24 September 2010

Thrills, Chills and Kills!

Are you just tired of sobbing sentimentality, gagging tear-jerkers, stereotype love, overdone poetic romance and boring everyday dramas? Then perhaps you should consider watching a new genre; something that will make your blood run cold; something wicked, unknown and - far too often - frightening real? Perhaps something like these mind-boggling, desperate and terrifying movies? If you dare ...

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948),
starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster

The Snake Pit (1948),
starring Olivia de Havilland and Leo Genn

Rear Window (1954),
starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter
Wait Until Dark (1967),
starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin

Jaws (1975),
starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw

”Well, I think you need a drink, right, dear?” he said and took a long draw on his cigarette

Clark Gable and Constance Bennett
from After Office Hours (1935)

One thing that often strikes me when I watch American movies is the American idea of solving a problem. The first alternative that comes to them is: Alcohol. Tell me: Why do the Americans always need a drink when they can't find anything else to say? Why do they always go straight to the nearest bar to solve their sometimes rather insubstantial problems? Why do they always interrupt each other just to add: "Can I get you a drink?" and then a resounding silence follows, and the other part seems almost relieved and answers: "Yes, please; a gin on the rocks!"? And why do they always have one or more drinks cupboards in their homes? Is it an absolute necessity? Is it something we must take seriously when they are depressed and go to the bars, washing down “a few” drinks and talk about lovesickness with a bartender who reminds you more of an unemployed (and definitely underpaid) psychiatrist?

Dooley Wilson and Humphrey Bogart
from Casablanca (1942)
Well, it is probably a matter for the American film-makers that drinks and emotions belong together as Bonnie & Clyde; unseparable. But why? Is it really just typical American cinema - just like all the westerns, the American Dream theme and tough guys with big guns are typical style a la American?
What do you think? Why do you think alcohol somehow often plays a role in (mostly old?) American films? Does it transmit some unspoken feelings, just like e.g. smoking can give sex appeal? Does it have any certain symbolic meaning?

Being a non-smoker myself, I do not generally approve of smoking, but I have always find it fascinating in films and in the media. I do not believe it doesn't have any influence or symbolic meaning at all when smoking appears in the media, because kids do tend to copy their idols (sometimes in the most absurd ways) and if their cool idols smoke... Well, there is a pattern, don't you think?
Of course, back in those days (that is, the golden age of cinema) everybody smoked, the stars as well as the "common" people, and cancer wasn't really a subject you connected with smoking, anyway - at least not on the silverscreen or in the media. Practically all the film stars did commercials for cigarettes/tobacco back then. The awareness of the link between cancer and smoking was revealed much later and it was not until the late 1960s that an actor in Hollywood (and the first to do so), William Talman, made an anti-smoking commercial - just a few weeks before he himself died of lung cancer (!) ... That says quite a lot, doesn't it? I'd recommend to take a look at this interesting link to see more.

Still, as I mentioned, smoking cigarettes in the old black-and-white movies back then wasn't seen as something fatal and gross or as something simple and insignificant (at least it never came across that way), because when they did smoke - oh boy, it was the way they did it! Always in those smouldering, tantalizing, understated moments shrouded in mystery and looks filled with sexual power or tension (also a perfect way to skip the unnecessary talk and dodge the censorship of the time). Behind that ascending smoke a face could show everything and nothing of the owner's veiled desires and wishes and it gave both the counterpart and the viewer a good deal of time to read this mysterious face. I have always found these moments in film utterly intriguing and I seriously don't know what movies or perhaps especially film noir would have been without those little white sticks with the glowing ends.

To really give you an idea of what I mean, I'll show you one of the famous scenes from "To Have or Have Not" (1944) where Lauren Bacall lits a cigarette in a very sexy, subtle way while Bogie watches her with some very meaning looks. It's as always wonderfully direct without really being direct - because, hey, it's just a ciggy... Right? Take a look and see for yourself:

James Bond - The Phenomenon *UPDATED*

"Bond. James Bond."

