Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Slow Burner and '50s Britain

The plot of William Haggard's Slow Burner (reviewed here) centers on a British program to develop civil nuclear power in the hopes of scoring a major economic coup.

While nuclear energy has never stopped being topical, this idea was especially so at the time because in the '50s the British government really did bet heavily on its scientists achieving a breakthrough in civil nuclear power, both for the sake of cheap domestic power, and as a source of export income with which to achieve a healthy balance of payments (as a country dependent on massive food and energy imports, while its manufacturing and financial position slipped).1 The object of those hopes was the Magnox reactor, which never justified such a confidence (the world generally preferred the American pressurized water reactor, today still the mainstay of civil nuclear power), but the expectations do come to pass in Slow Burner, specifically in the titular, very different technology. A nuclear power source compact enough to be installed in a suburban attic and packed up and driven about in the boot of a car, it put Britain twenty years ahead of the rest of the world in that field--the only way, the book says, that the British economy was not twenty years behind it.

Moreover, the implications of this for Britain's economic life are repeatedly underlined within the story, so much so that the characters worry that the thief might be running West as much as East, and seem more concerned about the implications of losing perhaps their only prospect for a healthy balance of payments than they are about the Soviets upsetting the Cold War balance of power. Indeed, it is Britain's economic predicament that Sir Jeremy Bates has in mind ("Fifty or sixty million . . . and food, at the level of subsistence, for perhaps forty"; manufacturing plant "a generation out of date") when he thinks to himself that a "man who could consider going abroad, selling his knowledge, was worse than a danger, worse than an apostate" (114).

The point comes up in smaller ways, too--a burglar enlisted by Colonel Russell's people for an illegal black bag job told that if things go badly he could be resettled where he likes in the Sterling Area.

Sterling Area? he wonders, surprised by the qualification.

Yes, he's told, because just now dollars are hard to come by.

Next to this any menace from the Soviets in the book appears vague, shadowy.

Unsurprisingly, a good part of the book's interest for me was in its quality of being a time capsule from '50s Britain, capable of surprising in such ways.

1. While it doesn't say much about the government's specifically nuclear ambitions, David Edgerton's Warfare State nonetheless has a good deal to say about British policy regarding R & D in these years, and the view of some of its critics that it was too devoted to big-ticket prestige projects (of which the Concorde supersonic transport was another example).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

An Un-Bond: William Haggard's Colonel Charles Russell

I remember that when reading Ian Fleming's James Bond novels I was struck by how much the character and his outlook, his associated image of glamour, the basis of his existence as a globe-trotting British agent (policing the Empire in its last days, playing junior but more skillful partner to the Americans in the Cold War contest) was very much a product of a particular period that has since passed. This has been so much the case that novelists working in the series, less able to rely on brand name and flashy filmmaking than their cinematic counterparts, have in recent years so often seen no option but to go back to those days--Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd taking Bond back to the '60s, Anthony Horowitz taking Bond all the way back to the '50s (or in the case of Jeffrey Deaver, starting with the character again from scratch in the present day).

Still, Fleming's creation has held up considerably better than Haggard's, and his longtime protagonist, Colonel Charles Russell, head of the imaginary Special Executive.

Russell, like Bond, is a formidable ex-military counterintelligence operative; like Bond, handsome, suave, urbane; like Bond a man who enjoys good food, drink and the other luxuries. Still, his version of luxury is different. Instead of the dated image of jet air travel and casinos, there is the even more dated image of the club, the country house, enjoyed by this old officer with his regimental moustache and pipe. Bond might brood about the taxi driver's manner, but Russell never has occasion to, appearing to exist untouched by the changes of the world surrounding him.

Indeed, at times Haggard's characters can almost seem caricatures (at least, to an American rather sensitized to "stage Englishmen" by terrible Hollywood writing). This is particularly the case when Haggard writes figures like Sir Jeremy Bates in Slow Burner, with the following line exemplary: "it was barely four. It would be unheard of for Sir Jeremy Bates to leave his office at tea-time" (116); or better still, when Bates comes home after a drunk to a valet who offers no question or comment:
Confound and damn the fellow! His lack of interest was an insult. A gentleman's gentleman--the convention had survived, the convention of the English manservant, secret, uninquiring, impersonal (111-112).
It is much the same with William Nichol, who after nearly getting run over by a would-be assassin in a big truck, and losing his hat, takes a cab because he "was not a man to walk hatless in London" (127).

Such things are even more evident in their social attitudes, the bigotry and snobbery fiercer and more bluntly expressed. While Fleming wrote many a foreign villain, he generally eschewed depicting treachery by Britons. The French unions may have been a Soviet fifth column in Casino Royale--but the British unions (even the Jamaican unions), however much Fleming disliked organized labor, were in the end no traitors to the nation. Many a scientist can be counted among Fleming's villains--but scientists as such were not presented as a perverse lot.

Not so with Haggard, who condemns scientists as such as untrustworthy because their affinity for reason makes them a bunch of damned crypto-Communists; and when the traitor is exposed, the scientist is indeed a man of "the far, far Left," while also being "no gentleman," not solely as a matter of his less than upper-crust social origin but his "character" in his dealings with his wife.1 (And that is not only all we know about him, but, it seems in Haggard's rather old-fashioned view, all that we need to know.)

All that makes it seem less surprising that there was never a Colonel Russell film franchise--and why, even by the standards of series' that did not land successful movie franchises to keep him on people's minds, the books have slipped into comparative obscurity.

1. "Take a clever boy . . . and put him into a laboratory for the next seven or eight years. What emerged inevitably was a materialist . . . a man who would assume without question that the methods of science could be applied to human societies" (58)--a prospect the narrator clearly regarded with horror.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review: Slow Burner, by William Haggard

Boston: Little, Brown, 1965, pp. 192.
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS

Until recently I had read only one novel by William Haggard, mainly because it was conveniently available at the time--Yesterday's Enemy (discussed here).

In hindsight, that book--a relatively late entry into his long-running Colonel Russell series--seems less characteristic than I took it for. The book had Russell out in the world on his own, away from the milieu of British officialdom that looms so large in his other books.

Recently, however, I picked up the first book in the series, Slow Burner, particularly with an eye--again--to the status he once enjoyed as a master of the form, on a level with writers like le Carre or Fleming. Reading it I found Haggard's writing on the whole plain and straightforward (much more so than le Carre, or even Fleming), but not artless. He has an admirable economy with words, and his writing an appealing crispness and polish, especially evident in his use of evocative sentence fragments. ("Afternoon tea on magnificent silver and not enough to eat" (72), he wrote, in a suggestion of the extremely shabby gentility of a family of Irish aristocrats.)

I would add, too, that his interest in character is considerable. Like le Carre Haggard has a deep interest in this particular milieu--the grown-up public schoolboy-senior civil servant-class of which Haggard was a part; indeed, as le Carre has said was the case with himself, this can seem his primary interest, and his writing about espionage just his way of approaching it. The ambitions and anxieties of the people living in this world, their affections and enmities, their jealousies and prejudices, are the stuff of the book to a very great degree--though unlike le Carre Haggard is not terribly critical of his subject. Indeed, while his characters were clearly not of our time, they did not seem nearly so much out of theirs as they do in le Carre's books. There is insecurity about the country's position, and about their class's place within the country--the novel actually opens with senior government scientist William Nichol feeling inhibited about being seen smoking a cigar in the back of the government car in which he is being driven in the current age of austerity and egalitarianism--but one does not get the sense that the country's imperial stature and its traditional ruling class are finished, the way one does reading about Smiley and his people.

The book reflects this in its handling of its two principal plot threads--one, the playing out of the complex of personal antagonisms within the Establishment that eventually leads to attempted murder (particularly that centering on Sir Jeremy Bates and Nichol); and the other, a more conventional spy tale of identifying and stopping a traitorous scientist selling out Queen and Country. The former gets the greater attention, and frankly holds more interest, while the latter is rather slow-moving, and slight on thriller mechanics, the more so because the central character, Colonel Charles Russell, is chief of a counterintelligence service (the imaginary Special Executive) rather than an agent, and one who for the most part acts like a service chief, giving orders and dealing with other officials, rather than playing spy games out in the field in spite of his position. Surveillance is much more often talked about than portrayed; while the one piece of black bag work shown rather than just discussed is essentially played for laughs--and like many an old comedy, concludes with wedding bells.

On the whole the result is uneven, but engaging--if more for its idiosyncracies, the stronger of its characterizations, and its quality of being a time capsule from '50s Britain (a matter meriting its own post, here) than the actual spy story within it, whether taken from the standpoint of le Carre-like drama, or Fleming-like thrills.

Review: Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, by David Edgerton

New York: University of Cambridge Press, 2006, pp. 382.

