Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: The Last Command, by Timothy Zahn

New York: Bantam Books, 1993, pp. 407.

As the third and final volume of Zahn's Thrawn trilogy opens, Thrawn's using the Katana Fleet to throw the New Republic on the defensive--while his power struggle with Joruus C'boath continues to escalate.

It is a promising beginning.

Still, the book does not quite succeed in bringing its various threads together. Granted, the course of events is logical enough, even providing a payoff to the Noghri subplot that comprised so much of the prior two books. However, the Imperial raid shutting down traffic in and out of Coruscant, and Talon Karrde's intrigues, do not add very much to the interest of the whole, and feel as if they could have been cut out of the story with only minimal modification.

More problematically, the climax--which has Han and company tramping through the forest on the way to a potentially war-deciding special forces action against a key Imperial facility, and Luke in a light saber duel before an Imperial throne against an enemy in whom he has seen himself--suffers by comparison with the Battle of Endor it so strongly evokes. Part of the problem is the diffuseness of this section of the story, Admiral Ackbar again leading a fleet into action, but doing so very far away from the Battle for Mount Tantiss, in what is frankly a separate action. This separation extends to Thrawn's denouement which, while appropriate in certain of its essentials, lacks dramatic flair and ends up feeling nearly incidental.

In the end the events of the trilogy appear to have been just a mopping-up operation that had some hairy moments after all--and Thrawn a footnote to Galactic history. The result is that the book does not pack quite the punch that might have been hoped for, and even seems a letdown in light of the series' earlier promise, but still manages to entertain, while setting the stage for later adventures.

While We're On the Subject . . . (More on Jodorowsky's Dune)

Also well worth checking out: Terence Blake's post at Xenoswarm on the same documentary from last year. In his post Blake discusses the extraordinary ambition and passion that Alejandro Jodorwosky displayed for his visionary attempt to film Dune, which is what makes the documentary as compelling as it is.

It is standard for artists to talk about their devotion to their work--and often they merely seem blandly pious in doing so, and we take it as just that, bland piety of the type that is simply grist to the PR mill. When Jodorowsky speaks about the same issue in the documentary--when he declares that he was ready to die for his vision, when he recounts his approach to Pink Floyd (who were to make much of the music for the film) and his insistence to them of the world-historic importance of his project--one takes him much more seriously than that. One believes that he believes, and doubtless it is a reason why so many uncritically accept the claims for the project as not just a missed opportunity, but a missed turning point in the history of cinema--and even as one unconvinced of these claims, I find myself regretting that the kind of ambition and passion he displayed is such a rarity.

Jodorowsky's Unrealized Dune: A Critical View

After recently seeing the 2013 documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky's plans for a film version of Dune back in the 1970s, I decided to check out the commentary online.

As it happened, the consensus view (corresponding to those interviewed within the documentary) seemed to be a wish that it had been made and they could have seen it--and that it would have been a triumph which would have put science fiction filmmaking on a different course.

Granted, particular ideas were dazzling. (The opening long take Jodorowsky described would have been epic.) However, given the degree to which it deviated from the letter and spirit of the original novel (indeed, Jodorowsky's predictable disinterest and even inversion of its themes), it would not have been a definitive version of Herbert's books--or even a really satisfactory one.

More importantly, the chances of its having been a successful film, even on an artistic level, strike me as having been vanishingly small. I will admit that my attitude toward the Modernist/postmodernist aesthetic, and still more, its underlying assumptions grow increasingly dim.1 (Increasingly I feel as if a very large part of our artistic and cultural life has been in a cul-de-sac for a hundred years.) But all the same, I will say that even dazzling bits do not make a successful whole. And taken altogether the movie could easily have been unwatchable. Consider how David Lynch's 1984 version has been received, despite its dose of weirdness being far, far milder than Jodorowsky's not just much longer, but astronomically more surreal, gruesome, garish conception. (The idea of a freakishly made-up Orson Welles overseeing and completing the graphic dismembering and beheading of David Carradine just about says it all in this regard.)

Perhaps the best and worst that could have been hoped for it would have been its becoming a cult film, a curiosity--which is a very different thing from its replacing Star Wars as the defining science fiction film success of the period. Indeed, it may have wound up more influential in not getting made--in that bits and pieces were taken from it and utilized in other, more plausible work (most famously, the H.R. Giger drawings that became the foundation for the Alien franchise).

1. Shameless plug time: because much of the history of science fiction makes little sense unless one gets all this (and frankly, even the professional critics tend not to), I discuss these matters at some length in Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry. Why not go and check it out?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ready to Go Boldly, Part II

Recently I suggested that the most valuable thing a new Trek series could offer would be a rational, humanistic, progressive vision of the future. Of course, we all know the knee-jerk response to such calls. That this is "dated." Of course, people just say that, never really explaining it, but what they seem to mean is that the only respectable view of the world holds it to be "more mysterious than intelligible . . . more evil than good" as John Crowe Ransom put it, and that the only proper thing to do is wallow in the dark-and-gritty dark-and-grittiness of it.

This hardly seems an unquestionable position to me. Indeed, spelled out in this way it seems to me an extremely dubious one, passing off a snob's irony, a thug's callousness, a bigot's prejudices as wisdom ("Welcome to the real world!") by wrapping them up in the obscurantism that the gullible take for profundity.

And it all seems to me the very opposite of what anything bearing the Trek label ought to stand for. Consider those things that did make James Whitbrook's wish list for things a new Trek would offer, among them an interest in ideas. An exploration of ideas cannot amount to very much without reason, or the expectation that knowledge means something, such as this view denies.

Indeed, the sterility of the simultaneously pompous and dark "conventional wisdom" is all too clearly demonstrated by that show which in so many minds seemed to supplant Trek as the template for small screen space opera. In the middle of a fit of not particularly imaginative Trek-bashing, another author at the same site where Whitbrook wrote remarked that, in contrast with figures like Data or Seven of Nine offering an outsider's view of humanity, they preferred BattleStar Galactica's "Cylons, who school us about humanity by screwing and killing us."

The truth is that Galactica actually offered nothing in the way of "schooling us," just dumb soap opera and dumber head games. Indeed, in the show's consistent subscription to that view of an unintelligible, evil universe, it slammed the door hard on the possibility of insight into humanity, or anything else.

But just as people don't stop and think of what they mean when they say the Trek vision is "dated," they didn't ask just where Galactica was going with everything, and then after getting burned when it became perfectly clear that it was going absolutely nowhere, failed to learn the lesson.

Fortunately, that's not the final word on the matter.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Showing and Telling Katniss Everdeen

The fourth and final installment in the Hunger Games saga arrived in theaters this past weekend, and made $100 million, which by any normal standard is sensational, but is regarded in many quarters as a disappointment. This is not just as a result of the simple-minded insistence of the Hollywood Suit that any and all movies be record-breakers (real as this is), but also the better performance of earlier installments, which seems to have reflected some dissatisfaction with the movies' course. (The third book was generally not considered the series' strongest--a judgment in which I have to concur--and that problem was amplified by the mostly money-grubbing decision to split the last movie in two, making viewers buy tickets twice to get the whole story.)

Perhaps more important than the numbers and the tactics, however, is the fact that, with the series now complete, the assessments of the whole have begun, with Rob Bricken offering his opinion at io9. In doing so he correctly notes, among other things, the loss of some of the protagonist's complexity in the translation from book to screen, which raises a matter that occurred to me while watching the first Hunger Games film.

Where the balance of "show" and "tell" is concerned, Collins' book tilted heavily toward telling. Of course, this goes against the conventional wisdom that good writing is "show, don't tell," but it was necessary to developing the character's interiority, and supplying a certain amount of necessary backstory and world-building that could not have readily been shown. Converting the books into movies diminished the prospects for telling to rare, relatively awkward expository passages (like Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith explaining what tracker jackers are to the audience), forcing it to rely that much more on showing, made the loss of a certain amount of nuance inevitable--and in the process, reminded us all of just how important an item in the writer's toolbox much-maligned "tell" happens to be.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Wells on "Spiritual" vs. Material Advance

Writing in The Shape of Things to Come Wells remarked the attitude of the mainstream in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries toward the reality that social and political arrangements were lagging behind technology. "The favourite formula," he observed,
was to declare that "spiritual"--for the naïve primordial opposition of spirit and matter was still accepted in those days--had not kept pace with "material" advance. This was usually said with an air of moral superiority to the world at large. Mostly there was a vague implication that if these other people would only refrain from using modern inventions so briskly, or go to church more, or marry earlier and artlessly, or read a more "spiritual" type of literature, or refrain from mixed bathing, or work harder and accept lower wages, or be more respectful and obedient to constituted authority, all might yet be well.
It is the view that the individual is the only valid unit or level of analysis, and that the insights of social science into even that are to be treated with indifference or contempt. ("No one's written anything worthwhile on these matters since Aristotle!") It is, frankly, a matter of moralizing, or better still, pseudo-moralizing, in a narrow, uninformed, and (especially if one is in a position of authority) exceedingly self-serving way.

Alas, this view, retrograde in Wells' time, is still very much with us. ("There is no such thing as society!" "Personal responsibility!") We have not even got past it in our science fiction, or we would not still be consuming an unhealthy amount of Frankenstein complex cliche in our genre diets.

