Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Spectral Success


Laying it on thick has always been a popular approach at the movies. Filmmakers found it to be a possible means of expressing mounting pressure on the psychic front and studios learned that, if teased in a trailer, it can draw great numbers of moviegoers, eager for a couple of hours of diversion and sensual bombardment. Sometimes the trick works stunningly, as in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, in which Eva Green, smeared with red lipstick and wrapped in a tight red dress, struts about Collinsport, repeatedly appealing with ever-lowering necklines to the carnal interests of Johnny Depp. As the story and its small-town setting sank lower and lower into Gothic folly, Green’s lip-smacking torrent of histrionics surpassed the boundaries set by both Burton and Depp on every front. Sometimes it doesn’t work quite as well, as can be seen in a large number of films every year, which flop despite – or, more likely, because of – large and overbearing elements, sown together by swarms of producers for what is hoped to be maximum impact. As with everything at the movies, the success of the mode of overdoing it relies on the intuition of the filmmakers.

In Spectre, that intuition fails – most irreparably. Sam Mendes and the production team, following up on Mendes’s 2012 mega-hit Skyfall, wished to replicate that release’s success, and devised Spectre to be bigger and louder where Skyfall was big and loud, to stretch further where Skyfall had reached into James Bond’s family history, and to offer even more of the faux-seriousness, faux-darkness-and-ominousness, faux-character-detail that Skyfall had set up. I suspect what these filmmakers neglected to observe was that to further feed on audience hype and consumerist frenzy with a sequel, one should either make that sequel obligatory viewing by refusing to tie up loose ends in previous entries (as was done, rather necessarily, with the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings sagas), or leave audiences waiting an extravagantly long time for it (as was done, twice now, with the Star Wars franchise).

The first and most glaring problem here is one of backstory. Why would anyone ever suppose we require a backstory to Bond? Backstory has become the fetish of contemporary Hollywood and is used seemingly almost without a second thought in any number of the large-scale features released around the globe every year, many of which, I feel, could do just as badly without it. Assuredly it’s progress of a kind, as Richard Brody puts it in a critic survey on Criticwire:

[Backstory] asserts that what needs to be known about a character in order for that character to make sense, to appear full and motivated, is more than can be seen in the present tense of action. Who a person is, isn’t merely a matter of instantly identifiable visual identity, whether of social category or of behaviour – it’s a person’s distinctive and unique, a person’s personal experience. Of course, at a second level, these backstories and origin stories may well inscribe a person (meaning, a character) into experiences shared by a group, into history – and that, too, is one of their key functions: to show the impact of politics and social forces at work in the peculiar and idiosyncratic details of an individual’s life. In both these regards – restoring individuals to their uniqueness and their actions to motives and cause of their own, while also showing the importance of community or collective experience in the formation of personality – both prequels and backstories are intensely democratic.

But this is precisely the problem with introducing a backstory into the 007 saga: the notion that Bond’s life cannot be determined or reflected in outward aspects – in the way he dresses, or the way he presents himself – is one that shouldn’t be so readily taken up by a filmmaker. Bond, after all, is not a person, nor is his story a very personal one. What drew us all into the series was the cynical playfulness of the refined and charming rogue, the ship without an anchor who would live out the stuff of people’s dreams. What we secretly hankered after was the identity stepped into and zipped up by Sean Connery’s 007 – the assassin with aristocratic disdain and tastes, but who walked on common ground, and felt accessible to each viewer, at least each male viewer. Connery and the early Bond filmmakers grasped that the character, the scenario, and the plot were all absurd and inherently fantastical and comical, but the desire for fantasy and comedy in the audience was desperately real.

Daniel Craig’s Bond is never so shrewdly ironic: we aren’t let in on the fun of being a secret agent. He sets his cold eyes dead ahead, and his stony countenance on the target of his aggression, and steams along through twists and meanderings, never realising, at least not in his performance, the comedy that attends his endeavours. The most amusing thing about Craig is how seriously he seems to take it all. If he possesses any comedic gifts, which Connery patently did, the filmmakers are hopelessly indifferent to them, and bear no will to ever use them. If Sam Mendes has decided to solemnise the entire situation, and included the decidedly Freudian device of a backstory, surely he should be willing to plumb the depths of the licensed killer’s soul. But he isn’t, and 007 is markedly lacking in any real inner life. When confronted with the faces of those he’s killed as well as those near him who have been killed, Craig grimaces predictably, and when he reaches the wisecracks and droll one-liners so deliciously exchanged by Bond and the quartermaster, Q, in the past, he glosses them over as he does everything else with the impatience to return to his more physical pursuits.

All of which is not to mention Freud’s most famous preoccupation: sex. You may as well stay at home with your Christmas socks and a gardening magazine. The redemption of any bad Bond film has always been the alternately sumptuous and celestial beauties selected as Bond’s romantic interests, for however brief a time. Here we have Monica Bellucci who, at the age of 50, is something of a feminist triumph for the franchise in being the oldest Bond girl ever (in a role not overwhelmingly remote from her next most famous screen appearance, as the harlot Mary Magdalene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ); and Léa Seydoux, one of the leads in the recent successful French love story Blue is the Warmest Color. Both are beguiling and glamourous, but there’s nowhere near enough of Bellucci, though we get more than enough of Italian cinematic indulgence in her brief scene. Her character fears for her life; after Bond has seduced her he refers her to a CIA associate at the American embassy, and not another thought is spared for her in the remainder of the film’s two-and-a-half hours. If the filmmakers are unwilling to consider the Bond girls as people whose fates are of any consequence, why should we care at all for the man in the centre?