Before delving into a discussion of Edgerton's book, it is important to remember the context in which he wrote--and especially the "conventional wisdom" about British history to which he opposes his own, different analysis. It goes something like this:
Britain has historically been a pacific, free-trading nation, with a strong anti-statist, anti-militarist tradition--and, perhaps not so science-minded as some of its people might have wished--so that one can think of it as "the un-Germany." Accordingly Britain's creation of massive armies to help resist Germany's attempts to dominate the European continent in the world wars (1914-1918, 1939-1945) was something exceptional. Indeed, the epoch-making character of the change was reflected in the way this mobilization contributed to the transformation of the order at home--most notably in the rise of the Labor Party and the establishment of the welfare state after World War I and especially World War II, which proved the dominant theme of the nation's history for the generation that followed.
Liberals tend to view this reading of the past very favorably, to glorify Britain's being a liberal un-Germany. By contrast, others are more critical. Conservatives, epitomized perhaps by Corelli Barnett, view Britain's anti-statism and anti-militarism, and the lack of enthusiasm for science and especially applied science, as weaknesses which disadvantaged it in industrial and economic competition. They hold, moreover, that this economic weakness, in combination with anti-militarism, left the country ill-prepared for the wars it had to fight, and ultimately cost it a great deal of blood and treasure, prosperity and power. And many on the left, if of a technocratic mold (a C.P. Snow, for example), while not buying all of this critique (they generally do not wish for a more militaristic Britain), do nonetheless espouse significant parts of it--quick enough to attribute Britain's industrial, economic and social failings to the grip of an outmoded ruling class and its prejudices (its disregard for science, etc.) on its political life.

In Edgerton's view all this overlooks the reality of a massive British "warfare state"--a large "military-industrial complex," comparable to that of the United States, which was not an exceptional product of wartime, but was massive through the interwar years and after; which for significant portions of even relatively recent peacetime British history consumed more resources than social services; and in practice represented massive state intervention in industry, the economy, science and British life generally. Indeed, Edgerton argues that acknowledging the warfare state's place in British life--the size and cost of the armed forces, their connections with the political, industrial and scientific establishments--automatically complicates, subverts and even debunks the conventional ideas about British history (the works promulgating which are in his phrasing "anti-histories," for giving us claims so much at odds with the facts).

In arguing this view Edgerton offers both a history of the warfare state for the period identified in the subtitle (1920-1970), and the ways in which its reality clashes with the received historiography--two objects to which almost equal time is devoted (five chapters principally given over to the former, three to the latter). Given the difference, and the scale of his efforts on both accounts, it may be best to discuss them separately.

In presenting the history of the warfare state, Edgerton does not present a complete or comprehensive picture--which would have to begin long before 1920 (the 1880s at the latest), and continue up to the present. Moreover, rather than rendering full coverage even of the 1920-1970 period on which he focuses, the five chapters that deal with its actual history look at paticular aspects over particular periods (the World War II-era research effort, the Harold Wilson-era rhetoric and policymaking about the "white heat" of the scientific-technological revolution). Unsurprisingly, there is much that might be discussed which gets little attention (like how the warfare state interacted with the broader line of British economic history). Still, the various pieces of analysis are underpinned by a copious, often systematic use of evidence ranging from statistics on expenditures and shares of national income devoted to defense, the ranking of Britain as an arms exporter (at times slighted, he reports, because ships and planes have not been counted as weapons!) or post-war R & D (a higher share of national income than any other nation in Europe, actually); to the extensive description of the alphabet soup of military and military-affiliated research agencies and establishments (the book actually has a guide to the acronyms up front); to the profiling of the people in these establishments, and the governments generally (which makes clear the image of a government of classicists had long since lost its salience); to his examination of the context and nature of major initiatives (like Harold Wilson's Ministry of Technology, not intended to redress a lack of investment in technology but to rationalize the prestige-oriented mentality that gave the world the Concorde). Together they add up to a satisfactorily broad and deep image of the existence and weight of the warfare state of which he writes.

In pursuing his second object, the historical debate, Edgerton's coverage is similarly robust. He also makes his fair share of valuable observations here--not least the fact that in a country that really was as unconcerned with the use of science as some have charged, the charges of writers like Barnett and Snow would have not have had any traction. His handling of the material is also nuanced enough that he acknowledges the grain of truth in some of the misperceptions of which he is so critical. (Harsh as he is on C.P. Snow, Edgerton does note that public school-educated, arts degree-holding Oxbridge types really were more likely to be administrators than science degree-holders--and concedes that Snow could have made his correct argument more persuasive by making reference to such facts.)

On the whole, it is a solid defense of his position--though in fairness, it is not a particularly difficult one to find support for, and perhaps easier than he admits. Many of the essential facts to which he points are well known to anyone who has paid much attention to this history. (The post-World War II era may have seen the rise of the welfare state--but that it also saw the hugely expensive Korean War-era rearmament, the advent of Britain as a nuclear power, and unprecedented peacetime National Service until 1961, are hardly obscure information.)

Indeed, it seemed to me that he exaggerated the extent to which historians have adhered to the conventional view, particularly as it affects not just writing about British history specifically, but the historiography of war and technology generally as a scene where "civilian industry, science and technology . . . transformed modern war" rather than the other way around to produce "histories only of civilian science and technology applied to war . . . the civilianisation of war," with "military agencies hardly figur[ing]" in the discussion of "war economies." (It seemed to me that he rather mischaracterized William H. McNeill's classic The Pursuit of Power, in particular.1)

All the same, this is something of a quibble, especially given Edgerton's emphasis on the general trend of the historiography, and British historiography generally. It also detracts very little from the very great deal that he gets right with a massive and generally solid synthesis of information ranging from economic history to popular culture--and which cuts through a good deal of the nonsense surrounding such matters as Britain's economic decline. That Britain went from punching above its weight to below it in manufactures, at great cost to its prosperity, is not refuted here--but the fact cannot be simplistically blamed on a cultural lack of enthusiasm for science; the refusal of the British government to involve itself with science, technology and industry; an inability to produce adequate numbers of scientifically trained personnel; or an unwillingness to fund high levels of research and development. The way in which the British state went about using those resources, and the ends to which it used them, are instead the issue. However, that is a subject for another book altogether.

NOTES
1. Contrary to the impression Edgerton gives of McNeill, he elaborates the military-industrial complex phenomenon in late nineteenth century Britain, and draws comparisons with the United States in this respect, even using that exact terminology less associated with Britain. Indeed, a section of Chapter Eight--Military-Industrial Interaction 1884-1914--in McNeill's book is actually headed "Emergence of the Military-Industrial Complex in Britain," and makes it very clear that the armed forces were not merely passive consumers of civilian technology. (The thesis of McNeill's book is actually that in the industrial age the center of gravity moved back from the marketplace to a "command economy," in warfare as elsewhere.)

McNeill's account of the rise of the naval-industrial complex in Britain in the aforementioned section identifies bureaucratic in-fighting as a key factor, as with the role of John Fisher, and notes that it was his object to use market competition to stimulate the activity of the Navy's own, state supplier. Additionally, while this failed, the Navy became an increasing driver of "deliberate" invention, as
Navy technicians set out to specify the desirable performance characteristics for a new gun, or ship, and, in effect, challenged engineers to come up with appropriate designs . . . Within limits, tactical and strategic planning began to shape warships instead of the other way around. Above all, Admiralty officials ceased to set brakes on innovation by sitting in judgment on novelties proposed by the trade (279). And all this, of course, led to "military technology . . . constitut[ing] the leading edge of British (and world) engineering and technological development" (284).
The page numbers I cite here are from the 1984 University of Chicago Press 1st edition.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Star Wars' Place in Film History

Looking back it is clear that Star Wars was not the first science fiction film--nor the first space-themed science fiction megahit. (2001 was the highest-grosser of 1968, a year that also saw Barbarella and Planet of the Apes become pop culture icons.) It was not even the first film to serve up galactic empire-style space opera. (Barbarella did that, certainly, and in a quieter way, so did Forbidden Planet, among others.)

At any rate, the significance of Star Wars' portrayal of the stuff of pulp space opera, unprecedentedly lavish as it was, ought not to be exaggerated. Contrary to popular belief, splashy galactic empires never became all that popular on the big screen. (Get away from Star Wars, and the list of really commercially successful films of the type proves rather short--certainly a lot shorter than the list of, for example, successful superhero films.) Indeed, one can think of the Star Wars as occupying a fairly narrow niche because of this.

What Star Wars really did was point Hollywood to something more basic than that--the pattern of the contemporary blockbuster. Hollywood had been making sequels since forever--but trilogies telling an extended story, and prequels, were something more novel. So was the intensiveness of the merchandising (which was why the executives at Fox let George Lucas have the rights, and doubtless kicked themselves afterward for doing so).

One may be ambivalent about that, seeing it as a simple matter of marketing than the artistic or entertainment value of cinema, but the films' innovation extends, too, to the essential structure of the movies--the structure of the action film specifically. The Bond films of the '60s had established this, organizing an unprecedentedly fast-paced film around giving the viewer a "bump" every three minutes or so, with elaborate set pieces at the center of this, filmed with the help of a battery of techniques (from short takes to exaggerated sound effects) to maximize their visceral impact.

Of course, Star Wars came along quite a few years after the Bond films--fifteen years or so after Dr. No. And Hollywood did cash in on the Bond craze, imitating the movies, but generally in a superficial way. The studios made spy movies, and other kinds of action movies (cop movies like Bullitt and The French Connection each had a big car chase in them)--but the filmmakers there didn't quite get the way they were put together (so that Bullitt, and French Connection are just crime dramas which happen to have a car chase in them, and even the Derek Flint movies look pretty flimsy as action films).

