Monday, February 4, 2013

Bonding with Bats: Part Two

I may have given the bulk of the Bond films short thrift in the last post. Don't get me wrong. They're mostly good fun, and I love them with all my heart. I recently bought the Bond 50 Blu-ray box set of all of them and am currently in the process of watching them all in chronological order with a friend who had previously never seen one in full. We're now fifteen films in (plus Skyfall, which we watched out of sequence) and he likes them, much to my surprise (his favorite being On Her Majesty's Secret Service, natch). I enjoy watching the Bond series in this manner (I did the same thing 5 years ago) and would love to rewatch them all in order again every 5 or so years. Even the real shitty ones.


Shitty one.

Wait, Nick, you mean you're going to watch this another 8-10 times before you die?

One of the things I love about the Bond films is their highly collaborative nature. Coming from film school, where the auteur theory is still very much alive (at least in theory classes; production, not so much) this was a refreshing idea when I revisited these films (not that I necessarily disagree with the auteur theory). Aside from the actors and actresses who play Bond and his assorted cast of characters, creative producers like Broccoli and Saltzman hired directors with their aesthetics and tendencies, such as Terence Young and Guy Hamilton, to shoot screenplays from the likes of Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Roald Dahl. Likewise, cinematographers like Ted Moore, Freddie Young, Michael Reed,  work together with visionary production designers Ken Adam and Peter Lamont to get a unique Bond look and feel. The whole thing was put together and given the trademark Bond rhythm (at least initially) by ace editor Peter Hunt (who also directed OHMSS). And what would a Bond film be without an artpop opening credit sequence designed by Maurice Binder or Robert Brownjohn, anchored by a brassy, bombastic theme song, with the whole film being buoyed by the genius work of Mr. John Barry?

And this is not even mentioning all the great visual effects, sound effects and other craftsmen who worked to make these films a separate entity from Ian Fleming's original literary world. Eon Productions was and is an independently owned family business (today it is controlled by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, Albert R.'s daughter and stepson, respectively) and never had to answer to studio heads, thereby creating an autonomous bubble in the landscape of Hollywood blockbusters that has proven financially successful for more than half a century. It's a unique model that yields unique product to cineculture, even though, as I described in my previous entry, imitators were a dime a dozen, including this guy:

Filipinos were all over that Bond stuff, apparently. Weng Weng made a sequel, but years before, in 1966 there was even a combo parody movie which basically did all the things I described in last week's article, James Batman (I would have included the link in Part One, but just now discovered this. I was even going to title the series "James Batman," but thought it too uncleverly on-the-nose). However, by the 1980s, For Your Height Only and its ilk were the exception, not the rule. Time had largely passed Bond by and it had been at least a decade since he was the trendsetter and not the old man lagging behind. While the early Bond created a new subgenre and a whole cottage industry of related movies, shows, music, novels, comics and other ancillary merchandise, the 70s found an older, squarer Bond struggling to keep up. Roger Moore, who began screen acting in the 1940s (!) was four years older in his first Bond foray, Live and Let Die, than Connery was in his last two years earlier (last, at least until Never Say Never Again).

Starting with Live and Let Die we see Bond try to find relevance by melding with the blaxploitation genre, then a year later, with the Chinese and Thai setting of Man With the Golden Gun, along with its titular villain's mirror fun house, we have a conscious aping of the Kung Fu film, specifically Enter the Dragon. Then, seeming as if no one cared anymore, the series took a three-year break, one of the two founding producers, Harry Saltzman, left the franchise, and it came back in full force with The Spy Who Loved Me. Departing 1001% from the source novel, the film took a nautical motif and created a metal-mouthed henchman named after the 1975 blockbuster it sought to exploit: Jaws. Despite these obvious cash-innable superficialities, TSWLM is very much a Bond film in the classic YOLT mold (no surprise, given they were both directed by Alfie-helmer Lewis Gilbert): A plot to turn the world's superpowers against each other through its nuclear-powered military apparati, a globe-trotting adventure yarn, an egomaniacal villain, a nigh-invulnerable boogie man, in the form of Jaws, and of course a deadly frenemy in the form of Mrs. Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach as Soviet Agent XXX (they're hardly trying with the names anymore).