007 alias JAMES BOND is a anti-hero, an icon, an artefact, created by a genius. James Bond is the epitome of coolness, elegance and masculinity. He has got the whole package: Excellent skills (e.g. cardplaying among many, many other things), guts, charm, manners, muscles, wits, intelligence, virility, good looks ...*sigh*...and the list goes on. Practically, everything the perfect spy - the perfect hero must have (and the perfect man ought to have). He is fictional, yet still a living legend. He is timeless, classic, erudite, sophisticated; a gentleman, yet not sinless; always with a wicked twinkle in his shrewd eyes, filled with sarcasm and sharp wit. He can be the devil-may-care kind of guy; incredibly dangerous, fearless, brutal and tough; an unscrupulous killer, faster than a panther and stronger than a ox. With the incredible and sought out ability to be where you least expect it; at times hidden in the shadows watching your every move, at other times in the spotlight and the centre of everyone's attention and fascination. A headache, yet a savior to his boss, feared by his enemies, loved by women, idolized and envied by men. He is untouchable, unresistable, unattainable, unpredictable, unmatched; he never seems to run out of neither weapons, gadgets, surprising new skills, sassy retorts, martinis (shaken, not stirred!), girls - nor lives. He is, sort to speak, a "man-of-all-work"; an extremely skilled chameleon who risks his life several times (though it never really is in any fatal danger) to kill the bad guy(s) and girls! He is the MAN who cannot be killed; the man with a thousand (if not more) lives and with a mischievous rumour that's arguably bigger than his experience with women...? (Uhh, well, yes, that's arguable.) His notorious relationship with women has caused controversy as well as sympathy throughout decades. No wonder with that gold-melting smile of his. Yet, no one really gets under the skin of him; he allows no one to get too close - and with good reason. Once really in love and once even married - both which ended tragically - hardened his heart, though his soft spot for women, particularly beautiful women, and, of course, Moneypenny, the Queen and country hasn't hardened. Luckily, we might say. If he wasn't who he is, who would then save the world time after time and be there whenever the human race is in need? 

The symbol, the atmosphere, the icon, the immortal subject, James Bond, captured my sweltering, eager heart already as a youngster and a cinephilia-rookie, and he will remain in my heart from this day forward.

The role as Bond has since the franchise's beginning been opted for Cary Grant - viewed by many as the ultimate Bond actor throughout time - and he even was the original choice by producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, but could (unfortunately) only be committed to one project, not the entire franchise as required. I tend to agree most of the way; Grant's elegant, witty and enigmatic persona, acquired good looks and physique, smooth charm and, of course, British nationality are all ingredients for the perfect Bond cocktail (shaken, not stirred). Yet, I have a hard time imagining him as one with a roguish streak which is also required of the character portrayal. Sure, he showed his 'darker side' somewhat in "Suspicion" (1941), but the thought of him getting down and dirty on the ground and mercilessly killing with his bare hands is something I simply never could picture him do. Even in "North by Northwest" (1959) or "Charade" (1963) - which were very Bond-esque - did he smoothly manage to avoid any major clashes of (raw) violence, as if he held himself above that kind of 'action', so to speak. Like a good ol' sport, he kept that impeccable, well-tailored suit of his intact throughout his career. Grant as Bond? Perhaps, but considering his age in '62 and that the above-mentioned 'superficial' likenesses between him and the character might not have been much more than superficial, I'm not sure he would have been that fit for the role. I'm not even sure he would have felt that fit himself. 

On that note, someone who had both the looks, elegance, charm and the right roguish qualities: My favorite Bond, of course, Sir Sean Connery. I can't get enough of that man; everything from his quick, lethal and elegant movements to his cool, laid-back mimic and expressions as if he was born for this role. Apparently, Fleming, though initially reluctant about the Scot, found himself impressed after meeting Connery on set. So impressed, in fact, that he afterwards wrote Scottish blood into Bond's ancestry. Talk about man-crush!

George Lazenby's Bond isn't bad either, as a matter of fact, but he's not as timeless as Sean's Bond - in my opinion. He had, albeit, the most classic of looks a man can have; like he had been literally pulled out from a comic book; a perfectly proportioned male specimen. There's also some resemblance to Cary Grant somewhere, isn't there? He definitely managed to carry the easy-going wit and charm that evokes Bond and give him charisma - which were a bit of a surprise since no one really expected him to be able to follow in Connery's inherently charismatic footsteps (being a Scot just gives you that quality, apparently).
However, the ones that followed were less impressive: Roger Moore was too much of a ham, getting too old for the role too quickly and never really being anything but a silly caricature of Bond. Timothy Dalton could perhaps portray one of Bond's distant, more sinister cousins, but not Bond himself (though some might argue Dalton's cynic Bond was closer to the Bond in the books). Pierce Brosnan acted well enough to some extent, managing to capture some of the old school Bond charm and humour as well as a more complex characterization, but sadly never really got the chance to explore this much further. Lastly, besides not looking like Bond at all (don't get me started), Daniel Craig does have the skills to become a quite good action-man, but again - not Bond. He is, admittedly, a better actor than the three prior colleagues, and able to carry the character into our modern world, but in my opinion he doesn't have the timelessness, panache and virility Sean transmitted as Bond, nor the lean class, elegance and obvious, mischievous charm. He is all beefy muscle and blond hair, to the point where I forget it is a Bond-movie I'm watching and I have to keep reminding myself that it is - which is really frustrating. 

Again, that's just a personal opinion. Anyhow, it's always easy to abandon the newcomers and tend to glorify the veterans, but I do feel Bond was a product of his time and though the music always was terrific (except "Quantum of Solace" - its theme is shamefully ghastly!), and, the fact that James Bond is an immortal legend, I believe that he should be kept in his original form; the archetype. I know it's a self-contradiction, because if he IS timeless, he must also keep up with time, right? However, in my nostalgic head he will always remain that wonderfully superficial, witty, well-dressed and yet fearless, mysterious, devilishly handsome, dark-haired English MI6 agent; ever the roguish gentleman and incorrigible ladies' man from the '60s, who's committed to his job and his queen and country.