That changed when Lucas came along and served up, as he himself put it, a blend of James Bond with Flash Gordon, which because of that blend went Bond one better--because science fiction, with its exotic aliens, super powers and imaginary vehicles makes it easy to serve up bigger, flashier action than any spy or cop adventure, and because the production entailed a special effects revolution. The key innovation was the computer-controlled camera that, because of its precision, made it easier and cheaper to take lots and lots of effects shots, getting scenes right. That opening shot of the Star Destroyer's underbelly probably couldn't have been done without it.

And so today we're not awash in galactic empire movies--but action movies and science fiction movies and especially science fiction action movies have been playing at the multiplex all year long for about as long as any young person today can remember. Many are ambivalent about this--or outright critical. I don't argue that we could use more diversity in our films--diversity of subject, theme, tone, idea. But all the same, there is no denying the technical accomplishment of the saga, or its influence in this regard, precisely because of how it won over millions of fans, and has gone on winning them down to the present day.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress: Thoughts on my First Viewing

I first saw Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) on Bravo before its lamentable turn to particularly disgusting versions of the reality show format.

I have to admit that I was a bit thrown by that first viewing--and even a bit let down.

One of the reasons I watched it--the first Kurosawa film I saw--was that I had heard about The Hidden Fortress being a basis (the basis?) for Star Wars.

I suppose I expected Star Wars with horses and katana instead of spaceships and light sabers.

But it wasn't that.

We get C-3PO and R-2D2, Leia and Obi-Wan, and even a Darth Vader--redemption and all. But we don't get a Luke--so, no hero's journey.

There are good guys and bad guys--but no epic, cosmic, "universal" battle of good and evil. We have instead a smaller-scale, local conflict between two clans that is deeply rooted in the feudal culture with which we are presented, with its particular ethos and loyalties.

I might add that while there are some fights, it's not really an action movie. Aside from the fact that people just weren't making action movies as we know them back then (that awaited the Bond films in the '60s), the film skews comedic, at times rather darkly comic--just as you'd expect if Lucas decided to put the droids and their misadventures at the center of his film, and also made them a couple of idiot backstabbing freebooters who don't think twice about doing things they would never put in something advertised on the Disney Channel.

It is all a reminder not just of how much Lucas owed Kurosawa, but also how much he owed his numerous other inspirations--to Joseph Campbell, to a long tradition of pulp space opera, to the adrenaline-oriented structure of the James Bond films that he seems to have figured out and indeed mastered and improved upon before anyone else in Hollywood managed to wrap their minds around it (an achievement many seem to intuit, but rarely spell out clearly), among much, much else.

After realizing that, I took another look at this movie--taking it on its own terms, rather than as a prototype for a very different film, and enjoyed it for the work of art that it is.

G.I. Joe and James Bond: A Few More Thoughts

Recently thinking about the G.I. Joe cartoon I was struck by how strong the similarities and connections to the Bond films are--G.I. Joe arguably being derived from Bond by way of Nick Fury, Cobra pretty closely hewing to SPECTRE in its essentials, and so forth.

However, it also seems worth considering the differences-- beyond the obvious fact that, as a syndicated weekday cartoon of the '80s, it was sanitized to a much greater degree. (James Bond stand-in Matthew Burke not allowed to smoke or drink or pursue Lady Jaye in any but the most subtle fashion when he dropped by in "The Spy Who Rooked Me," while any but the most oblique reference to death was rare.)

The most striking difference may be how much more over-the-top G.I. Joe was. This seems partly a matter of how what counts as over-the-top action had escalated since the '60s--big doses of science fiction increasingly necessary by that point. However, it also reflects that it was a drawn and animated rather than a filmed live-action product--meaning that if they could think it up, they could put it on the screen. It reflects, too, the fact that because it was made as a comic book/kid's cartoon there was more latitude to get zany (writing in ghosts, Cthulhu-like monsters and super-villains created from the DNA of famous conquerors), or just plain not make any sense. After all, when Bond blew up a SPECTRE headquarters, it usually took Ernst Stavro Blofeld a year or so to turn up again in another fortress--but Cobra seems to manage comparable feats on something like a monthly, even weekly, basis, with the new facilities usually sufficient to make even the most grandiose Bond villain green(er) with envy. (Hugo Drax could only wish his space station was as large, elaborate and well-equipped as the one we see in "The Pyramid of Darkness.")

Indeed, despite being an outlawed terrorist organization without any sign of a secure territorial base (despite which Cobra temples seem conveniently accessible everywhere), or the resources of a major nation-state sponsor (no nation is ever depicted as allied with them, all opposed to them, even the U.S. and Soviet Union cooperating), Cobra seems to have at its command the conventional military capabilities of a superpower. This extends to the ability to deploy operational fighter squadrons, tank forces, submarines (and even flying aircraft carriers!) anywhere in the world in a hurry--while however many of these the Joes capture or destroy, there are (usually) plenty of replacements available. The situation is in fact such that they regularly use all these weapons in major strikes against Joe facilities and forces on U.S. soil at will.1

The extreme casualness with such detail aside, there is also the focus of the series not on a single protagonist, or even a small, close-knit group of characters, but the big team as a whole, with its attention divided among many different characters, enabling those who ordinarily were just supporting players to often get their own episodes. (In season two, in fact, about half the episodes centered on characters only introduced in that season in one way or the other, with Mainframe, Leatherneck, Lifeline--and of course, the always scenery-chewing Sergeant Slaughter--each getting to be the star of an episode at least once.) Commensurately other earlier or more popular characters scarcely got any screen time at all.

Principally a function of the show being a promo for a large and continually expanding line of action figures, I suppose, it nonetheless wound up a far cry from the hardcore individualism of James Bond--and a rarity for American television in that way.

1. Indeed, the show was often iffy even on stuff that wouldn't have compromised the storyline much--like why the chain of command in this large, elite, joint-service military unit goes straight down from General Hawk to noncommissioned and warrant officers Duke, Flint and Beachhead; or how everyone so effortlessly switches between very different and hugely demanding combat specialties, not in a pinch but as a matter of routine. (Shipwreck, according to everything we are told about him a sailor in the narrow sense of the term, who has never been a naval aviator or a member of any other service, casually goes from driving battle tanks to flying attack helicopters to piloting space-capable fighter planes from episode to episode.)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: The Man with the Red Tattoo, by Raymond Benson

New York: Putnam, 2002, pp. 272.

Just as after the over-the-top High Time to Kill Raymond Benson swung all the way around to a more grounded, more Fleming-esque adventure in DoubleShot, he followed up his even more over-the-top Never Dream of Dying with another grounded, Fleming-esque adventure in The Man with the Red Tattoo.

Granted, some of the weaknesses of DoubleShot are present here--not least his evoking a political theme without developing it beyond the usual broad supervillainy. (Goro Yoshida is a former member of Yukio Mishima's Shield Society, whose personal protest against modern Japan has taken the form of international terrorism--apparently, a decades-long campaign that has included some deadly bombings, one of which was depicted in Never Dream of Dying.)

Nonetheless the effort on the whole is more successful this time around, relying less on hokey plot twists than DoubleShot did--the more grounded thrills on offer the freshest and most credible he achieved in his tenure (as in the intrigue on the train to Hokkaido, which manages to stand on its own in a series replete with them). The novel also offers Bensons' most effective use of older Bond characters (specifically, his incorporation of Tanaka from You Only Live Twice), and presents Benson's best travelogue to date as he zips about a good deal of the country that Bond did not see in his first visit (and the presentation of which is a far cry from the awkwardness of High Time to Kill).1

The result is that while, as I have remarked often before, I generally prefer the Bond adventures over the top, The Man with the Red Tattoo struck me as actually the strongest of Benson's books--and made me feel that he had just been hitting his stride with them when he was pulled off the job.

I even wondered what might have been had he been permitted to continue.

1. After their arrival in Kathmandu, Chandra's comments about the historic sights he and Bond pass sound more like the canned remarks of a professional tour guide than genuine dialogue--and in contrast with the kind of evocative detail that made Fleming's travelogue engaging, it seemed like material copied out of a guide book. Red Tattoo, fortunately, does not suffer from this flaw.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Review: Never Dream of Dying, by Raymond Benson

New York: Putnam, 2001, pp. 272.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS

Reading Never Dream of Dying the book's title struck me as the most Fleming-esque Benson had yet come up with. It also compares favorably with High Time to Kill in its better fit with the story, evoking one of its more unusual elements rather than simply being a questionable pun forced into the dialogue.

Befitting such a title, the books draws more heavily on Fleming's material. Where Benson had previously tended to limit the appearances by minor Fleming characters to "walk-on roles," here they figure prominently in the plot. The first third or so of the book in fact splits the investigation between Bond and Rene Mathis, whose adventure is actually the more interesting during this portion, with the two threads merging significantly later in the book. Along with Mathis, his father-in-law Marc Ange Draco turns up, and while initially appearing marginal to the story, he quickly proves to be deeply involved in the tale's events.

Still, heavy as the references to the Fleming books are, Never Dream goes for a more contemporary feel in ways large and small. Alongside the old-fashioned Bondian idea of glamour (like gaming at Monte Carlo's Grand Casino), there is also a new generation's idea of high living--Bond attending a fashion show at the Louvre, accompanying movie star Tylyn Mignonne to the on-location shooting of a blockbuster (Pirate Island), and heading off to a premiere at the Cannes film festival for the climax. (Bond is, of course, a stranger to all of this--and in Fleming fashion comes off more senior civil servant than high-living international man of mystery in the process. But the context makes its impression all the same.)

