Monday, July 22, 2019

James Bond and Britain's Small Wars

Studying the Bond series for my books I found myself increasingly researching post-war Britain--to the point that I wound up writing two books concerned with that in various ways.

Done, I find myself thinking once more about how that history is reflected in the thriller fiction of that era, and not least the Bond series. The books were very much a product of their time--in presenting Britain in reduced circumstances, but nonetheless a global power on the basis of hopes that it could form a union between its perceived special competence at "the game" and the vast resources of the U.S. (embodied in the working relationship of Bond and his CIA colleague Felix Leiter). They are very much of their time, too, in speaking directly to many of the fears of British orthodoxy at the time--of Soviet-Communist infiltration of Western Europe (Casino Royale) and the Empire (Live and Let Die); of the age of the ballistic missile and the nuclear bomb (Moonraker, Dr. No, Thunderball); of the oft-troubled British balance of payments (Diamonds Are Forever); and even that reliance on America from which Britain always hoped for rather more than it got (above all, in You Only Live Twice).

Yet, the crises in which Britain became involved, the numerous end-of-the-empire wars which occupied its intelligence services and armed forces. just about never seem to turn up in the Bond novels and stories in significant ways. Bond never goes to Malaya or Kenya or Iran or Cyprus or any other such real-world hot spot.

Even reference to the conflicts is infrequent and even oblique. As he walks into Blades in Moonraker, Fleming remarks of Bond that the "casual observer" might, on knowing he had something to do with the Ministry of Defence, think he "[m]ay have been attached to Templer in Malaya. Or Nairobi. Mau Mau work"--which is as close as he gets to either of those wars. Later, in "The Hildebrand Rarity," Bond is in the Seychelles, checking out the islands as a possible fall-back point for the Royal Navy, after its prior "fall back" from Ceylon to the Maldives. Why that task? Fleming mentions Communist-influenced labor unions in Ceylon, but really Ceylon's kicking British forces out of the country was part of the broader backlash against British handling of the Suez crisis--not mentioned at all here.

Later, when Bond is meeting Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice to discuss an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, Bond, insisting on the legitimacy of British interest in the area, at this moment when British forces confronted Indonesia's Sukarno and drew up plans to protect India against Chinese invasion, merely makes vague reference to Captain Cook and the existence of Australia and New Zealand.

I suppose this avoidance of the subject is partly a matter of Fleming's attachment to those settings he knew and loved so well, and which suited his purposes better--Western Europe, North America, the Caribbean. However, it was also a matter of his entertaining his audience in particular ways. The Bond series, like so much of spy fiction since Duckworth Drew, blended adventure and action and intrigue with glamour to offer a particular sort of escape--and a story about Bond really doing "Mau Mau work" would not have been terribly consistent with that. There is a limit to which one can mix escapist adventure with the ugly realities of Empire and war--a lesson that writers seem to have forgotten in this age of relentlessly dark blockbusters.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Paramilitary Fiction and the Military Techno-thriller: The Question of Social Class

In one of the comparatively few scholarly articles written about the military techno-thriller, "Redeeming Vietnam: Techno-Thriller Novels of the 1980s" (which ran in the Autumn 1991 edition of the journal Cultural Critique), sociologist William James Gibson held that the techno-thriller provided a white-collar, middle-class counterpart to working-class populist paramilitary fiction. As Gibson put it, the naval captains, Air Force officers, intelligence analysts and the like who were the heroes of those works "are educated professionals" who "fight with their minds and with the most advanced technology science can develop," but still show, and assure their middle class audience that, they too "have 'what it takes' to fight the enemy"--not least, in bucking the enervated or sell-out Establishment types when the situation demands it.

Jack Ryan is, of course, an obvious example, consistently acting on his own in such a manner. In Patriot Games (1987) it is his own initiative that leads him to the rescue of British royals, and then in the end, his own actions that save his family from retaliation by the terrorists who assassinated them, with the tendency still more pronounced in later book. After the D.C. players abandoned a special-forces in Colombia in Clear and Present Danger (1989), the normally straight-arrow Jack Ryan personally undertook an unauthorized operation to bring them back, not just flying out on the helicopter tasked with the recovery, but personally manning its minigun, with which he mows down dozens of drug cartel soldiers.

