Tuesday, August 05, 2014
Responding to Bonding
A while back, Michael May started an exploration of James Bond, by going back to Bond's literary roots. In the inaugural post, Michael mentioned a couple of Bond-related podcasts, one of which I've been listening to semi-regularly for the last few months. It's James Bonding, and it has two comedy writers, Matt Gourley and Matt Mira (the "two Matts"), discussing the films one at a time, with guest commentary from people they know. I've found listening to this podcast to be an interesting distillation of everything about geek-discussion and geek-debate: sometimes it's a blast, other times it's totally maddening. There are times when I find myself laughing uproariously, almost to tears, and other times when I start screaming my rage-filled disagreement. Huh...after writing that, I'm starting to think that maybe it's a bad idea for me to listen to this podcast while driving.
Listening to a podcast that focuses on any particular geek-obsession is a dangerous game. For one thing, they can't respond, because they're not there. So there's no way for you to express your disagreement other than commenting on the site, or e-mailing, or Tweeting, or...writing a blog post. If you've ever sat by in forced silence while someone gets things WRONG!!! about your favorite thing, whether they're genuinely wrong or they just have the totally WRONG!!! opinion, then you know the frustration. Likewise, there are times when I want them to focus on one aspect or another of the movie-in-question, be it something I really like about the film or seriously hate about it, and if the two Matts either don't bring it up or gloss over it, the shouting starts anew. That's just the way it is!
Also, I always have to remind myself that they're producing a podcast and not, say, a DVD commentary. A lot of times they end up discussing earlier parts of the film in pretty gory detail, and then when it comes time to break down the ending, they mainly fly through it and then close up shop. Often times, though, the ending warrants more discussion than it gets, which I always find frustrating.
And then there's just the plain fact that these are two people who aren't me and who don't always think like me, which is annoying in itself!
So yeah, listening to the James Bonding podcast is frustrating, annoying, angering...and a lot of fun. For the most part. But what's the point of a blog if I can't take after someone else's opinions? So in this post I'm going to do just that, by responding to a few points they make about each film, as if I myself was a guest. Fun wow!
First off, by way of format, the way they're approaching the films is interesting in itself. They aren't going in strict chronological order of release; they're alternating each week, with the odd weeks starting at Dr No and progressing forward, and with the even weeks starting at the other end, with Skyfall, and progressing backward. In the introductory installment (Episode zero), they talked through the roster of films in that way and determined that the podcast will conclude with a long series of installments on the Roger Moore era, ending with For Your Eyes Only. It's an interesting approach, and as I write this, they have just arrived at Live and Let Die, having moved through all the Connery films (and the Lazenby one), and just finished with the Pierce Brosnan era, so that only Timothy Dalton remains.
As I note, they always have a guest or two on the show, and they always start by inquiring of their guests as to their personal relationship with James Bond. They've done a great job of getting a wide variety of such; they've had folks on who are so steeped in Bond that they have actually worked on DVD releases of the films, and they had a couple of women on who knew nothing about Bond at all, with the rest of the guests being somewhere in the middle. So it seems to me I should offer the same background info. How did I come to James Bond? Well, unlike a lot of the guests (the ones who are familiar with Bond, anyway), I didn't come to love Bond through my father. No, it was via my mother that I discovered Agent 007.
I was born in 1971 (the year of Diamonds are Forever), but I didn't discover Bond until 1979, when I saw teevee commercials for a movie called Moonraker. The commercials screamed out, "Bond is Back!", but I had no idea who Bond was or what he was back from. All I knew was that this movie took place in space. There were laser guns and spaceships. For eight-year-old Star Wars fan me, this was all it took to sell me on this movie, so my mother – who apparently knew her James Bond – took me to see it. I still remember my initial confusion as the movie started – what's with the white dots going across the screen? Who is this guy who just shot the camera, and what's the red stuff...oh wait, that's blood...wait, is this a space movie or what?
