This is the intro to a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to comment and join in on an extended conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Skyfall and the Question of Spacetime: An Of [In]human #Bond_age_ Introduction
by James David Patrick
The Bond film franchise, now aged fifty, has endured long enough to have had the luxury of multiple reinventions and course corrections, informed, directly, by the rapid shifts of the sociological and political tides. Bond is both a reflection of our deepest fears and of our guiltiest aspirations. Women want him and men want to be him, so the saying goes. Or went, perhaps. Our modern cynicism and over-intellectualization has re-rendered that phrase. James Bond has become the man that women want, in theory… if he weren’t such a serial womanizer with a thrill-addiction. He is still, however, the man that men want to be, no caveats. Draw your own assumptions about how the collective male id has evolved over the last fifty years. Bond has become a character in our modern commedia, played by six different actors (all informed by the original on-screen Bond, Sean Connery) and parodied and re-imagined the world over, no more or less human than Pierrot the fool.
Taken at face value, however, James Bond’s cinematic escapades in international espionage are a collection of stories taken from the career of one man. Independent scholars John Griswold and Henry Chancellor have taken it upon themselves to assemble the original Ian Fleming novels into chronological order based on the events contained within. The films, however, prove more problematic. If the latest, excellent entry into Bond’s resume, Skyfall, has cemented one notion about chronology it is that the Bond films cannot be treated as isolated escapades along an individual timeline. Not even suspension of disbelief can atone for Skyfall’s temporal incongruities (even within the movie itself). Must we then consider the Bond series as multiple serials distinguished only by the actor playing the role? (Also made problematic by recurring, self-referential leitmotifs.) Or is it something more complicated, like the intertwining plots of a collection of linked short stories with no particular start or finish?
To offer a simple comparison, consider the various cinematic iterations of the Sherlock Holmes character, widely considered the most prolific character in the history of film. Holmes has been played by Ellie Norwood, John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch among many others. None of these film series extend beyond the character playing Sherlock.
What director Sam Mendes has wrought with Skyfall forces a re-interpretation (or at the very least encourages a more scholastic examination) of the Bond film chronology. The first Bond film, Dr. No, offers no origin story of the character. Bond is, already, an experienced and expert British intelligence agent with a weakness for the ladies. It is, per say, in medias res. It is only in Skyfall, Bond’s 23rd film that we are offered a glimpse into his past with any clarity. And it wasn’t until Daniel Craig assumed the role in Casino Royale (the 21st movie, but 1st Fleming novel) that the Bond character was considered a newly minted and irresponsible rookie agent with more significant depth. Bond has been irresponsible for decades, but only now was he considered a “rookie.” The fact that audiences simultaneously balked and swooned at the novelty of James Bond falling in *gasp* love and then seeking revenge for the death of that significant other, speaks volumes about the character development up to this point.
*Skyfall spoilers ahead*
Furthermore, Skyfall introduces audiences to a James Bond with deceased parents, motivation for joining the British Secret Service, to his childhood home in Scotland and the underground pathway in which James Bond hid after the death of those aforementioned parents. James Bond has a childhood home!?! Inconceivable. But these facts aren’t problematic for the character’s chronology, necessarily. They are only problematic because of our external assumptions that James Bond is immune to emotions that would detract from A) womanizing and B) eventually, complete his assigned mission. If Spock had any desire to chase tail, he might be closer to our collective understanding (or previously held understanding) of James Bond.
Skyfall’s specific chronological schisms occur, however, because he is allegedly a bit of a green agent. Bond has been given his first big break, two films earlier, in Casino Royale and spent the entirety of Quantum of Solace as a bit of a vengeful rogue. A major to-do has been made in Skyfall that James Bond may or may not be forced into retirement because he’s lost his edge. After a particularly botched mission to open the film, James is alienated, lost and considered dead by British Intelligence. In reality he’s experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis and drinking himself into oblivion somewhere along the Turkish coast. When Bond at last returns (somewhat reluctantly) to defend Britain from a mastermind cyber terrorist, he’s a shell of himself and the film dances around (albeit rather eloquently) the “I’m getting too old for this shit” over-the-hill hero catchphrase. The notion has traction because as an audience we have knowledge of Bond actor Daniel Craig’s age (44) but it runs contrary to the earlier assertion of Bond’s greenhorn status. At this point I’m not even prepared to acknowledge the chronological disturbance brought about by a sprightly 58-year-old Roger Moore appearing in A View to a Kill. But how are to reconcile that even within 143 minutes of Skyfall Bond waffles between being a unpredictable rookie and a potential retiree?
Follow me further down the rabbit hole. Bond fans are then treated to the return of the Aston Martin DB5, the vehicle most identified with James Bond, the vehicle that first appeared in 1964’s Goldfinger (starring Sean Connery). It is unveiled to the audience as if Craig’s James Bond has a pre-existing relationship with the car. In truth it is not Craig’s Bond that has a relationship with the car, but us, having brought our collective knowledge of the entire Bond oeuvre into the theater with us. The same principle functions when a supporting character in the movie, an agent that has followed Bond on his globetrotting, reveals herself (after resigning from field duty to a clerical position within MI-6) to be none other than Eve… Eve Moneypenny. A character played by Lois Maxwell in the very first Bond adventure, 1962’s Dr. No.
The temporal mischief makes almost your brain hurt more than the time-travel narrative in the Terminator series. Almost. But we are rescued from certain brain cramp by the above-stated notion that these Bond movies are interweaving and unlimited, bridged, almost seamlessly, by our own pre-existing knowledge of the character – a proto-prescience perhaps. This proto-prescience encourages James Bond filmmakers to break the fourth wall with nudge-nudge-wink-winks that make no sense in the isolated conditions of the individual film. Not only are we carrying around the baggage of all other Bonds, but so too are the filmmakers.
That Skyfall succeeds at being an excellent film despite gleefully throwing about the requisite Bond baggage is no small miracle. Of the recent films, say from the Brosnan-era forward, only 1995’s Goldeneye really succeeded at being both. If you go back further you’d be hard pressed to find a film that qualifies, objectively, as both solid filmmaking and a solid Bond film (according to the standard set by the Connery-era) until arguably On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. The entire Roger Moore-era can largely be chalked up to a shift in aesthetics brought about by a response to the cinematic trends of the 1970’s, nevermind the challengers and parodies threatening the Bond status quo.
That’s a lot of baggage in between and a lot of baggage left unsaid. And based on the small examples taken from the latest Bond films, that’s a lot of incongruity. The notion of a infinitely recursive character with increasingly larger baggage has inspired me to go back and re-watch these movies in order from the very beginning to see what threads might evolve from movie to movie, to see what kind of specific evolution of the character (internally or externally imposed) I might have missed by watching them out of order. It’s possible there might be some thread to reconcile and bind all of these different Bonds and temporal anomalies under one roof. It’s also possible that we’ve all just been duped by our own over-intellectualization of a fundamentally two-dimensional character. Either way, it’s an excuse to watch a lot of Bond movies and wax philosophical.