Dalton’s brooding, still incredibly underrated interpretation of Bond, I got a mental picture of what Bond ‘should’ be even more. The Living Daylights was, up until recently, the first of only two Bond films I actually saw in the theater (the other was the very unfortunate follow-up License to Kill, which wasted nearly everybody involved, including Dalton, and put the franchise on ice for six long years). While The Living Daylights ultimately felt like a ‘typical’ Moore film setup, with its cartoonish villains and overt recycling of standbys both inside the film’s canon and out of it — it wasn’t until years later that I appreciated all the Third Man references in the Vienna sequence — Dalton’s black, angry performance, leavened with humor but almost always with a brooding punch behind it, was a powerhouse, and as a result still lends a gravitas to what in retrospect was both the end of an era (the Cold War as such was a couple of years away from dramatically ending) and the first hint of a new one (Dalton’s partnership with Afghan rebels against Soviet invaders is one of those things that then seemed logical and now seems astonishingly naive).

Meanwhile there were the books, and I’ll stitch together some thoughts on them from over on ILE that I’ve made over the moons:

The books — riddled with any number of problems and shall we say ‘curious’ assumptions, especially in the light of fifty years on — are somewhere between easygoing escapism and extremely dour pessimism, which actually explains why they work so well, the latter providing a surprisingly effective anchor for the former….for all their fairy-tale (and many other questionable) aspects, they have some incredibly rough edges, and Bond himself is usually thrashed and then some by the end of each. I’m not going to defend them down to the last word or anything, but I always thought Fleming’s own wonderfully biased statement of intent — “I have no messages for suffering humanity…they are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in trains, plains or, in bed” — sums up what they are. Colin Wilson, a somewhat curious man in general, did I think capture what Fleming was about with the title of his study of UK mystery/thriller authors — Snobbery With Violence. That applies to Fleming’s work perfectly, but it’s tempered by two great gifts — his sense of pace and tension and Bond-as-patriotic-antihero.

I’ve often thought that there could be something in redoing the original Bond stories as period pieces now — picturing an England grinding along in a post-WWII austerity, Bond as blatantly bigoted and viciously cynical antihero searching for some sort of temporary release via his assignments. The film Bonds have barely ever touched this aspect of the character except sporadically — part of Dr. No, a fair amount of For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights, my own underrated favorite, as I still think Dalton was a great and perfectly cast actor in a promising but ultimately failed script. And trying to convey all the internal reflections and monologues in the books would be hard. But it is interesting, for all of the Fleming ‘sweep’ in his stories, just how much of a Le Carre character the literary Bond is in the end — it’s a tension that the films understandably lost early on, because the spectacle provided its own rationale.

If I had to pick any of the books offhand — Casino Royale (the first one, no ‘preset’ ideas of Bond even in Fleming’s mind, a very black ending all around), Moonraker (first full-on megalomaniac supervillian, plays with the idea of one last Nazi counterattack in the atomic age, and actually has my favorite sequence in all the books, Bond exposing Drax at cheating at cards), and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice (last fully revised and completed Bond novels before Fleming’s death, obsessed with mortality and vengeance, and very much meant to be considered as two parts of an overarching story of love and revenge).

For sheer description, any of the Bond books set in Jamaica or the Caribbean — Live and Let Die, Doctor No and Thunderball — are probably the best. That was the area Fleming loved most in the world and it shows (though you could spend a year unpacking all the colonial assumptions in each book).

So with all that said, Quantum of Solace, which I caught yesterday.

LOVED Casino Royale, absolutely. As a near 180 from the Pierce Brosnan era, a quartet of hypercamp that was both a logical final extension of where the films mostly settled from the late sixties on and an overwhelmingly ridiculous series of souffles, the series reboot with Daniel Craig was an absolute godsend. What made it all the more striking was that the Bond production team did it themselves, as opposed to having it done for them (the most obvious example of recent years being the Batman films as revisioned by Christopher Nolan, while J. J. Abrams might — maybe — do the same with Star Trek after Rick Berman finally ran the franchise into the ground). Since Die Another Day had done very well at the box office there was no reason not to essentially carry on from there, but after disputes and back and forths and, somewhere, probably a shrewd recognition that there was an opening to really kick things around a bit, they got back Martin Campbell, who had directed Goldeneye well enough, made the only major acting point of continuity be Judi Dench as M, cast Craig and went to town. Some of my thoughts at the time of release two years back were these:

Dalton was the best ‘literary’ Bond before now but Craig is up there and if the next film is in the same vein will cement it. Too long, the googie-eyes bits towards the end killed the pacing for a bit (not helped by my wanting to hit the restroom BADLY by then), otherwise way the hell better than I expected, a great series reboot. My guess that this was their version of Batman Begins essentially OTM except that this was a better action film than that was.