Moonraker doesn't get to space until its third act, which might have bothered me, but I found the stuff leading up to that enough fun that it didn't bug me much, and when we did get to space, well, that shit was just cool. I loved the movie, and that's where my love of Bond started. Over the next bunch of years I would see all the remaining films, but in those days, the only way to see the Bond films was to wait for them to show up on the ABC network; they would air one every couple of months, in no set order, either. Plus, they were heavily edited, and when we moved to WNY in 1981, our reception of ABC was awful until we got cable, three or four years later. My first viewings of the Bond films were hardly ideal.
The next Bond film after Moonraker was For Your Eyes Only, which for some reason only played in the Olean, NY theaters for two weeks or so, so we missed that one. (As much as I love a lot of the movies with which I grew up, there's no getting around the fact that the theaters in which I saw most of them all sucked. Olean's theaters were terrible.) When Octopussy came out in 1983, though, it began my as-yet-unbroken string of having seen every single Bond film since in the theater. I've just consulted the list of all the Bond films, and it turns out that not until last year's Skyfall did I reach a point where I have seen the majority of the films in the theater. Wow. (And what I wouldn't give to see On Her Majesty's Secret Service in a good theater!)
Along the way, at some point I read probably half of the Ian Fleming novels. I also collected the film score albums, and I also owned a James Bond trivia book at one point (I miss that book and wonder whatever happened to it), along with a couple other Bond "encyclopedia" type books. I'm not a hard core Bond fan, but I'm no slouch, either. I know my Bond lore, so it would seem that the James Bonding podcast is made for me!
However, with a series of films like this, it's always the case that you meet other fans just as devoted whose opinions are entirely different, and that's certainly the case with the Two Matts of James Bonding. Thus, in this post, I air my thoughts on the podcast in somewhat random order.
:: First off, this just bugs the living hell out of me, so out it comes. I'm not a huge fan of tests of geek purity. I don't believe, much, in challenging fellow fans to tests of trivia to prove their worth. No matter what your particular geek obsession is, there is always someone out there who knows more about it. This kind of thing gets downright obnoxious: someone claims to be a comics fan and professes a preference for a certain superhero, and then some obnoxious douche sets out to prove that this person's knowledge is not sufficiently encyclopedic about that one character to warrant that person being taken seriously at all.
But...well, for me, there are certain base things someone should know. I don't care if someone claims to be a Star Trek fan but can't name all the episodes of TNG, or never bothered watching past season three of Voyager or any of Enterprise at all. [Yeah, that's me.] But if I ask a self-professed Star Trek fan to tell me the Enterprise's registry number, they'd better be able to come up with "NCC-1701". They don't need to be able to tell me what specific year any given Star Trek episode takes place in, but they at least should know that classic Trek takes place in the 23rd century and the TNG era in the 24th.
Likewise, a Star Wars fan need not know what species Yoda is, but if they can't name the planet on which we meet Yoda, that's a problem for future conversation. A comics fan doesn't need to be able to name every single mutant who has ever been a member of the X-Men, but they should know that the X-Men is a team of superheroes who are mutants.
So it really, really, really bugs me when on two different occasions, the Two Matts of James Bonding can't get right what SPECTRE stands for. In one installment, they actually Google it; in another they say it from memory, and get it wrong. This just irritates the hell out of me. True, a casual fan who likes the Bond movies because they're fun action movies may not know it, but these aren't casual fans. These are two guys hosting a Bond-related podcast. One of them had a Bond-themed birthday party when he turned a round number. They can recite the roster of films in order of release, with the years, but they can't come up with "Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion". I'm sorry, but if you're hosting a podcast based on your James Bond fandom, you need to have that in your memory bank.
