November 28, 2008
Bond Upon the Brain!
It's funny, you know--I finally got around to seeing (or, maybe, worked up the courage to see) Synecdoche, New York and, to be expected, it just kicked my ass all over the place. The typical rounds of self-doubt and serious introspection followed, but in the end I'm still thinking about James Bond.
Of course, it probably doesn't help my state of mind that 1967's five-director pile-up Casino Royale should be the first film I see after Synecdoche, New York. How's this for a mindfuck: seven characters carrying the title of James Bond, 007; Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd; Orson Welles playing Le Chiffre as a jolly magician; the testicle torture replaced with a face-eating acid trip co-starring Peter O'Toole; and Woody Allen. The most I can take from this two-hour-long non sequitur is that the denizens of Swinging London already knew how fucked up they were and, moreover, didn't care. How about putting Casino Royale on a double bill with Blowup? If anything, they're self-aware enough to prove that the era didn't need a dick-filled haranguing from Austin Powers. (Even when he was relevant, was Mike Myers ever relevant?) In fact, let's just go nuts and stick Synecdoche at the end of that and make a triple bill about the follies of unfiltered creativity. Now there's an interesting haranguing, considering the ineffable passage of time in Kaufman's opus is roughly analogous to the time that has already passed since 1967. All three of these films share love-hate relationships with beautiful women that go unrealized until it's too late--and how can you not link Caden Cotard to Thomas' eternally-distracted quest to find the body that may have never existed?
For all of its proselytizing bullshit and seizure-inducing action sequences, I liked Quantum of Solace--liked what it was saying about the responsibility to protect the masses, placed in direct opposition with the desire to simply kill the people who cause trouble. But beyond that, I fell in love with the spectacle that surrounded it: I loved the title, I loved the poster, and although "Another Way to Die" was pretty horrible, I've watched the title sequence on YouTube a few more times than I'd care to admit--if only to hear those first few notes, which really did represent the throwback at which the filmmakers were grasping before it all went south. From the moment I saw Quantum's ludicrous single-letter lapel pins, I fucking wanted one. I'm not immune to the iconography, and frankly, I don't want to be. I just don't want to be shackled to it--I was genuinely surprised that Quantum of Solace's olive branch to the die-hards wasn't enough to please many of them. Why is the gun barrel sequence at the end of the movie? Why is it so fast? The reasons are obvious, but the infallible tradition outweighs such revelations. Needless to say, I'm worried about Bond 23.
But who am I, and what are my intentions? I should probably mention at this point that it was Bond who lured me into cinema. I can still remember the first time I saw Pierce Brosnan walk through the gun barrel sequence on the big screen, after about a hundred iterations passed through my VCR: the moment, I think, when I realized how different the movies were from any other form of entertainment. I knew that the movies were larger than life from the moment I first laid eyes on them, but it wasn't until that little white orb shot across the theater that I understood that fact. For all of my intellectual desire to see popular culture turned on its ear, how often do I strive to relive that moment of clarity through safe, familiar images? More than ten years later, on top of all the ideas that it forced me to confront about my life and the people in it, Synecdoche, New York reminded me that I still have a lot of preconceived notions about how art should intertwine with my life. So Casino Royale '67 brings up an interesting thought: is it really such a weird, obtuse film, or am I merely put off by a property that would dare take something so famously formulized and mold it into something that is, indeed, entirely without formula or even the most rudimentary sense of logic?
So with all of that in mind, I took the opportunity to revisit another icon of my early cinematic education: "Mystery Science Theater 3000"--or, at least, its modern incarnation, RiffTrax; more specifically, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy's take on Casino Royale '06. I've been somewhat back and forth on how I feel about this brand of entertainment as an adult, but after sitting down and listening to this track (and a few episodes of the old show, for good measure), I wasn't outright offended by the very fact of it. It's just that these guys are... not really all that funny.
I mean, I have no qualms about ripping on A View to a Kill, as my college chums and I did on many-a drunken night. We all loved Bond movies, but from the moment Roger Moore lets loose with his first protracted moan of impending pain--out of, like, five--you're through taking the movie seriously. (Unsurprisingly, we rarely bothered to finish the film.) And forget the fact that they're turning their cannons toward a great film--I'm even on board to make fun of Casino Royale, considering that you should be willing to skewer your own sacred cows every now and then to keep your sensibilities in check. But there's something fundamentally wrong about being spoonfed by such a secondhand source, isn't there? Doubtful that I would have the same cinematic curiosity if it hadn't been for "Mystery Science Theater 3000"--which in all likelihood served as my introduction to Japanese cinema and, yep, the mod '60s, too. I laughed at the awful jokes thrown out by the hosts because it's all I knew. But there comes a point when you've seen enough movies on your own and you have to know more. Context, personal boundaries. "MST3K" and RiffTrax are indiscriminate and oppressive in their simpleminded snark: there's no real feeling of camaraderie between Murphy and Nelson, who are so carefully scripted as to make the exercise moot. They're not funny, and they're not defiant. They simply are.
Sure, I'll find it superficially impressive that you can find appropriate moments to name-check both François Mitterrand and Heike Kagero from SNES classic "Super Punch-Out!!"--but the people who would get those references should be too old for this shit anyway. Who, exactly, are you trying to please by simultaneously decrying Casino Royale as being too silly while berating it for not kowtowing to each convention of the Bond series? There's something a little pathetic about trying to please everyone at all times, and it's ridiculous to try and pretend that it still has merit when you're ten years out of the gate. Genuine subversion is a lot easier to swallow when you realize that art isn't about everything that you want. I like to think that I'm learning that. At any rate, I still love James Bond, and I'll always get a little quake from the gun barrel sequence--but I'm not thinking about it when Sean Connery retrieves his money clip from a mad assassin with infinite disdain; when Roger Moore empties his Walther into a defeated billionaire's midsection; when Daniel Craig cradles a betrayed friend in his arms before tossing him in a dumpster. It's an introduction into this world of cinema, not its alpha and omega, and I've already had my turn--so who am I to cling to it like a jealous ex?
Posted by Ian Pugh at 1:43 AM