[In response to friend Chris's point: 'Bond actually has to work without having the entire plot of the movie (An evil villain has Something Bad and wants money, power, etc.) delivered to him at the office.':]

I think the last time they did something even close to that was The Living Daylights. Actually there’s a series of threads you can run through all the movies that purport to be taking Bond ‘back to its roots’ pretty clearly — moral ambiguity, no clarity about who is on what side at many points, and an initial unsureness about what the villain exactly wants.

Now oddly enough (for me) I hadn’t actually rewatched Casino Royale since seeing it in the theater, but I figured even knowing that this was meant to be a sequel that literally began shortly after the last one ended that Quantum of Solace wouldn’t be too hard to follow. Basically I just wanted the Craig Bond that was so perfectly in evidence in the first film — his anger even more palpable than Dalton’s, brusquer, live-wired and at the same time almost utterly ice cold, a fantastic combination that somehow shouldn’t work but still oozes off every scene that way — to go to town and do whatever the hell.

Which he did — Quantum‘s great, though it’s a perhaps inevitable let-down after Casino Royale, and that film too had its flaws. No Bond film is ‘perfect’ but it needs to be strong enough to survive the inevitable lulls and choices that don’t work, whether inevitable at the time or increasingly noticeable over the years — Goldfinger is a stellar example, for even the ‘quintessential’ Bond film suffers (consider the timekilling dispatch of the mobster by Oddjob via the crushing of the car in the junkyard — it’s about five times as long what an equivalent would be these days, and the banality of some of its components set aside overuse of John Barry at his most bombastic is unintentionally comical). Casino Royale carried it through strongly, Quantum not quite as strongly, but still well enough.

This drop-off can be laid pretty squarely at three sets of feet. First is the screenwriting team, who IIRC got it all together as a partial rush job before the Writers Guild strike last year, and which once again features Paul Haggis as among its crew. Haggis more than anyone can be seen as the key behind the scenes tonesetter of this and Casino, by undercutting the convenient and current mythos of ‘the good guys,’ a hardly unfamiliar but still potent move. These thoughts don’t quite integrate fully into the movie’s flow, seeming a touch clunkier and forced than last time through. Arguably this is also because they’re meant to be more blatant than last time through — Casino Royale‘s motivations of terrorism, finance and corruption are now supplemented here by resource-war paranoia and decades of South American political instability, and Haggis isn’t shy about indicting the US (and the UK) on the way. I say this not to complain about it — hell, there’s a lot about that assessment I would agree with — but the inevitably expository nature of such revelations, with characters telling each other things they already know, is a perhaps unavoidable drag.

Then there’s director Marc Forster, who is a classic journeyman, competent but never going to knock your socks off outside of moments. This is pretty much what he provides, though, so those moments, when they arrive, are simultaneously about what one would expect — his eye plus that of the camera team are able to capture grit and glamour equally well — and utterly expected, such as the editing choice to take down the volume in the exchange of gunfire during the Tosca sequence. It works perfectly, it’s also something one admires for the ‘oh right, they did that’ nature of it instead of thinking “I’ve never seen ANYTHING like this before!” His action film chops are ultimately not as strong as Campbell’s are, though, again, he has moments, and I didn’t leave the film dissatisfied on that front, but the overly cutesy/eye-rolling nature of the titles indicating where we are in the world will forever be the beauty mark we’ll all have to look past in the future.

The overarching factor tying together these first two is the shadow of the action/spy franchise (English language division, at least) of the decade, the Jason Bourne films. This isn’t even an elephant in the room, it’s the elephant everyone’s openly acknowledging, which I’m actually fine with (why even bother to hide it?). And there’s plenty about the Bond films that will never need to rely on the Bourne films whereas the Bourne films are still ultimately an outgrowth of and reaction to the Bond films, the ‘next step’ in a truly mass-market context. Still there’s no question that from the start Bond is operating here, even more so than in Casino Royale, in Bourne’s visual and editing world, with shaky-cam POV car chases and crashes, to the split-second editing cuts, blurs of fists and boats and explosions. It’s destabilization as familiar territory, it’s what is to be expected, which is neither surprising nor, necessarily, always desirable.

But this all said, and all sorts of other things to add — this is all stuff that, in the end, I’m perfectly fine with, willing to accept so long as everything’s going well enough on screen. To that end, hell of a film that met expectations. All Craig really had to do was show up and just continue where he left off (which of course makes sense, given the immediacy of the internal chronology between the last film and this one) so any radical change would have been strange. One does get a sense of Craig-as-Bond starting to wear an even thicker skin than before, his calm, contemptuous blankness even more of a defensive mask (I don’t accept the complaints about Craig as ‘unemotional’ this time out, BTW — I can see why they’re made, but I don’t sense that in the character, even though the script spends a little too much time beating everyone over the head with the ‘you’re out of control because you want revenge’ trope). Something closer to classic film Bond humor starts to peek around the edges in Craig’s asides but the effect is more of the literary Philip Marlowe at work, putting others off balance. He looks just as great as ever, takes a hell of a beating throughout, and almost carries whole sections just by the luck of his bright, fierce gaze.