:: It is refreshing to encounter Bond fans who don't automatically take the view, which has become almost a pop-culture shibboleth, that Sean Connery was the definitive James Bond and everyone else since Connery has worked in his shadow. I've never believed this for one second, and when I heard the Two Matts both basically admit that Roger Moore is their favorite, I found that somewhat refreshing. However, I was subsequently a bit let down when they advanced a notion that you hear all the time these days, but which has never made a great deal of sense to me: that "favorite" does not equal "best". Why the hell shouldn't it? Why do we have to always hedge our bets with that weird idea? Why not just go ahead and argue that what you like is best, and that you like it because you think it's the best? "Best" and "favorite" are different words, but they're still just words that we use to express opinions. I often find that the "favorite versus best" distinction is a way of trying to deflect criticism.
Both Matts, when they eventually get around to ranking all the Bond actors, say that their rankings of "favorite" Bonds and "best" Bonds are different lists, which strikes me as really silly. I expect they do this so they can still put Connery at the top of a list, which is what pop culture seems to have decided that we should all be doing. I, of course, reject this.
:: So what's my list of "best" Bonds? Here it is:
Now, breaking this down just a tad: yes, Lazenby only did one movie. And yes, there are a few times – fewer than most admit, though – when Lazenby's status as a guy who has never acted before shows. But the fact remains that the movie he did is not just my favorite Bond movie, but one of my favorite movies of all time. It's the most emotional of all the Bonds (only Casino Royale and Skyfall come close in sheer emotional heft), and in the scenes that carry the emotion, Lazenby nails the role. In Lazenby, we see an emotional Bond, a fearful Bond, a loving Bond, an angry Bond, a weary Bond. So I make no apology at all for liking Lazenby most of all and being sad that he didn't continue in the role (although that means he would have been around for a really bad series of scripts).
:: That said, the Two Matts are also careful to point out that criticism that sounds harsh often sounds more negative than it really is, because the only context in which the criticism can be taken is the context of James Bond. When I rank Pierce Brosnan at the bottom of my list, it's because I see his run of films as being the most faulty – and yet, I still enjoy watching them, for the most part. I don't hate the Brosnan era, by any means, and I like him very much as Bond. I think he really got screwed by scripts that each had issues. Roger Moore started out the same way, but his films got a lot better toward the end.
:: Talk about differing opinions: both Matts express a good deal of fondness for Live and Let Die, which is by far my least favorite Bond movie. It's the one I've rewatched the least, and I'm not sure I've ever owned a copy, even back in the VHS days of keeping copies of movies I taped off ABC. LaLD does have some good stuff in it – Yaphet Kotto is fantastic – and I like Roger Moore, but what's bad in LaLD is so bad that it renders the rest of the movie nearly unwatchable. I quite literally hate that movie, and I won't even let it play if I randomly find it on teevee.
:: Going back to Lazenby and OHMSS for a moment: several times, the Matts say that they would love to see OHMSS with Connery in the lead instead of Lazenby. This is odd, because they also indicate their view that in Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, the two films before OHMSS, Connery looked more and more bored by the whole thing. Plus, when they do the OHMSS installment, they openly state something that I've said for years to people who have wished for Connery in that film: they're not sure he could have really sold Bond-in-love. Lazenby could, and did, and for that alone I'm willing to overlook a handful of wooden line-readings that mostly occur early on in the movie. Ultimately, the Two Matts (and their guest commentator on that installment) don't really offer any real specific critiques of Lazenby, just general statements that he doesn't have enough charisma or something. That's not terribly convincing.
:: Missing plot details seems to happen a lot, too. Sticking with OHMSS, they wonder why Bond would follow that strange girl to the hotel at the beginning of the movie – not noticing that he didn't follow her, but pulled into the hotel and only then recognized the distinctive car there as being the one from the odd encounter the night before.
