Skyfall (Mendes, 2012)

Let the sky fall

The Bond title sequence is always a pop culture stunt in the best sense of the term. The selection of musician generally targets those already well-embedded in our aural memory. Then flat, avant-garde images of violence and sex in equal measure are dribbled over these familiar voices and/or orchestrations. Guns, bullets, and knives. Target images dissolving into the contortions and angles of sex as a relief from it all. At some point they become indistinguishable. They are ornate scandals. In pre-MTV cases, they presage the culture of one-upmanship that now characterizes music videography. As with Skyfall, Bond doesn’t appear at the end of these title sequences as much as he emerges from them.

When it crumbles

Bond films were constant family movie night fodder in my childhood, which struck me as odd even at a young age. It was somehow okay that Connery and Moore were able to smirk their way through things I wasn’t even allowed to talk about. But my continued interest in both the Fleming and Connery/Moore/Craig Bonds transcends the simple “love the sinner, hate the sin” canard. I appreciate Craig’s Bond as a rediscovery of the sort of figure that resists our ability to compartmentalize his womanizing, sense of duty, and defensive charm. What made Jack Bauer so morally palatable throughout 24 is that while he was willing to snap phalanges for information, he was no philanderer. He was a man of principle.

We will stand tall

Well, Fleming saw through this approach to the whole geo-political thriller business. Or, at least, he capitalized on it. When Bond actors and scripts fail to transmit the character as an affront to our moral sensitivities, they don’t work. Hence the farcical feel of the Brosnan cycle, during which Brosnan played the role paper thin in some spots and melodramatic in others. In this respect, Craig’s Bond has the proper clockwork feel of Fleming’s character – whose inner monologue was overly-determined by sex, booze, and the occasional action sequence.

Skyfall pushes harder on these biographical details that make Bond tick. The opening hook has Bond returning to MI-6 off his game and having to relearn some of the skills that licensed him to kill.  It is a bit hard for us to compute this struggling version of Bond who is hardly recognizable next to Brosnan’s smirky arrogance. What follows is a decent spy-puzzler that puts this broken Bond through all the usual paces. (Though Mendes’ genre acumen and Deakins being Deakins elevates all the Bond tropes here to the level of fine art.)  

The narrative starts to get traction when Bond meets Sévérine, who becomes his link to the film’s lead villain (Silva). Her unfortunately short character arc has been widely criticized. Even though he knows that she has basically spent her life enslaved and abused by men, Bond accosts her later in the shower. Shortly after, Sévérine is cruelly murdered in a test of marksmanship arranged by Silva. Bond’s immediate response to the execution is that the shot of scotch shattered during the contest was a “waste.” This has rightfully struck many as the worst sort sexism, but simply pointing out this massive character deficiency is not very helpful. Craig actually handles the scene in a very subtle way, the Moore-like smugness of his response delivered as the kind of line Bond is supposed to say even though we get the sense that Craig winces as he has to say it. And we wince, or at least we should.

This collective “wince” embodies the turn we are seeing in the Bond franchise, which is attempting to overwrite previous attempts to translate Fleming’s books to the screen. This franchise appears to think that the path to a Bond relevant for our times is through the emotionally complex Bond – whose story arc is an unhealthy balance between his hyperactive id and outsized sense of duty for queen and country.

I think this in part derives from the difference between the media culture of the Connery\Moore Bonds and ours. Craig’s is a Bond for what Vattimo described as our “transparent society” – which is the description of a society in which mass media and increased access to information makes society more chaotic and opaque than enlightened and just. In such a context, this self-aware, morally problematic Bond makes much more sense than the Bond who glosses over his issues with a wink, a smirk, and a bullet.

And if the one constant among the Bonds is the overall effect of the title sequences, we are now able to understand them as prophetic little scandals just waiting for the right Bond – which is Craig.