The surest evidence of Mendes’s unsuitability for the job is to be found in the peformance of Christoph Waltz as the villain (tied, in some contrived way, to Bond’s distant past). Christoph Waltz is known most immediately and enduringly to us as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds and as Dr King Schultz in Django Unchained. Those two performances, overboiled and burdened by overwriting as they are (Tarantino is just as guilty as Mendes of over-the-top impulses, though Tarantino’s skill and obvious passion redeems his work), are recalled by anyone who’s seen them without a moment’s difficulty, and it can be seen by any viewer of this film that Waltz’s performance here relies more on the impetus he received from Quentin Tarantino than anything Sam Mendes provided on set for Spectre. He’s introduced with the most ostentatious theatricality, suggested as an element of his character, but this is quickly cast aside when the plot no longer requires it and the viewers no longer reserve patience for it (presumably the patience of some will last much longer than mine did; it’s impossible for it to be exhausted any quicker).

The sets and Bond’s travels are what we’re used to: he begins in Mexico City, where he causes havoc which finds its way to the front pages of international newspapers; he then moves on via London to Rome (in his DB10, which is something of a relief); then remote white mountain peaks in Austria; a charming hotel in Tangiers; a secret villain’s lair in a crater in the North African desert; all rounded up with a boat and helicopter chase along the Thames. This part of the film is enough of a delight, though one (i.e. myself) tires quickly of Mendes’s repeated tactic of long panoramic vistas, in the interest only of the picturesque and not the emotional nor arresting. The one shot really worth it is of a sunset over the desert, while Bond’s train travels far below us, but by then (about two hours in), the device has lost much of its charm.

I wish one could say that the rest is run-of-the-mill stuff for 007, but I can’t quite. The Bond franchise has long been overtaken in spectacle by its rivals, and the filmmakers really should spend less time trying to outdo them in this regard. Ben Whishaw’s new, younger Q is something of a pleasure, and so is Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny (also regrettably underutilised), but Ralph Fiennes, while a formidable actor and engaging presence, is given the most pitiful M ever laid across a vertical canvas. After being informed by his employer, C (Andrew Scott, also reprising a villain’s role from Sherlock), what the initial M stands for – something forgettable like “mediocre” or “moronic” – and then revealing to C that M has found and emptied his gun, M returns with the rejoinder “And now we know what C stands for...” Rather than letting the line and its implication (which would be completely justified) sink merrily into the viewer’s consciousness, M helpfully clarifies his comment by offering up an entirely duller and less appealing C-word: “careless”. This bureaucratic blandness is only surpassed at the film’s conclusion, when M, arresting Waltz’s über-villain at the end of climactic chase scene, cites the appropriate Parliamentary Act and its year as Bond and his love interest look on.

The film’s end promises, rather dishearteningly, a sequel, and one can only hope that Mendes won’t be allowed onto the set during production. Here, as well as in Skyfall, he flung less and less interesting images up onto the screen, and proceeded to dampen and de-mystify any and all of the film’s aspects by removing imagination and fantasy from the franchise and replacing it with increasingly strained attempts at extravagance, of the most tangible and predictable variety. The result is as distant as can be from anything that can aptly be named “Spectre,” unless the phantom is of success and pleasure itself.

Spectre is currently playing in theatres.

Spectre is directed by Sam Mendes; written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth; music by Thomas Newman; director of photography, Hoyte van Hoyteman; edited by Lee Smith. Running time: 148 minutes. 2015.

STARRING: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes

Image: www.007.com


  1. I can definitely agree with a lot you have mentioned here Jared, but I would like to add some more.

    Firstly you mention Connery; another Bond I feel must be cited in Moore. Spectre was predominantly a Connery villainous organisation. Yet it seems the Bond being portrayed here is that or Moore. One liner slinging, womanising Bond. it has been popularly stated that Moore is the worst Bond to flash before our eyes, and it makes it clear to me why Craig is so adamant about leaving the franchise.

    Secondly the plot. Spectre is the most famous of all evil Bond organisations. In movies of old this one organisation story was spread across 5 movies. I feel it was poor writing to have the whole story right here, right now. Your remarks about Waltz are accurate. I was expecting a memorable performance. One that made me think and at the very least empathise with the charcter. He was forgotten the second I left the cinema.
    Thirdly: it was to long.

    TLDR: It's Moore's Bond, performing Craig's stunts with a Connery Villain and Moriarty makes a Cameo.

    1. Thanks for the word

      The slinging of one liners, as well as womanising was also a popular activity of Connery's Bond. He had a fantastic sense of irony and comedy, coupled with great timing that rendered each of his lines fantastically memorable.


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