As for the three other major continuing characters, Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis acquits himself well enough again and his passing, if telegraphed, nonetheless serves for one of the best emotional moments in the film, while Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter is strong as ever but plays too short a role as before (then again the Leiter character is constantly shortchanged in the films — maybe next time but I won’t cross my fingers). Judi Dench as M, though — to quote Rock Hardy on ILX, “Craig and Dench have enough chemistry to start a meth lab. They’re great together.” It was a stroke of genius to not only have her continue in the part from the Brosnan years but essentially give her a chance to raise M’s game in general, and the individual moments of character and concern she gets are just as strong as what Rock rightly noted as her and Bond’s stellar interchanges throughout the film, up to the final scene.

Matthieu Amalric as the chief bad guy this time out, Dominic Greene, provides a nice bit of continuity as well with Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale — both are players and, ultimately, expendable pawns, ‘bad men in a bad world,’ to paraphrase an ILX comment by Tracer Hand, rather than megalomaniacal supervillians. More openly sleazy and less physically distinct than Le Chiffre, Greene is a perfect villain-for-the-late-decade-moment — an environmentalist that’s really a con artist, an operator and enabler of power no matter the political leanings, etc. In comparison to past Bond villains, Amalric actually reminds me most of Klaus Maria Brandauer, the stellar Austrian actor whose turn in the demi-official Thunderball remake with Sean Connery, Never Say Never Again, was an often sharp blend of theatrics and cold threat. Amalric never fully gets to deliver that onscreen but one senses how he could, and that’s enough.

Olga Kurylenko as Camille, meanwhile…yeah, I could go on. (Hell of a tan, for sure; if it’s makeup, very well done, if it’s real, great but have the skin cancer doctors on hold for the near future, please.) Whenever the Bond films have a female secret service agent/counterpart/near inevitable love interest as a key character, it’s usually been a challenge to see if that character could stand alone in a film or story or her own, say. Camille isn’t fully fleshed out enough for that but is given enough of a characterization to work well enough with, and that combined with Kurylenko’s solid enough acting compares favorably in my mind to that of Carole Bouquet in For Your Eyes Only, also playing a character driven by revenge.

But one of the key points of the film is already one of the most understandable and commonplace observations about it — she’s the first lead Bond girl ever to go through an entire film without getting busy with him. Wisely the filmmakers let the context of all the other films — and that of Craig’s take on him even just through these last two — do all the signposting there, so the concluding kiss and farewell, while a touch flatter than it could have been as a scene, still maintains a distinct, unique charge. Given Bond’s interactions with Vesper in the previous film, often hesitant and unsure, and given Vesper’s ghostly presence throughout the story as a constantly invoked name, it’s no surprise that while Bond is hardly celibate in the film, thanks to the character of Fields in the Bolivia sequence, his chinks in the emotional armor surface most with Camille, and less of a surprise in the end that he doesn’t take things further. Perhaps the strongest quality of their final scene together is that there’s just enough subtext still under the parting words of regret and what-might-have-been, though this really would have clicked even more vividly in a truly great film.

As for the plots and the setpieces and so forth — it all works, it all has to fight against the now decades-long accretion of expectations of what a Bond film is meant to show an expectant public, and there’s just enough uniqueness amid all the obvious nods. Starting with a car chase cold is par for the course, of *course* there was going to be a car chase at some point so why not one out of the gate? The boat chase has its roots as far back as From Russia With Love, the plane sequence as far back as You Only Live Twice, the blowing up of the villain’s headquarters, hell that’s Dr. No. As for the Tosca sequence, both the literary Bond and the cinematic one revel in the details of ‘culture’ as broadly expressed, and having the staging be a decidedly nontraditional one for the 21st century, like the posed-body sequence in Casino Royale, further puts a time-specific stamp on an old warhorse of an element. Sometimes it all goes too far — Fields sprawled on Bond’s bed dead and drenched in oil was obvious enough, but having her pose in the exact Goldfinger position was a bit much (though one wonders if that was a decision on the day by everyone realizing, ‘look, why should we pretend otherwise?’). Sometimes something honestly fresh was the result — plenty of desert settings in past Bonds, but the Atacama Desert in Chile, standing in for neighboring Bolivia, is the driest place on earth and looks it, making Greene’s eventual off-screen fate all that much more nightmarish (and Craig’s colder than cold ‘resupply’ and farewell perfectly appropriate if lily-gilding).