Poison Rags and Irritated Cortices

H.G. Wells, affecting the position of a historian of the twenty-second century casting an eye back at the twentieth, wrote in The Shape of Things to Come that
the ordinary newspaper of that time was not so much a news sheet as a poison rag. Every morning the common man took in fresh suggestions of suspicion and resentment and gratified his spite with bad news and malicious gossip.
All that, of course, fed the problem of hatred--national, racial hatred and the like. He explained this in physiological terms that seem old-fashioned in our brain-scanning era. (This recent Scientific American piece discusses the possibility of a "hate circuit" physically much more extensive than in Wells' description.)

Still, what he wrote about the behavior continues to ring true, not least that it produces "a chronic condition of vindictive disapproval" toward a particular subject. As a consequence,
[t]he patient seeks, often with the greatest ingenuity, occasion for offence, and finds a profound satisfaction in the nursing of resentment and the search for reprisals and revenges. He has what he calls his "proper pride." He disapproves of his fellow creatures and grudges them happiness.
Fortunately, hatred had come to play a much smaller part in human life. As he remarked afterward, where the mass media in that earlier "time subsisted by [hatred's] dissemination, in the interests of reactionary forces," in the later, more rational era,
Our current education is framed very largely to avert and anticipate this facile contagion . . . We are as sedulous now for cleanliness and ventilation in our mental as in our physical atmosphere.
Alas, this is one case where Wells' remarks remain relevant not for their description of what did change in the years that followed, but for their description of what has unfortunately not changed.

The Most Interesting Man in the World?

"I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis."

So goes the catch phrase of "The Most Interesting Man in the World."

As we can tell from the commercials, he is worldly enough to enjoy a certain amount of variety in his beverages, to have become acquainted with the finer among them, and to have acquired particular tastes. Still, he does not turn up his nose at beer, and where beer is concerned, he does not insist on a particular brand. He merely prefers Dos Equis.

I recently found myself comparing this to Bond's well-known and frequently-advertised taste in alcohol.

It strikes me that the Dos Equis pitchman most definitely serves us a display of quasi-aristocratic consumption, but with the snobbish edge that gave us the "dry martini, shaken, not stirred" line blunted.

It also seems to fit our era better.

Perhaps that is progress of a sort.

Stay thirsty for that, my friends.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Noir and Science Fiction

In a recent round-up of new science fiction novels for The Hamilton Spectator, Alex Good remarks that
The strange bond between noir and science fiction has never been thoroughly explained. What is it about trench coats and laser pistols that make them work so well together?
It's certainly something worth thinking about. It strikes me as relevant that both hard-boiled crime, and science fiction, coalesced as genres at about the same time--the late 1920s, the 1930s.

However, I suspect that their appearing at the same moment is not the only reason for the sense of their kinship, but reflects something deeper, which we may find easy to overlook today, or simply prefer to overlook, namely the political radicalism in which they each had their beginnings. Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and company in the case of the former; H.G. Wells in the case of the latter; all had a sense of there being much wrong with this world, but not because of the traditional, conservative, tragic view of the universe as metaphysically rigged (the Fall, etc.), but because of an inconstant social reality that they believed could and had to be changed for the better.

Granted, Hammett gave way to Mickey Spillane. And when people think of early science fiction, they are apt to remember the more out-of-date attitudes of figures like Astounding editor John Campbell. Still, the old radicalism remained, perhaps more conspicuously in science fiction. Man of the right that Campbell indisputably was, he largely carried forward Wells' ideas about science fiction and how it ought to be written.1 Indeed, in what may have been the fullest expression of his own view in a critical essay, his 1959 editorial "Non--Escape Literature," the great virtue of science fiction was that, unlike the "literature of eternal verities" (for which he had such disdain), it grappled with the reality of that inevitable change, helping prepare us all for the "things to come," the bigotries of the highbrows be damned. Moreover, for all that has undeniably changed in the field since then, that idea has never gone away (however much it may have appeared marginalized). Nor is it imaginable that it could, so long as science fiction continues to be written.

1. I discuss the views of Campbell, and his considerable debt to Wells, in Chapter 2 of Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

James Bond, Gentleman of Leisure

I've already discussed Veblen's theory of the leisure class as a way of understanding the figure of James Bond, but a particular passage in Chapter IV of his book, titled "Conspicuous Consumption," strikes me as worth sharing more closely.

The consumption of the "gentleman of leisure," Veblen notes, besides being lavish in quantity and expense, "also undergoes a specialisation as regards the quality of the goods consumed" (emphasis added). The increase of "personal comfort and well-being" is part of this, but there is, as Veblen notes, the "honorific" aspect. The gentleman, after all,
is no longer simply the successful, aggressive male--the man of strength, resource, and intrepidity . . . he must also cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent on him to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. He becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and . . . weapons, games, dancers, and the narcotics. This cultivation of aesthetic faculty requires time and application, and [results in] a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way. Closely related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner.
Thus the clothes, the watches, the cars must be of suitable brands; he must not only have his martini, but he must take it specifically shaken, not stirred; and it is only appropriate that he favor Old World casinos over the "trap for peculiarly insensitive mice . . . tempted by the coarsest cheese" that is Vegas.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Calvinball Mythology, Applied

A few years ago Jonathan McCalmont remarked the tendency to try and turn every story into a larger mythology, which seemed all the more conspicuous in the particular film about which he was writing at the time, Ridley Scott's Alien prequel, Prometheus, precisely because Alien is such an unlikely candidate for this, and the film ultimately such a failure at developing it in this manner. (Myths, for better or worse, offer explanation, a thing that movie was very short on.)

McCalmont posited that this was a deep-rooted cultural need in an age which has ceased to believe in its inherited myths. (As he put it, "the market has stepped in to fill the gap.")

That's one way of looking at it, one with which not everyone will agree. (There are, after all, those rationalistic types who regard a turn to the mythic approach in the modern world as essentially a cheat, obscuring reality with pretentions of "timelessness.")

Another is to see the market's stepping in in this way as simply a way of milking every last drop from established intellectual properties. After all, fixating on the "timeless" in a particular story, however slight, is an excuse to overlook the ways in which it has dated. And attributing a greater significance to a simple tale is an obvious way of accomplishing that necessary task for making the audience come to the theater and buy a $20 ticket rather than waiting three months and downloading it in the comfort of their home for much less--making them feel that its release is an Event in which they want to participate. That sense that this or that movie is "something more" is equally a good way to justify prequels ("I really care how it all got started") and reboots ("It's timeless; this generation needs one"), which can in their turn also seem like Events.

Obviously the most successful example of this in recent years has been the multi-series Marvel mega-franchise, now including Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Ant-Man (and in a TV version, even humble Agent Coulson) separately, and together in the Avengers. And naturally that success has been emulated. Over at Rolling Stone, David Ehrlich offers a case for the application of this approach to the Bond series being the weak point of its latest, Spectre--its attempting to tie the four rebooted films into a unified whole.

In fairness, the idea of a more unified Bond series is not altogether alien to the franchise. Fleming united the action in his last five novels, with results that have an interest even when they are not always successful. And Gardner followed his example in his own, last three novels (unsatisfactorily, but still functionally). And of course, before Marvel got into movie-making in a serious way, the producers of the Bond movies did toy with the idea of an interconnection with a related series starring a female double-O type. (You remember Jinx Johnson?) Still, the Marvel films were on safer ground doing this, because they were never quite so ambitious as the rebooted Bond films, or so prone to alternating in their course (as the evolution of third Daniel Craig movie into Skyfall demonstrates), making the task a far simpler one. All the same, if Spectre does get chalked up as a disappointment in the end, the series will not come to an end, simply do again what it has been doing for nearly a half century now--correcting course, likely delivering a lighter, brisker, more standalone film.

Bond, Politics, Critics: the Spectre of Surveillance

It is no secret that Spectre has fared much less well with critics than its predecessor Skyfall. As a practical matter, the film's detractors have had plenty of arguments to support their less complimentary stance. However, one may wonder if the stronger political element in this film has not also been a factor in the severity toward the movie. Over at Informed Comment scholar Juan Cole remarked that the
latest entry in the Daniel Craig reboot of the James Bond film franchise, Spectre, turns Bond into more muscular version of Edward Snowden, as he takes down a vast 9-nation attempt at electronic surveillance and information-sharing that would also benefit a criminal cartel.
He also observed that reviews seemed to be ignoring the political theme to a "remarkable" degree, and even noted a parallel between Spectre and Quantum of Solace, which "turned Bond into a defender of the left-leaning, pro-peasant government of Evo Morales in Bolivia." While Cole does not make the observation in his piece, it has previously struck me that Quantum of Solace may have taken the beating with critics that it did in part because of the movie's political tilt--and that this might also be the case with Spectre.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ready to Boldly Go?

Over at io9 James Whitbrook, in response to the recent announcement of a new Star Trek series to air on CBS, offered up a list of "seven things we want in the new Star Trek TV show."

I'm in agreement with much of what he's asking for ("Something new," "Lots of weird and wonderful aliens," "More boldly going," etc.), but there was one thing he all too predictably didn't mention--namely a humanistic, progressive vision of the future. A future that was a mirror to our present, while transcending it; which encouraged us to see more fully, and see that we can--and must--do better than we have. Which sides with reason over obscurantism, principle over prejudice. That, too, defined the old series at its best, and seems the more desperately needed in this era of young adult dystopias and dark and gritty everything.