It might be noted as well that the sex is the most graphic Benson ever wrote, Bond and Tylyn engaging in mutual masturbation, with certain parts of the female anatomy explicitly mentioned--unremarkable by today's standards, but going much further in this regard than his predecessors ever had (and apparently it caused a stir in some fan circles).

Consistent with this, it is also the most cinematic of the Benson novels--and perhaps any Bond novel written to date. This is, in part, because it is so action-packed, opening with a massive firefight, and once the story has properly started, keeping the action coming thick and fast, with at least four of the action scenes that follow being equally or even more spectacular. But it is also a matter of the frequent Hollywood hokiness of contemporary action-adventure filmmaking.

The most grandiosely conceived of the novel's action scenes, Bond's escape from the Starfish floating hotel being used by Pirate Island's stars, begins with an ambush reminiscent of the one at Carver's party in Tomorrow Never Dies. Bond escapes his attackers, then steals a speedboat to complete his getaway, resulting in a boat chase that goes right through the movie's shoot of its biggest, most explosion-packed sequence of all as the director shouts "This wasn't in the rehearsal!" right before deciding "No! Keep the cameras rolling. This looks great!" on the way to Bond's "stuffing" a speedboat under a tanker ship just as it explodes--then making his getaway on a conveniently prepositioned underwater vehicle created by Q Branch.

The fights even come complete with the cheesy dialogue associated with the genre. Fighting Union thug Rick Fripp on a catwalk inside a targeted theater, Bond gets his enemy at a disadvantage and tries to make him talk--at which point Fripp yells "Let's go together!" before pulling Bond off with him to drop down to both their deaths. During a different knife fight a different Union thug Antoine says "You want to dance, my friend, let's dance!"

And of course, reading it all on the printed page, putting it together in one's head, it's harder to overlook their silliness than when passively watching a flickering screen.

Indeed, taken altogether the climax put me much more in mind of the finale of Charlie's Angels II: Full Throttle (which similarly involved a bomb attack on a big movie premiere, and the heroes hanging on to the villain's getaway vehicle on the way to its inevitable crash) than anything ever before put into a Bond novel or film.1 And increasingly I found myself wondering just how we were supposed to take it. Up to this point Benson kept the humor in his books limited, writing in jokes but not making a joke of major plot points, let alone the plot itself, the way Gardner so often did.

However, this exceptionally metafictional adventure often feels as if, after several years and several novels, he too is going this way.

The plot twists correspond to the action in this respect. The "mystical" abilities earlier attributed to the Union chief are revealed not to be a Mr. Big-like fraud for the benefit of credulous subordinates, but actually real, while Bond encounters another character possessing such prophetic powers--making for by far the most unambiguous intrusion of the occult into a Bond novel to date. Bond and Le Gerant also turn out to be connected in a most unlikely way--and Benson kills off not just one but two of Fleming's creations, and his more memorable ones at that.

More significant to the plot than its differing handling of glamour, sex and cinematic action, the supernatural and the soap operatic, and the unprecedented level of summer blockbuster hokiness that results--and certainly less welcome than these novelties--is the book's callousness. In an early scene an action sequence ends explosively--in the process, killing a child, and indeed, a child who turns out to have been dear to someone close to Bond himself, and whose death made revenge a not insignificant element in the goings-on. Bond scarcely reacts to it all, suffering over it less than he had before over the death of many a villain, even when all has been said and done. Additionally, while the situation (for all its melodrama) is the sort of thing that raises questions about the real ethical implications and human consequences of secret service stuff in the real world, the narration likewise shrugs it off in what struck me as an unfortunate sign of the "dark and gritty" times--one which made it harder to enjoy the turn-off-your-brain-and-enjoy-the-ride experience it is sometimes quite successful at serving up.

Still, love it or hate it, it does conclude the Union saga--and in a big way--while also setting up the next book in one of its plot threads, namely the Union's association with an ultranationalist Japanese terrorist, Goro Yoshida, the villain of the next book, The Man with the Red Tattoo (coming soon).

1. Of course, Never Dream came first--Charlie's Angels II being a 2003 release.

Brokenclaw, by John Gardner

New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990, pp. 304.

After an uneventful year of service has made Bond restless, M orders his top agent to take a vacation, which carries him to Victoria on Vancouver Island, where he sees and becomes curious about the wealthy and philanthropic "Brokenclaw" Lee Fu-Chu. As usual, what is supposed to be rest and relaxation is interrupted when M orders Bond to San Francisco, where he has run-ins with the FBI—apparently, building up a suitable cover for Bond's next assignment. As it happens, the rich philanthropist Bond saw in Canada is not a mere businessman, but a crime lord and an agent of Chinese intelligence, to which he is selling a new Anglo-American anti-submarine technology. British and American intelligence are undertaking a joint operation to stop the transfer and finally bring Brokenclaw down, with Bond, and his American counterpart CIA agent Sue Chi-Ho, going undercover as Chinese agents to help run Lee down . . .

Perhaps more than any other Gardner novel, Brokenclaw evokes the premise of a specific work of Ian Fleming's, namely Live and Let Die. Like Mr. Big, Lee is a very large, physically formidable and exceptionally articulate mixed-race, foreign gangster in control of the underworld of an ethnic enclave in a major American city who also happens to be working with a foreign intelligence service hostile to the U.S. government. Bond goes into said enclave, and quickly gets himself into trouble that causes him to run afoul of the American authorities.

However, unlike in Live and Let Die, and more like Gardner's earlier Icebreaker, Bond here is a comparatively passive actor, being maneuvered about by M and the villains until he sets off for a final showdown with the bad guy on his own initiative after the main threat has been quashed. And the novel's finale, like a crucial scene in that earlier Gardner novel, has Bond among tents in the wilderness, surrounded by an indigenous people living in the old ways.

Unfortunately in contrast with both Live and Icebreaker, Brokenclaw is awkwardly structured. Its early portion is exceptionally heavy on coincidence: Bond's spotting Lee in Vancouver and becoming vaguely curious about him; Bond going on to San Francisco, noticing an FBI man tailing him, seeing the tail attacked by gangsters. A fifth of the book in Bond meets up with M, who finally tells him what this is all about—in a briefing that lasts another fifth of the book, from Chapters Four to Eight (including a lengthy flashback sequence). The result is that Gardner is two-fifths of the way into the story before he sends Bond off on his mission, and it is some time after that before things pick up, as the mission entails a very roundabout trip to meet the villain, and the clutter of two underdeveloped subplots (besides selling American technology to China, Brokenclaw is plotting to engineer a financial crash, and building a private army in the Northwest). In fact there is very little action until the final quarter of the book, which is again rather drawn-out as Brokenclaw escapes his home and Bond and Ed have to hunt him down on his reservation, with Bond ultimately taking on Lee in an elaborate, ritualized confrontation, the "okeepah" contest.

The overall impression all this creates is of a limited idea extended into a full-length novel through the stretching of its material, helped by the cramming of still more material inside, not all of which fits together well. This is the case with, for example, Lee's sale of the technology to China for five million dollars—far less than what Karl Stromberg offered for just one of those technologies in the film version of The Spy Who Loved Me (twenty million, divided between the accounts of the two developers) thirteen inflationary years earlier, and even that had been a steal at the time.1

The extraordinary cheapness of the item aside, it is hard to believe that such a sum would mean very much to Brokenclaw, given the apparent vastness of his business empire, which affords him resources adequate to launch that attack on the American financial system, creating yet another implausibility. His massive investment in American assets makes such a crash not in his interests, an inconsistency so obvious that Bond himself makes the point in the novel. Lee brushes it off with the remark that Switzerland and Lichtenstein remain safe—unconvincingly. Lee does express some hostility to the United States within the story, but the book never affords a reason to think ideology or any other motivation trumps profit with him.

The implausibilities also extend to the mechanics of the plot, not least the visit by a very senior Chinese intelligence official to Brokenclaw's compound on American soil in person, when two of his operatives had just been subjected to a very elaborate procedure to collect the material he wanted to see anyway. There is, too, Bond's subjection to not one but two bouts of appalling torture. In the first the series' castration-themed tortures attain a new peak of indignity, with Bond stripped and his genitals smeared with fat so as to induce Brokenclaw's pet wolves to emasculate him (about which purpose the villain is very blunt). Adding to the indignity is Bond's failure to save himself; instead he is rescued by his American colleague Ed Rushia, and American special forces, with Bill Tanner tagging along (who all become well aware of what has been going on), and their code names adding yet another bad joke to a mix of questionable taste.

Indeed, where in Fleming's Bond novels Felix Leiter often seemed a nonentity, his successor Rushia often threatens to overshadow Bond. It is Rushia who locates Brokenclaw's base of operations, and narrowly saves Bond from a gruesome and humiliating death. After the subsequent raid fails to catch the villain, leaving him free to strike again, he helps Bond catch a flight north to his redoubt, and goes with him to arrest a pair of traitorous FBI agents, then save Bond's life again at the end of the o-kee-pah contest. In fact, one could make the case that his actions were more important to stopping Brokenclaw than anything Bond did this time around.

