Saturday, December 15, 2012

James Bond is no longer a Greek God, he’s Jesus: Notes on Skyfall

The first thing to notice about James Bond is that he’s a god.  I’m not talking about the James Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels, and I’m not talking about the James Bond of the most recent film, Skyfall—a film that makes the most significant departure from the cinematic tradition of James Bond in the history of the franchise.  I’m talking about the James Bond most of us know: the Bond we watched in the movie theaters, on video tape, on DVD, on late night television and in any of a thousand forms of streaming video, from Dr. No in 1962 to Quantum of Solace in 2008.  This is a Bond who doesn’t stumble around like a mere mortal, growing from inadequacy to adequacy, learning new things both true and false, fumbling to make a path for himself in the world, to find a place where he fits, to build something like a family or a life’s work that can itself start to grow and falter.  In fact, a good part of this Bond’s appeal is that he doesn’t have to do any of that messy stuff. 

We can get a good sense of the Bond of cinematic tradition if we think of him as less like the protagonist of a novel, and more like a figure out of mythology.  In its classic manifestations, the novel offers us protagonists who grow and change.  Sometimes they change externally, seeking and finding a place for themselves in the world, Horatio Alger style (all of those orphans traipsing around the nineteenth century novel are placeless people seeking some kind of belonging).  Often, especially in the bildungsroman, we get to watch the characters’ ethical growth: Huck Finn has his great “All right then, I’ll go to hell” moment, rejecting the ideology of shore-based society for a dream of friendship conceived on his river journeys with Jim; Jane Eyre learns to balance her fiery, passionate desires with her self-possession.  Sometimes we get to watch the slow, faltering development of some skill or social ability, as we do when we see James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus slowly learn the art of language (from his lisping childhood to his pretentious display of literary theory) and the way to relate to women (from a full-on case of pathological virgin/whore dichotomy to a somewhat less virulent case of the same, perhaps in remission).  In any case, the real action of a great many novels is to be found in watching the protagonist learn, grow, and change.  All of this is in contradistinction to the way certain characters—the gods—tend to operate in mythology.  If the classic protagonist of a novel is a creature of becoming, the gods in mythology are creatures of pure being.  That is, they are what they are, and will be for eternity.  Ares doesn’t grow and learn and change, nor does he seek his true home, nor does Dionysus, nor does Athena : they embody certain traits: indeed, they represent those traits, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to lose or modify their warlikeness, their indulgentness, or their rationality.  How could we speak of a Dionysian experience if Dionysus went to A.A. and learned the twelve steps of self-reinvention?  This seems to be true of mythology across cultures: Loki never changes in the tales Norse mythology; nor does Tiki in the Polynesian mythological cycles.

Like the gods of mythology, the classic film Bond never has to grow or learn or seek out a place.  When we see him engaged in training exercises during the opening sequences of several of the films, he’s never really in the process of acquiring new skills: he’s merely performing feats of the sort we already know he can perform: there are no surprises—instead, there’s an affirmation of the traits we already attribute to Bond: awesomeness in physical combat; cleverness in improvisation; coolheaded aloofness; and a propensity to collect the women who fall, swooningly, into his arms.  It’s great.  And we’d feel betrayed if he actually had to pick up new ideas and master new things: the whole point of him, like the whole point of, say, Zeus, is that he’s already the perfect master of what he does and who he is.  We’d also feel very strange if he was in any significant way haunted by a past he needs to overcome, unable to allow himself the pleasures of Pussy Galore because of some hang-ups about Honey Rider.  The film Bond does not carry any real wounds from one film to another, physical or psychological.  With only very minor exceptions, he’s an episodic figure, the film Bond, not a cumulative one: more at home in a cycle of mythological tales than in the cohesive, ends-oriented narrative of a novel.