And while I'm not a particular fan of endlessly bringing back the same old IPs, it wouldn't be altogether inappropriate if it was a new Trek which finally cleansed the small-screen space opera of the pernicious legacy of that show that left it moribund for years, BattleStar Galactica.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Best James Bond Novels, After Fleming

The question of what were the best "post-Fleming" James Bond novels is a complex one. Just what standard ought we to apply?

Are we looking for more fiction just like what Ian Fleming produced? If so, then Kingsley Amis' Colonel Sun comes closest--helped by the fact that Amis had prior, and direct experience of meeting Fleming, helping prepare his own fiction for publication (reviewing the galleys of The Man with the Golden Gun).*

It helped, too, that he produced his book just a few years after Fleming wrote his last word, before his work dated nearly so much as it was to do later. Indeed, every writer who came after Amis had little choice but to downplay Fleming's attitudes (even Sebastian Faulks, writing "as Ian Fleming"), while changes in the broader political context nullified many an old concern. (What need for imperial policing when there is no empire? And did the hand-wringing over the welfare state unsurprising in the age of Macmillan make any sense in the age of Thatcher?)

Moreover, those unavoidable changes apart, the fact remained that, as a writer aiming not for pulpy adventure but "thrillers designed to be read as literature," Fleming was prone to an oblique narrative style, and character drama. And with only a few exceptions, the result has been that his tales seem slow and lacking in action from the perspective of those accustomed to today's thrillers. (Or at any rate, that was how this reader of today's thrillers found them when first trying Fleming.) That Fleming tends toward a bleakly irony view of life does not necessarily make this more appealing.

By and large, today's reader is likely to prefer something more accessible and less literary, brisker and more action-packed; something more like the Bond films which are the basis for almost everyone's perception of Bond today, even those of us who eventually read the books. And indeed, most of the post-Fleming books have something of this about them. However, if the standard is that of a Bond novel that reads like a Bond film, then the writer who comes closest is Raymond Benson, whose works are easily readable as Brosnan-era Bonds in book form, particularly in the climax to his Union trilogy, Never Dream of Dying.

If one is looking for a better balance (the characterizations of Fleming, the fireworks of the EON productions, a decent amount of polish), then I can think of none better than John Gardner's first, Licence Renewed--while also giving a good word to the novelizations. Christopher Wood's novelizations of the scripts he co-wrote for The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker were, some distasteful or strained bits apart, a pleasant surprise in that respect.

* At the time of this writing, the author had not yet read Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis (released only this September).

Sunday, November 1, 2015

James Bond's Identity

As Ashley Fetters makes clear in a recent GQ article, the idea of recasting James Bond as something other than a white male has been around for decades. However, recent years have seen more than the usual fuss about a possible, sharp divergence in the casting of 007. (There was, for example, the campaign to get Idris Elba cast, and Rush Limbaugh's highly publicized response to the idea of a black Bond.) The arrival of Spectre in theaters has meant a spike in that talk, with Roger Moore's remarks about a gay or female Bond adding fuel to the fire.

As usual, the discussion has been conducted on the shallowest possible terms, as is usually the case when matters of identity are involved, with everyone lining up behind their predictable position just as reflexively as Limbaugh.

The truth is that, if one treats the question as something other than a litmus test for our preferred side in the culture wars, what exactly we take the name "James Bond" to denote is something we ought to take into account when we respond to this question. Do we think of Bond as a character who may be fictional but nonetheless has a specific cultural context, personal history and individual qualities that manifest themselves in his way of looking at the world and dealing with people and situations--and they with him? Or do we think of him as something much less definite and much more abstract than that, such that most of the details can be changed without damaging some essential James Bond-ness?

When Ian Fleming created Bond back in 1953, he wrote a character, one by and large more thoroughly developed in the book and on the screen; and especially in that original setting it was inconceivable that a double-o, and still less this particular double-o, could have been very different from what he was in race, gender--or social class. This was all the more the case for the books being not just about the adventures of one man, but through that one man, the place of Britain in the world, and of the place of the country's traditional elite at home and abroad.

Accordingly, anyone presuming to render James Bond as an actual character would have to leave those aspects of his identity unaltered (unless they were going for Brechtian theater-like alienation effects which would, again, underline the traditional idea of the character). And of course, much of the justification and promotion of the character has been based on the idea that after '70s-style silliness this is all a return to the original.

Still, that highly touted faithfulness extended only so far. Fleming's Bond was at the least a semi-aristocrat (even if the aristocratic aspect was "smuggled in," as Kingsley Amis put it), while he was often deeply ambivalent about what he did, especially when killing was involved. By contrast, with Craig the upper-class aspects are downplayed (even if the filmmakers suddenly decided in Skyfall that instead of semi-aristocrat he was just plain old aristocrat), while befitting these "dark and gritty"-loving times, the ambivalence is diminished, this Bond having no trouble at all killing in cold blood.

Indeed, over the years the series saw so much change that many viewers were convinced that Bond was not really a person but a code name--in a way that they never thought was the case with, for example, Bruce Wayne. Over at Fuse Jason Lipshutz goes so far as to say that
"James Bond is not a specific nationality, color or gender, even if those qualities have been uniform over the past five decades. Bond is a sensation of effortless cool, a pristine combination of sophistication, physical strength and good looks."
Siding with the conception of Bond as an idea--an aesthetic even--and its consequent reduction of just about all other traits of the character incidental, he makes a case for Rihanna as the next Bond.

However, while there are some grounds for each perception of Bond, the fact also remains that each has implications going far beyond a bit of casting--and commensurate disadvantages. Bond the character belonged to an earlier, different world, and can have much less meaning for our time. Any Bond fit to go into the field today would likely have no memory of a time before the pull-out from "east of Suez," and the final end of empire; while after Thatcher and Major, Blair and Cameron, he could not convincingly be an expression of reaction against the more egalitarian world promised by Labor in its post-war heyday. The concerns to which he spoke have vanished, and it is not clear how he could speak to new concerns. Indeed, with the most recent films the filmmakers have turned away from any consistent line on them, and even from noticing them at all, offering down-sized, less global stories instead.

But "Bond the aesthetic" is a virtual admission that there is now very little to this figure around which a $20 billion brand has been built up.

Neither option being totally satisfactory, the producers have opted not to tie themselves to one or the other, turning this way, turning that, as seemed convenient (e.g. "What we tried last time didn't work out so well, so let's do the opposite!"). So will they go on doing for as long as possible, and that seems more likely than anything else to determine the series' post-Craig lead--while the problem of having to deal with the issue seems the thing most likely to keep Craig in the role. I've said it before and I'll say it again: action heroes stick around longer than they used to, and if Vin Diesel can keep playing Dom Toretto into his fifties' without an ill word said of him for it (and might even go back to playing Triple-X), then there seems no reason to think Craig (whose version of Bond has embraced the idea of Bond as tired and run-down and worn-out and a dinosaur) cannot get away with soldiering on as Bond into his fifties', and even beyond, in a way that predecessors like Roger Moore did not. And that, given the odds against his getting a 25 million pound paycheck for anything else he ever does, he will, for all the grumbling, take the money at the end of the day and endure the next grueling round of shooting.

The Three Musketeers, Today

To go by the innumerable film versions, one would scarcely imagine that Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers is as much satire as swashbuckler. Dumas, a man of the nineteenth century (indeed, the son of a prominent general of the French Revolution), spent much of the novel having fun at the expense of those pillars of the Old Regime--monarchs and aristocrats, soldiers and churchmen, and all they represented, not least their moral squalor.1

The result is that, as the reader quickly finds, the musketeers popularly associated with not much more than high spirits, loyalty and camaradrie are basically a pack of thieving, deadbeat, colossally entitled hoodlums--and that on their better days.2 Charming as they are for all that in print, the movies tend to curtail this (especially after D'Artagnan's memorable first meetings with his future comrades, which they dare not drop and can scarcely modify), filmmakers finding this all a bit much for characters presented as "our heroes"--while in our relatively conservative times, they also hesitate to mock soldiers and priests. And of course, along with contemporary conservatism, there is contemporary feminism, which looks askance at such types as adulterous airheads, damsels in distress and villainnesses who fight with traditional "women's weapons" like lies, seduction and poison--so that in Paul W.S. Anderson's 2011 version Constance is a secret agent (and unmarried to a doddering old man); and Milla Jovovich's DeWinter is Resident Evil's Alice in period costume. Meanwhile, rather than all the derring-do being driven by the heroes' effort to stop a potentially war-starting exposure of the French Queen's astonishing indiscretion (a striking indictment of the stupidity of the politics of an era in which war was the sport of kings), what we get is their disrupting Cardinal Richelieu's scheming to create the appearance of adultery.

Alas, in the process the satire is reduced to nearly nothing, and a good deal of texture gone too, leaving us with just a sanitized early fragment of the adventure (few moviemakers bother with more than the first third of the story). This being the case one may wonder at the eternal eagerness to refilm it for the umpteenth time.3 (Just check out Dumas' IMDB page.) But those who have been paying attention know that faithfulness to a classic, or even an interest in what makes it a classic, has less often been part of adaptations than one might wish, for all the tediously pious protestations of the PR people. Those looking to film the story simply seem to think cloaks and rapiers are cool, and have a name everyone knows attached to them, which spares them the trouble of making stuff up like a writer should, or still worse, trying to sell something under--horror of horrors--an original title.

