Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bond and the 'Sixties

Over the years, Bond parodies have often blended the send-up of 007 with a broader evocation of the '60s. Austin Powers, for example, is an "international man of mystery"--whose cover is that of a fashion photographer who freaks out at the happening that is the Electric Pussycat Swingers Club, a man possessed of countercultural credentials that Dr. Evil openly mocks.

More recently, the Big Time Rush movie opened with the members of the band dressed in tuxedos and acting out a secret agent fantasy while singing the classic "Help!"

What, one wonders, could be more 'sixties than this blend of Bond and the Beatles?

And yet, what could be more dissonant and unlikely?

Of course, both the secret agent and the band were icons of the decade. Yet, the simple fact is that the 'sixties was not all one thing, no more than any period is one thing, Bond and Beatles the product of different, frankly conflicting currents. One thinks "1961-1969," and the stereotype is youth culture and counterculture, but Bond is a far cry from that, even the Bond of the films. Yes, they looked very fresh and modern, with their hedonistic, sexual, irreverent hero, their fast pace and flashy visual style, their jet-setting narratives and futuristic technology and visceral action, brought to you through the magic of Technicolor and Panavision.

Yet, even the Bond of the screen remained at bottom an updated clubland hero of the kind granddad enjoyed as a kid. A bowler-hatted, suit-wearing, middle-aged civil servant who not only works for an organization run out of a wood-and-leather office by an uptight, pipe-smoking Victorian, but expects to wear black tie for night life, snaps at the nearest Black Guy to fetch his shoes and remarks the inappropriateness of red wine with fish. He even takes a swipe at the Beatles themselves, remarking that they should only be listened to with earmuffs on. Youth culture? It was the kind of thing that Bond was reacting against, explicitly in the novels (think the cab ride in the early part of Thunderball), and only somewhat more subtly in the movies.

With his usual incisiveness, Simon Winder remarked the contradiction between Bond and that broader image of the 'sixties at some length (and some of the recent continuation novels have acknowledged it in little ways, like Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care), but by and large the realization seems to escape most of those looking back at the decade. The humor in the Austin Powers films was at times subtle. (Even in an era when it seems everyone is bragging about being a black belt in some martial art, I suspect that the utter nonsense that is the "Judo chop!" went over most people's heads.) At times, it was even sociologically astute. (The exchange about how there is no world for Dr. Evil to take over anymore is priceless.) However, I never got the sense that Mike Myers' blend of secret agent and Swinging London was meant to be taken ironically--and this seemed still less the case in the Big Time Rush movie.

Still, it has been good for a laugh.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: Outbound Flight, by Timothy Zahn

New York: Del Rey, 2006, pp. 453.

Timothy Zahn's original Thrawn trilogy apart, I've read very few of the Star Wars tie-in novels. However, as the launch of Episode VII approaches, I've found myself taking another look at them, starting with those books most closely tied to the Thrawn saga. The first that I picked up was Outbound Flight, which dramatizes the titular event referenced in the Thrawn books--the attempt, led by Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth and backed by the government of the New Republic, to establish a colony outside the galaxy, which went awry in ways that factored into Zahn's earlier cycle.

As it happens, Outbound Flight runs to some 453 pages, which naturally reflects its having a complex plot tying together multiple threads. As is so often the case, this means that a certain amount of patience is expected on the part of the reader during some rather lengthy exposition. It may have demanded more than it should have, in fact. Much of the first third of the book or so is devoted to an intrigue on Borlak that fed into the main plot, but was in itself relatively minor. It seemed all the more marginal because its principal viewpoint characters were Obi-Wan and the young Anakin--who simply drop out of the story of Outbound Flight prior to its climax, rather than playing any role in the key events later in the tale.

Still, when I got to those events they did justify that patience. Offering plenty of plot twists and action, they culminate in a multi-sided confrontation involving Darth Sidious' agents, Outbound Flight, the Chiss and a party of human smugglers caught in between (among all of whom there are still other, smaller divisions). In writing it Zahn pulls off the considerable feat of making this climax intricate, briskly paced and lucid all at the same time in a technical tour de force that far exceeds anything in the Thrawn trilogy. The book's presentation of the original C'baoth, and the future Admiral Thrawn as a young officer of the Chiss Ascendancy's Expansionary Defense Force, also have their interest, both within these events, and as background to the other books--their depictions lengthier and fuller than the Thrawn trilogy offered. All this helped to make the result a lot more satisfying than I expected, as both an elaboration of the Expanded Universe, and plain old pulp space opera.