Of course, if the book has considerable flaws of structure and focus, it is also not without its strengths. Lee is a satisfactorily villainous presence (especially in comparison with a nonentity like Baradj in the preceding novel), complete with the requisite personal charisma, extravagant tastes and revolting sadism. He also has at least some of the trappings that go with the position, like a suitably high-tech lair, and freakish henchmen (like Bone Bender Ding). And on the whole Brokenclaw manages to be a smooth, brisk read. Still, it is not one of Gardner's stronger efforts.

1. Indeed, naval analyst Norman Friedman mentioned in the notes to his book Seapower and Space (2000) that watching the film at the time of its release, a colleague quipped to him that such a device would actually be worth orders of magnitude more.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review: DoubleShot, by Raymond Benson

New York: Putnam, 2000, pp. 272.

As if conscious of having deviated too much from the usual pattern of the Bond adventures in High Time to Kill, DoubleShot hews more closely to Fleming's novels--actually appearing assembled from parts taken from several of them. As with Casino Royale the book is rather nonlinear, opening in media res--at a climactic moment, in fact--and then flashes back to trace the development of the situation. In that opening we see a Bond apparently brainwashed by the enemy to strike a blow against his country, as in the opening of The Man With the Golden Gun; and then it cuts to the bad guys' plotting revenge on Bond and Britain in the course of pursuing larger goals, like From Russia With Love. Afterward it cuts back to Bond coping with the loss of a woman with whom he had been personally involved, a result of the blackmail directed against her--a touch of Casino Royale again, but more than a touch of You Only Live Twice (Benson referencing the events of that book in case we missed it, and even writing in James Molony--old Sir Miles Messervy's psychiatrist friend).

There is, too, a Fleming-like emphasis on Bond's being a long-battered soldier of the secret wars--if with a new spin. That Bond has taken so many blows to the head (the most recent in the oxygen-deprived conditions atop Kangchenjunga in High Time) is a crucial plot point. As a result, Bond is suffering from blackouts, and perhaps worse than that--which not only leads to Bond pulled from the field, but to his being on the wrong side of his own Service once more. It might be added that in contrast with the movie-like action of previous Benson novels, there is an emphasis on grounded fight scenes rather than high-tech equipment, protracted vehicular chases and big explosions.

The result is that the earlier chapters often feel more like a psychological thriller, but it is back to the accustomed international intrigue well before the midpoint--and Benson does not wholly eschew the cinematic touches. Bond is again on the run from the Service--and his involvement with twin CIA agents Heidi and Hedy Taunt (the womens' characterizations, the type of comedy their initial meeting entailed, and of course, where it all leads up), is the sort of thing fans of the Roger Moore movies are prepared to enjoy and which their detractors hate. There is, too, something not often associated with Bond, namely a rather political plot: the villain, Domingo Espada, means to take over Spain as a Franco-like dictator, with his movement to recover Gibraltar from Britain a major move in the game.

The result is a mix of the derivative, and of the awkward. While I am more favorably disposed than many to the Moore era, the fact remains that we are ultimately expected to take the Taunt twins seriously in a way the Moore era would have, and Benson does not manage that (though I don't think anyone else would have either). Additionally the rather political scenario mixes poorly with the usual hand-waving regarding supervillain motivations and the matching of means to end. More development was required to make the premise credible, and the book not only suffers from the weakness of this element, but gave the impression of a missed opportunity.

Still, DoubleShot has its strengths. The unlikely combination of old and new elements geled better in the reading experience than it had a right to do, as a result of which it was not just a brisker read than the preceding book (bogged down as it was by its chronicle of Bond and company stop-and-going up a mountain), but a smoother one--the tale undeniably hokey, but not without fun.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Review: High Time to Kill, by Raymond Benson

New York: Putnam, 1999, pp. 304.

Raymond Benson's High Time to Kill, his third James Bond novel (film novelizations apart), is also the first in a trilogy depicting a multi-volume war between 007 and the international criminal organization known as "the Union."

That war opens with a murder at a dinner party Bond attends, and only narrowly misses stopping, then gets seriously underway when Union agents steal the data from a secret British government technical breakthrough relevant to the development of hypersonic aircraft, "Skin 17." Bond is assigned to recover the microfilm containing the key information, setting in motion an international chase that leads to the plane carrying the Union agent with the goods crashing atop Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. To enable Bond to continue the pursuit M assigns him to join the mountain-climbing expedition ostensibly going to recover the bodies, as other nations (the Russians, the Chinese) send teams of their own, and a Union agent on Bond's own team contrives to beat him to the punch . . .

As might be expected given that High Time is a Bond novel, it reads rather like a Pierce Brosnan-era film--not least in its opening which gets Bond into an early action sequence that also hints at the stuff of the later plot, its gadget-packed car chase heavy on late '90s digital technology (for better or worse), and Bond's generally less stoic and more flamboyant demeanor (more on which later). There is also considerable use of Fleming's material, including Benson's by this point familiar incorporation of minor Fleming characters into the storyline (the Governor of the Bahamas--now ex-Governor, of course--from "Quantum of Solace" and the shooting range Instructor from Moonraker).

However, less expectedly Benson evokes very strong parallels between the events of this novel, and Fleming's earlier works. The parallel one might suspect between the Union and SPECTRE is played up rather than down, Benson making it explicit when he has Bond himself think that what he saw of the Union recalled to him his battles with SPECTRE early in the novel, while the Union's boss makes a very Blofeld-like initial appearance. (Le Gerant, like Ernst Stavro before him, heads up a meeting of the Union's senior chiefs at which he metes out deadly and exemplary summary punishment of a traitor to the organization.) A key relationship in the story also contains a good deal of Casino Royale . . .

More surprising still is the mid-point turn in the course of the story, from typical Bondian globetrotting heroics to the Kangchenjunga expedition. The insertion of Bond into a group in this manner, his having to be a Team Player (rather than his being attached to a team) is much less Bond movie or Fleming novel than it is John Gardner. The same goes for the emphasis on that team battling the elements in a cold and remote place--as Gardner had it do in his own third book, Icebreaker.1

The mix of elements struck me as problematic. The Union's effectively being SPECTRE II, and the evocation of Vesper Lynd in Bond's central romance ended up weak repetitions of past adventures, rather than resonant echoes of them--and they made an unsatisfactory fit with the newer material. The industrial espionage that is the chase after the vaguely described Skin 17 is a questionable choice of opening battle for Bond to fight with these successors to Blofeld and company. And time and again, the mix of screen Bond with book Bond proves problematic, with the Fleming evocation highlighting this. As in Moonraker, Bond has a scene on the SIS shooting range with the Instructor, a man extremely grudging in his praise who would never let Bond know he is the best shot in the Service--but where Fleming's Bond showed no need for such validation from the man, professionally concerning himself only with his proper business on the range, Benson's Bond, in rather undignified fashion, tries to force him to admit that his performance was in fact pretty good, wasn't it? Wasn't it?

However, perhaps the biggest problem of all is the awkwardness of the fit of the Kangchenjunga episode with the stuff of Bond's adventures. Making the ultra-individualistic Bond--this Bond who wouldn't even let the Instructor's stinginess with praise slide--over into a functional, effective member of a larger team is far from easy. And while the ultra-urbane Bond is an outdoorsman and a sportsman, competent on the slopes and in tropical waters, something seems lost when he doesn't return from them to his fast car to drive to his luxury hotel to enjoy a fine meal at the end of the day. Immersed in a group, doing right by it, especially without the familiar Bondian props, the Team Player in the Wilderness is reduced to a cipher, as Gardner unintentionally demonstrated time and again in the various novels where he pursued such an approach.

High Time to Kill did not change my mind about this--and unlike in some of Gardner's efforts (Win, Lose or Die notably) the adventure element did not really compensate for this break with the accustomed pattern of the adventures. After all, the climb dominating the second half of the book is rather a glaring plot hole. That a helicopter could have been used to reach the site and recover the microfilm almost immediately is not even mentioned, though in fact the Aerospatiale Lama helicopter developed specifically to meet the requirements of the Indian and Nepalese militaries for helicopters suited for high-altitude operations in the Himalayas, would have been up to the job and not at all difficult to come by. (And its appearance would certainly have been more logical than the use the Union made of a Hind helicopter earlier in the story.)

Additionally, there is the drawn-out, repetitive, stop-and-go nature of high-altitude climbing, to which the book is all too faithful--the team ascending partway, then establishing a Base Camp and acclimatizing before starting the next phase of the climb. This does not help foster a sense of urgency, or flow, instead setting us up for a sequence of disconnected incidents--alas, not very interesting incidents. The rivals to Bond's team are not much of a presence in the book, mentioned more than seen, save in one confrontation that plays more like a prank (not least, on account of its scatological element) than anything else, and the reader easily forgets they are out there for much of the rest of the narrative.

Meanwhile, Benson derives little suspense from Bond's relations with the other members of his own team. This is partly a matter of Bond not getting to be Bond here--but partly also of the characterization of his rival and eventual foe on the team, Roland Marquis. Even while the reader knows that he is a traitor intent on nasty business from the start, he seems more dangerous for his oafishness than his treacherousness, the principal worry for a significant part of the narrative that his stupid one-upsmanship and showing-off (amplified by the altitude sickness to which they are subject) will get them into some kind of trouble—-as when he starts shooting cans and bottles on ground their Sherpa porters consider sacred.