Even going by this standard Anderson's version is uneven, but it does at least reflect an all-too-rare recognition of the truisms that if you have to leave behind a big chunk of what makes a story worth telling in the first place, you ought to replace it with something else; and that the millionth version of the same story ought to have something setting it apart from the nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine versions preceding it. In this case, it is an abundance of clock-punk that performs the role, and at the least, it gives the production an interesting look. Still, filmmaking would be a whole lot better off if there was a little more readiness to say "Do it right or not it all," a bit more broad-mindedness toward classic stories' content, and moviemakers did not have to slavishly wrap up original ideas in the trappings of established names.

1. In this Dumas is a lot like Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, another, contemporaneous classic of French and world literature distorted out of all recognition in the popular memory by the film versions.
2. Living by sword and by gun and disdaining industry and those who do it; regarding it as unthinkable to be unattended by a servant, while usually being flat broke; quick to arm and quick to anger and thinking themselves quite entitled to take what they want and take advantage of anyone they need to do in order to do so; they comprise rather an unflattering portrait of aristocratic, "leisure class" mores.
3. Even Richard Lester's attempt to shoot the fuller story wound up split into two films--with the stuff after the first third generally going into the second film, The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge (1974).

Thursday, October 29, 2015

James Bond, Mythic Hero

Robbie Collin penned one of the more interesting of the recent pieces about the Daniel Craig era in the Bond films' history, noting, among other things, if nothing else, for the issues he raises.

Collin is right when he points to the series' more political edge. Still, one ought not to push this too far--the series' ideas about the necessity of espionage orthodox, but the depictions of terrorism vague, while things were complicated by an abrupt, if short-lived, left turn in Quantum of Solace.

Collin is right, too, when he points to the series' greater readiness to embrace Bond's obsolescence. Still, there is no going back to a pre-Suez mind-set, regarding either Britain's place in the world, or gender attitudes--so that this does not mean very much here. And Collin claims rather than demonstrates that the changes have made Bond relevant in a way that, for example, he did not seem to be pre-reboot.

Quite the contrary, Collin is most persuasive when he discusses the turn to myth in recent films--in the evocation of the Odyssey, and in other ways. (In fact, I recently discussed the same theme at some length.) Mythology has its fascinations, but from a modern, rationalistic standpoint it has very serious limits. As Darko Suvin observed, myth is essentially a "ritual and religious approach" that, in a story taking place "above time," "claims to explain once and for all the essence of phenomena."1 As a practical matter this means that it "absolutizes and personifies apparently constant motifs from the sluggish periods with low social dynamics"--exactly what modern times have not been, with the result that myth explains much less satisfactorily. Indeed, it is apt to appear "an illusion . . . a fraud, in the best case only a temporary realization of potentially limitless contingencies."

As relevance goes, this is not terribly great, and the results show it. (Just what does Skyfall really tell us about life, the universe and everything?) Naturally the significance of a mythic Bond lies less in making him "relevant" to our times than in relieving the pressure on the creators to make him contemporary, and permitting the small-scale intrigues in which he is more apt to get caught up now to seem somehow larger than they are, as though we were watching not a civil servant chasing a Bad Guy to get a peek at his phone, but (however superficially) the doings of old-time gods and heroes whose every word, deed and gesture somehow seems worthy of an epic.

1. These remarks come from his classic article "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: Dark Force Rising, by Timothy Zahn

New York: Bantam, 1992, pp. 376.

Heir to the Empire concluded with the heroes repulsing Thrawn's attempt to grab a sizable portion of their fleet at the Sluis Van shipyard, but only at the price of damaging the ships Thrawn tried to steal, rendering them inoperable for some time to come. This makes it less than a triumph--and indeed, Bothan politician Borsk Fey'la seizes on the results to contrive treason charges against Admiral Ackbar, accusing him of having set the fleet up for attack by the Empire.

Naturally, our heroes set out to clear his name. Meanwhile, for his part Grand Admiral Thrawn pursues his effort to sharply expand his fleet, a game into which the titular "Dark Force"--a fleet of two hundred highly automated warships thought to have been lost in space a half century earlier--quickly looms large.

The result is that in this second book of the trilogy, the good guys and bad seem to be headed in different directions--and while their paths eventually converge, this takes rather a while. In the meantime a great deal of time is spent on matters that seem comparatively tangential--the mystery of Fey'la's connection with New Cov, Han's meeting with Senator Bel Iblis (an Old Republic politician who early on broke with the Rebellion to fight his own, separate war against the Empire), Leia's dealings with the Noghri. (Where the last in particular is concerned, the significance of the matter for the big picture is still not yet clear by book's end.) Luke's meeting with C'boath initially appears more consequential, but this time around, at least, does not amount to very much.

The book is the more diffuse because Thrawn, whose machinations helped tie the events of the last tale together, is less of a presence in this installment. And the looseness--and uneventfulness--seem the less forgivable for coming just when the tale should have been getting tighter and tenser on the way toward the climax. Unsurprisingly the conclusion in which it all culminates leaves something to be desired. In the main it is a replay of the preceding book's, with Luke and his friends up against Thrawn as he makes his play for a bigger force, while the power struggle between Thrawn and C'boath escalates abruptly (perhaps too abruptly, given that a proper build-up could have been the most engaging thing in the book). Still, the finale, which has Thrawn get the upper hand over the heroes, while C'boath just may be getting the upper hand over Thrawn, promises a more exciting tale in the next and final installment, The Last Command.

A Note on Golgo 13

I first encountered Golgo 13 as the protagonist of the old NES video game, Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode. The game does not seem to be discussed very much compared with others from its era, but it was something of a hit, enough so to get the sequel released in North America, and even today seems noteworthy for a number of features.

Among them was its relatively "adult" content. In this game, when people got shot, they bled. Characters were seen smoking. And in James Bondian fashion, Golgo had intimate moments with two different women. However, there was also the context for all this—a relatively well-developed storyline presented through cut scenes. And of course, the game was novel for helping pioneer the first-person shooter in two of its stages.

At the time I took Golgo for a James Bond-type created just for that game. I had no idea that he was the center of a massive franchise in his own right—the star of one of the biggest-selling mangas of all time, which had already resulted in a number of animated and live-action films (one of which, Assignment: Kowloon, starred Sonny Chiba in the title role). Since then the series has remained in print, making it the longest-running manga of all time, while leading to several more adaptations, most notably a 50-episode anime series in 2008-2009.

But as it turns out, Golgo has a Bondian connection. His creator, Takao Saito, actually produced authorized manga adaptations of four James Bond novels (Thunderball, The Man with the Golden Gun, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die) for the Japanese market during the 1960s before Golgo made his debut in 1969 in Big Comic—and as it happens, his version of Bond looks an awful lot like Golgo later would.

Still, it would be a mistake to think of Golgo as simply a derivative of Bond. Unlike Bond he is a freelancee, without any boss to answer to, who chooses and refuses jobs as he sees fit—and while often involved with spies or gangsters, takes a good many s purely private jobs, often making him simply the agent of someone else's personal revenge, the question of good guys and big guys irrelevant. Additionally, while he has a good many skills he is a gunman above all—a sniper, specifically. And where Bond is an open book to the reader, more or less (and the Bond of the films much the same, even if there is less to read in it), Golgo is presented as opaque—and the versions of the story I have encountered (mainly episodes of the recent anime) make this the source of much of his interest.

At times the series abandons the action-adventure structure altogether. Many a time we see not a job but its aftermath, as a hapless cop questioning Golgo, certain of his responsibility for an assassination, and yet completely unable to prove a thing—Golgo having covered his tracks all too well, and anyway, no one able to believe that a human being could actually make a shot like that. In many another case Golgo is not even the center of the story. Instead what we see is someone else's drama, in which Golgo is a supporting player, perhaps just pulling a trigger near the end—someone else the viewpoint character, perhaps narrating the tale, their impressions of Golgo the only ones we get.

Besides helping distinguish Golgo from Bond, this variety of story themes, structures and viewpoints has helped sustain the interest of the adventures for nearly a half century, all as Golgo manages to out-Bond Bond.

More superhumanly competent, combining grandeur of plots and lavishness of resources with independence, he has made fewer concessions to the changing times in even his sex life—realizing the old fantasy even more fully than the original ever dared.

Daniel Craig's Comments: A Second Thought

Daniel Craig's criticisms of his own character and movie are, predictably, still much in the news. Indeed, the Toronto Star's Vinay Menon wrote that such comments are "generating more pre-release publicity than any other actor who played Bond" ever did "in the past." That may or may not be true, given the series' long history (and the weak memory entertainment journalism displays). Still, Mr. Menon is quite right when he remarks that Bond is "making so many headlines for this apparent 007 self-loathing, previous Bonds are protectively jumping into the fray." Which in turn amounts to still more pre-release publicity, and, when Roger Moore comments on the prospect of a gay or female Bond (intentionally or unintentionally pushing that easiest, laziest of buttons, identity), publicity about the publicity about the publicity.

At times like these it seems worth remembering that, long before George Lucas or Steven Spielberg even went to film school, the makers of the Bond films not only invented the action movie, but the cinematic blockbuster. It was Goldfinger, in fact, which initiated the style of their release: a combo of massive publicity and wide release (a then unprecedented 1,100 reels) aimed at scoring big in the first weekends, front-loading the income; while supplementing the revenue from ticket sales with a colossal merchandising push, that escalated in subsequent films. When Thunderball hit theaters in America, so did sixty million dollars worth of James Bond merchandise, including such unlikely items as James Bond cough syrup, and James Bond toast, an excess that elicited some critical remarks from then-James Bond Sean Connery, who called the movie's opening "a Frankenstein monster. The merchandising, the promotion . . . they're thoroughly distasteful."