Just Out . . .

My new book, The Forgotten James Bond.

It focuses on those aspects of the franchise that tend to get overlooked, or which most who talk about the series seem to know only vaguely--like exactly how the '60s-era Bond films helped shape the action movie, the special place of the 1967 Casino Royale movie in film history, and the continuation novels that came after Fleming.

It is now available in both e-book and paperback editions.

You can also read it at the Kindle Library.

If you'd like a preview, you can get one over at Google Books.

To everyone who's taken an interest in my writing, here on this blog and in my books: again, thank you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

That Jinx Johnson Movie . . .

The idea of a movie starring a female James Bond type is nothing new.

It wasn't even new in 1962 when the Bond series began.

Ian Fleming's biographer Andrew Lycett reported that back when Ian Fleming was shopping Bond around to the studios years before the first Bond movie hit theaters, Walter Wanger of Twentieth Century Fox suggested Fleming develop a female version as a vehicle for Susan Hayward. The idea didn't inspire him, and that was that as far as he was concerned, but it has popped up here and there over the years, various authors trying something similar. (Walter Wager, for example--now fairly obscure, though he wrote Telefon, and his novel 58 Minutes was the basis for Die Hard 2--tried his hand at one with Blue Moon.)

And of course, Everything Or Nothing productions--producers of the main Bond film series--toyed with the idea itself, Die Another Day conceived as at least a potential launch pad for a series centered on the Jinx Johnson character, with a Jinx movie perhaps appearing in the off-years between new editions of the main series.

Of course, EON backed away from the idea. In fairness, the Johnson character had been less than universally acclaimed, but it seems that the underperformance of the sequels to Charlie's Angels and Lara Croft in the summer of 2003 was decisive (or at least, an excuse to be decisive), their lower-than-hoped-for receipts taken as proof that the moviegoing public was less enthusiastic about woman-centered action movies than the studios. And as it happened, the track record for female-centered action movies did indeed prove shaky. Certainly movies like the Resident Evil (2002-) series starring Milla Jovovich; the Underworld series (2003-) starring Kate Beckinsale; and Angelina Jolie's continued career, which included the post-Lara Croft hit Salt (2010); made them a real part of the scene. However, these have generally been lower-grossing and lower-budgeted affairs than the $200 million summer releases that remain kings of the genre.

Of course, the estimated budget for the Jinx movie was not so high as that for the contemporaneous Bond films (I recall talk of something on the order of $85-90 million), but that too was a potential difficulty: lower-budgeted spin-offs of a bigger action series, centered on a character who was a supporting player in the prior film, are a risky proposition, suffering by comparison with the more established, more lavishly produced original.

There was, too, the fact that Berry's own career was peaking. Hollywood stars tend to go through a period where the press absolutely fawns on them, followed by an equally excessive backlash, and her backlash was well underway by the time a Jinx movie would have hit theaters. That it would have followed Berry's flop Catwoman also would not have helped. Nor the fact that it would have been at odds with the fashion for more grounded spy movies emergent in the wake of the Jason Bourne films (which, soon enough, contributed to the rebooting of the Bond series itself, which would have left the Jinx Johnson adventures in a very awkward position).

On the whole, the kind of success that would have produced a solid supporting franchise seems a longshot, and it is probably best for EON's bottom line that it canceled the project when it did. Still, one can wonder at what might have been . . .

William Haggard's Yesterday's Enemy

William Haggard (1907-1993) is relatively obscure today, but in his day was regarded as a master of the spy story, and often compared with the best of the field in the 1950s and 1960s. Julian Symons, in his classic study of the mystery Bloody Murder, actually considers Haggard alongside figures like Ian Fleming and John le Carré.

Such an appraisal seems to me overgenerous. Haggard lacks the knack for action, atmosphere and travelogue Fleming displayed at his best, and Fleming's sense of fantasy as well. At the same time, he falls far short of le Carré's realism, humanity and facility with complex intrigues. Rather what seems to me most distinctive about Haggard's writing is his highly idiosyncratic outlook, expressed through his longtime protagonist, Colonel Charles Russell of the imaginary Security Executive.