:: The installment features guest commentators each time out, which can be a lot of fun...or not so much, depending on the commentators and their views on Bond. This is actually one of the better aspects of the series, because it always lends a fresh viewpoint to the show, and the Two Matts are careful to pick a variety of guests, some of whom are well-schooled in Bond and some of whom are less so. There are men and women featured, which is good; there was one woman who is staggeringly in love with Casino Royale, and then there was a pair of women who absolutely HATED Goldfinger, mainly because of its wild sexism. The podcast doesn't just take the same approach and viewpoint each time out, which I appreciate.
:: On the topic of the Goldfinger installment, which got some flack from the show's fans...that installment is a hard listen, because the two women who guested were really turned off by the movie, so much so that the installment pretty much stayed on that one topic the entire time they were talking about the film. (There's a long stretch in the last half when they just ditch Bond for what seems like twenty minutes and talk about bartending and alcoholic drinks.) I'm of the view that you can't really talk about Bond today without coming to some kind of grips with the sexism of the series – particularly that of the first bunch of films, and maybe even all of them – but it was still frustrating to hear Goldfinger discussed pretty much only in those terms, because, well, there's an awful lot wrong with Goldfinger apart from the sexism. They barely touch on the fact that for most of that entire movie James Bond is almost entirely irrelevant to the action, or how a lot of the movie makes absolutely no sense (why does Goldfinger bother spelling out his plan to the criminals, since he's killing them anyway?). I know, this puts me dangerously close to "You're not using YOUR forum to talk about what I want you to talk about!" territory, but it was a thought that occurred to me. However, I stand by my view that you have to talk about sexism in Bond at some point, if you have any honesty at all.
:: That said, if you want to talk about sexism, racism, and other "Western exceptionalism" tropes, the movie to do it is probably You Only Live Twice. I watched that recently and there are parts of it that are downright painful.
:: The two women who hated Goldfinger actually returned, for an appearance with one of the Matts at a "James Bonding" panel discussion at some convention. The idea was for them to watch Casino Royale, and see if their opinions of James Bond changed with a more modern film whose racial and sexual mores aren't firmly rooted in the 1950s. (Yes, Goldfinger came out in 1964, but it was very faithful to the book, which Fleming wrote in the 50s.) This has mixed results. The more outspoke of the two, a woman named Alie, rails on how ugly she thinks Daniel Craig is; they both fail to pick up pretty obvious plot points (Bond hasn't earned his Double-O stripes at the beginning); Alie says that she didn't really like the parkour chase because she didn't know why Bond was chasing the guy; she refers to the scene where Bond comforts Vesper in the shower (when Vesper is almost in shock after witnessing some Bondian violence and brutality) as "the rape-shower scene". And then, it comes out that she didn't even watch the entire movie. That is, to me, kind of insulting, and while it's perfectly OK to not like James Bond, or even hate him, I find it bizarre to bring someone to a podcast who hates the concept the entire podcast is built around. She even says, "This is like you hand me a plate of the best tomatoes on earth, and I hate tomatoes, so I won't get it." I'm thinking, "Why even go on the thing, then?" Again I'm reminded of people who hated the first two Star Wars prequels and yet still dragged themselves to see Episode III opening weekend. Plus, I generally find it a major turn-off to listen to or read commentary on movies by people who completely miss basic plot details.
:: Since I listened to this one most recently: they weren't generally too pleased with Licence to Kill, the second of Timothy Dalton's Bond movies. That bugged me, because this one has always been one of my favorites in the series! The criticism seems to mainly fall into the idea that LTK is too heavily influenced by the action movies of the day, such as Die Hard. I'm not sure that's fair, since Die Hard came out the year before this movie, and I doubt had started to be an influence so early on. In fact, it's likely that LTK was already in production, at least in the pre-production phase, when Die Hard came out. They also mention Miami Vice as an influence, but I'm not sure about that, either – that show's feel was really not terribly evident in LTK, other than the subject matter of Latin American drug running, which was more of a heavy concern at the time of the film's production.