Indeed, Connery was given to grumpy interviews and criticism of his franchise before Craig was even born. They didn't seem to be part of the routine of publicity then, but one may wonder if, in this age when the sheer torrent of conventional puff pieces has desensitized us to their style of kiss-assery, this may not be a new strategy for grabbing attention--the Bond films once again pioneers in the publicity realm that others will follow, other actors, other directors, calculatedly displaying such unpleasant "spontaneity."

I can't say for sure that this is what will happen in the coming years. How well this works out, how repeatable it proves to be, remain to be seen. Still, I wouldn't be shocked if it did.

John Gardner's Final Three: Never Send Flowers, SeaFire, Cold Fall

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

While there was always an important element of continuity between James Bond's adventures in Ian Fleming's novels (the Soviet revenge for prior battles in From Russia with Love, the aftermath of those events in Dr. No, etc.), Fleming got more ambitious in his later books. His last five novels--Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun--can be read as a single saga of a run-down 007 struggling against accumulated damage and repeated personal disaster through and after his battle with Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Likewise, John Gardner's last books--specifically his final three novels, Never Send Flowers, SeaFire and Cold Fall--form a more thoroughly interconnected story. Bond's decay is not an issue, and the novels do not have him fighting a single great villain. Instead it is M's aging that is more prominent, the Old Man on his way out, amid a larger reorganization of the Service for the post-Cold War--changes which see Bond become an administrator entangled with government committees in SeaFire, and Cold Fall closing with Bond on his way to meet Sir Miles Messervy's replacement for the first time.

However, he again copes with love and loss, albeit in a different fashion. In the first of the three books, Never, Bond ends up cooperating with a Swiss government agent, Flicka von Grusse, and while it is predictable enough that the two become romantically involved. What is less predictable is that she gets booted from her old job, and taking a new one with SIS, while cohabiting with Bond in a relationship that continues with them partners on and off the job into the next book, SeaFire. The result is that Bond is seen not just getting involved with a woman, but having a "normal" relationship (or at any rate, as normal as relationships between wisecracking, crime-fighting duos get)--before, again, she is taken from him.

Just as is the case with those last Fleming novels, the Gardner books represent the most radical break with the familiar "Bond formula." Bond and Flicka trading one-liners; Bond chasing a theater-obsessed serial killer through Disneyland; Bond coping with bureaucratic headaches galore; Bond playing bit roles in an FBI battle with militia-type loons spanning years; did not feel much like the stuff of Bond novels at all. Had the results been satisfying I might have taken the break with precedent in stride--as indeed, I was able to enjoy Role of Honor. However, the tales were on the whole derivative, Never Send Flowers a clear response to the popularity of serial killer stories after the success of Silence of the Lambs; SeaFire rehashes earlier Gardner novels (the half-baked pseudo-environmentalism of Licence Renewed, the neo-Nazism of Icebreaker, etc.); and Cold Fall brought back the Tempestas of Nobody Lives Forever and Beatrice Maria da Ricci from Win, Lose or Die. They also tended toward the very small-scale (Never Send Flowers and Cold Fall in particular). And the narrative knack that carried such an awkwardly structured and action-deprived tale as Brokenclaw was not in evidence.

The result is that while those last Fleming novels put me off with their particularly strong divergence from my expectations, on revisiting them I appreciated their quirks, and their ambition. Even where they were not altogether successful, I had a sense of an artist at work. Considering Gardner's last novels, however, I find myself thinking of the pure and simple fact that (by his own admission) he'd spent sixteen years working on a series he'd never much liked, and had probably stuck with for longer than he should have.

It is not the note on which I would have liked to conclude. For all his reservations about the character, at his best Gardner could be very good (as in the deft blend of Bond book and Bond film that was Licence Renewed)--and even when not so good, at least interesting (as in Win, Lose or Die). Still, it is a reminder that novel-writing is not a thing done well for very long when taken up unenthusiastically; and a reminder, too, that by the '80s, let alone the '90s, updating the adventures of the '50s-era hero was an increasingly difficult task, one reason why Gardner's successors so often took different paths.

James Bond, Aristocratic Action Hero

Kingsley Amis wrote of James Bond as a "semi-aristocrat," with even that aspect of the character smuggled in by the backdoor rather than ostentatiously declared--at any rate, in comparison with his "clubland" predecessors like Bulldog Drummond. However, if he is just a backdoor semi-aristocrat, the fundamentals are very much there--not least that essentially aristocratic trait, individuality. We do not always remember the names of characters in films, but we remember this one, who manages to loom larger than the actor playing him. No one thinks of Goldfinger as a Sean Connery movie as such the way they would, for example, The Hill or The Molly Maguires or Entrapment; rather it is a James Bond movie with Connery in the lead role. (Still less does anyone refer to On Her Majesty's Secret Service as a "George Lazenby movie," unless they mean by that the one Bond movie that had Lazenby in it.)

One may protest that Bond is not the deepest of characters. There is a sufficiently strong sense of who he is, apart from any one character, that fans can get into fairly involved debates over who would be suited to the role, rather than this just being a simple popularity contest regarding which actor they like better; while the promise of a glimpse of his past was plausibly part of the sales pitch made for Skyfall. His traits and tastes are instantly recognizable--not least his affinities for particular leisure activities and consumption goods like beverages, food, clothing and cars.

And all this is very much evident in the way that Bond operates. Despite his Royal Navy background, it is difficult to picture him as ever really a member of a team, or an organization. When Bond receives his briefing, he usually gets it not as a member of a bigger group, from the top man in the Firm himself, after which he is packed off by himself to his destination where he may work with others (local stringers for British intelligence, friendly foreign organizations) but not as part of their units or structures. Even the quips in tense situations, and the gadgets (much more part of the cinematic Bond than the print version), fit in with this, their very idiosyncrasy adding to the character's distinctiveness, while the quips in particular do not just testify to his cool head under pressure, but his having a particular personality--his being an urbane man with a sense of irony and dark humor.

Moreover, Bond's individuality is time and again acknowledged not just by friends, but by foes. In Moonraker Hugo Drax on meeting Bond says "Your reputation precedes you," without any doubt at all about which reputation Drax has in mind. Of course, this is exactly what a secret agent, let alone one whose competence we are supposed to admire, should never hear from the villain in question. However, the line seems perfectly natural within the context of Bond's universe, which has virtually nothing to do with the doings of real-life spies, and everything to do with highly personalized contests between aristocratic men of prowess, Bond's enemies being equally individual. Even where they happen to be vulnerable to the charge of being crude ethnic stereotypes, they are still men in possession of vast resources, and accustomed to command, larger-than-life in their own person, and with sufficient aristocratic flair of their own to act as foils to the hero. Something of this even extends to their principal henchmen. Bond may knock off huge numbers of anonymous enemies--but his memorable confrontations are with characters whose names and appearances and methods we remember, an Oddjob, a Tee Hee, a Jaws. His ability to get the better of such figures at the gaming table, at the dinner table, or in a death grapple, rather than his shooting down the masses of "boiler suit" guys the villain uses as cannon fodder, is the real measure of Bond as a man of war.

In short, James Bond is most recognizable when he is an individual fighting as an individual against other individuals.

This appears all the more clearly when one contrasts Bond with characters developed in the extreme opposite fashion--the American action films of the '80s. The isolated, spartan existences led by figures like John Rambo, or Arnold Schwarzenegger's John Matrix in Commando (1985) or Dutch in Predator (1987) afforded little room for self-expression or personal distinctness of any kind. In fact, take away Rambo's trauma (more plot point than theme), and his bitterness about the treatment of America's Vietnam veterans (in Part II, at any rate), and one is left with very little indeed--Rambo virtually impossible to separate from the actor playing him. Likewise Matrix is virtually indistinguishable from Dutch in Predator. Matrix or Dutch, it's really just Schwarzenegger that we remember in either role.

Their manner of fighting the enemy reflects this aspect of them. The plot may have them fighting alone, but that lack of distinctness makes it much easier to see them as part of a team (albeit special ones, like the one Dutch leads in Central America in the early portion of Predator). These heroes may make the occasional crack, but speech of any kind is an uncharacteristic rarity, Dutch's "Stick around!" feeling to me a bit forced. Equally, while some of their enemies are more conspicuous because they are in charge, or because of some visual feature, there is just as little to them as there is to the protagonist, the slightness of one as a character doing nothing to sharpen the image of the other. (Steven Berkoff's career is especially handy in this regard; comparing his turn as General Orlov in 1983's Octopussy with his characterization of Colonel Podovsky in First Blood, Part II is enough to illustrate the point.)

Naturally, they may show an exceptional measure of cunning as they take on larger numbers of opponents, and at times even appear flamboyant in action, as when Rambo and Colonel Trautman momentarily stand alone on the Afghan-Pakistani border against a massive Soviet detachment, and then Rambo crashes his tank into an oncoming helicopter. Still, they seem most themselves when pointing a machine gun at a wave of oncoming enemies (who do not even have boiler suits) who dutifully fall down--the parody of such sequences in Hot Shots: Part Deux (1993) only a slight exaggeration of the finale of Commando.