I humbly thank Ian Fleming for creating such an epic icon, and the Broccolis, John Barry and everyone else involved for making James Bond come alive on the screen and thus immortalizing the phenomenon.

More gorgeous "James Bond and Sean Connery"-martini, shaken, not stirred? Then you should perhaps take a look at this interesting article (remember the second part of it)! Or perhaps this one! ;)
And last, but not least, here are some smoldering pictures of The Man himself:

Oh, and then again, not quite The End. There's a 'little' updated PS. You see, I realized I couldn't possibly write this piece with only compliments and no complaints (you know me) and leave out the fact that James Bond is probably one of the most notorious subjects of gender-related film critique.
Because, of course, one cannot look past Bond's blatant male chauvinism and basic disregard for the opposite sex whom he discards as often as he changes that impeccable white shirt of his. Not to mention, being overtly self-assured and downright smug about his own sexual prowess (he 'managed' to conquer Pussy Galore when the woman's playing for the other team - for Heaven's sake, Bond!).
"Let's not forget that he's actually a misogynist," Daniel Craig himself said about his character. That says it all, I think.
Being a self-proclaimed feminist myself, in the most diplomatic-passionate of terms, this fact has of course always nagged me in the back of my mind whenever I watched, laughed and enjoyed myself through hours of Connery-Bond's deliciously rolling Scottish lilt and glinting, mischievous eyes. The Scottish vortex of charm so easily sucks you in. As I've gotten older and embraced feminism in all of its complex aspects I've come to see James Bond in a new light since I wrote the above (rather glorifying) piece.

No matter what one has to say for the man, he is a bastard. Sure, a charming, funny and even silly bastard, but nonetheless a bastard. And it's quite interesting that these 'values' that seem to be the essence of Bond - clearly inseparable from the man and the myth - have managed to sell plenty of movie tickets throughout such tumultuous, radical changing political and social decades that followed after his arrival in the 1960s and, now, well into the 21st century. A time where critical awareness on these subjects - perhaps now more than ever thanks to new academic studies, not to mention various social and online media - has enhanced and pointed out just how outdated, unhealthy and misrepresentative these traditional, patriarchal and, frankly, stagnant views of how men are men and women are women truly are. People are simply tired of these archaic, bigoted values - especially concerning gender roles and race - still swirling in our life, culture and language. Hidden or not, they have simply stayed this way much too long and need to be reckoned with.

At least "Mad Men" (2007-2015) dared to take up this challenge; to face this 'wolf in sheep's clothes' and call a bastard for a bastard in regards to Don Draper - who is basically a James Bond type in many ways. The show - in contrast to the Bond movies - manages to draw critical lines across the ways society in Bond's cinematic birth years actually worked regarding the sexes, more so than glamorizing them (though this scale of balance can be debated).

I'm not saying that James Bond from now on should be an icon for cultural and structural change in that regard - if that is even possible, since he is and probably always will be an archetype of his time and more camp and entertainment than diversity and politics. The books were never meant to be more than that and mainly served as Ian Fleming's own subjective/selfish and partly autobiographic outlet (although he laid it on pretty thick). But I'm still prone to see icons, no matter their various contexts, as partly responsible for what they represent in the end. Especially for the coming generations. What do we want to leave on the map of legacy to guide them? And so I ask (again): Can Bond really work in the 21st century when he basically still sees women they way he does? Isn't he just too dated, too archaic in that aspect? Then again, name a blockbuster/cardboard action hero from prior decades that actually showed true esteem and respect for women with no romantic attachments developing along the way ... Nope, me neither. James Bond just predated them all and happened to have more class and style than the rest of them put together. Of course, he's the top dog. 

So, can you change the stripes of such a, uh, tiger? I don't know. I grew up adoring this man partly dewy-eyed, partly well aware of his own 'campiness' and obvious flaws, and there's still a part of me that enjoys 'a good tumble in the hay' with a good James Bond film, but now I'm a grown-up and I, inevitably, see certain things differently. 
So. You can still let Bond stay the entertaining icon he's always been as long as you keep in mind what he's actually an icon for - other than Fleming's legacy.

"Daniel Craig has not been given enough credit for taking a character who was a cardboard throwback even in the 1960s and playing him straight: as a wall-eyed, traumatised thug, a protagonist who is two-dimensional precisely because he is empty inside.

Craig animates the automaton that is Bond by asking just what it would take to make a person behave in this horrific way – and like any piece of well-done puppetry, the effect is sinister. Daniel Craig is the Bond we deserve, a Bond who takes seriously the job of embodying a savage yearning for a lost fantasy of the 1950s. It is about masculinity, yes, but also about Britishness, about whiteness and about heterosexuality, about the loss of certainty in all of these in a changing world."