Where the last is concerned, take Haggard's politics. His contempt for the left is unremarkable in itself, but it does take him in a surprising direction. While some Western leftists saw in the course Soviet history took the disappointment of their hopes for human liberation, and went so far as to characterize it as "Red Fascism"; and conservative anti-Communists frequently used such a characterization as part of their arsenal of arguments against the Soviet bloc, Communist parties, Marxism and the rest (and especially their attempts to present the Soviet Union as equivalent to Nazi Germany); he takes the Soviets for the "hard, hard Right"--and admires them for it. Indeed, Russell wonders at one point if he doesn't now "think of orthodox disciplined communism as the saviour of a decadent Europe" from the real "disease of a degenerate nation . . . something called egalitarian socialism. Which hardline communism destroyed at sight."

This view is central to the plot of the novel from which I took that quotation, Yesterday's Enemy. There Russell, now in his sixties and retired, is approached by a Soviet spymaster (known simply as the "Colonel-General") with whom he has a long acquaintance for assistance with a problem--the possibility that somebody is trying to make it appear as if West Germany is building nuclear weapons. Should the deception succeed, the hawks in the Soviet high command would resort to force to stop the program, with World War III the result. Accordingly, the Colonel-General wants Russell to help him show that the "German Bomb" is actually a con. While initially skeptical about the enterprise, Russell takes on the job, which eventually brings him to Switzerland, where he ends up working with Helen Monteath (a Soviet agent that Russell himself had actually recruited for them) and Molina (a former dictator of Argentina who has fled with his loot in the face of a CIA-backed revolution) to investigate the plot. This falls far, far short of reinventing the familiar formula--but it certainly does give it a different twist.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: The Italian Navy in World War II, by James Sadkovich

Westport, CN: Praeger, 1994, pp. 416.

It can often seem as if no historical subject has been more thoroughly, minutely, exhaustively examined than World War Two--and yet, even here glaring gaps quickly appear when one searches the material in a thorough way. One of these is the matter of the Italian armed forces, and their performance in the conflict, about which little of substance has been written.

There is an extent to which this is unsurprising. Italy was economically and militarily the weakest of the three principal Axis powers. It also fought the war for the shortest period, entering the war only after the fall of France in 1940 and dropping out in September 1943--just a little over three years, with the end coming nearly two years before VE Day. Additionally, its actions were generally confined to a single theater, the Mediterranean; the fighting on land occurred on a much smaller scale than what was seen on the Eastern Front, the fighting on sea than what happened simultaneously in the Atlantic and the Pacific; and the implications of these battles seem marginal next to what was happening in those other regions (Stalingrad or Midway more important than El Alamein).

There is, too, a tendency to see Italy's war as having been relatively one-sided--and not in its favor. It is commonly claimed that the Battle of Punto Stilo enabled much more aggressive British forces to achieve a "moral ascendancy" over an Italian navy that became unwilling to fight, that the raid on Taranto achieved strategic dominance in the region for the British, and that Britain's dominance in the theater was reaffirmed by the "decisive" Battle of Cape Matapan. Reading a typical account of the fighting in the Mediterranean, one gets the impression Italian warships left their bases only to be sunk, and that the war there went on as long as it did is due to German intervention, pure and simple.

However, James Sadkovich argues in The Italian Navy in World War II that this version of events does not fit the facts. Examining the actual course of these and other clashes, he concludes that the Italian fleet remained more daring and aggressive than they have been given credit for, the British more cautious. Despite their allegedly crushing triumphs (and even during them), British forces consistently avoided operating without cover of night and bad weather, and in all weather held back from engaging Italian naval fleet units near their land-based air support, while eschewing head-on clashes with the Italian navy even on occasions when they had numbers on their side. Indeed, Sadkovich describes the British Navy as having fought a "corsair war, hitting and running before the Italian forces in the area could react" (134), and that even while following this practice, it inclined toward actions valuable principally for propaganda rather than offering real tactical or strategic advantage ("small, easy victories" over "decisive encounters").