In short, one winds up with very little individuality on the part of the characters in these films, which seem to me to reflect a different sensibility. Perhaps it is a matter of the form the whole leisure class-warrior idea takes in a more populist age (or perhaps, simply a pre-aristocratic one?): the combat prowess is there, but the aristocratic qualities that went with it in the old conception of things is discarded, such expressions of individuality included.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Have Superheroes Taken Over the Box Office?

In a piece for Forbes earlier this year, Scott Mendelson took on the question of whether there are "too many comic book movies."

His answer was a firm "No," on the grounds that comic book-based superhero films are actually not that numerous, and that the misconception reflects (besides superhero films being a convenient target for those who dislike the prevalence of blockbusters) the disproportionate attention those relatively few films get, noting the things he chooses to write about (which include, of course, comic book superhero movies).

However, it cannot be denied that in recent years they have accounted for a very large share of the highest-profile and most widely seen films. In the thirteen years from 2002 to 2014, nine saw at least one superhero movie in their top five earners at the American box office. Every single year saw at least one superhero film in their top ten.

By contrast, we can go for years without a disaster movie or a space opera becoming a hit of that caliber--and often longer than that without any non-Star Wars, non-Star Trek, non-superhero related space operas becoming hits.1

Moreover, the superhero films that are either based on comics, or so similar to such heroes that one probably ought to count them (I have in mind movies like 2004's The Incredibles, and 2008's Hancock), have become markedly more prominent these past few years. The average was something like 1.5 such movies in the top ten, and 2.2 in the top twenty, from 2002 to 2011. The average has been about twice that in the years 2012-2014, with the last year having four superhero movies in its top ten grossers (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Big Hero 6), and six in the top twenty (there were also The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)--some thirty to forty percent of the whole year's biggest hits coming out of this one genre.

Twenty fifteen does not seem to be nearly so superhero-dominated, but we have already had Avengers 2 become the year's number two hit; and the years to come promise more of the same, with 2016 looking a lot more like 2014. Currently on the schedule are Deadpool in February; Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice in March; Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse in May; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Half Shell in June; Suicide Squad in August; Doctor Strange in November; and I'm not even sure I got all of them. In 2017 we can expect, doubtless among others, more Wolverine, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spiderman and Thor from Marvel, and the Justice League and Wonder Woman films.

In 2017 we can also expect a Lego Batman movie--which may not altogether "count" by the standard given above, but does testify to the phenomenon's broader cultural presence, as well as the fact that films which may not be strictly "superhero" in the sense of DC-Marvel product have also been a commensurately larger presence in film.

Consider just 2014. I did not include The LEGO Movie, despite its having its share of superheroes with Batman and company (while its hero Emmett Brickowski proved a superhero in his own right)--but had I done so, it would have weighed the assessment even more heavily in favor of superheroes, given that it was the #5 hit of the year. Additionally, appalling as this may seem to purists, to those who are non-fans other major hits like the Transformers and Divergent (#7 and #18, respectively) can look so much like superhero films (protagonists transcending the limitations of mere humans, fight scenes between beings of colossal, more-than-human power) as to be for all practical purposes simply more of the same.

At the same time, innumerable, smaller successes bolster the broader impression. To name but one, Scarlett Johansson, who plays Black Widow in the Marvel films, also played the super-powered Lucy in last year's film by that name (which, at #24 at the American box office, narrowly missed the top twenty, but did make the #18 spot on the global list), as a result of which she will be going on to play another superhero in the remake of Ghost in the Shell headed our way in 2017.

And so on and so forth.

In short, the superhero film has been a strong presence for rather a long time--stronger and longer, in fact, than any other type of action film in decades. And in these last few years, it has enjoyed a really extraordinary share of the biggest hits at the multiplex, when defined narrowly (let alone loosely). Moreover, the slate of films being prepped for release are locking this state of affairs in for at least the next two years. Given these hard commercial facts, someone who thinks that superheroes have all but conquered the box office is not deluded, but at most a bit hyperbolic.

1. Why make that distinction? Because it shows the genre's presence is often less a matter of the field's vitality than the determined milking of old franchises, or tangential success.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Bondian Way of War?

In Britain and Her Army, 1509-1870, Corelli Barnett lamented what he saw as the failure of the English people to accept an efficiently run standing army as a necessary fact of life for a nation wishing to have a say in the affairs of Europe and the world. Writing of the later Victorian era, he observed that in contrast with, for example, the science and system the Germans applied to their military affairs, in British thinking about the country's army, colored as it was by its routine of small colonial expeditions,
There was an emphasis on the man rather than the system, on smallness instead of greatness of scale, on great variety of task and terrain instead of a single eventuality.
Indeed, the impression seemed to widely prevail "that wars were distant and exotic adventure stories" and the belief "that to win a modern war, you called for a hero"--a Roberts, a Wolseley, a Kitchener.

Such ideas left Britain ill-equipped to face the challenge of the world wars, wars which proved to be the opposite of those old colonial campaigns in every respect. Vast, attritional contests decided by the size, organization and application of the human, industrial, technological resources of whole nations and alliance systems, it was beyond question that the quality of the system mattered. Amid all that, heroics were simply not enough, and a fixation on them problematic at best.

Yet, it seems that the older view endured in British culture through the conflict--what Simon Winder termed a "chivalrous, romantic, freebooting, aristocratic" attitude toward war which imagined that "guts and personal ingenuity . . . individual pluck and initiative . . . special forces, the individual boffin who cracks some military problem . . . the single, isolated hero" could yet "save the day." And as he observes, it persisted into the post-war era, Winder relating it to the fascination with the Special Air Service.

It seems possible that some clung to this view the more tightly, because of the changes in Britain's position. While in 1878 the music hall refrain that gave the English language the word "jingo" held that "We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too," by 1945 it was beyond all doubt that it was the Americans (and the Soviets, and an increasingly long list of others) who had more ships, more money, more men, which seemed all the more reason to focus on intangibles.

Those optimistic about Britain's continuing to be a world power fancied that the country could still call on a greater-than-average quality of men, a higher-than-average percentage of heroes to win its wars for it. Indeed, they even hoped that a superiority in such resources would enable Britain to be the equal partner of the U.S., the superior personal experience, judgment, personal prowess of English gentlemen making it a match for the vast material supremacy of, for example, the rich and technically sophisticated but otherwise untutored Yanks--the vision of the "special relationship" which has been romanticized on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ian Fleming was no exception, certainly not as an officer of Naval Intelligence during World War II. Given to this exaltation of man over system, war as a chivalrous, romantic, freebooting affair where single, isolated heroes carried the day, he developed a reputation for coming up with audacious, colorful schemes, like an elaborate plan for hijacking a German minesweeper in aid of Bletchley Park's code-breaking effort that was never put into action, and his more successful development of 30 Assault Unit--a force of Royal Marine "intelligence commandos" operating ahead of the rest of Allied forces for the purpose of capturing intelligence material.

Freer to indulge in such ideas as a writer of thrillers, such thinking was even more evident in the unusual career he wrote for James Bond. It was particularly evident in the ways in which, after acknowledging the tiny rivet reality of intelligence work, worked around it to showcase a more individualistic sort of activity. The fact that Bond takes his orders personally from the head of the Service makes it easier for him to get it, as does the fact that by the time Bond comes along, those doing more routine work have already put much of the picture together in a handy dossier, so that his purpose is typically to go after a known target (like Le Chiffre, or Auric Goldfinger), and typically alone.

Once out in the field Bond may have allies, but from Casino Royale to The Man with the Golden Gun, he works with a team rather than being part of a team. This is all the more the case in the fact that as a double-o he is as unspecialized as he is elite. The underwater demolition job of Live and Let Die, the murder investigation of Moonraker, the undercover infiltration of a criminal organization in Diamonds Are Forever, the counter-sniper job of "The Living Daylights," the negotiations with Tanaka in Twice, to say nothing of the numerous, more arcane tasks assigned him (like bankrupting Le Chiffre) might each be thought to call for a special expert, but he does them all; and where intelligence and special forces personnel are apt to be specialists in a particular region of the world, he does this work anywhere and everywhere, because a hero was needed, pure and simple.

As with so much else having to do with the vision of the world underlying Bond's adventures, this is all especially pointed in You Only Live Twice. Instructed to go to Japan to perform the difficult task of securing an intelligence-sharing agreement with their Japanese counterparts, Bond thinks of the fact that he "had never been east of Hong Kong," and did not know the language, so that he flatly asks M "why have you chosen me, sir?"

M's answer is "the simple reason that the job's impossible," or at least, "totally improbable of success," while Bond has in the past shown "an aptitude for difficult assignments." It also occurred to Bond that he had advantages over those who did have the cultural knowledge one would think suited for the job: "Orientalists had their own particular drawbacks--too much tied up with tea ceremonies and flower arrangements and Zen and so forth." Moreover, what the job ultimately calls for is not cultural knowledge, but a display of personal prowess that would demonstrate to Tanaka that Britain is still a nation to be reckoned with, and Bond proves just the man to provide that. Of course, reality proved more intractable than that, the world-power stakes allowing no substitute for an abundance of the stuff of hard power--but Bond's continuing adventures are nonetheless a legacy of that earlier thinking.

Are Ian Fleming's Novels Midcult?

Umberto Eco, while favorably disposed toward Fleming, specifically used that label in reference to him in his classic essay, "Narrative Structures in Fleming."

Eco gets an awful lot right in his essay. I was particularly impressed with his analysis of Fleming's narrative mode--the "aimless glance" aspect of it--which helped me understand why I found his books so surprisingly difficult when I first encountered them.

