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July 22, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»classic

At Least It Wasn't Powerpoint

In my circle of friends, at least, Twitter seems to be used primarily for complaining. Which is not a bad thing, because the people I follow are very good at finding insightful things to criticize. And they often make me think about my own opinions. Take, for example, this post from Acid for Blood's Brinstar:

I've been watching all the James Bond films in chronological order lately. The Connery Bond films are unbelievably awful.
Blasphemy! Well, not really. Depending on your metric, Brin's not wrong. Several of the Connery Bonds are pretty bad: Thunderball and Dr. No never did much for me. None of them have any particular progressive cred, either, what with Bond's rampant misogyny and the peculiar racism of You Only Live Twice.

Bond himself is an unabashed vision of British colonialism. He's crude and not particularly intelligent. He's ruthless and amoral--he cheats whenever possible to get an edge. Bond sees the world as a collection of exotic scenery, with which he will attempt to either bludgeon into submission or have sex. This is part of what makes the Connery version fun to watch, because Connery captures the vicious, low cunning of the character better than any other actor has done. He's less the gentleman, and more enthusiastic about his license to kill. But this is also why Judi Dench's lecture as M at the start of Goldeneye is so satisfying. When she calls him a "sexist misogynist dinosaur" and a "relic of the Cold War," she's absolutely right (and this display of spine only makes Dench's woman-in-distress act in The World Is Not Enough more dismaying).

In his book Action Speaks Louder, which as far as I know is the only academic study of the action movie genre, Eric Lichtenfeld theorizes that the heart of the archetype is the "Man who knows Indians"--i.e., a character who can fight the bad guys because he at least partially identifies with them and can understand them. I don't think this was ever exactly true of the Bond films: the titular spy could never come up with schemes as elaborate or overwrought as his foes. He's really just a blunt object that Her Majesty's Secret Service hurls at various dangerous lunatics. But it is true that his role as the hero--and Connery's success in that role--has as much to do with his blackened soul as anything else.

But if the Bond films with Sean Connery are uneven, they also contain moments of both brilliance and chutzpah. For example, my favorite scene is probably in 1964's Goldfinger, just after the infamous laser-bifurcation-no-Mr.-Bond-I-expect-you-to-die conversation (Goldfinger also added the fantastical gadgetry to the Bond films, which eventually ran amuck and was thankfully restrained in Casino Royale).

At this point in the movie, Bond has been captured by Goldfinger and is being held at his Kentucky ranch. He sneaks away through a secret passage and finds himself watching, through a series of small slits in the passage's low and oddly-shaped ceiling, Goldfinger explaining his plan to an assembled group of mobsters. The mafia thugs have brought him everything he needs, Goldfinger says, to irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox, thus raising the price of his own, non-radioactive gold. To explain the tactics required, Goldfinger gestures towards the room where Bond is hidden, revealing it to be a giant, hydraulically-lifted model of the military facility he plans to raid.

Thus far, this is pretty good, if slightly ridiculous, staging. It's the genesis of a number of Bond movie traditions, including the plan's explanation by the villain and the over-elaborate death trap. We laugh at these things now, and they're parodied to death by the Austin Powers series, but it's actually a pretty good source of straight-faced melodrama. Still, it's nothing on what's to come.

So here we are: Bond's hidden in a giant scale model of Fort Knox watching Auric Goldfinger expansively explain his evil plan to the mobsters who have provided him with supplies, including nerve gas to knock out the guards. Man has "achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor... except crime!" he exclaims. And so, to cap off his presentation and simultaneously check his merchandise, Goldfinger traps the mafia dons in the conference room and kills them with a dose of their own nerve gas.

Are you following this so far? The man built a huge visual aid for the sole purpose of explaining himself to people he will immediately kill. Why bother? Heck, why even fly the mobsters out there in the first place--don't they have delivery staff for their weapons of mass destruction? It's an extravagant scene that serves no purpose except to paint, in very broad strokes, just how bad Mr. Goldfinger is. It's a set-piece of frankly monumental stupidity. And it is awesome.

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