Saturday, November 22, 2008

Quantum of Solace

So I saw Quantum of Solace. I'm still not sure what the title means. I take no solace from the fact that I know what a quantum is.

As I was making plans to see it with a couple of friends, one of them asked if we should perhaps wear tuxes (there is a group of men in LA who do wear tuxes to the opening weekend of every Bond movie). I said no, because that would violate Rule #2 of John's Rules Of What Men Should Wear When They Go Out In Los Angeles. Specifically, Rule #2 states that:
You should not wear a tie when you go out unless you are a) giving a speech; b) receiving an award; or c) you will be photographed.
Rule #1 is: When in doubt, wear jeans.

James Bond movies have rules as well, of course: martinis are shaken, not stirred. "Bond. James Bond." A beautiful and dangerous woman. Another beautiful and dangerous woman. A dangerous guy, who is somehow related to at least one of the beautiful and dangerous women. Really cool gadgets that are not available to mortals. Bond wearing a tuxedo. Bond wearing a suit. Bond making some lame joke, but pulling it off and not looking like an idiot, because he's James Bond. An incredibly expensive car that has been highly customized.

I did not break my rules about What To Wear, and neither did Mr. Bond. He wears a tux, and suits by Tom Ford. Of course Daniel Craig looks great in both. In the case of almost any other human being, wearing Tom Ford anything would up their cool quotient. In this case, however, I believe the hipness equation flows the other way; it is Mr. Ford who benefits from the association with Mr. Bond, not the other way around.

In art, of course, rules are there to be broken. Casino Royale, the first Bond movie with Mr. Craig, broke some of the Bond Rules. Mr. Craig's Bond famously did not give a damn whether or not his martini was shaken or stirred. The justification for this was that it was a "restart," a reimagining of the franchise, very much like the "restart" of the Batman franchise with Christian Bale. Of course, only Bond could break the Bond rules, and, by doing so, the caretakers of the Bond tradition made him that much cooler.

But breaking the rules a second time is not quite as interesting. The thrill is a little less; the joke is slightly stale. He doesn't introduce himself as with the trademark three-word line. "Bond. James Bond." was apparently a victim of an editing decision.

More important than the details, however, what is missing is the sense of humor, and, most important, the sense of elegance. Sean Connery's Bond was, in some respects, a wonderful snob. He was the best in the world at what he did, he knew it, and he enjoyed it. James Bond should be ridiculously self-confident. But he's not arrogant, because he's playing deadly games, and too much self-confidence at the wrong moment could be deadly.

But Bond is defending the free world, and what's the point of defending that freedom, if you don't occasionally enjoy it?

Not that Daniel Craig's Bond doesn't have fun, and isn't self-confident. He's very sure of himself, sometimes to the point of seriously annoying M (the great Judi Dench, who demonstrates why England was one of the first countries to elect a woman to its highest office). He plays games with his opponents.

Bond still has his wit, but he lacks accouterments. Part of the problem is that he doesn't have great gadgets with which to play games. Bond's memorable exchange with Goldfinger ("Do you expect me to talk?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.") was all the more so because a laser was about to slice James Bond in half. Movies are a visual art form; gadgets are a very visual element of the James Bond mythology. They're part of the reason Bond is so good at playing games with his opponents. It's not just his wit that he's using; he's also using toys created by the best minds in Britain. That's part of why James Bond is so cool: some of his best friends are geeks, and he makes geeks look cool. For which effect many people with engineering degrees are eternally grateful.

Women accessorize with necklaces, bracelets, earrings, purses. Men don't really accessorize much, beyond watches and, now cellphones, but James Bond sure as hell did. Marc Forster, the director of Quantum, explained that he didn't go with gadgets this time because it seemed "old school."

Well, yes, of course it's old school. That's the bloody point. It's James Bond. He is British. It is my understanding that tradition is rather important to England's sense of itself. It certainly is a key part of my understanding of England.

Forster also argues that, with the profusion of advanced technology, gadgets do not cast the spell that they used to; once everyone has a cell phone, it's just not that exciting to see a really cool one. I disagree, and would argue the opposite. We all know someone who has lots of cool gadgets; they got the iPhone before everybody else, they have GPS in their shoes, etc. But the fact that we all know someone like that should, if anything, heighten the interest in what Bond has. Bond should make everybody's ultracool friend look like a dork. Bond shouldn't just have the latest phone; he should have the next phone.

The same applies to the car. I know people with cool cars that go fast; I learned how to drive a stick on a Porshce 944. But I don't know anyone with a car that has an ejector seat or that can go underwater. Part of the fun of a Bond movie is supposed to be seeing what the filmmakers came up with for the car. I can't imagine what else a Bond car could do that one hasn't already, but that's the point; the people making the Bond movies are supposed to be the ones with the imagination. They are supposed to imagine something about this car that I can't. That's what I am paying them for.

So we have rules being broken, but we also have tradition being ignored. We also have some editing that is frantic and, unfortunately, utterly predictable. Fists fly, bodies whirl, punches are thrown, and I could hardly follow any of it. I like my action fast and furious, but I also like it comprehensible, thank you very much. Two of my favorite action sequences are the first fencing scene in the first Pirates, between Jack Sparrow and Will Turner, and the training sequence in The Matrix. The fencing is slow, but that allows time for Jack to taunt Will. In the training scene in The Matrix, Morpheus and Neo fight incredibly fast, but there are also some great pauses and slow-motion shots. "You think that's air you're breathing?" The first chase scene in Casino Royale was breathtaking partially because it was very believable, and part of the reason it was believable was that you could actually see what was happening. The filmmakers want to make Bond more realistic. That's a noble goal, and I recommend they start with fight scenes that can be believed because they can be understood.

Great dialogue between people who are trying to kill each other should be the difference between a standard action-adventure movie, and, well, a James Bond movie. Steven Seagal can throw a punch. James Bond is supposed to throw a punch and make you remember why he threw it. Which is that he is James Bond, and you're not.

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