However, on this point I have to disagree--and the disagreement seems to me the more worth examining because the (I think erroneous) labeling of Fleming Midcult is an example of a major weakness of Dwight Macdonald's analysis.

Certainly Fleming's stated intentions were not of a Midcult kind. He identified himself as a writer of thrillers designed to be read as literature. Granted, the phrasing can sound Midcult-ish, but Fleming specifically named as examples of the kind of thing he had in mind Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler--each writer, a genuine artist by any standard.

Of course, few would credit Fleming with being as good as they were. Certainly he is not so gripping as Hammett at his best. (Certainly nothing he wrote ever had the intensity of Red Harvest--especially when he wrote American gangsters.) He is never so funny or so poignant as Ambler or Greene (From Russia with Love no Mask of Dimitrios, or for that matter, Our Man in Havana). He is a long way from being as stylish as Chandler (while, for that matter, Bond's cynicism has nothing on Philip Marlowe's).

Still, if it appears that he "makes use of the modern idiom in the service of the banal" it is not because he is not endeavoring to make art. Indeed, self-expression, engagement, technical aspiration are all there--too much of them, as far as I was concerned when I first picked up Thunderball all those years ago. Instead the issue is that the vision of life out of which he sought to make art was inadequate. While not completely without a sense of irony or an eye for nuance (rather more than many a thriller writer, in fact), Fleming took the orthodoxies of his time and place almost completely for granted, giving him a less than critical stance toward the complex matters he so often touched on--so that Bond's getting philosophical tends to lead to drivel like his musings about good and evil in Casino Royale, easily enough dismissed by the last page. The writers he admired did not have that particular problem, and Greene especially makes the point not just in the example of his career, but his explicit declaration of "The Virtue of Disloyalty."1 But that is the difference not between art and the pseudo-art of Midcult, but great art and mediocre art, which is art all the same.

1. Indeed, one is struck by the fact that this rather old-fashioned Tory's literary heroes and models were just about all men of the left.

Just How Old is James Bond Supposed to Be?

Where most of the series' writers (including Ian Fleming) tended to fudge the issue of James Bond's age, having him miss the passage of time just as much as if he were put into suspended animation or flying about the galaxy at near-light speed between missions, William Boyd made a point of dealing with it in his 2013 novel Solo. He began the novel, set in 1969, with Bond marking his forty-fifth birthday.

In a note attached to the book he claimed that this was the most logical conclusion from what Fleming wrote, but did not spell out his reasoning (at which I have not been able to guess). However, I think it best to go with Fleming's most explicit reference to Bond's age, which unsurprisingly turns up in the early chapters of Moonraker. In the course of explaining the more mundane aspects of Bond's life (what the hell does he do when not on missions?) in more detail than he ever did before or since, Fleming remarked that Bond was doubtful he would make it to "the statutory age of forty-five" at which double-os retired. Which made it "eight years to go before he was automatically taken off the 00 list and given a staff job at Headquarters."

Some simple math makes Bond thirty-seven in 1955, and thus born in 1918--a decade younger than his creator (born in 1908). That would make Bond thirty-five in Casino Royale, and about a year older in every subsequent adventure, after as well as before Moonraker.1

The six years between this estimate, and Boyd's, make a good deal of difference. After all, Boyd's younger 007 hardly seems likely to have been able to perform those assassinations that got him his double-o rating (and indeed, Boyd drops this aspect of his past, presenting his World War II service as being of a different kind).

It also makes much of what followed unlikely. The world-weary Bond we meet at the start of Casino Royale does not seem the twenty-nine that Boyd's math makes him. Or thirty-six as he is packed off to Shrublands. In fact, Bond often seems older than the age Fleming implies in Moonraker, as when he grumbled to himself about his cabbie and everything else he didn't much like about the world on his ride to the spa. But that seems a matter of the writer simply not being able to resist putting his thoughts into his protagonist's mouth more than anything else. And if one is generously inclined, it's simple enough to say that the life of a double-o is no drink from the fountain of youth.

1. This had Bond bumping up against that mandatory retirement age circa On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The detail seems the more relevant because Bond was thinking of handing in his resignation at the start of that tale, and because at the start of You Only Live Twice Bond seemed washed up anyway--but Fleming chose to simply ignore that aspect of the character.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Making Sense of Midcult

In his essay "Masscult and Midcult," Dwight Macdonald offered a picture of a cultural hierarchy and its evolution over time. There is the enduring tradition of High Culture and its artistic products. Beneath is there was a bottom-up Folk Culture which in modern times gave way to a top-down, commercialized, even industrialized, Mass Culture he terms "anti-art" characterized by its "includ[ing] the spectator's reactions in the work itself instead of forcing him to make his own responses," and which is good only for distraction. In between he describes the emergence of "Midcult" in the twentieth century not as some simple mix of the two--he is in fact emphatic that it is not a matter of efforts to raise the level of mass culture--but rather that it is "outwardly High Culture but really as much a manufactured article as the cheaper cultural goods produced for the masses," and just as shallow as Mass Culture in its treatment of life--a stereotyped, industrialized use of the avant-garde that makes "use of the modern idiom in the service of the banal."

"Masscult and Midcult" is, on the whole, an underwhelming read, cluttered and meandering, and mostly fumbles and muddles the issue.

I certainly do not dispute that there is such a thing as High Culture (produced by and for a cultural elite which must often be educated to appreciation of the work in question), or Mass Culture (produced for a general audience), but I do find his characterization of them problematic. Contrary to what he claims, anyone who delves into the details of literary history finds that this is not a case of soulful artistes who produce solely as their Muse calls them to do under one heading (such that, as he puts it, "a serious writer will produce art when he is trying to function as a hack"), and the grinding, pandering hacks under the other as he suggests. The truth is that even a Shakespeare or a Dostoyevsky falls somewhere along a spectrum between those poles.

And of course, his characterization of Mass Culture is obfuscated by a raging snobbery. Media executives may want to render publishing, television, film and the like nearly automated industrial enterprises cranking out a regular product churned out impersonally by writers as dispensable as the most thoroughly de-skilled factory hands. And at times they get the public to swallow something distressingly close to their ideal (as with reality shows).

However, at the time in which Macdonald was writing, and even today, they remain a long way from monopolizing the field. Accordingly there remained and remains scope to produce art here, and indeed, much that is derided as Mass Culture is in fact Art by Macdonald's own standards (engagement with the actualities of life, self-expression on the part of the creator) which was never stamped with the label because of the snobbery to which critics conform if they wish to remain reputable.1 And even where ostensible Mass Culture falls short of this mark, his broader claims about Mass Culture (the impossibility of spontaneous response to it, its incapacity to entertain) is less careful assessment than another case of his confusing an extreme pole with a whole category. (After all, even the formulaic can have its pleasures.)

I also do not dispute that label-bearing High Culture can be cranked out in shallow, stereotyped fashion, and that this really is culturally damaging.2 Still, Macdonald's preoccupation with establishing a hierarchy, and closing the ranks of the High against the Low, obscured the issue, and led to his choosing a label more confusing than clarifying (the more so because of its seeming relation to Virginia Woolf's even fuzzier and more ostentatiously snobbish "middlebrow"). The fuzziness of the context, the snobbery in which this is all wrapped up, Macdonald's preference of self-indulgent rhetoric over analysis, result in the fact that while the essay does give some clear pointers (the quotations above seem clear enough), they fall short of the clear standard they should have offered. How does one, for example, tell the difference between the "pseudo-art" of Midcult, and art which is sincere but simply failed? Work which makes "use of the modern idiom in the service of the banal"--which ended up shallow, hollow, trite, pretentious--not because it is a "manufactured article," but simply because a perfectly sincere artist may simply have lacked the vision to bring the work off? Macdonald's discussion is more ambiguous than it should be in this respect, and the result is that what might have been a useful descriptor can seem merely a term of abuse critics can fling at art they happen not to like--while giving the real offenders a free pass. Indeed, to go by the sheer amount of work which uses the modern idiom in the service of the banal, one would have to conclude today that Midcult has altogether displaced genuine High Culture, while the would-be genuine artist is an endangered species apt to be hit with the label instead for all their pains.3

1. Certainly science fiction is one area where this has been the case--and indeed it seems telling that in a 1968 interview for Book World, "Portrait of a Man Reading," Macdonald remarked not once but twice within the same answer that he "never reads science fiction." (You can find it in Michael Wreszin, Interviews With Dwight Macdonald (Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2003), 83-44.)
2. Virginia Woolf, in her essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," called on her audience to "tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure" as writers searched for new ways of exploring the human condition. Alas, far from tolerating them we have wound up making a cult of them in a world where Modernism and postmodernism define High Culture--to art's cost.
3. The labeling of Mad Men Midcult by a few maverick critics is a rare, correct use of the term.

Of Ian Fleming and Thorstein Veblen

The James Bond series is often criticized for representing outmoded, backward attitudes. Contemporary politics being what they are, most critics seem to concentrate on gender, for example, rather than class. However, the books are quite striking in that respect, in ways that go well beyond Bond's much-noted snobbery. Indeed, rereading Ian Fleming's novels I found myself time and again thinking of Thorstein Veblen's classic The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Veblen's analysis posits that in an earlier era cultures the world over passed through a phase where two different factors converged. One was an unsettled and highly violent existence--where hunting big game was a significant economic activity, warfare between groups was constant, or both--placing a high premium on "exploit"--aggression, cunning, force. The other was the attainment of a certain minimum level of individualism, status differentiation and sense of property for meaningful social inequality to exist among the adult male members of the group.

