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 Microeconomics of James Bond
Daniel Craig's Comments, Part II
The Last Daniel Craig Bond Film?
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Bond and the 'Sixties
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
That Jinx Johnson Movie . . .
Skyfall: A Critical View
On Bond Bashing
On the Graying of the Action Hero
The End of James Bond?

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