Indeed, it all makes for an at best passable first half, followed by a weak second half. Things pick up somewhat in the characters' final approach to the peak and the microfilm, at which point they get to finally start making their real moves--but these are far from enough to save the adventure. In the end this leaves High Time working as neither a Bond tale of the more grounded type (as DoubleShot does), nor as an over-the-top, blockbuster-movie-crammed-between-covers (at which Never Dream of Dying is far more effective). In fact, it strikes me as the least satisfying of the novels he penned for the series--and it does not surprise me that Benson's subsequent books took different courses.

1. Some of these elements cropped up in many a subsequent Gardner novel--among them Role of Honor, where Bond wound up working a programmer in a video game company (how un-Bondian is that?!); and Win, Lose or Die, where Bond was in the Royal Navy and in charge of a superpower conference's security aboard the HMS Invincible.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The James Bond Films and the R-Rating

In the 1960s the Bond films virtually invented the action movie as we know it. In the decade that followed, however, they lost their earlier, cutting-edge place.

This was in part a matter of new trends, 1970s audiences going for crime-themed, urban action at one end, and science fiction spectaculars at the other, but this was by no means all of it. There was, too, a sense of the Bond films as softer stuff, a function of their getting more parodic and gimmicky, but also of action movies in general getting harder-edged at the same time. Apart from the spectaculars of Lucas and Spielberg, big action was nearly synonymous with the R-rating through the '70s and '80s--the years of Dirty Harry and Death Wish, of Rambo and Schwarzenegger, of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard--while the Bond movies kept the violence, the sex and the language PG.

The Bond films adapted to some extent, in Licence to Kill in fact producing an R-rated film, which was trimmed just enough to get the PG-13 under which it was released (you can check out a comparison of the two versions here), and generally stuck with that rating as the series continued through the '90s--while the genre as a whole went PG-13, the R-rated films largely exiting the market. (Indeed, the last real R-rated action megahit was none other than The Matrix, way back in 1999.1)

In hindsight it seems that this may have had its impact on the reboot. The disappearance of R-rated competition made Bond's moving in a less flamboyant, more brutal direction seem more plausible because in the current market, PG-13 was as "dark and gritty" as a movie needed to get to merit the label.

1. The Expendables franchise, by contrast, has been a success on a much smaller scale, and anyway, sold on nostalgia.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Rethinking Jupiter Ascending

That the Wachowski siblings' Jupiter Ascending would get anything but a brutal reception was a longshot.

After all, it has long been fashionable to bash these particular filmmakers. Disappointment with the Matrix sequels (some of it reasonable, some of it not), the predictable reaction to a Hollywood version of Speed Racer, the reception of Cloud Atlas did anything but assure a warm welcome for the movie.

That Jupiter Ascending is a space opera did anything but help--the genre being notoriously high-risk. Star Wars may have become a Marvel-style movie machine, with Episode VII a $2 billion grosser and the prospects for Rogue One looking bright--but audiences are much less likely to go for them than films with a milder science fiction touch (like superheroes), and the negative response to the great majority that don't win them over is often wildly exaggerated. Perhaps the only non-Star Wars, non-Trek film to score an undisputed success of this type has been 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy--the beneficiary of a summer of weak competition, the Marvel brand name, and even its own slightness and overfamiliarity. Anything "weirder" or more ambitious--and this was indeed the case with Jupiter--is that much more likely to suffer for being so (as Jupiter did).

All the same, this is far from the full explanation for the hostility. The film too obviously repeated much that was in the Matrix trilogy. Once again, an ordinary person of our time--perhaps even less than ordinary--experiences unusual goings-on culminating in a meeting with a mystery man who makes very clear to them that, unbeknownst to all of us we are really being farmed by an exploitative, monstrous power for its own sustenance; and that they may be the key to humanity's salvation from this fate. Chases and fights ensue, culminating in the hero's choosing to undertake a mission of rescue in which they confront and defeat an enemy, achieve a partial victory, and then after contemplating its meaning, soar into the sky above a modern metropolis in what seems a sure prelude to further adventures.

All this is not to deny that there were differences. The handling of the material is bolder in respects--particularly the political themes. It is easy to mistake The Matrix for just another Frankenstein complex story about out-of-control AI (especially if one just focuses on the first film). However, that this is a case of humans exploiting other humans through a brutal, hierarchical system of high-technology and elaborate deception, with a tiny, hyper-privileged, colossally cynical and arrogant and utterly repugnant elite at the top literally stealing the lives of those at the bottom is unmistakable in Jupiter. The movie also manages to not look like a pale imitation of The Matrix, satisfactorily trading cyberpunk imagery for the space operatic kind. And of course, there is much difference in the plot structure--as our heroine Jupiter successively confronts each of the Abrasax siblings in turn.

However, the sharper political edge likely did not endear it to many a critic and viewer (likely biasing many the other way, many of whom responded in predictably disingenuous, passive aggressive fashion by getting overcritical); the science fiction imagery, while suitably lavish, and more original than that of so many more successful films (Man of Steel, for example, the opening scenes of which looked as overfamiliar as they did ornate), comes across as less distinctive, sharp or fresh than the first Matrix film's visuals; and the comparative novelty of the plot structure (where a wedding is disrupted by the guy who yells "I object!" long before the closing scene), which I found appealing, may have been off-putting to those more strictly insistent on action-movie formula. The result was, once again, that a genre film that was rather more competently assembled and with a good deal more on its mind than most (and not without its charm) was subjected to an exaggerated and unfortunate hostility.

On Rewatching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I and II (1990, 1992)

What I said about G.I. Joe recently applies to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well, even though I recall watching more of the series (the time slot was more convenient, among things), and having become more fond of it: my memories were faint and few, little more than what we know from the theme song of the original cartoon (perhaps the only piece of writing by Chuck Lorre for which I can claim any real fondness), and the fact that Shredder (voiced by Will Smith's Uncle Phil!) added the word "cretin" to my budding vocabulary.

I didn't finish the original TMNT series. (Frankly, I doubt I saw anything after season three.) My interest more generally had lapsed enough that I only caught the third of the live-action films on a commercial channel years after its 1994 release. And I haven't given much thought to the franchise since--entirely missing the 2003 revival (an interesting article about which you can find here, by the way), and running across only a little of the current small-screen incarnation on Nickelodeon. I haven't bothered to see the 2007 animated film, or the Michael Bay cinematic revival.

Still, when Syfy Channel recently ran the first two films in the old trilogy, I left them on.

Two things about the films jumped right out at me.

One is that the turtle suits had a charm that the new CGI turtles (well, what I've seen of them in the commercials for the newer movies) simply don't have. I certainly don't regard myself as a CGI-basher (I've been more favorably disposed toward the technology's use from the Star Wars prequels forward than most), but Dial H for Houston's description of them as looking "like The Hulk’s hobo bastard children" strikes me as essentially on the mark.

More significantly I was struck by how little bombast there was in the films--either at the level of plot or spectacle. There was no question of the world or even the city really being at stake. (In the first film Shredder's manipulating disaffected youths into committing petty street crime; in the second, he doesn't even have that much of a plan to advance himself on the road to power.) And what can be said of the plot can be said of the action--the fight choreography clean and simple (clearly predating the Jackie Chan-style frenzies of punches, kicks and blocks that became standard for Hollywood in the mid-'90s), and the scale of the battles limited, no city blocks (or cities!) getting wrecked.

I suppose that watching it back at the time of release TMNT was less flashy than my ideal Turtles movie would have been--but seeing it more recently, after the more spectacular, over-the-top approach has become so commonplace and so shopworn, the difference was actually refreshing.

It helped, too, that the moviemakers didn't take any of it too seriously, especially when making the lighter, funnier second film. (Everyone who has seen the climactic fight scene at the waterfront nightclub where a certain rapper was performing a certain song knows exactly what I mean.)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie

Wally Pfister's Transcendence (2014) is a Frankenstein story--one that hews so closely to the plotline of Mary Shelley's book that there would have been some grounds for passing it off as a remake. The movie actually uses as a framing device the scientist who created the monster recounting the central course of events from after the disaster--a course which began with horror at the untimely death of someone close to him, and a desperate attempt to reverse it that initially seemed benign, but produced an intelligence that proved violent, and produced fear for the fate of the world.

If Transcendence treaded the familiar "Frankenstein complex" path--and did so in fairly solemn fashion--Neil Blomkamp's Chappie (2015) went in the direction of that great critic of the Frankenstein complex, Isaac Asimov. The story also revolves around the creation of an artificial intelligence--but one unconnected with the taboo about the line between life and death--and the result is no monster. Instead Chappie is a child--albeit a misunderstood child--just beginning to learn about the world, who inspires maternal feelings in the woman in whose care he winds up (just as in Asimov's "Lenny"). While saying very much more would mean more spoilers than I care to present in this post, consciousness uploading is not something monstrous here, but the happy ending to the tale.

I, for one, much preferred Chappie--in part because Asimov's outlook appeals to me much more than Shelley's, but also because the film itself is simply more intelligent and more entertaining. Those who follow AI research to any degree, or simply read a lot of science fiction about the subject, would be hard-pressed to point to a live-action Hollywood movie that is as open-minded about the subject, or as idea-packed in its treatment of it. And the truth is that the titular robot is a very engaging creation, whose misadventures manage to be thought-provoking, funny, and at times touching.