I like LTK a lot because it does send James Bond off the grid a bit. It breaks formula in a lot of pleasing ways, and it does so in ways that often nudge you just a bit to remind you what the formula is. So you have James Bond on his way to stand up at Felix Leiter's wedding, to be told that he can only accompany Felix to capture Franz Sanchez "as an observer"; you have Bond's briefing scene with M replaced by M chewing his ass out and trying to get him to snap back to reality (only to be spurned). Q goes into the field, in what is probably a high point for Q fans in the series (I'm a Q fan, so, yay!), and you have Bond not really all that concerned with investigating a bad guy or figuring out what he's up to. Bond doesn't even have a plan, really – he's just reacting to what he finds, and yet, he proves enormously resourceful, figuring out how to ingratiate himself with Sanchez and get him to kill his own allies.
The Two Matts accuse LTK of being "multiple movies", which doesn't strike me as fair, because the movie isn't about a single through-line. They claim to be confused as to why a couple of "ninjas" show up at one point, but their presence is explained in the very next scene (they're working for Hong Kong's version of the DEA, and at this time, Hong Kong was still a British protectorate, so technically, this guy and Bond are working for the same people), and it makes perfect sense. (Also, there's the whole thing about "ninja" being an all-purpose term for "Asian martial arts practitioner" that's a bit troubling, but we'll leave that for now.) The complaint seems to be that there's this drug dealer, but then there are these "ninjas", and then there's some plot involving stolen Stinger missiles – the movie can't make up its mind what it wants to be about! But that's the wrong way to read this movie. What we have here is a Bond film with a villain who has no big scheme. Sanchez isn't planning his own version of Auric Goldfinger's "Operation Grand Slam", or Max Zorin's "Main Strike", or Orlov's plot to get the West to disarm Europe by detonating an A-bomb on an American Air Force base. Sanchez just wants to be the most powerful drug kingpin in Latin America, and his only plan for those missiles is to use them to make terrorist threats in order to keep American law enforcement off his back. That's it. James Bond is injecting himself into a world that has nothing to do with the usual stuff that generally concerns him, and it makes perfect sense that he's going to encounter a bunch of different folks along the way, each with their own goals and things they're trying to accomplish. I like that there's a certain slightly-disjointed quality to LTK. It works for the story being told.
It also kinda bugs me that the Two Matts didn't comment on the wonderful character moment Q has when he uses one of his own gadgets and then, after having berated Bond in movie after movie for never returning his equipment in one piece, just tosses it aside into some weeds and walks away. I'm sure they noticed, but they didn't mention it! Gahhh!!!
The other complaint is that Licence To Kill is somehow an homage to everything that was popular in movies at that time. You had to have a drug lord movie! You had a fight in a roadhouse, because of Roadhouse! This is all pretty silly. First of all, Roadhouse came out the same year, so it's pretty odd to suggest that the bar fight has any basis in the Swayze movie (which is, by the way, one of the worst things ever). But to rip on Licence for its origins in the cultural trends of its time is deeply odd, since the Bond movies had been doing that for years. Star Wars bursts on the scene? Bond goes to space in Moonraker! Reagan and Thatcher come along and get everybody fired up for the Cold War again? Look! Cold-war subtext galore in For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy! Computers start becoming a big thing? Silicon Valley in A View to a Kill! Russia in Afghanistan? The Living Daylights! And it kept going after Dalton, too: the Soviet Union has fallen apart and left lots of dangerous shit behind? Step right up, GoldenEye! Media moguls become a thing? Tomorrow Never Dies! And so on and so on. This entire line of complaint makes very little sense to me, as it can be applied to probably over half the Bond films ever made, once the films stopped trying to be faithful to the novels from which they took their titles..
