Dog's Dinner

"You're not loved because you're lovable, you're lovable 'cause you're loved."

Saturday, November 13, 2004

His Needs Are More... So He Gives Less

They showed Moonraker on TV last night. They were showing COMA, a thriller with one of Michael Douglas' earliest leading roles, on TCM (I no longer have cable, having decided it wasn't worth it, but apparently I'm now getting a free promotional month of TCM / Cartoon Network), a film I've never seen and which looked good, but I decided if I'm going to watch an Anglo/American film with a Polish "Lektor" (a man who reads a translation over the original dialogue, which is somewhat audible in the background), it might as well be something I've seen twice already and have no notion of taking at all seriously. Plus with Bond films it's always interesting to see how they translate the sexual innuendos, though I don't remember anything interesting in that line this time. (In any case Polish, compared with French or Russian, has a refreshingly large number of idioms in common with English.)

The annoying thing, of course, about the Lektor, besides the monotony of one person reading all the parts, is that when you hear the English dialogue you don't catch all of it but the attention you expend on it detracts from your appreciation of the translation. You get lost in a sort of No Man's Land. I would almost say that full-on dubbing, which has been gaining popularity in Russia (and is the default option in western Europe, and was apparently accepted by American audiences until the mid-80s), is better: at least there you have a crew (not a cast) of different voices doing their damnednest to capture the soul of the thing. But either method of dubbing tends to cut off my involvement with the film. There's something about voices. Fortunately, in Poland most foreign films on DVD or in theatres are subtitled, except cartoons (where dubbing makes sense to me). It's only on TV, or video, that you have to fear the tentacles of the Lektor.

The conventional wisdom is that Sean Connery was the best James Bond, and it is true that the "cat-like, animal" energy which Truffaut noticed in him in Hitchcock's Marnie differentiates him strongly from pretty-boy dandy and smoothie Roger Moore. I remember reading once in the libertarian magazine "Reason" how "Sean Connery is the only man who could ever play James Bond, for the simple reason that only he conveys the impression that he would readily strangle a pussycat were it necessary for the security of the British Empire." There definitely seems to be something about the young Connery that conjures up some kind of connection with things feline. But there is nothing feminine (or shall we say "feminine?") about him, while with Moore there most certainly is. The scene in Octopussy where Moore puts on clown makeup, and the scenes in several films where he is put through extreme physical torment (in Moonraker he gets whirled around in some kind of thingumabob and almost dies, and you really feel bad for him), demonstrate the point adequately I think.

My best friend in high school, a brilliant artist and musician by the name of Charlie Habanananda, once explained to me, in tenth grade, why Moore was doomed from the start: "He got crowded out by the special effects, so he had to treat the whole thing as a joke." At the time, this made sense, and for a long time since I had come to regard Moore as a tragic figure of extraordinary pathos. In fact, however, the special effects of the Moore-era films seem no more impressive, and only slightly more prominent, than in the Connery ones (I've seen something that claims that more money was spent on Moonraker than on the previous six Bond films, but watching it in 2004, or in 1992, you would find that hard to believe).

Speaking of special effects, there seems to be a convention of computer geeks taking place in the lounge of this internet cafe, where a demonstration of some new marvel of the cyber age is taking place, and the noise they are making is hindering my thought processes to the point where I must pause.

Furthermore, an excellent essay I read a few years ago in an anthology ("On the Screens of the World") of mid-1960s Russian film criticism-- supposed to be a review of "Goldfinger" but really an "Essay on Man" for the late twentieth century-- shows that even then, the dangers of the cinematic military-industrial complex that everyone associates with Star Wars were very clear from the early, "classic" Bond films. (Rest assured that the essay itself is not a piece of Soviet agitprop but bases its attack on aesthetic and cultural values; there really was a Krushchev "Thaw"-- in fact it produced some of the best films (and folk music) of the twentieth century. If you compare the essay-- (unfortunately I've been unable to find the title or author online)-- with Roland Barthes' structuralist essay on Bond from the same era, Barthes' analysis is by far the more simplistic.) The jokey cynicism, the video-game violence, the mindless gadgetry, the general sense of whoredom and nihilism were very much there to begin with. And the whole thing was, if nothing else, an orgy of money from the beginning, though nothing can compare with having to sit through an actual advertisement for Gillette razors in Dolby Stereo while waiting for Pierce Brosnan (by far the best Bond, in my opinion, since something about him reminds me of James Mason) to appear. Not to mention the horrible Smirnoff tie-ins, etc. etc. (The North Korean sequence in Die Another Day is, however, the best opening sequence in any Bond film, and the titles sequence with Bond being tortured with the traditional dancing girls juxtaposed over him is also up there. After he shaves his late-Mason-state-of-desiccation beard, nothing in the film is worthwhile except the surprising sword fight halfway through. Nothing restored my faith in post/modern cinema more than the fact that they put the fight in the middle rather than at the end.)

Personally, I find long chunks of the Connery films to be indigestible (have never yet sat or stayed awake through the entirety of Dr. No despite numerous attempts, though I will admit the opening sequence-- not an action sequence as in later Bonds-- is delightful), just as I find the endless battle at the end of the first Star Wars (A New Hope) insufferable and the space battle at the end of Moonraker as well. But when people compare Connery and Moore, I have to just say that a) it's the old apples and oranges dilemma and b) if anything, Moore's performance is truer to the spirit of bourgeois "Pure Fantasy" (usually sexist, and often racist) which the cycle inherited from Fleming, more "organic" than Connery's, you might say, though Connery is the more "organic" actor outside the cycle.