In fact, while less well received by the critics, I frankly preferred it to Blomkamp's prior films. Watching the Academy Award for Best Picture nominee District 9 and Elysium I got the impression that I was in each case watching two different films welded together. The first seemed to be the film Blomkamp really wanted to make--a film with big ideas and some human drama--which he attached to the second, an action movie that he made simply to give the project a chance in today's market, but which just didn't have the same inventiveness or vitality, as if Blomkap was only going through obligatory motions. In Chappie the science fiction drama and the action movie flowed together much more smoothly.

Still, different as their approaches were I couldn't help being struck by what Transcendence and Chappie also had in common in their being major, commercial Hollywood films dealing not just with the theme of artificial intelligence (counting these, and Her, and others, I think we haven't seen so much film about this since the '80s), but specifically the transhumanist and posthumanist possibilities the technology opens up (e.g. mind uploading), and that in the terms of contemporary discussion. Transcendence derives its title from Dr. Will Caster's preferred alternative term to "Singularity" (explicitly referenced in the movie), and while it ends up walking a very familiar path, the details reflect an attentiveness to the concept of an "intelligence explosion." And Chappie breaks with popular sf's usual horror story attitude in taking a more benign view of the possibility.

Does this suggestion that ideas about AI, intelligence explosion, Singularity, posthumanism and the rest are enjoying a greater popular currency say anything about the actual likelihood of these developments? The history of previous cinematic fascinations with technology would suggest this is unlikely. Certainly the '80s-era rush of AI-themed movies that gave us The Terminator (1984), Weird Science (1985) and Short Circuit (1986) was no proof that a breakthrough in strong AI (as was expected by some at the time) was imminent--and indeed it was not. (The history of efforts to produce a fifth generation computer at the time is today an obscure footnote.) But at the same time watching these films I was struck by their far greater sophistication in their treatment of their subject than the films of the '80s--perhaps hinting at our generally having a better handle on the issue. And that might be indicative of our moving in such a direction.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Of G.I. Joe and James Bond

Watching 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I was, of course, struck by the ways in which the film was derivative of the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me--in its undersea fortress and stolen missile scheme, and to some extent, even its tossing in an affair between Duke and Baroness.

While noting this in my book (shameless plug time) James Bond's Evolution, I didn't give the matter all that much thought. As is the case with most of the other cartoons of the 1980s I haven't seen since, I remembered little more than opening credits sequences and theme songs, a few character designs and quirks, the essential pattern of the public service announcements ("Knowing is half the battle!"), at most a small shred of a scene or two.

Still, more recently running into reruns of the old mid-'80s Sunbow-produced series (to go by what I see on fan sites, still the canonical, "real" Joe to most), I have had occasion to think again about the influences and resemblances, above and beyond the broad way in which the Bond film series was a model for later action-adventure (cinematic pacing and structure, the subject matter, scaling, photography and editing of action sequences) in general--and which seems less surprising the more I learn about the series' history.1

Larry Hama's creation of G.I. Joe is, after all, an outgrowth of an attempt to spin off Marvel's Nick Fury--Marvel's answer to the '60s era spy craze James Bond did so much to explode (however much the conception diverged in later years). And it shows in the similarity of the conception. Like James Bond, Joe takes a popular genre of globe-trotting action-adventure devoted to an over-the-top version of intelligence, covert operations and low-intensity warfare in the contemporary "real world" (as it was the '80s, paramilitary/techno-thriller action rather than spies) and turns down its usual political charge to the end of appealing to the widest possible audience. A certain amount of flag-waving remained part of the package, G.I. Joe highlighting its heroes' nationality, the subtitle in the Sunbow-Dic era "A Real American Hero," appearing on the screen as the main cast stands pumping its fists in front of a giant American flag at the end of the opening titles. However, as in the early movies about 007 the G.I. Joe series eschewed overt demonization of other governments and countries, in large part by centering the adventures on an imaginary villain carefully crafted to be acceptable as a villain to all--again, in much the same fashion as the early Bond films.

Just like the SPECTRE of the early films (which replaced the Soviet Union's SMERSH in Dr. No), Cobra is an international criminal organization with an agenda of pure and naked power-seeking, even the pretension of a higher cause or ideology absent. As the means by which it pursued this goal frequently called for the physical destruction of a large part of the world Cobra, like many a Bond villain, was a threat not just to a narrow "national interest," but the whole planet, with both superpowers pointedly included, and in cases, forced to cooperate (the Joes working with their Soviet counterparts in the October Guard on more than one occasion).

One might add that Cobra, like SPECTRE, is led by a villain whose face is kept carefully hidden (Cobra Commander), and whose organization, apart from his colorful senior staff (metal-faced Destro, the bad Bond girl-ish Baroness) and a few similarly colorful henchmen (the mercenary Zartan and his Dreadnoks), rests atop a foundation of vast numbers of faceless foot soldiers whose principal role is that of inexplicably willing cannon fodder. And of course, Cobra also shares the Bond villains' penchant for elaborate fortress-bases (at times, under the sea or in space), and for the wacky in their high-tech schemes for world domination.

That same imperative of toning things down also led G.I. Joe, like the later installments of the Bond films, to replace bloody violence with over-the-top gadgetry. (The Joes and Cobras fire laser bolts instead of bullets from their guns--and in the second season the Joes are apt to be firing them not at other people, but androids.)

Indeed, it is worth remembering that a conspicuously James Bondian agent "guest stars" in a Sunbow series episode, specifically "Matthew Burke" in the allusively titled "The Spy Who Rooked Me," which mixes up with the Joes a tuxedo-wearing British superspy who first appears outside a Vegas nightclub, subsequently drives a gadget-packed car (complete with ejector seat) and, while having to keep it G-rated, still manages to put enough moves on Lady Jaye to get (Our Man?) Flint jealous. In the end Burke/Bond does not come off so favorably as he might, but still accomplishes his mission handily, in the process getting the better of his allies as well as his enemies--so that in the end, it still seems fair to call the episode an homage to a crucial predecessor.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Why We Describe Less

A while back I happened on a blog post (regrettably, I haven't been able to track it down again) which raised the matter of authors' describing less than they used to, and asking its readers why this may now be the fashion.

One reason, clearly, is the swapping of the third-person omniscient narrator who sees and describes everything for us reliably for a host of narrow and fallible little subjectivities, and their limited perception of what there is to see, think, feel.

However, there is too the reality that we live in an age of visual media which has driven home to us just how difficult it is for the written word to compete with the camera as a way of conveying images in all their vibrancy, immediacy, texture, grandeur--leaving many of us less inclined to try, and perhaps with less sense that there is a need to try. (Whatever it is, you've probably seen it on TV before, and so it seems it is enough to evoke that.)

Perhaps more importantly, film and television have accelerated the pace of storytelling, too much so to allow any room for thick description--confronted with which we are apt to get impatient to move on.

And of course, many have made a virtue of describing less (one thinks of the enduring cult of Hemingway), while more generally the trend of recent decades has been toward easier-to-read, less demanding books of smaller words connected together in shorter sentences, compiled together in shorter paragraphs in littler chapters (even as books of doorstop size became more than ever the standards).

Have we lost something precious in all this? Certainly there are those who have put subjectivity, evocativeness, briskness, minimalism, accessibility to good use. Still, at their best there was something to be said for the lusher descriptiveness of the nineteenth century novels. Take, for example, Peter Washington's appraisal of Balzac as
a writer whose delight in appearances encompasses every mode from the interior decorator's passion for glitzy surfaces to the philosopher's interest in the hidden depths behind them . . . He has an extraordinary grasp on the materiality of the world, the sensuous quality of objects. All his books are filled with things . . . [and] Everything has its place in a complete vision of life at a particular time and place.
The vividness of his settings, the solidity of the world he imagines and the characters with which he peoples it, would be difficult to imagine without all this, while as Washington also noted, "[t]he dramatic virtues of this method--its distance from mere description--becomes apparent at critical moments in the novel." The details--the difference between a wax and a tallow candle in Eugenie Grandet, for example--are neither decoration, nor mere "symbolism" of the sort on which impressionable middle school students develop neurotic fixations, but the sorts of little things that make up the life he describes.

Novels like Balzac's strike me as more fully novel-like than anything we are likely to encounter today--epic depictions of life, worlds on the page such as Modernist and postmodernist narratives, in their smugly showy fragmentariness, obliqueness and unreliability rarely even try to deliver (and still less often, succeed in doing), no matter how much admiring theorists tell us otherwise. And so while it is well that leaner styles are accepted, the achievements of writers working in that other mode ought not to be slighted.

Of Balzac and James

I'd read little James until recently, and most of that in a hurry for a long-ago graduate course. (Indeed, "Daisy Miller" is about the only piece that I felt myself to know well for a long time.)