Still, the matter strikes me as more complex than Gibson suggests. Before joining the CIA, Jack Ryan was a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, and a Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy, married to an ophthalmic surgeon whose father was a senior Vice-President at the iconic brokerage; but he was also the son of a cop and a nurse who does not get along with his hyper-privileged in-laws.

Indeed, in his confrontation with that Merrill Lynch VP in Patriot Games after the terrorists have put Ryan's wife and daughter in the hospital, Clancy strikes rather a populist note. Joe Muller, "a product of the Ivy League," and quite aware of his "importance in the financial community" acted in a high-handed manner toward Ryan, whom he never forgave for leaving the business, is a classic example of the overbearing, money-and-power obsessed rich man who doesn't understand his son-in-law's "trying to make the world a better place instead of trying to take it over with leveraged buyouts," and doesn't get that there are people he can't bully. Indeed, Clancy pointedly presents Ryan as averse to the man and what he represents, Ryan telling Joe in the same speech that if he stayed on Wall Street like he wanted, "working with [him] every day, moving money from Column A to Column B and pretending it was important, like all the other Wall Street wimps" he would, "hating it," have turned "into another miserable bastard in the financial world." It is not the middle class but another class that Clancy seems to be reassuring when Ryan remarks that, as far as making money there went, "I proved that I could do that as well as you, but I made my pile, and so now I do something I like."

The pattern recurred in such works time and again. Dale Brown's Patrick McLanahan--who, if anything, goes far, far beyond Ryan in loose cannon behavior as his own series proceeds--is imagined along quite similar lines. McLanahan, too, is the son of an Irish-American cop who "knew nothing else but work from age twenty to age sixty," after retirement, in his own cop bar, "The Shamrock." The sons continue both traditions, McLanahan's brother Paul becoming a cop in his turn, while after dad's death selling the bar--"family symbol" and "heirloom" that it is--is out of the question in spite of the unprofitability of the establishment that had dad working side jobs like security guard, and Patrick sacrificing much of his earnings as an Air Force officer to keeping it in business. Indeed, in Shadows of Steel (1996) Patrick, who himself "looked as if he might be more at home in a squad car or on motorcycle patrol than in a bar" is the more out of place because of what has become of the bar, the hang-out for "loud, adrenaline-pumped" beer-and-bourbon drinking cops now frequented by upmarket, touristy types who order "Napa Valley chardonnays . . . specialty espresso coffee drinks . . . cafe mochas . . . veggie appetizers," and expect to get them from decidedly un-McLanahan-like "cool, suave Tom Cruise-look-alike bartenders."

Also like Ryan, his in-laws don't think much of him, and let him know it (in considerably cruder terms than Muller uses--an anti-Irish racial epithet is spoken) when his wife winds up in the hospital due to enemy action in Day of the Cheetah (1989). Appearing two years after Patriot Games, the scene can appear derivative, but that Clancy's scene appeared worth imitating is in itself significant--and in any event, this was far from the last time he was to be in such a situation. Returning to the family home again in The Tin Man (1998), McLanahan goes after not the usual foreign adversaries, but a meth-cooking biker gang that hurt his brother in fairly Mack Bolan fashion (albeit, with the help of a little superhero technology that looks more Batman than Executioner).

For his part, Stephen Coonts' Jake Grafton, who like McLanahan began his adventures in print with an unauthorized air strike against Communist villains (in Hanoi in 1972 in this case) in Flight of the Intruder (1986), is the son of a farmer--not working-class, admittedly, but hardly a member of the elite. And Ralph Peters, if less given to playing up the humble roots of his War in 2020 (1991) protagonist George Taylor (another launcher of unauthorized military strikes in the midst of international crisis), was even more ardent about playing up the privileged backgrounds of many of those with whom he had to contend, juxtaposing him against the man with whom his girlfriend Daisy Fitzgerald is cheating on him, deputy director of the "United Intelligence Agency," "Clifton Reynard Bouquette." At times reading like a caricature of "the other have" in government service, Bouquette is a man who "knew the names of wines and waiters." By contrast Taylor, on account of the scars left by a disease he contracted during a deployment in Africa, "cannot sit in a restaurant without disturbing those around [him]"--and defiantly refuses the cosmetic surgery that would make him more socially acceptable, seeing his face as "the true badge of his service."