Connery is whiskey. Moore is champagne. Connery is steak. Moore is caviar paste (taramosalata I think the Greeks call it). Moore is Rossini, Connery: Respighi. Moore could not convincingly strangle a pussycat for England (or Western Civ., humanity or whatever), nor could he, convincingly or un, commit marital rape and emerge as what is taken for a "[basically] positive hero" as Connery does in Marnie. (The director being Hitchcock, the girl being "frigid", and the year being 1964. He (Connery/"Mark") then acts as therapist and finally "cures" her, somewhat, of a neurosis brought on by childhood trauma.) Moore would never have been cast in such a role (in fact Olivier was supposed to be cast as Mark, according to Hitchcock; I learned today that he also turned down the role of Humbert in Kubrick's Lolita).

He Looks at the World and Wants It All
And while both Moore's Bond and Connery's take the trappings of Bond life-- the martinis, the pate de foie gras, the Aston-Martin, Q's gadgets, and yes, lest we forget, the girls-- for granted, only Moore's, to my view, has a glint in his eye that suggests he actually enjoys them. Which makes me identify with him more. Makes me want to drink a beer with him more, to use one of the supposedly pivotal talking points of the recent presidential election. Plus if we agree that the whole enterprise is in some way inherently an exercise in infantile, often Oedipal wish-fulfillment-- constant alternation between danger and pleasure (no boredom-- no reality), with a happy ending in the arms of the beloved (often the ex of the dastardly villain, and who invariably gives James some admonishment, sounding almost like a loving, doting mother, in the final moments), then Connery's macho sturdiness is somehow incongruous. Connery, in real life of working-class background, in his Bond persona somehow touches on the essence of upper class taste as defined by Paul Fussell in the book Class: simple, unpretentious, organic (Fussell talks of hardwood floors, beat-up Chevies as symbols of the very very rich's disdain for gaudy ornament). Moore, in real life a St. Moritz chum of William F. Buckley, Jr. and the horribly tacky Taki, as Bond seems somehow more destined to appeal to middle class taste: polite, too British to be real, often slightly condescending. (Fussell is caricaturish and many find his book "cynical"; I merely use his images to make my case.) Where womanizing for Connery-Bond is just a pastime, for Moore-Bond, a weak man who happens to be lucky and clever, it is a weakness.

For these very reasons, however, Moore is the only one capable within the films' universe of undergoing moments of moral and emotional gravity. In Moonraker, when Moore's Bond is nearly killed in the thingumabob, he has a sudden flashback of Q. For a split second, I thought it was some kind of poignant memory: "Oh dear, I'll never get to see old Q again.. and we had so many cheery times together!" but then of course it turned out that he was merely remembering the thingumajig that Q had given him in case of emergency, which ended up saving his life. The point is that with Connery I wouldn't have dared to imagine such poignancy. And I like that about Moore.

To put it another way, I can see Connery-Bond getting very angry during a golf game... Moore-Bond, rather less so.

Toward the end of the film, in the final confrontation with the supervillain Hugo Drax (one of the more elegant of a number of elegant monikers among Bond villains, but the villain himself, played by the implacable Michel Lonsdale, really is outstanding; I suppose I especially like him because he greatly resembles my part-time employer at my second job in the grim neighboring town of Zabrze), Bond almost makes a speech against the blackguard's Nazi-esque eugenic scheme, but instead uses the Socratic method to subtly convince the slightly superhuman, slightly subhuman henchman Jaws to help him. Only Moore could have pulled this off convincingly, in my view. (In Octopussy he makes two high-strung speeches against mass-murder, one in clownface. He pulls it off. That's our boy.)

In any case, for me Moonraker, if only the space battle had somehow been avoided, would be probably the apex of the series. More than usually charming villain (instead of the usual embarrassing Bond film literalistic puns he makes brilliant linguistic reversals [searching the grey cells in vain for a cleverer term] such as "Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him.") One of the five or six best songs of the whole series, good incidental music too. Smart girl (CIA agent played by Lois Chiles, the bitchy heiress in Death on the Nile) for Bond (at first resentful of his sexism, like Judi Dench's M; then concerned as she sees him half-dead after the scene I've now mentioned twice), not a sex toy or fickle kept woman of archfiend. To balance that out, a scene of Violence-Against-Woman that reveals the fundamental sadism of the whole Bond cycle in living color: a nice French girl who slept with Bond and helped him out early in the film is devoured by two vicious dogs (not graphic, but the pursuit is chilling). Since the time when Dostoevsky started publishing his writings we've all been aware that each masochist has an inner sadist with a masochist within who is a sadist at heart, and vice versa. The Bond films are hugely successful because the sadist in us identifies with the villain and his minions, the masochist with Bond in his moments of pain.


At 2:39 PM, Blogger jimeye said...

Goldfinger or You only live twice are pretty impressive title sequences, actually Goldfinger is one of my all time favorites so I find it hard to believe that the Die Another Day title sequence is the best bond title sequence . . . . this is a long blog I am about to finish reading it but I had to comment now because you got me all riled up.

At 1:50 PM, Blogger jimeye said...

there is this really big space at the bottom of this entry, is that purposeful? some sort of contemplation of white? White, bond? You know I heard P-diddy could be the next bond . . .


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