:: Let's see, what else? Well, one of the Matts really doesn't care for Pierce Brosnan as Bond. That's certainly justifiable, although it's hard to tell if he really has issues with Brosnan or if he just notices things that he doesn't like about Brosnan because Brosnan's films are so all-over-the-map. Those four movies – Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, and Die Another Day – probably encapsulate the most schizophrenic run of movies in the entire series. Each film has some good things in it, but each film also has some gobstoppingly awful things going on as well. Goldeneye makes out the best in their view, and I agree; in fact, the only awful thing about that movie is Eric Serra's terrible electronica score. The next three films are really tough to figure, and I notice that the Two Matts never quite notice that Purvis and Wade, the two screenwriters behind those films (with some help along the way), seem to often have some really great ideas but always fall short in the execution.
TND gives us a villain clearly made for the 1990s, an odd blend of Ted Turner and Bill Gates, but it sends him wildly over the top. Additionally, the movie takes an interesting idea – what if Bond has to reunite with a former lover? – and pretty much does very little of anything with the notion, in favor of the first Bond film to really go whole-hog into the "Big Action Movie" style. My take on TND has always been that it's a movie I enjoy as an action movie, but as a Bond movie, it suffers. It takes a real "blunt force" approach, when the first time Bond meets the bad guy, he basically walks in and says, "I'm a spy and I know that you had that boat sunk and I'm gonna stop you." Erk.
And then there's TWINE, which is a movie that, like LaLD, has a lot of great stuff in it along with some awful stuff. Again, a great idea – what if The Girl is also The Villain? – is bungled, because the producers either didn't have the courage of their convictions or because they didn't realize how good an idea that was, so we ended up with Denise Richards as The Single Worst Bond Girl Ever Ever Ever (And Don't Even Try Citing Tanya Roberts Because I'll Take Her Any Day And Twice On Sundays Over Denise Richards). That, and this movie's pacing is all over the map.
The less said about Die Another Day, the better – although there, too, a great idea is wasted. Here, the idea is, what if Bond is damaged or rendered untrustworthy, so that he has to work his way back into MI6's good graces while some villain or other carries out a master plan? That's a great idea, but the movie buggered it to hell, which is a shame, because that very idea was later done spectacularly well – in the fourth Mission: Impossible movie. (For the record, I love love love the Mission: Impossible series and pray that they keep making them. I even love the one that JJ Abrams directed from the script by Orci&Kurtzman, whom I usually hate as writers.)
:: The topic of pacing comes up a lot, and generally they seem to agree that the films are too slow and take too long. Sometimes that might be the case, but not always, and while I chafe enormously at the notion that OHMSS should have been half-an-hour shorter, I agree strongly that Thunderball's pacing blows. The movie takes forever to get going, and then it gets going for an hour or so, and then it screeches to a halt again with something like half-an-hour still to go.
:: I agree with one of the Two Matts (I think it's Matt Mira): In the Craig films, they are all calling M "Mum". Apparently this is a matter of some contention, though.
:: One awesome thing they do on this podcast is dig up alternate versions of the theme songs, of which there are far more than I ever realized. This type of thing is really fascinating! Since John Barry (and, later, David Arnold) often worked the melodies of the theme songs into the filmscores themselves, it's interesting to note how much different Bond would sound if different songs had been used.
:: They opine that Quantum of Solace works a lot better if viewed immediately after Casino Royale. I'll have to try that. I remember liking QoS more than most, although I, too, found that director's work in the action sequences abysmal.
I think that just about covers all of my thoughts thus far on the James Bonding podcast. I'll probably have more as new installments appear, but production on the podcast has drastically slowed (apparently due to work requirements on the participants), and as of this writing, there's only one installment I haven't heard yet, and I think this post is long enough without hearing me respond to their take on The Man With the Golden Gun. I'm still generally new to the whole podcast thing, and I find that it takes me a while to get through podcasts, because I generally listen to them when I'm driving, and my local drives aren't very long (ten minutes to work, roughly). I drive longer on weekends, on my way to do shopping and run errands, so that's when the bulk of my podcast listening gets done. I certainly can't listen to podcasts while I write – that way, madness lies!