All of this reflected the fact that more decisive action was time and again deemed too difficult or risky to undertake--implicit but powerful proof of the actual willingness and ability of the Italian navy and air force to fight. And indeed, any actual evidence of some great shock to Italian morale as a result of early battles like Punta Stilo is lacking--the record clearly demonstrating that Italian forces remained ready, willing and able to seek battle. Moreover, on close examination such successes as Britain enjoyed in sea-fights appear to be due less to any advantage in morale (or for that matter, superior training or seamanship) than to intelligence from Ultra, technical advantages like radar (about which the Italian navy did not even know early in the war), and "dumb luck" (134). If Italian submarine losses were high, so were those of the British--a fact Sadkovich chalks up to the clear, shallow water of the sea in which they were both operating. If Italian industry was no match for Britain's (and the Allies more generally) when it came to quantity, it was capable of high-quality production, not least in aircraft, its best fighters a match for the Spitfire, letting Italian pilots hold their own in dogfights. Sadkovich also credits Italian commanders with a sound strategic sense (hampered as their range of actual choice was by their limited resources), and logistical excellence (their Navy achieving wonders with the limited shipping available to it).

The result was that, with only "sporadic help from their German ally," the Italian navy and air force sustained a war effort in North Africa for three years, besieged Malta, and for considerable periods dominated the central Mediterranean. And in the end it was wartime attrition, American entry into the war and the Axis's general declining fortunes (like Germany's setbacks in Russia) which overwhelmed the country's more limited resources (that smaller industrial capacity, and weaker access to raw materials), and the Allied invasion of North Africa (by way of Vichy-held territory), rather than the heroics of British ship captains, which decided the fight on that continent.1

To support these contentions Sadkovich marshals a vast body of highly detailed evidence, from comprehensive assessments of warships and other weapons systems, to minute accounts of the fighting, to close-reading of orders of battle and statistics on losses. Indeed, he can seem to have almost too much evidence, the data at times nearly overwhelming Sadkovich's ability to present it in organized, readable fashion--as in an early discussion of the specifications of the cannon used on British and Italian warships. However, it does not overwhelm his analytical skills, and his case appears overwhelming.

All this being the case, one may wonder why the image of Italians
at the mercy of that bombastic fool and master of bluff and braggadocio, Mussolini [making] only an occasional appearance in order to throw down their arms and be meekly led away to a POW camp, or . . . lose their ships to superior British seamen and their aircraft to superior British pilots (xiv)
has been so enduring and unquestioned. Certainly one factor would seem the racism with which the Allies (and the Germans) viewed the Italians, which shaped early historiography. Another, Sadkovich holds, is the fact that many wartime secrets remained secret for decades--like Ultra, which let British forces read Axis naval codes and enabled many of their successes against Italian forces. The secrecy surrounding it made British forces appear that much more competent, the Italians that much less so (and the belated revelation of Ultra's role in the 1970s, which should have been a corrective, came long after perceptions had become well-established).

And of course, alongside the warping of the record of Italy's performance by bigotry and secrecy, there is also the perception of Italy's principal enemy here, Britain. Nationalistic British historians, and writers from other English-speaking writers inclining to their view, have been prone to apply a double-standard. As Sadkovich observes, "While Britain's defense of Malta is extolled as heroic, Italy's ability to keep the supply lines open to Africa and the Balkans is discounted as unimportant" (331)--though "if so much is made of the few convoys that managed to reach Malta, much more should be made of the many that kept the Axis war effort in Africa alive" (349). Indeed, the fighting as described by Sadkovich--that image of a hit-and-run corsair war--clashes unacceptably with the image of the fighting sea-dog spirit to which Corelli Barnett paid a thousand-page tribute in the text and title of his history of the Royal Navy during World War II, Engage the Enemy More Closely.

Unsurprisingly, two decades on, the discussion of this subject remains much what it was before--with the result that Sadkovich's book still comprises a relatively large and up-to-date portion of the literature specifically focused on Italy's armed forces, and a crucial debunking of myths about the war in this theater.

1. In the whole first year of the war British forces sank 12 of 334 Italian merchant vessels--just one ship per month, despite this being a major theater of operations.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Market for Retro-Science Fiction

In 2014 a fairly slow early summer gave way to a late summer season packed with surprising commercial successes (Guardians of the Galaxy).