The now-lone producer, Albert R. Broccoli and his creative team finally found a the right mode for Roger Moore's non-Bond. Rather than being a bruiser as Connery and Lazenby were (and Dalton and Craig would later be), he is an action figure. Put him in a costume, give him goofy gadgets, over-the-top scenarios, one-liners that your widower grandpa would use on the waitress at a brunch buffet (On being discovered during post-mission coitus: Minister of Defence: “Bond! What do you think you're doing?” Bond: “Keeping the British end up, sir.”) and a plot that is secondary to getting him from one set-piece to the next (a criticism people love to level at these kinds of films, but which, when done right –and this will be the topic of a future post -- is like human catnip for me, or whatever the human version of cat-coke is).

I mean, you know Madonna's in Die Another Day, right??

XXX is the perfect love interest for 70s Bond, matching his haute couture one-upsmanship and Benny Hill one-liners point for point (she even manages to make Roger Moore roll his eyes with a “shaken, not stirred” pun), much in the way Tracy's resourcefulness and physicality in OHMSS was the perfect compliment for 60s Bond's classy brutishness, cluing you in that the producers and writers finally got hip to their own unhipness.This should have been Bond's triumphant return, but 1977 box office, as any film geek knows, was ruled by one film. In fact, SWLM was on the top ten of that year (beating Annie Hall for the bottom spot), but looking at numbers it made a tenth of Star Wars $460 million take (All box office figures and chart positions taken from and wikipedia). I know what you're thinking: a tenth of Star Wars business is still pretty good bank. Not bad, except that the #4 film, Smokey and the Bandit, still beat out Bond by about three-fold. Ironic, given that Smokey and the Bandit's wanton auto destruction was prefigured by Bond's own tobacco-spitting Sheriff JW Pepper.

What was a secret agent to do in the wake of such a cultural phenomenon?

This artist rendering was made shortly before Commander Bond's head was tragically facehugged by an alien symbiote. May he rest in peace.

Thank God, thank the Lord, thank the All-Mighty in the laser-battleground heavens that Ian Fleming had a novel with the right title, if not the right story (like The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice, the similarities to the book end almost before you get to the chapter index).

What Moonraker lacked in verisimilitude (Jaws becomes a good guy and survives a 1000 mile plunge to Earth in an open escape pod), it made up for in box office dollars. It topped the 1979 box office to become one of the most successful Bond films of all time. But it was space the kiddies were interested in, not necessarily Bond, as Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture were also in the top 5 that year.
For Your Eyes Only, 007's next outing, saw another return to Earth in a literal grounding of the character. From aquatic setting, to space romp, to Alpine adventure, Bond found a mirror in these three films to the earlier trilogy of Thunderball, YOLT and OHMSS.

Wait, why are you still talking about Die Another Day? Must you watch it? I mean, you make the rules, Nick. You could skip it next Bondathon. Or maybe you could do like a suicide pact or something?

Indeed, if the series were to go on steadily for the next millenium and each type of Bond film were translated to a musical note (water=C, space=E, Goldfinger ripoff=A, harder edged reboot=Fsharp, etc.), we'd have a Phillip Glass composition.

Diamonds Are Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever ForeverForever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever........

So, now we have the 80s. While the latter half of the 70s box office was dominated by high concept sci-fi/fantasy adventure films, the 80s is certainly now defined by buddy cop movies, muscle-bound supermen with BFGs and Popples.

Just waiting for a reboot where we see the alien planet they hailed from eons ago, but which they had to leave behind because of an intergalactic war that wiped out most of their race until they found they could hide quietly from their enemies on Earth as unassuming cuddly petslaves

