Skyfall Sam Mendes (2012 UK) Daniel Craig; Judy Dench Javier Bardem Viewed: Empire Cinema Newcastle Ticket £3.60
Post modernist conceit – in a good way
OK it is James Bond, but rather than Ian Fleming it is Orson Welles who lurks in the shadows of Skyfall (SF), a film that pays its dues to cinema rather than literature.
Welles’ filmic genius penetrates the movie at all levels including its actual title. The coy revelation of the source of the film’s title, the name Skyfall, carved onto the gatepost of James Bond’s ancestral Scots home in the last action sequence, is reminiscent of the Welle’s equally restrained disclosure of the source of ‘Rosebud’ in Kane. Operating at different levels both reveals serve as pointers to a mysterious past that is about to be consumed in flames and vanish forever. Names without a trace….
The Shanghai fight sequence in SF that is shot exploiting the refracted images created and multiplied by the glass surfaces within and without the structures of Shanghai’s light blazoned skyscrapers, instantly calls to mind the shoot out sequence in Welles’ Lady from Shanghai. In lady from Shanghai Welles and Rita Hayworth engage in a lethal gun fight in a Hall of Mirrors. Like the earlier Welles sequence, SF’s exploitation of a world generated by the interplay of replicated images creates a destabilisation of identity, a confusion of action and an intensifying of effect.
Lastly the sequences in the London Underground call up Welles’ most famous screen role as the Third Man, the master of Vienna’s underground sewer system. Javier Bardems intimacy with the subterranean and its many doors, recall Welles ample elfin movements in a similar environment.
As an action movie the scenario of SF has to facilitate the film’s movement from one set piece situation to another. In SF the 6 set pieces, as in almost any action film are realised very well. In many action movies the ideas driving the scenario are simplistically contrived oppositions childishly conceived and lacking developmental stamina, these action films simply run out of road. But holding SF together as it shifts through action are a number of loosely knit understated psychic strands that locate what we see and situate the script in a world characterised by some sort of meta meaning.
I am not referring to the incest motif linking M and Silva. In itself this dynamic works OK as a plot exciter, but it’s crude device and retreads familiar motivational passageways in many movies. The key feature of the script’s play on the incest idea, is that it does not work alone as an isolated gimmick; rather it is part of the film’s incalling of allegorical motifs that drive its narrative between the action scenes and sustain audiences’ engrossment in outcome.
A film franchise that counts 50 years of existence can only do so by constant reinvention of itself in terms of the signifiers it deploys and the significations to which it points.
James Bond started filmic life (Dr No) as a lifestyle agent whose persona was attached to a series of desirable consumer products. Aspirational signifiers were carefully inculcated into Bond’s Scots Britishness. SF has moved away completely from this. Unlike some contemporary US products of the action genre which seem little more than advertising billboards for the products of corporate USA, Bond and Skyfall avoid product placement. (symbolically perhaps we see the famous Aston Marin destroyed) The place that Bond is occupies now is very different world from the world of Fleming where he started,. The product consuming British agent has elided first into a superhero charged with saving the world, and now, in Skyfall has again moved on to something quite different. In Skyfall JB has morphed into a spirit entity, a phantom being from the Land of the Dead. We can see this most directly in Bond’s face: at this stage of his incarnation as JB, Daniel Craig has very very old looking eyes: there is no doubt that he is an old soul. As indeed is Judy Dench (Admittedly she is old, but…Central Casting could have fixed that had they wanted.)
Not in its scripted dialogue but in its filmic realisation, SF has something of the patina of a Gothic horror movie, perhaps an undead/zombie sort of horror movie (in a good way). The the locations and the settings all suggest that the action is taking place in a world that is not of the living. The first pre-title action sequence takes place in daylight mostly, except for the tunnels, but thereafter the film mostly moves into night or places abandoned by the living or subterranean locations, the haunts of the undead. A Gothic sensibility pervades the mis en scene. This is not only a fashionable make over, but gives the internal movement of the film coherence and an integrity of logic. The new displaced MI6 HQ, is an old vaulted castle with JB, like Dracula about to be sent forth into the world of daylight; the Shanghai sequence a phastasorama of ghostly apparitions; Silva’s city of the dead; the London underground with its denizens of commuter zombies and the final stand-off at the haunted mansion which ends in flames and destruction. (A nod to Mandalay in Hitchcock’s Rebecca) SF is caste in Gothic form, located in Gothic space with a hero from the shadows of an ancient vanished civilisation that exists only in myth and the old stories.
Britain and Bond have shifted and gone through a time warp in SF. The forces in play have changed. At the start of the 50 year journey (Dr No) JB and GB were both part of an actual world, engaging with specific forces that could be located in that world. In SF, neither are part of the actual world: they are both relegated to the lower nether regions and can only act as phantoms involved in the psychodrama of their own internecine struggles. But their confidence in themselves is retained. Their maintained self belief, although ridiculous, is unaffected by their change of status from living to dead.
In SF JB is transposed to Gothic underworld as an agent of the dead charged with being the elemental psychic link between the mother son’s incestual cathexis.
Whilst signifying content and signification may have changed, a key element of franchise has not altered: the style of the actors’ engagement with content. The persona James Bond has always been a detached entity denotating and affecting a wry amusement both at self and at the world: even a world that is falling to pieces. The Bond franchise has stayed true to its distancing of itself from itself.
This detachment, the ability of the Bond movies to keep values and outcomes in this perspective is one reason for its longevity. The Bond films never engage with fear as a state of mind. In this they contrast with US franchise vehicles such as Batman which with their committed stance in relation to specifically American values, build their films about arousing fear as a state of mind in relation to the threats perceived in the world of these values being ATTACKED. The value attached to these values is so great that any sacrifice, even the DESTRUCTION of the whole world is preferred to the loss of these values that they hold so dear. This inclination gives US superhero films a bias towards apocalyptic endings, as in the 2012 Batman vehicle where the whole of New York is destroyed but the value of freedom is upheld and maintained. The question arises as to whether the repetition of such committed apocalypse scenarios can maintain the Batman franchise as long as he detached Bond model. Or perhaps the outings of the Batman series will have to be constrictively rationed. adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org