Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Bond Bashing

Just like every other comparable pop cultural phenomenon (Star Wars, or Star Trek, for instance) James Bond has rather a large army of rather vociferous detractors, more than usually vocal at the time of a new addition to the series.

In Bond's case the detractors have two arguments. The first is that the franchise simply does not do the things it is known for particularly well; that the action is mediocre, the sexuality tepid, the "sophistication" shallow and unconvincing (a case Stephen Marche made on the Esquire blog a few days ago). The second is a condemnation of the sociopolitical content of the series (a tradition begun even before the release of the first film by, ironically enough, Paul Johnson, in his review of the novel Dr. No, "Sex, Snobbery and Sadism," and continued up to our time in pieces like Ian Dunt's analysis of Skyfall for Politico).1 The critic in this case charge that the content of the films is racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic, imperialist, and generally reactionary.

There is more than something to both criticisms. Some of the Bond films do leave something to be desired as action movies, too goofy or flabby or derivative (like The Man With the Golden Gun, or A View to a Kill, or Die Another Day) to really work well on that level. And especially after the 1960s, there were likely to be not just other action movies (for instance, war movies or Westerns), but really comparable action movies (movies set in our contemporary world or something like it) which were fresher, grander in scale, harder-edged or simply more finely crafted than the latest Bond installment in any given year - with the Bond films often imitating the successes of other unrelated movies (as seen in The French Connection's influence on Live and Let Die, or Jaws' influence on The Spy Who Loved Me), to say nothing of their own past successes (Diamonds Are Forever reworking Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me reusing the formula of You Only Live Twice). At the same time the films' much-vaunted sexuality came to seem at once unsubtle and tame, porn movie-casual in the frequency and manner of its incidence, and PG in the restraint of its presentation (a common enough combination in '60s cinema that today seems surreal). And there is little disputing the extent to which the image of Bond's sophistication remains rooted in an association with brand names (like Savile Row and Aston Martin) or anachronistic images of the moneyed at play (like black tie wear for a night at the casino, which already seemed comically out of date in Diamonds Are Forever).

Equally, while the excesses of postmodernist, identity-oriented analysis have done much to muddle cultural criticism by making anything and everything seem like exactly the same cesspool of oppressive ideology (often through a misreading of the texts in question), one hardly has to go to such extremes to find the politics of the Bond films problematic.2 Ian Fleming's view of the world certainly had its idiosyncracies (the element of irony in his conservatism, an ecological consciousness that appears ahead of its time, the hints of a progressive streak in his essay "If I Were Prime Minister"), but there is no denying that he possessed many of the prejudices common to men of his generation and social background, and that these made overt appearance in his fiction (including pointed remarks about the working class and women, a patronizing attitude toward Blacks, and plots reflective of Cold War-era paranoia about the left). Certainly the filmmakers strove to depoliticize the material from the start, downplaying the Cold War and leaving the books' more troubling dialogue out of the scripts, but instances where this was handled imperfectly aside (Bond's telling Quarrel to fetch his shoes in Dr. No, for instance), there may have been an extent to which the issues were not totally eradicable. Bond, despite being a representative of a national intelligence outfit, often acted as a global policeman, frequently displaying a cavalier attitude toward the sovereignty and laws of other countries, with all this implied about Britain's place in the world, and about other nations and peoples (invariably, the sources of villainy, another issue for Bond's detractors). There was, too, the problem that even while Bond's missions tended to marginalize real-world political conflicts, there was an acceptance of these conflicts as a valid reason for the Secret Service's being (at least, until Quantum of Solace, which pointed up the limited extent to which they could eschew orthodoxy). And so on.

Yet, there is little question that some of these criticisms can seem disproportionate. What seems silly to some in the treatment of the action and sex is to others exactly what appeals about the films - Deborah Lipp making that case particularly well in The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book - and at any rate, most can concede that the post-'60s films had their ups as well as their downs. As to their politics, most of what might reasonably be criticized is less some quirk of the Bond films than a matter of the action genre as a whole, where there has been many a worse offender. For instance, has Bond been more arrogantly imperial than the Secret Service agents in Vantage Point? More classist, racist or aggressively nationalistic than the similarly high-living Iron Man (an Edisonade character updated for the twenty-first century, with all that genre's ideological baggage intact)? My impression has been that Bond has actually been less troubling in these ways than those other characters - though Bond's antics have attracted far more comment.

This difference in response warrants an explanation. One possibility is the long continuity of the film series, which may cause some critics to closely associate even the latest Bond films with the content of the earlier films. This may have skewed perceptions so that even as Vicky Allan wrote quite correctly of the "feminization" of the Bond series, others wrote about it as if it had not changed an iota in fifty years. It may also be the case that Britain's post-imperial status has made observers more acutely conscious of, for instance, what Bond's professional conduct says about the country's place in the world than they have been when watching Hollywood action fare starring American characters, globally deployed and engaged U.S. military and intelligence forces regarded as a given. (Putting it another way, the behavior of Iron Man may go unremarked because we take the idea of an American operating this way so much more for granted.) And of course, there is the fact that writers in general have a tendency to tread well-beaten paths, many a writer making the case against Bond precisely because so many others have already done it during the past six decades.

There is one last matter after these, namely the cachet Bond still enjoys in British pop culture, which, strictly speaking, is not paralleled in the U.S. or anywhere else. Consider the British grosses of the last four Bond films: Die Another Day ($59 million), Casino Royale ($106 million), Quantum of Solace ($81 million) and Skyfall ($118 million and counting). The numbers are especially striking given that the British market is roughly a fifth the size of that of the United States. Factoring that in it appears that at the British box office even Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace made the kind of money the series has not seen in the U.S. since Thunderball (equivalent to about $400 million in the American market today), while Casino Royale and Skyfall (each the biggest hit of its year, something no Bond film ever managed in the U.S.) went beyond this to earn Avengers-style money (equal to $600 million in the U.S. market circa 2012).3 It is as if, for the Bond series, at the British box office, the '60s never ended - a fact which does much to explain both the predominance of British writing about the character, and of course, the sheer exasperation of British critics like Simon Winder, aghast at the fact that 007 is still so prominent when, in his view, the character is not only a legacy of the neuroses of a moment long since passed, but numerous other franchises do the same thing so much better.

1. Paul Johnson's later right-wing politics and personal predilections aside, it is worth recalling that he was to become a close adviser of Margaret Thatcher - who appeared as a character in 1981's For Your Eyes Only (played by actress Janet Brown).
2. The efforts of both Jeremy Black and Simon Winder in this area, notably, benefit considerably as a result of their eschewal of these approaches.
3. Die Another Day was only the third-biggest hit of 2002 in Britain, but it still beat both Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, and Spiderman, while doing more than three times the business of XXX - a far cry from how the movie performed in the United States (where Spiderman earned $400 million and Star Wars $300 million to Die's $160 million, while XXX did almost as well with $140 million). In 2008, Quantum of Solace was again third in its year, but still beat Indiana Jones, Hancock and Iron Man, though all three of those movies performed far better than Quantum in the U.S. (Indy and Iron Man breaking $300 million each, Hancock breaking $200 million to Bond's $168 million in that market). The data on the performance of these films comes from Box Office Mojo, which has systematic box office data for Britain going back to 2002.

My Posts on James Bond
11/9/12
In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels
6/5/12
Stargate as Star Trek
3/23/12

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