But, hey! Where's the Bond stuff? Where's the class, the gimmicky badguys, the Bondgirls, the gadgets? Sure, there's Never Say Never Again, the unofficial Bond remake of Thunderball starring Sean Connery as James Bond 007, complete with Q, M and even Max von Sydow as Blofeld (I can't get into it all here. For the controversy surrounding this film, Connery's return, Thunderball and any possible subsequent Thunderball remakes, Google it), but this is an outlier. You also get a little of the Bond formula with Raiders of the Lost Ark and subsequent Indiana Jones films (Spielberg self-consciously went to work on these when Broccoli refused his offer to direct a Bond film and even got Connery for Indie's dad in the third installment), but all in all, the 80s action heroes are macho guys who prefer a gentleman's company (any buddy cop formula film), an estranged wife (John McClane), or a Frank Castle-like total rejection of romance (most characters Sly and Schwarzenegger played. These films are also mostly devoid of exotic locales (the wilderness of Predator and First Blood are more antagonistic forces than postcard pictures), gadgets, fun cars and the swingin', carefree lifestyle. Perhaps more realistically than any Bond film, the 80s movies show the true nature of a government-bred killing machine. John Rambo was more apt to drink to a six-pack if he had downtime, rather than Tait Bollinger. Nevertheless, Bond plugged away at a steady clip, saving the world every other year, on average, as he'd done for more than a decade. Octopussy did so-so business, with A View to a Kill barely doing any box office. No wonder – Roger Moore was at the time pushing 60 and we were to believe he had a chance against Grace Jones and proved a viable male suitor to Tanya Roberts.

Roger Moore, on loan from the Museum of Natural History

With the next two installments we got a younger, more serious, more ass-kicking Bond in Timothy Dalton. He took the character back to Fleming's original conception, and this may have made him awkward at delivering one-liners (which are an invention of the films), this made him great for just barely hanging onto fast-moving vehicles.

By the way, that's Dalton doing most of his own stunts. Maybe not Peter Parkering out the back of an airplane, but most of the car stuff is legit. No one cared though. It finished #19 at the box office in 1987 and the underrated License to Kill, Dalton's unfortunate swan song in the role two years later, just barely made the top 40. It's easy to see why they took a six-year hiatus and sat out the first half of the 90s.

Damn, that's right, you need more than one person for a suicide pact

This is where it gets interesting. 1989 was a banner year for blockbusters, including such hits as Back to the Future Part II, Ghostbusters II, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Lethal Weapon 2 and of course, the biggest of the head honchos of that year...


Of course I'm talking about Batman, which set the box office on fire and, similar to Star Wars twelve years earlier, changed the game of the summer blockbuster.  (I freakin' love UHF, so don't take this the wrong way, Weird Al.)

So, what does Batman have that Die Hard and Rambo don't have?
A swinging, high-living bachelor good guy? Check
Colorful villain? Check
Eccentric henchmen? Check
A Sharper Image catalogue's worth of gadgets? Check
A weapon-laden set of wheels? Check
An old guy British quartermaster? Check
A sexy love interest? Check
A hummable, iconic theme tune? Check
Pop soundtrack done by the Shirley Bassey of the 80s*? Check

All getting a bit familiar, I say it is.

Answer: Q Branch

As Bond was fading, Batman was just coming into his own, cinematically speaking, and while fans didn't quite buy a darker version of a superspy, for some reason they liked the same thing if it was wearing a mask. License to Kill was the first James Bond movie I saw in a theater, and therefore Timothy Dalton was my first Bond. As a kid I thought my parents's accountant bore a resemblance to him, so I gave him the nickname “James Bond,” which no one ever quite got (if he didn't look like Connery or Moore he couldn't have been James Bond, of course), but regardless, it has stuck to this day. During tax season it's not uncommon for me to hear a message starting with “Nick, this is double-O Seven,” which, even as an adult is pretty cool. However, with such a young introduction, to the character, my opinion on him was just forming when he decided to take a long break.

I may be unique in my generation, as many of my peers didn't see a Bond film until 1995's Goldeneye. In the interim I kept myself sated with Bondathons on TNT, as well as a box set of Connery's first three movies (I barely mentioned Goldfinger in this and the last post, so let me just stress how awesome this movie is, along with most of Connery's 007 output). It was the first time in more than a quarter century when you didn't have a new Bond adventure coming just around the corner. No Bond for six years, and the three or so movies before that wrap, audiences didn't flock to see. What did little kiddies have in all that time? Batman, of course. What third-grader needed a secret agent when they had a Bat-caped ass-kicker who flew around in his own private Batplane and beat up breakdancers and circus performers?

A more perfect union

*Claims of Prince as the Dame Shirley Bassey of the 80s have not been evaluated by a third party.

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