The result is that even if middle-class individuals may have "what it takes," the suspicion of moneyed, professional, "Establishment types" is almost as prominent in the techno-thriller as it is in the more overtly blue-collar paramilitary works.

Friday, July 12, 2019

A Genre of Flying Stories?

Looking back at the military techno-thriller, it seems worth remarking that not all combat arms or weapons systems were equally popular with writers, especially in tales more narrowly focused on the doings of particular characters.

I suppose if most people had to name a techno-thriller they would mention The Hunt for Red October--in many ways the book that established the American techno-thriller in the '80s, and certainly the career of the genre's most successful practitioner, so that they would think of it as a genre of submarine stories.

Still, it strikes me that rather more popular than stories of submarines, warships of any other type, or ground units, have been stories of aerial combat. It was the story of a fighter plane's theft, not that of a warship, tank or anything else that proved a critical early prototype of the genre--Craig Thomas' Firefox, which was to have two sequels. Later, Stephen Coonts made his name with flying stories (The Flight of the Intruder, Final Flight), while Dale Brown has managed an unmatched three-decade streak of bestsellers on the basis of the adventures of Air Force officer Patrick McLanahan. If less prominent or consistent, Payne Harrison, Richard Herman, Dean Ing, Barrett Tillamn, R.J. Pineiro, likewise became genre luminaries on the basis of the same theme, while it is worth remembering that Clancy himself, for all his association with naval action, offered plenty of battle in the skies in his books, not least Red October (where A-10s buzz the Kirov, and American Tomcats dogfight Soviet Forgers).

It retrospect it seems plausible that the aircraft-centered story had numerous advantages from a dramatic perspective. One is that an aircraft is a discrete unit, in contrast with an armored unit comprised of many vehicles dispersed over an extended territory--acres, square miles. One could say the same of a warship, of course, but a naval vessel is a large, complex grouping, hundreds or even thousands of personnel spread throughout a vast, compartmentalized hull. The entire vessel and crew may be subordinate to the will of a single captain, but this still diffuses the activity--the officer giving the order not performing the act, or even in the same part of the ship as the people who execute it. Someone in another, unseen part of the vessel loads the torpedo tube--and equally when the ship takes a hit, it is apt to be someone in another, unseen part of the vessel seeing the damage and personally coping with it. All that makes a great contrast with the individualism of a pilot flying an aircraft themselves, and even the small-group dynamics of an aircraft crew--in the case of Coonts' A-6, and even the then-popular B-2 bomber, just two people sitting close together.

Additionally the briskness of aerial warfare—of supersonic jets exchanging even faster missiles as they zip through the sky—may be easier to depict lucidly and make exciting than the slower movement and thicker "fog of war" of a ground unit in the middle of a large battle, or a submarine crew trying to work out from subtle sounds what is going on above and around them as they sit in a steel shell hundreds of feet below the sea. All of this reflected a key aspect of the tales, namely the taste for adventure and romance over the impersonal realities of high-tech, mass warfare.

On Being an "Adult"

Cultural commentators have always inflicted on the world a great deal of inanity about the younger generation not measuring up to their satisfaction. For quite a while (going back, at least, to Generation X) one of their favorite laments has been that the young are not "growing up." That they are not properly "adult."

It is the most obnoxious kind of criticism--nasty and at the same time opaque--because it is unclear just what they mean by "adult."

One may think of an adult as someone who can take care of themselves, and when the situation calls for it, take care of other people and things as well, and therefore be trusted with those responsibilities that have to be borne. That they have given evidence of the qualities this requires--a certain minimum of readiness to put obligations ahead of convenience, pleasure and even interest; a measure of understanding of themselves and of how the world works, and the ability to apply that to those ends.

This seems to me a reasonable thing to expect people to be.

But it does not seem to be what they have in mind at all. Instead they define adulthood in terms of certain external trappings that might be thought to imply all this--with the trappings taking precedence as what they are supposed to imply recedes from attention.