It is significant, I think, that the James Bond familiar to readers of Ian Fleming’s novels is much more like a classic novelistic hero than is the mythological Bond of the films.  Judith Roof, the sharpest writer on Bond to have trod this earth, puts it succinctly.  In the novels, she says, “Ian Fleming’s Bond character does evolve; he reacts, learns, carries with him the lessons of his own traumatic history.  The Dr. No Bond remembers painfully Diamonds Are Forever’s Tiffany Case.  Bond’s body and mind become increasingly scarred…. The literary character James Bond, however, is not coterminous with the cultural Bond figure…” In contrast, we have the cinematic Bond, whom Roof describes as “a creature of almost pathological consistency.”  Unlike in the novels, the Bond of film “appears as if it [Roof uses “it” rather than “he,” to emphasize the semiotic nature of the Bond figure] always knew everything — as if it was spawned with skills intact and little memory of past tortures which have no cumulative effect on him.”  Spawned with skills intact and little memory—one could say this of Aphrodite as easily as of the cinematic Bond.

But we can’t really make this kind of statement about the Bond of Skyfall, the film that marks the fiftieth anniversary of Bond as a cinematic phenomenon.  As Bond himself puts it early in the movie, the character is all about resurrection. 

Skyfall’s beginning sequence already gives us something different from the typical Bond opening.  Where we’re used to seeing a kind of set-piece or overture in which Bond’s immutable awesomeness is, once again, made plain, this time we see Bond falter and, more significantly, die.  His fellow agent (we later learn she’s Moneypenny) is ordered to shoot at Bond’s opponent even as he wrestles with Bond on top of a moving train.  She hesitates, saying she has no good shot, but on orders from M, who feels there is too much at stake to risk not shooting, she fires, hitting Bond and knocking him off the train.  He falls a great distance into a river, is washed down a waterfall, and disappears.  He fails for to reappear, and back in England, he is assumed dead, his obituary written, his flat and belongings sold off.  When we see him again, we’re not told how he survived—and this is significant, because in some sense he did not survive, he was resurrected.

Much in the film makes Bond out to be human and frail, in ways alien to the Bond of cinematic tradition.  We see Bond accumulate new scars that do not heal; we see him fail his tests in marksmanship, physical fitness, and psychological readiness for duty; we hear of the early death of his parents, and of unspecified, unresolved psychological wounds stemming from that loss.  We often see him from behind as he stands in a posture much like that of Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer Among the Clouds: a figure part defiance, part inwardness, and part vulnerability, not the clear-eyed, swaggering man Sean Connery played.

It’s not only a humanized Bond we see in Skyfall: it’s quite explicitly a Christ figure.  Not only does he die and rise: one of the main themes of Skyfall is Bond’s ability to love and forgive those who have sinned against him.  There’s a foil to Bond in Skyfall, a villain named Silva.  Silva, like Bond, was sacrificed by M in the name of a greater goal for the agency, and he lives to wreak vengeance on her.  His elaborate scheme involves making M feel afraid, and repeatedly urging her to “think on her sins,” including, of course, the sin of sacrificing him.  Silva refers to M as “mother,” and there’s a parent-hate here a little like that of Milton’s Satan, and a lot like that of Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein.  But the main thing is his refusal to forgive the woman he clearly loved as a mother.  Bond has a similar relationship to M: deep affection, even love, and anger at having been betrayed and sacrificed for a mission.  But unlike Silva, Bond forgives those who have sinned against him, and is ready to sacrifice himself again to save them.  When M finally does die, the Christ parallels are underlined by the posture in which Bond holds her: it is a reversed Pietà, with Bond in the Mary position and M in the position of the agony-wracked, dead Christ.  He embodies pity and love and compassion for someone who, in her human frailty and uncertainty, ordered violence against him.

The name of the film refers to the Bond family estate, the scene of the trauma to which he returns (it was where Bond’s parents were murdered).  But it’s also a symbolic name, since the Bond that we see in Skyfall is a Bond taken from the realm of the gods and brought down into the human world, with human frailties.  He is now, for the first time in the history of Bond film, not a god per se but a god made flesh, and vulnerable, and capable of loving and forgiving those who caused him pain.  No longer a Greek God, and certainly not a bearded father-God from the old testament tradition, this Bond is a Christ.  And he may just resurrect the franchise.