Where I find myself a little concerned is the ending. Craig signed up for three Bonds and based on the smash success of this one I’ve no doubt things will all go quickly and smoothly for the third as possible, so expect it in two more years. But where Casino Royale ended bluntly and on a defiant high note — Craig practically bursting with energy standing over the wounded Mr. White, introducing himself like a pitiless avenging angel and practically forcing the question of what would happen next, Quantum‘s ending is almost perfect — Craig’s handling of the speech to the Canadian agent is superb and her quiet ‘thank you’ before departing a perfect counterpoint — but then goes a little too long. Had it ended with the former boyfriend of Vesper gulping out his ‘Make it quick’ followed by, say, Craig responding ‘That depends on what you can tell me about Quantum’ would have been enough. (Had the final exchange between M and Bond happened before this confrontation rather than after, the last other bits of exposition could have been wrapped up as well.)

That said, the logic of the film as constructed has to show the maturing of Bond, for lack of a better term. The idea that Bond is a rogue killer and therefore untrustable and unworthy of the job he has is a constant throughout this film and a carryover from the previous one, so showing he’s beyond that — at least temporarily — is demanded by the context. (It also surfaces in the knowledge the audience has, even if M is not sure, that Bond did not shoot Greene in the desert, making the discovery of his body in that state a potential plot point for next time.) Still, it all ends a bit anticlimatically, with the Quantum organization still somewhat mysterious but mostly a demi-SPECTRE without an obvious Ernst Stavro Blofeld, at least not yet. If Bond’s had his revenge for Vesper, that drive then is also out, and the next film, even if Quantum remains the overall nemesis, now feels like it will be Bond going about just another job — appropriate for the literary Bond and not inappropriate for the cinematic if the goal of the producers, having accomplished the reboot, is to return to a more movie-by-movie approach at some point. We’ll have to see.

But yes, in the end — a good Bond film, at times a very good one. The character will forever be problematic at best and horrifying at worst, but somehow that seems appropriate, and Craig’s Bond will forever be the baseline for the next ones to follow, whenever that occurs. I’m all for that.

I have said nothing about the title sequence and song beyond this sentence I am writing right now, which should tell you all you need to know.

Not just a blog recommendation but a thread one, about Peru

Recently one of my favorite threads on ILE has been revived. It’s the running stories by a regular poster there, sleeve, about his trips to Peru. His partner, Laurie, who also goes on these trips, runs a separate blog also worth checking out, Pencils for Peru. Together they are a striking portrait of a place in the world many will never go to, and the work they do there to improve the general circumstance of all in concrete fashions.

Sleeve kicked off the most recent thread revival with these details about the new trip, which gives a sense of why they keep going back:

The main initial focus of our return trip is to do the same health tests and interviews that we did last time for the people of Sipascancha. In the intervening 18 months, we have learned that there is very little medical data on high altitude respiratory systems. Allegedly we have accumulated one of the largest bodies of data in the world! We probably interviewed 150 people. This time, we will be hoping that the new stoves have improved their numbers. If we can show objective indicators of improved health it would be very useful for future grants.

We also have a small control group, consisting of those people who we interviewed that did not come and get their stoves. We will have to track all of them down as well.

So for our first month we will be spending a lot of time in Sipascancha. Looking forward to seeing it again. I found this amazing book of Quechua folk tales called She-Calf, and the best thing is that it has the English and Quechua side by side. So I can read stories to the kids in Quechua! Very exciting.

This recent newspaper story posted by Laurie at her blog explains more about their work. To quote:

[Laurie] had observed the townspeople cooking their meals in open fire pits, the smoke from the day’s cooking filling their adobe shacks, creating a permanent layer of soot and giving children year-round colds, bronchitis, persistent coughing and pneumonia, said Ellen Bouton, Steve’s mother, who still makes her home in Nelson County. She is currently in Peru with her son and Iaccino. The Vidas project conceived by Steve Bouton, Iaccino and a Peruvian colleague, Pavela Jimenez Figueroa, began to change this basic fact of life for Sipascancha’s people. “Vidas Mejoradas has chosen to focus on one of the simplest and easiest ways to help,” Ellen Bouton said, “introducing a basic cooking stove with a chimney that burns wood more efficiently and removes the smoke from the living space.” Any family that wanted a stove was able to participate.

The pencils are part of it as well, as the article details. A brief July 2008 report from Vidas Mejoradas may be downloaded from here if you like. You may also find photos from the project here on Flickr.

I have said before that it is those who are able and willing to do this kind of work will always earn my deep respect. It is not for everyone. But it is good that they are there, and that they do so with open eyes and a sense of assisting while not wanting to create a crutch of dependence. sleeve’s stories are often wondrous in their eye for detail, recognition of the challenges and that sense of not simply wanting to ‘do good’ but to see it through with everyone’s participation and contributions that is crucial.

In times like these, it is all the more worthwhile to honor that.

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