Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why Bond

Since a friend of mine and recommended blogger (see Nettertainment: Fascinating from way back in March), not to mention very happening screenwriter, Scott Veach, has called my bluff, in gambling parlance, and dared to question why anyone circa 2006 would be interested in Bond, James Bond, unless they were maybe nostalgic for the 1960's or '70's. He decries the plot holes and contrivances and my general impression is that he really did not enjoy his theatrical viewing of Casino Royale.

It may just be a matter of taste. Okay, $94.2 million worth of U.S. taste for a total of $224.4 million worldwide, and this only in its second week, with an impressively small drop-off from week one. But as a fan of the original Bond, that brilliant circuit between Ian Fleming's still highly readable novels and Sean Connery's lightning-in-a-bottle characterization, I feel compelled to offer some explanation not only for why I'm so drawn to the new picture, but why so many others have been drawn in for so long.

First off, let's make a clear distinction between the novels and the movies. The first four films -- Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball -- all stuck very close to the book plots, as did the sixth, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. What happened between the fifth -- You Only Live Twice -- and that last one is something of a tragedy for original fans.

Those two movies were shot in reverse order from how they were written, with OHMSS being the most tragic Bond story and YOLT following on it with Bond basically suicidal. Instead, YOLT was the first extremely spoofy Bond, with Connery aging unkindly and beginning the endless series of climaxes in the secret villain's hidden lair, spectacularly blown up along with his Dr. Evil-like plans to take over the world (whatever that means).

OHMSS might have been the best Bond ever -- sticking close to the novel and casting the brilliant/beautiful Diana Rigg (fresh off The Avengers which also gave us Honor Blackman as Goldfinger's Pussy Galore) as the Bond woman, but Connery had left and replacement George Lazenby just didn't work.

From thereon out, even with Connery stopping by one more time in (an offer he reportedly could not refuse) Diamonds are Forever, it was sillier and sillier. Roger Moore looked Bondish but didn't have all the chops of Connery, Dalton was a too-pissy looking replacement, and while Brosnan was arguably the best since Connery, the movies were all too formulaic by then.

Thankfully, even with a record-breaking gross on the last one, the producers realized Bond needed something very new if the franchise was to persist in the 21st century. They were cool enough to make that new thing something very old, in fact. They went back to the source.

Which brings us back to the original novels, and what it is about them that made the Bond DNA so appealing, even now.

One of Fleming's great early admirers was Raymond Chandler, an Englishman by birth who created maybe the best-known American detective, Philip Marlowe. Chandler saw that Fleming was writing in his tradition, in what was originally the Dashiell Hammett tradition (The Maltese Falcon, Continental Op, Red Harvest) of hard-boiled detectives. These rough, smart men were white knights in dirty, deceptive, endlessly dangerous worlds. They were as good with their fists as their brains, but they were at best middle class, without hope or pretensions to anything greater.

Both Hammett and Chandler were especially adept at depicting, with accuracy and economy, location and character. For the former, the world was mainly 1920's San Francisco. For the latter, 1930's and 40's Los Angeles. Both created a gallery of thumbnail portraits around their sometimes nameless sleuth, supporting players and bit parts, with their allure and grotesqueries all vividly laid out with prose that still reads like cats milk.

Fleming had the same skills, but for him the canvas was much larger. He had such a facility with location that, reportedly, he could spend three days in a new city and write about it like a denizen. He even published a book of just travelogues, Thrilling Cities, and another about the flip side of the African diamond trade, The Diamond Smugglers. The descriptions in the Bond books are tantalizing, much like the thrill in the better movies, like the current one, of being taken somewhere you maybe knew existed but would never experience elsewise.