2015 has proved a more typical year in that respect, with the bigger successes appearing early on, and the latter part of the season seeing the piling up of disappointment after disappointment--with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. lengthening the list.

It seems safe to say that one factor was the degree to which the late spring and early summer, packed with colossal successes (Fast and Furious 7, Avengers 2, Jurassic World) sated the audience's appetite for big action.

Indeed, 2015 had already sated the appetite for as specific a taste as that for '60s-style spies, with this spring's hit Kingsman, this summer's Spy, and Mission: Impossible 5--not just a '60s-style spy adventure, but one which, just like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., was spun off from a '60s TV show, and came out just two weeks earlier. And not incidentally, was yet another hit, so much so that it actually ended up making more money during The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s opening weekend than the new movie did.

In short, the timing of the movie's release was terrible.

However, the film had two other disadvantages as compared with Mission: Impossible.

The first has to do with each show's presence within the pop cultural universe.

The original show's run had begun in 1966 and continued for seven seasons and 171 episodes, to 1973. Then there was a two season, 35 episode revival, beginning in 1988 and running to 1990--just six years before the first of the Tom Cruise films hit theaters, and exploded at the box office, after which that movie was followed up by a money-making sequel every few years.

By contrast, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had just a four year run, from 1964 to 1968, and apart from a single reunion TV movie in 1983, has not produced anything since. So basically this is a show from a whole half century ago, which incidentally does not seem to have left any trace quite so recognizable as, for example, Mission: Impossible's famous self-destructing messages or Lalo Schifrin's theme music.

The result is that not only has that property simply been less visible, but Hollywood made the mistake of waiting much, much longer to get the movie made, making it that much more obscure.

The second was the fact that Mission: Impossible got updated to the present, while Man From U.N.C.L.E. stuck with the original period setting. In short, it is an atompunk film, as the publicity made clear. That genre has been a tough sell to audiences, even when it has been attached to a successful franchise, as the underperformance of X-Men: First Class and Men in Black 3 demonstrated. I wondered for a time if this would be the movie to change that, but unsurprisingly a movie based on an obscure franchise dropped into the marketplace at the end of a season crowded not just with action, but with '60s-style spy action in particular, did not prove to be that film.

"The 25 Most Hated Sitcom Characters of All Time"

Interesting list up at Complex--not at all new, but new to me as it happens.

I haven't seen all the shows on the list, and don't remember all the shows that I did see. Some of the choices seemed questionable. The inclusion of Holly Tyler from What I Like About You may simply reflect the overblown backlash against Amanda Bynes, while Robert Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond was merely one unpleasant character on a show packed with them who, appalling as he could be, nonetheless fit in very well with the Barone family's dynamic.

Also questionable was the fact that of the only two shows to land two characters in the top twenty-five, one was Married . . . With Children, and that one of them was not an actual character, but rather a persona briefly adopted by Bud Bundy (a character the list's makers seem to rather like, dubbing him the show's second-best), which was meant to come off as being just as silly and obnoxious as it seemed. (The other character is Marcy D'Arcy, whose #12 ranking seems to me to be way too high up the list.)

However, it did not surprise me at all that where most of the featured characters from older sitcoms were supporting characters (or even just personas of supporting characters), many of the more recent characters were the leads of their own shows--with three particularly annoying characters from three particularly annoying CBS sitcoms earning well-deserved places in the top ten. Leonard Hofstadter of The Big Bang Theory made the #1 spot, Charlie Harper #5, Ted Mosby #7.

I'm taking it as evidence that I'm not the only one who thinks TV writing is getting more obnoxious by the year. Indeed, it seems astonishing that Married . . . should have got two notices, while (among others) Big Bang got only one. However, even if Sheldon Cooper and the rest went unrecognized, it is worth noting that the list contained so many characters presented as "high IQ"--Leonard (and in his more over-the-top intellectual displays, also Mosby) accompanied by Stuart Minkus of Boy Meets World, Screech Powers from Saved By the Bell, and by way of yet another persona, Steve Urkel of Family Matters.

The point bears repeating: Hollywood seems incapable of portraying intelligence without making it grate unbearably, and as the list above shows, the only thing more annoying that its presentation of "grown-up geniuses" is its handling of "child geniuses."

Is it all deliberate anti-intellectualism? Probably not. But such trite, lazy writing contributes to it all the same.

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