Friday, May 1, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part IV: The Cinema of James Bond

Moore, Being Puckish

How fitting to end (for now) our mediations on the consolations of junk art with one of the most successful manifestations of junk in cinematic history – the James Bond movies.

No one in their right mind would, for a moment, argue that James Bond films are, well, in a word … good.  They are not real in the sense that things happened to the protagonist that change him internally or externally, and certainly not real in the sense that it is possible to make any emotional investment in them.  The vast majority of Bond films are laughably terrible, pandering to our cravings for sex, sadism and snobbery – three preoccupations of his creator, Ian Fleming.

The reasons for the sheer awfulness of the Bond corpus are many.  The short list would include: Bond is never really a character, but merely a good suit and a set of attitudes; the plotting and scripting of the films often disregard any sense of narrative cohesion, probability or good taste; aside from many of the villains, the acting is uniformly bad; and, finally, since they are all commentary upon current issues or obsessions of the time in which they were made, have aged very poorly indeed.

They are irresistible.

While I enjoy most of the Bond films, Your Correspondent must confess a preference for the Roger Moore films.  “Real” Bond fans are already throwing up their hands in exasperation, as the Moore performance is the most deprecated, despised and dismissed of all the big-screen Bonds.  “Real” Bond fans are wrong (more on that later), and, in fact, Moore is the only actor who really understood the role.

Bond is not the nicest of men, and most of the Bonds – Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnon, Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, especially – have captured that facet of his limited personality fairly well.  But real killer instinct is missing from Moore’s Bond, mainly because Moore, a limited if effective actor, has too much generosity of spirit and genuine goodwill to pull off Bond’s hard edges.  Most important – Moore gets the joke.  The inherent absurdity of the whole idea is best expressed by the phrase world-famous secret agent.  (A neat trick, that.)  The notion of an indestructible lady-killer in a dinner jacket is catnip for a man with Moore’s sense of the absurd.

An excellent and skilled light comedian, Moore made the Bond films something closer to the imaginings of author Ian Fleming, who once admitted to never reading his own Bond books, least he give up on them because of their preposterous nature.  In Fleming’s mind, Bond’s world was part spoof from the get-go.

That is one of the many reasons I’m always amused by adult-adolescents who want a “serious” Bond film (an absurdity equal to the ponderous “adult” Batman films); there is nothing adult about the Bond canon to begin with.  Fleming himself saw them as a means simply to make ready cash, and anyone who doubts that should remember that he tried to cast both David Niven (as Bond) and Noel Coward (as the title character) in the film adaptation of Dr. No – because they were his friends.  (This is no less risible than Fleming’s earlier attempts to cast Susan Hayward … as Jane Bond.  Fleming thought it would be good box office.)

As Fleming himself wrote: I don’t regard James Bond precisely as a hero, but at least he does get on and do his duty, in an extremely corny way … My books have no social significance, except a deleterious one.

Enter Moore, who, with is infectious insouciance, sends up the already absurd.  He is, to date, the only Bond who smiled readily, and actually enjoyed his line readings.  For those who want to revisit the Moore Bond, I recommend the DVDs with his voice-over commentaries, which are infinitely more entertaining than the movies.

When do the Bond films work?  Or, to rephrase it, when are they good?  The Bond films, like the 1960s from which they sprang, are best appreciated when the politics, aesthetics and morals are never seriously considered, and when we can consume their empty calories guiltlessly.  When we think that amoral characters like Bond (and the political structure he supports) would actually work for the common good, and we think global peace hinges on the correct tailor and the right cocktail.  They work best, in short, in the undemanding tatters of our tired imaginations.

I find great consolation in the lightest of Bond films, because here are great resources harnessed for a fully tongue-in-cheek enterprise.  I am also tickled at Moore, once one of the world’s biggest box office attractions, carrying the weight of a multi-million dollar film franchise as if he were carrying the mail.

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