The result of this convergence was that those who successfully displayed the qualities of exploit--who could display prizes from successful hunts or military campaigns testifying to their personal "prowess" (e.g. their knack for violence and trickery)--were honored as individuals. This led to a broader habit of equating wealth in goods with prowess, while the display of such wealth, with that prowess it implied, was regarded as honorable (in fact, the essence of honor), while becoming the core around which a great deal of cultural practice developed. Among them were conspicuous consumption and the conspicuous leisure associated with it, which had such expressions as forms of sport, religious observance and social etiquette which, being financially costly and very time-consuming, demand plenty of both; a penchant for useless archaisms (cults of antiquity, the centrality of a study of dead languages to an education); the notion that it is natural for those living by prowess (a warrior class) to rule over and live well at the expense of the humbler types living by diligent drudgery by working on inanimate nature with their hands (like the slaves who grow the food, prey to the predators on top); and respect for long association with these forms of privilege and their associated markers (like aristocratic titles).

All this, of course, remained in more settled, "quasi-peaceable," times, and in fact developed in "higher barbarian" cultures like that of Medieval Europe, where the tone was set by a titled, landowning warrior class, simultaneously greedy and impecunious, acquisitive and un-industrious, which jousted, built grand cathedrals, practiced "courtly" manners and liked to style itself after ancient Greece and Rome (as their serfs toiled). Moreover, even after feudalism passed from the scene, the idea persisted, if in changed form, to find expression in such things as sprawling golf courses where caddies carry the clubs, in "church clothes," in shrimp forks and the use of titles like "Sir" and "Madam" and Classical learning in the schools long after it had become less education than ornament.1

And indeed, the novels of Ian Fleming--most assuredly, a scion of a conservative, leisure class family with "Sirs" for great-grandfathers and a public school education--are shot through and through with such assumptions. Moreover, rather than being incidental to the tales, they are quite fundamental to them, accounting for many features that long familiarity with the character has caused us to take for granted--not least, why Bond should be regarded as quite so special an agent. Certainly he has an undeniable physical daring and toughness, and an assortment of skills (he is an exceptional gunman, card-player, swimmer, etc.) that prove handy on his missions. He also has a way with women that enables him, quite frankly, to use them. Yet, it is all rather a far cry from the ridiculous batteries of skills with which writers commonly equip their Gary Stus. He lacks anything that might be considered significant in the way of technical knowledge. His linguistic talents are also limited enough that often he does not speak the language of the country to which he is sent, or the enemy he must combat. (The Bond of the novels, at any rate, has no Russian.) And when it comes to investigations, he is no Sherlock Holmes. (Indeed, on the "heroic secret-agent scale" he struck Kingsley Amis as pretty average.)

What really distinguishes Bond is the idea that underlying all his real talents is an intrinsic, generalized prowess transcending any one skill (or its lack); an ability to come out on top when those special, prowess-revealing traits--aggression, cunning, force--are what count most. Of course, a close reading of the tales can make that prowess seem ambiguous. Time and again Bond screws up, and pays the price for it. Often others rescue him, sometimes those who might least be expected to do so--his first adventure ending with a SMERSH agent shooting Le Chiffre before he can kill Bond off, and cutting a distinguishing mark into Bond's palm for the purposes of later identification. This might be thought more good luck than anything else. Yet, as Veblen notes, this package of ideas contains a "belief in luck," such that being "lucky" is a personal virtue.

And at any rate, adherents to the leisure class ethos have not been much given to critical, rational discernment of material practicalities and chains of causality, happy to treat eventual success as the only proof that counts.

This accent on such prowess in the Bond adventures, which is conceived as specially belonging to a gentleman-sportsman--and especially, a British gentleman-sportsman like Bond--is why even the more lavishly supplied American CIA need 007's help on a regular basis.2 The Felix Leiters, after all, just can't cut it by themselves--as Leiter's fate in Live and Let Die makes clear, and the Soviets make clear again in From Russia with Love, where they are nearly effusive in paying tribute to that special, indefinable something that enables the British do so much more in this field with so much less than the richer Americans.

Fleming is as explicit, and rather more profuse, in his revisitation of the theme in You Only Live Twice. M sends Bond to Japan, a country with which he is completely unfamiliar, not because he has any special qualification to secure the desired intelligence-sharing agreement, but because he has previously displayed a "knack" (ill-defined but taken very seriously) of completing difficult assignments that makes him suited to the "impossible" job. And when he does arrive in Japan, Tanaka offers him very particular terms for getting the agreement--his assassinating Shatterhand, which is not a mere quid pro quo, but a test of the prowess of the British elite that Bond represents, on the theory that his accomplishing the goal set for him would prove his people worthy allies. It is a spectacularly irrational basis for making such an arrangement--but perfectly in line with the "theory of the leisure class."

In the leisure class scheme of things, Bond's penchant for luxury is not a contradiction of this quality, but a complement to it, his prowess (and the resources it wins him) equally manifest in his cultivation and indulgence of expensive tastes--and also his begrudging such indulgences to lesser folk. Reading Thunderball it seemed to me appalling that Bond resented his cab driver's making twenty pounds a week. Yet, from this standpoint it is only natural that a gentleman-of-war such as himself should drive a Bentley and eat caviar, while the cabbie doing his little task should "know his place."

The "leisure class theory" also accounts for many of the odder features of the nearly ritualistic formula of the Bond plots, which can be regarded as not just an occasion for displays of prowess, but as an elaborate contest matching Bond's prowess against that of his enemy in ways broader, deeper, more varied and more complex than a straightforward, head-on violent collision. Bond engages the enemy in games, and tends to win--specifically those games with which he is familiar as a gentleman (baccarat in Casino Royale, golf in Goldfinger).3 The games, moreover, tend to accentuate his prowess by giving him a chance to triumph even when the enemy--a man of considerable prowess himself as testified by his wealth, rule over many subordinates, ruthlessness, etc.--cheats. And of course, what happens in the game of cards or golf is a prelude to deadlier sorts of gameplay between them, as Bond goes about unraveling their secrets and disrupting their plans with the same skill he used to win at the gaming table or on the golf course--an endeavor partaking of both hunting and war.

Of course, Bond is apt to end up the enemy's prisoner at some point, but in captivity the villain will have a chat with him going past a mere interrogation, perhaps even going so far as to have him over for dinner (as Dr. No does). In the course of it the villain is likely to reveal something of his plans--a reflection of the monstrous vanity without which they would never have concocted their scheme, but also out of a desire to impress this particular prisoner, who may be in their power now but is also the formidable opponent who offered such challenge to them, and whose prowess they must accordingly admit. It is also an occasion for hero and villain to display the subtler forms of their prowess yet again in the consumption of luxurious food and drink, in a display of wide interests, and mastery of the art of conversation--with the display becoming especially competitive as they match wits.

Afterward, they continue the contest on different terms. Instead of simply disposing of Bond in a straightforward and relatively foolproof manner, they subject him to yet another game--a gauntlet of tortures, an elaborate death-trap. The device is yet another conspicuous display of their leisure and wealth (they had the time to think this up, the money to pay for it), as well as a test of their ingenuity against Bond's. They may intend to kill Bond, rather than test him, but the point is that the devices give him a chance to prove himself the superior man by escaping the trap. And when he gets away, it typically leads to Bond's smashing their plans, the final, triumphant move in the game.3

This view of Bond's significance and Bond's adventures, this idea of the gentleman-sportsman engaged in these games for the fate of the world, and winning the contest because he is such a natural at games (and because, however formidable the enemy, they are no match for a British gentleman-sportsman), seems eccentric as anything but symbolism or fantasy--a reminder that Ian Fleming built his series on ideas already dated in his time, and which seem the more so six decades on. Of course, that is not to say that leisure class attitudes have vanished from the world. Far from it. Indeed, with the world's broad turn toward anti-egalitarianism, irrationality, tradition, much of the package unsurprisingly seems more rather than less of a cultural presence (in the worship of wealth and celebrity, for example). Still, that presence often seems superficial, fragile, confused, even forced. And this particular, ostentatiously aristocratic expression of it is a tougher sell than it used to be.

1. Veblen contends, among other things, that in line with the mobility and anonymity of modern, urban life, the stress on conspicuous leisure has weakened in favor of conspicuous consumption more effective at advertising one's status to strangers. He also notes that the ethos has weakened and overt expression of it become less acceptable in a more practical, "technocratic" modern world, such that the exaltation of leisure is more apt to be subtly concealed behind superficially useful activities; but also that the blurring of class lines has led to these values filtering further down the social ladder.
2. Fleming's antecedent H.C. McNeile made the value of the gentleman-sportsman background explicit in the first of his Bulldog Drummond novels, declaring "the combination of the two . . . an unbeatable production."
3. While they were not a significant part of the Fleming novels, this also goes for the gadgetry that has come to be associated with the character. These are, of course, created by a technical acumen far outside Bond's ken. Yet, from this standpoint the possession of such a gadget is in an important way the possession of that technical prowess--and that he has acquired it is yet another, if less direct, testament to his own prowess. (This is, of course, in stark contrast to the idea that the gadgets reduce Bond to a button-pushing mediocrity.)

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon