Monday, April 9, 2012

The 50th Anniversary of the James Bond Film Series

As fans of the James Bond film series know, this is the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise's launch with 1962's Dr. No. Naturally, the fact is being commemorated in manifold ways big and small, from a highly publicized reissue of the films on Blu-Ray, to exhibitions at film festivals from Toronto to Muscat, to retrospectives in the press.

Those offering comment on the subject typically note the series' "reinvention" of itself during its half century of life. However, such reinvention is not unproblematic. Indeed, I have found myself wondering about a question that no one in the entertainment press ever seems to ask: at what point is it time to let an IP go? To stop rebooting and updating and just leave things be and move on to something else?

The answer Big Media offers is "NEVER!" Anything their companies hold, and for that matter, anything with a name recognizable enough to be suitable for the high concept approach, is to be milked for all it can possibly give and beyond, for reasons I've already discussed here many a time. But for those with art rather than money on their minds, this answer is unsatisfactory. Instead I would say that it is time to let go when what is distinctive about the original ceases to be credible or acceptable, when it can only be presented to the audience ironically or apologetically or in exceedingly sanitized form, or with enormous strain.

It seemed to me that this had already happened with the Bond films when I wrote "The End of James Bond?" back in August 2010. Certainly a few stylistic touches remain to the present, like the opening shot through a gun barrel, the John Barry score, and the line "The name is Bond. James Bond." However, at the core of the earlier films there were also the following, rather more substantive elements:

1. A charged context of high-stakes conflict between world powers (like the Cold War, especially its early phase, in which détente had yet to come about, and the British Empire was breaking up but the metropole not yet reduced to the standing of a "normal" country).
2. The particular model of sophistication, machismo and hedonism represented by the central character (black tie settings, hard liquor, tobacco, skill at upper-class pastimes like golf and baccarat, gambling, flings with numerous women).
3. The plot formula, originally developed in Fleming's novels but ultimately perfected by the films, which has Bond up against freakish megalomaniacs with massive resources and global ambitions, and their even more freakish henchmen. The battle typically begins with Bond engaging the villain in games (golf, cards, etc.) in social settings mixing gentility with murderousness, evading the subsequent assassination attempts, becoming involved with girls good and bad, getting captured and escaping from elaborate death traps, and in the climactic confrontation (usually at the villain's over-the-top fortress) saving the world as the clock ticks toward oblivion – typically with the help of an arsenal of gadgets.

Due to the changes in Britain's international position (and the broader international situation) since 1953, 1962 or even 1989, the first of these has become possible only with a retro approach, as in Sebastian Falk's Devil May Care (2008) - an experiment which has not been repeated in print, and seems an even less likely bet on screen. The second has largely been quashed by changing conceptions of glamour, luxury and the action hero (a guy in a tux no longer making the impression he used to), to say nothing of concessions to feminism and the New Puritanism. The third, deeply worn by heavy use (twenty films between 1962 and 2002, excluding 1967's Casino Royale and 2002's Never Say Never Again, as well as profuse imitation and parody) has also been abandoned in the aforementioned concessions, and more significantly, the pursuit of "gritty realism." Indeed, in their playing off the Bond films the Austin Powers movies (and to a more modest extent, 2002's xXx) differed from the innumerable earlier books, TV shows and films parodying 007 in their presentation of the series' tropes as not merely cartoonish or silly, but as dated, and the dating of aspects of the series from the playboy attitudes to the villains' schemes central to many of their gags.

The result is that this anniversary seems to me rather a hollow one – like that of a marriage in which each spouse has forgotten what they ever saw in the other.

From Screen to Page: Reading Ian Fleming
The End of James Bond?

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