Specifically they have in mind a "middle-class job"--something involving a certain minimum income and stability permitting a suburban existence (putting up with the maintenance and other hassles of detached houses with big lawns is, apparently, part of the "package"), with authority over others and prospects for promotion. They have in mind, too, marriage, children.

Oddly enough, they also tend to make the judgment of "adult" or "not adult" on the basis of what one does in their spare time. Somehow it is adult to watch sports on TV and participate in a "Fantasy Football" league; but not adult to play football on a video game console. And artistic and intellectual pursuits, especially of the "geekier" kinds, are seen as suspect.

All of this gives away the game--the essential shallowness of it. This idea of adult-ness seems nothing so much as nostalgia for a certain image of the '50s--like so much else in the thinking of American conservatives, who consider the '60s and everything after to have been a falling away from all that was good in the world.

It also says much of their class and other prejudices--because the working class, the single, the childless, are consequently less "adult" than others, no matter how much of the adult virtues they actually possess.

And, of course, when they subject the much-maligned millennial to such criticism, they betray their essential bad faith. The thirtysomething college graduate working a minimum wage job as they live at home does not conform to their ideal--but never had a chance. The same social and economic policies that conservatives have relentlessly championed, which have made education synonymous with crushing indebtedness, which have made jobs rare and ill-paid and precarious, and housing out of their reach, all work against their ever having the kinds of households supposedly just given away when people are of age.

Ironically, in their having finished school, taken what work they could find, and accommodated their mode of life to the slighter means that went with the betrayal of the promise of a middle-class life for any and all who graduate college, one could credit these same "young people who refuse to grow up" with exactly those virtues the term "adult" supposedly sums up--and it is perfectly consistent with all this, too, that they should not get the least little credit for it.

Home Improvement: Nostalgic From the Start

Running into the odd Home Improvement rerun on cable, I am time and again struck by how backward-looking that superficially contemporary show was.

In the home and car repair and improvement theme that utterly saturated each episode; in its choice of setting in motor city U.S.A., Detroit; in its "salutes" again and again to everyone wearing a hard hat; it evoked less than the '90s than an earlier generation. I have in mind here the post-war boom--that period when American manufacturing commanded the world market virtually by default, colossal Cold War expenditures cycled money through the economy, and being an auto-owning suburbanite was the picture of the American Dream, exemplified by the industrial centers of the Midwest, where even a good many factory workers were participating in that "middle class" way of life.

The show didn't wear its nostalgia on its sleeve. One didn't see, for example, Tim talking about how much better things were when Ike was in the White House. One got the impression that nothing had changed at all. But it had. American manufacturing, the Midwestern industrial base, the relatively broad prosperity it sustained, and even the way of life with which it was associated, had all been in decline for nearly a generation when Tim the Toolman hit the air waves. Michael Moore, in fact, made his name by putting the very different reality on the big screen in Roger & Me years earlier (while as Home Improvement's run drew to its end, the overtly backward-looking That '70s Show presented a somewhat more realistic vision of that in the travails of Red Forman). And far from the region recovering from these problems, they have all got a lot worse--Moore's native Flint now famous for catastrophic fiscal and administrative failures that have left its residents without potable water in a crisis that has dragged on for year after year.

I don't see anyone using that as a backdrop to a popular prime time broadcast network family sitcom.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Delay of Bond 25

The latest word about "Bond 25" is that it will start hitting theaters in April 2020.

Assuming the franchise keeps to the schedule, this will be the first time in over three decades that a Bond movie has entered the summer box office fray.

More significant, however, is the fact that an April 2020 release date will mark the second longest gap between one Bond film and the next in the series' nearly six decade history. coming only after the nearly six-and-a-half year gap between Licence to Kill and Goldeneye--a function of not just the production headaches of this like every other long-running, big money franchise, but among other things (not least, the death of producer Albert R. Broccoli), the culmination of a long trend of decline culminating in particularly weak box office performance of Licence to Kill; and the end of the Cold War with all it implied for the spy genre.