As for the characterizations, the Fleming villains are all well constructed, powerful, memorable freaks, and the best of his women are more nuanced than some of the film portrayals (Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist?) would lead you to believe. Vesper Lynd gets her own inner life for some moments in Fleming's Casino Royale, and Bond actually gets completely turned down by the femme in the real Moonraker. The other players -- Quarrel of Jamaica, Felix Leiter of the CIA, Miss Moneypenny herself and on down -- are all drawn sparely but skillfully enough that they stick in memory.

While Hammett had actually been a Pinkerton detective (and probable strikebreaker, which evidently informed both his decision to quit that organization and to write Red Harvest), Fleming had actually served in British Intelligence, and was thus able to write knowingly about it, grounding Bond in a more real world than spy novel pretenders then and since. This made the novels fascinating for post-WWII mystery readers ready to move past the battered trenchcoat, their view having been opened wide by the events of that war, now looking for insights into the very real Cold War being fought between the Communist Soviets and the West. And Fleming never condescended to political baiting in his description of the Communist threat, simply taking it as a tooth-and-nail (and wiretap and gun) battle between two ruthless opponent forces, each looking for any possible advantage, any cranny to latch onto for that one extra lift, the one that might bring the other side to its knees.

In essence, what Fleming brought to popular detective literature was worldliness, and his professional spy hero was the pure embodiment of that worldliness in how he chose his drink, how he played the tables, how he seduced his women and how he performed his job.

Bond isn't just a superhero of stunts, vaulter of plot-holes or all-around superstud. In his original incarnation, per Fleming and Connery, he's just the most world, adaptive, trustworthy man around for continents. Give him the data and he knows the score. He can interpret that data -- he understands people, he understands how things really work -- and thus some of the most thrilling moments are when Bond realizes what's been kept from him, those reversals, and swings immediately, decisively into action. Once of those moments happens in the third act of the new movie, and while many viewers will see it coming from miles away, what's so gratifying isn't the "twist", it's how Bond reacts. With a worldly, able, committed professional like this, there is No Question.

All the fetishistic accoutrements of the series descend from these core values, the worldliness and Bond's place in a particular literary tradition. Those Hammett and Chandler and Fleming books are all great reads. If the plots are sometimes a little far-fetched or certain twists worthy of reconsideration over a sandwich, it doesn't matter because they are essentially effective stories, told within seductive worlds and following anti-heroes that appeal to our better, if gritty, angels.

While I'd happily agree that the good writing trailed off after the first handful of Bond movies, I think the new one has a script that shouldn't be lumped in with the previous, oh, say fourteen, and while there are probably as many plotholes as in Scorsese's also pleasingly kinetic The Departed, I didn't find the leaps in either to diminish my enjoyment of those experiences very much. I can't recall a non-documentary movie I've ever seen that didn't have holes (like "letters of transit" signed by free French leader Charles de Gaulle would actually help anybody get anywhere under Hitler's rule?) but I can recall tons that were no fun to play along with.

Maybe the main thing they got right in this Bond, something that may not survive in ensuing sequels, is that they knew they had to earn it. Craig as Bond earns our hero's worldliness, and the arc of his character over the course of the film is a classic innocence-to-experience, of all characters with which to do that trick.

If, like Scott, you don't buy the outlandish endurance, the appearance of Texas Hold'em in Montenegro, the lucky breaks for our hero in the heat of battle, so be it. I went for adventure, sure, but for adult adventure, and for the first time in decades the Bondmakers managed to age-up the entertainment, by tapping the source. And I think that's what teen superhero-overloaded audiences are responding to.

Maybe, Scott, you'd feel the same way after reading From Russia with Love or On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Maybe you don't particularly enjoy Hammett or Chandler, either.

But I'm thinking that if you gave it a chance, the smell of black tobacco in a high-stakes French casino at 4am or the tapping of three blind men making their way through the ominously sweaty streets of Kingston or the claustrophobic treachery of a Japanese poison garden might capture your imagination.

And maybe, just maybe, you might follow one all too flesh-and-blood white knight professional with nerves of steel through his reliably unreliable world, to the end of his mission.

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