The impression I got, however, does not seem to have been different from most people's, George Moore nicely summing it up its outstanding feature in his Confessions of a Young Man--the overgenteel, cloistered, drawing room narrowness of it. A particular passage in that book sums it up so vividly that I cannot resist quoting it:
Mr James's people live in a calm, sad, and very polite twilight of volition . . . in front of the reader nothing happens . . . human portraiture models are necessary . . . [but] the drawing room presents few accents and angles, conformity to its prejudices having worn all away . . . Is there really much to say about people who live in stately houses and eat and drink their fill every day of the year? The lady, it is true, may have a lover, but the pen finds scanty pasturage in the fact; and in James's novels the lady only considers the question on the last page, and the gentleman looks at her questioningly.
Recently reading Washington Square has only reconfirmed my impression. Indeed, after reading James' own critical writing, it has seemed to me that fully as he understood those French writers he so admired, and attentive as he was to their methods, he rejected what was best about them, what made their work so compelling--not least the interest that Honore de Balzac (hailed by James as "one of the finest of artists" in the essay he devoted to him) took in the "machinery of civilization," and the cold and critical eye he was ready to cast on it.1 Balzac's portrait of the brutal, vulgar, degrading, humiliating, painful, wasteful and ultimately hollow character of life in a society dominated by money and its pursuit (such a far cry from those who preach market values as the embodiment of efficiency, dignity and humanity!) was exactly the kind of thing from which James shrank in his work, instead glossing over the less seemly details to leave us with just those stately houses and that calm, polite twilight.

1. The essay appeared in the December 1875 edition of Galaxy--today's The Atlantic, and well worth a read by anyone interested in Balzac's body of work.

Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

By the time I saw Josh Trank's Fantastic Four I had long since had an earful of the bad press--and as is so often the case on those occasions, I found myself wondering if it was not overly criticized. At least in the more important ways the film did not strike me as conspicuously lazy and sloppy in the manner of, for example, Iron Man 2. It managed to avoid the triteness so often part of the Marvel crowd-pleasers--particularly tiresome in, for instance, the middle third of the first Thor movie. And in fact, more than many of these movies (the celebrated first Avengers movie among them), it is not a collection of action scenes strung together by the thinnest semblance of a plot (or more precisely, masses of bits of action strung together by the thinnest semblance of being action scenes, in their turn strung together by the thinnest semblance of a plot), but offers an actual story with actual characters.

As it happens, there is a lot of Trank's prior film, Chronicle, in it--bleak suburbs, gray skies, alienated kids with bad attitudes from crummy homes who mess around with powers beyond their understanding and have to deal with the consequences, all depicted in a rather grounded, low-key, small-scale way. (Reed Richards is turned from a grown-up and well-recognized scientist to a geeky high school science fair entrant, with the rest of the Four changed commensurately; while the central event in the origin story is not a space flight, but interdimensional transport to a primitive landscape, generally seen at night.) There is a bit of Watchmen, too (another film criticized far out of proportion to any actual weaknesses it had) in the conception of the heroes as damaged people exploited by the System, and specifically the military-industrial complex, covert-ops side of it, the badness of which seems to go far beyond a few "bad apples."1

As all this suggests, rather than a movie for purists, or simply a less faithful movie still attempting to be a colorful, lightweight crowd-pleaser in the familiar Marvel mold (which the previous film version of this story fit to a tee), Trank's Fantastic Four gives the impression of a movie attempting to subvert its source material, and the form more broadly--and in its earlier portions shows some promise on that level. However in the last act the movie turns much more conventional as the heroes brush aside their previously deeply felt differences to come together and battle a vengeful supervillain posing a cosmic, physics-based threat to the entire world, the day is narrowly saved, and even if we had doubts (more than doubts) about the functionaries in the dress uniforms and three-piece suits, everyone puts that behind them, while our heroes get a sweet new deal in the form of lavish facilities in Central City, and speak bad one-liners intended to get a final laugh before we cut to credits.

Alas, the final display of action and effects falls far short of what was needed to save the movie from that perspective, not helped by the fact that the scenes are so ill-lit one can barely make out much of what is going on, and that the low-key approach endures. Perhaps more importantly, the sharp turn in the narrative, expected as it may be, rings false after what came before.

Consequently the film alienates those who like the more conventional take by being so low-key and measured and dark, who felt uncompensated by the finale; while at the same time in the film's turning much more conventional in the final act, it alienates those who had been intrigued by its doing something different and more subversive. In that I am reminded of something I thought about when watching Chronicle: the tension between the big-budget, crowd-pleasing form and the narrative aspirations of necessarily smaller-scale indie filmmaking. For better or worse Chronicle just about managed to cohere in spite of them, but it also did not have the expectations aroused by its connection with the Fantastic Four, or the obligation to turn a profit on a $120 million production budget adequate to launch a whole franchise of summer tentpoles.

1. One of the more striking aspects of this is the depiction of the changed bodies of the principals, not just the Thing, but Reed, whose stretching appears grotesque rather than zanily cartoonish.

The Twilight of the Action RPG?

Looking at today's games--I have in mind here the action RPG genre--I am struck by their breathtaking graphics, their rendering of vast, intricately detailed, elaborately interactive worlds, and the lushness of the storylines that all this enables.

Still, appealing as they are visually and conceptually, I have to admit to being one of those who feels that games have lost something in attaining this new level of artistic accomplishment.

The size and intricacy and interactiveness of their virtual worlds makes gameplay far less intuitive. The player has to endure elaborate tutorials to master the necessary physical skills. Then in embarking upon their quest I suspect that only the most hardcore players can get by without a strategy guide--genuinely book-length--in hand, playing becoming an exercise in "following the manual."1

I'll admit that I've never had much patience for tutorials of this type, and that I don't even like reading the manual for things I buy in real life. But clearly I'm not the only one who feels that way--or we wouldn't have wound up in this bizarre situation where people in developing countries toil at gold farming in postmodern cyber-sweatshops.

It all leaves me wondering if the gaming experience in this genre did not start to decline a few console generations ago, when the sophistication of the design had grown beyond its bare-bones beginnings (as with gameplay consisting mostly of seeking out random battles so one could level up), but not yet passed beyond that level of accessibility and manageability beyond which a game stops being fun. (Some time around the release of Final Fantasy 7, perhaps?)

What do you think?

1. Online few seem to admit to this kind of reliance--but they also belittle anyone who does admit to this, which leaves me doubtful.

Friday, June 3, 2016

On the First Person Point of View

Looking at popular fiction today it certainly seems that the first person point-of-view is more popular than it used to be, and one might wonder why.

Certain highbrow critics (I won't name names, but I've reviewed the work of at least one of them here, and not that long ago either) would have us believe that this is because third-person omniscient is "passé."

Such remarks say more about them than they do about fiction today--their Modernist prejudices, not least their love of unreliable narrators and ambiguity for its own sake.

It also reveals another failing of this type of critic: their utter obliviousness to and disinterest in the more practical aspects of the writing life--which seems to supply the real reasons why we are getting so much first person writing, two in particular:
1. Given the preference for "dramatic" rather than "epic" storytelling (I'm using the Goethe-Schiller terminology here), and the emphasis on being "relatable" above all, they are understandably looking to foster an intimacy that will make the reader identify with the narrator. Not a new technique, just one stressed more than it used to be.

2. The old problem of telling and showing. "Show, don't tell" remains the pat advice of those who don't actually write to those who do--and is followed much, much less often than we are led to believe, for good and obvious reasons. One is that, as compared with showing, telling is much easier to read--which is enormously important in today's market. It is also much easier to write--which matters all the more given the expectations increasingly placed on writers (low pay rates, longer books, lots of hours devoted to publicity, all without their getting to quit the day job save in a few, fortunate cases).

The result is that unless one really regards Flaubert as their Penelope (and ready to spend five days agonizing over one page in the manner of the man who gave the world Madame Bovary), setting aside all concerns but pure literary craft, they will, in spite of the conventional wisdom (truly conventional but never wise) serve up much more "tell" than "show."

But in fairness there's often a certain sleight-of-hand involved, and that's exactly what the first person point-of-view permits. Because of the pretense that we are in the narrator's head, directly listening to their voice, their telling looks a bit like showing--and most of those flogging the old "Show, don't tell" saw let them off the hook.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: E. Philipps Oppenheim's The Double Four

As The Double Four opens country squire Peter Ruff is summoned to Paris to meet with the mysterious old woman heading the titular organization, with which he has previously been deeply involved. At the meeting he finds the leader on her deathbed, from which she tells him that he is to be her successor--a charge he is reluctant to accept, though it is also clear that he has no choice in the matter. Afterward he is promptly set up in London as grandee Baron De Grost.

Over the course of the story we never get a comprehensive image of just what the origins, purposes and activities of the Double Four are, but it is quite clear that it was at least in part a notorious criminal organization, that it has since distanced itself from such activities, and that its primary concern is now espionage. By and large, this espionage seems to be conducted on behalf of the alliance of Britain and France, against Germany, and it is this which occupies Ruff's time--in particular, his successive battles with German agent Bernadine, the Count Von Hern.

The luxurious atmosphere, the genteel but ruthless and ultimately deadly duel between Ruff and Bernadine, are classic Oppenheim--and so are the plentiful melodrama, hokey plot twists and right-wing propaganda of yesteryear. Less familiar to me was the book's structure. A collection of short stories turned into a cut-up novel, the book is not just loose, but essentially episodic--between the first and last tales Ruff and Bernadine fighting out some issue to a conclusion, and then the book simply returning to them at the outset of the next battle. In fact, the order of several of the stories in the middle could have been rearranged without the reader's experience being compromised.

The fact that the book does consist of so many short bits was initially a bit jarring, so much so that I was tempted to charge them with being more thinly sketched than they should have been. (Like every other reader of my generation, I suppose I've simply--for better or worse--become used to taking my spy fiction in doorstop-length doses.) Still, it was a light, quick read with a pronounced retro interest, perhaps not so satisfying as The Great Impersonation but also suffering from less of that book's weaknesses as well.

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