Nothing really comparable is operative this time around. (Spectre was considered a letdown, but with nearly $900 million banked it was still one of the more successful installments in the franchise's history, even after adjustment for inflation, while comparison with the preceding film Skyfall was unrealistic, given the exceptional interest, and marketing opportunities, the fiftieth anniversary of the series provided, and which did so much to make it the series' highest earner of all time.) And there seems to be no real consideration of wrenching changes in the series' tone, aesthetic, theme--the course of the rebooted series, if anything, reaffirmed by the choice of Cary Fukunaga to helm and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (groan) to cowrite the script.

Rather the delay has me thinking of how a slower rate of output has been the norm for the series this century. The current plan will mean five Bond films in seventeen-and-a-half years--once every three and a half years, almost twice as long as was the norm pre-reboot. (Forty movies between 1962 and 2002, with that rate maintained even in later periods, two Bond films following Goldeneye in a mere four years.)

It all strikes me as underlining what is too little admitted, what is almost immediately beaten down by the boosters when anyone breathes any such word about any series--the franchise's increasing difficulty staying relevant.

When it started out this was simply not a problem. In the '60s the Bond films, without apparent strain, contributed to and rode a wave of popular fascination with spies and jet age glamour, but what really made the series was something more distinctive to it--the series' invention of the action-adventure blockbuster, both the technique for making such films (the fast-paced, set piece-centered structure that casts logic to the wind, the battery of cinematographic and editing technique that derives the most impact from those thrills).

No one else achieved anything really comparable then, despite wide imitation, which tended to settle for copying its more superficial elements. (A suave superspy? Let's do that, they all thought. But making an action movie to compare with the Bonds was generally beyond them, as a glance at the relatively high-profile Derek Flint movies shows.) This near-monopoly on its style of action movie-making remained the case even after the flood of Bond knock-offs turned into a comparative trickle, so that after the series' period of real originality (that first decade and its first half dozen movies) passed, and the novelty was reduced to an occasional set piece or gimmick that would stick in the popular mind, and it became repetitive of its own successes and derivative of those of others to sustain the glitter of the brand name (unmistakable in the chase-packed, blaxploitation-themed Live and Let Die), there was not a whole lot of real, head-to-head competition. (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, sure, they were hits--but they were doing something fairly different.)

Still, if slow, Hollywood did begin to catch up, Star Wars a signal moment in the process, while by the '80s Hollywood was adroit enough at this that the latest Bond movie could get lost n the summer crowd (up against Rambo and Mad Max and Commando in '85, against Predator and Robocop and Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop in '87, against Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon again and Batman in '89).

It got tougher still in the '90s, while by the twenty-first century it seemed like there was a new installment in a big-budget action franchise at the multiplex just about every week of the year--while the series' dispensing with much of what had made it distinctive made its standing out all the harder. (Already with Licence to Kill the results were looking like a generic '80s action film--while the producers' discomfort with the flamboyant plots and the self-indulgence of the character cost them much of what personality they had.)

As a result, instead of an assembly line more or less reliably chugging out Bond movie after Bond movie under the same team (director John Glen, who had been with the Bond franchise since the '60s, helmed five Bond movies in a row in the '80s), they have strained to "make it new" (ironically, while following the course of everyone else--"make it dark").

In the '90s changes of directors became frequent, while increasingly selecting the sort of "auteurs" who originally had no place in a franchise dominated by a creative producer (Broccoli a recipient of the Academy's Irving Thalberg Award for a reason). First there was the art-house break-out Lee Tamahori, given the charge of the 40th anniversary film Die Another Day, even before the reboot saw a turn to such directors as Marc Foster, Sam Mendes, and now the aforementioned Fukunaga. Again, the grosses have been good, but I am unconvinced this particular practice has really been all that helpful. There has, too, been the attempt at telling the story of how Bond became Bond, with a certain amount of soap operatic family drama and mythmaking tossed in. Not everyone was a fan of the approach. (I wasn't.) Still, many felt that this worked for Casino Royale, and Skyfall, each of those films giving viewers the sense that each of these was more than "another" Bond film. The reaction to Spectre, however, made fairly clear the limitations of that approach.

Is there much chance that the new team can come up with something, if only enough to give the franchise a bump like The Spy Who Loved Me, rather than continue a downward movement, the way A View to a Kill did?

I put that question to you, readers.

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