Sunday, September 25, 2011

New Review: The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming's Books to the Big Screen, by Jeremy Black

Westport, CN: Praeger, 2001, pp. 227.

I initially became familiar with Jeremy Black through his historical writings, which include a number of excellent works (like his critique of the state of military historiography, Rethinking Military History, which I reviewed at my other blog). It later came as a pleasant surprise that he'd written a study of the James Bond series. Black examines both the novels (the original works by Ian Fleming, as well as the series' continuation by Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and Raymond Bensen) and the films (focusing on the EON series, but also offering briefer mentions of 1967's Casino Royale and 1983's Never Say Never Again) as these stood by the time of writing (early 1999).

As the title indicates, the politics of the series' evolution is the main theme of that examination. Black certainly does the race/class/gender stuff fashionable in academic literary criticism, but his writing in this area is better-grounded than most such studies, and virtually free of obfuscating jargon – in part, I suspect, because being a historian rather than a professional critic, he is less prone to the failings of literary theorists. He also has a strong sense of the appeal of the works, never forgetting that the works he examines are more than objects in which to root around for ever subtler instances of yesteryear's prejudices. His background as a historian also makes him particularly well-positioned to deal with the evolving geopolitics of Britain's position during the period under study.

Still, there are ways in which it could have been stronger. There are a number of points where I felt more treatment of a subject was called for, from Fleming's own personal background (certainly a significant influence here) to the scripting of The Spy Who Loved Me (during which the question of approaching the period's politics was a major issue). Additionally, it is the case that any book about a still-continuing series like the Bond novels and films dates quickly. The fact that the book's analysis ends prior to the release of the last two Pierce Brosnan-starring Bond films, and the "reboot" of the series when Daniel Craig replaced him in the role (and for that matter, the contemporaneous real-world political changes such a work might have commented on, like the War on Terror), means that it leaves a significant amount of territory uncovered.

The result is a book that falls short of being definitive, but which is still well worth the while of anyone interested in the evolution of the franchise in its sixty years of existence.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The 2011 Summer Movie Season

With Labor Day behind us, the summer movie season is over.

Once more, the published statistics present a contrast between rising revenues and stagnating attendance, with the two last seasons regarded as the weakest since the late 1990s (1997 and 1998 having been similarly lackluster).

The backlash against 3-D (and 3-D surcharges) seems to be continuing, even as individual 3-D movies (like the last Harry Potter and third Transformer films) succeed with audiences. There would also seem to be signs of dissatisfaction with the endless parade of sequels and reboots (though the biggest, like the aforementioned Harry Potter and Transformers films, and at least when considered internationally, the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie did well, each of them making more than a billion dollars), and perhaps superheroes as well (three of the four superhero movies this summer having enjoyed respectable grosses, but nothing comparable with the Spiderman and Iron Man series, or The Dark Knight – though Thor was an exceptionally strong overseas performer, earning almost 60 percent of its $450 million take internationally).

The slow summer may also be indicative of the limited salability of the "retro" science fiction that was so abundant this past summer (like the science fiction Western Cowboys & Aliens, the World War II-set Captain America, the 1960s-set X-Men: First Class, the 1970s-set Super 8). (Indeed, the Box Office Guru has speculated that the plenitude of this matreial might have been a factor in the poor turnout among that traditional target audience for the summer blockbuster, young males, hardly a solid audience for period pieces.)

However, it is also the case that hesitant moviegoers know they will be able to rent the DVD or stream the films in the theater in a matter of months – in the comfort of their own home, and rather more cheaply than if they were to go to the local mulitplex, which are not small things. The unpleasantness of much of what goes along with the movie-going experience, like the massive, draining assault of commercials and previews viewers are subjected to before the film they actually came to see begins, and the company of the mental defectives who won't turn off their cell phones, are plenty of reason to keep away. So are the ever-rising prices of tickets, transport and concessions (the last, universally recognized as long having been obscene). Especially in tough economic times (and remember, it's not that we're headed for another recession; it's that we never really left the last one), consumers are more conscious of the gap between the cost of that trip, and the pleasure it actually affords, especially in a season in which the fare is so much less exciting to them than to "high concept"-obsessed Suits apparently incapable of reading the scripts they greenlight.

Still, for all of the angst over the numbers, this would hardly seem to be a turning point, especially when one extends their consideration from the summer season to the year as a whole. Despite all of the changes in the media market during the last three decades (the explosion in the number of channels, the proliferation of videotapes and discs, the advent of the Internet), annual ticket sales have consistently averaged 4-5 per capita in the United States. The ups and downs of the film business these last few years are safely within that range, while the increasing profitability of the global market reduces the risk attendant on churning out the next $300 million sequel no one asked for. Naturally, there is ample reason to think the crassness and stupidity seen in 2011 will continue for a good long while to come, even if the current downward proves to be a deep and meaningful shift in the market.

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