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Saturday, 3 November 2012

A Hero of our Time

Skyfall, the new James Bond film, is being interpreted by some as a sign of a new seriousness in popular culture, though I think the downbeat and realistic tone that has marked Daniel Craig's stint was a necessary corrective as the series became increasingly ridiculous. In an interesting review, the Russian film critic Valery Kichin noted his compatriots' fascination with Bond in the 70s. I suspect this was more than just awe at capitalist product placement and extended to an empathy with the themes of imperial decline, betrayal and the need for the individual hero to protect the Motherland. Vladimir Putin has not been shy in emphasising his credentials as a KGB officer. Kichin mentions a Russian study of Bond from that period called A Hero of our Hero-less Time. The echo is of Lermontov's A Hero of our Time, the early nineteenth century study of a self-indulgent and self-destructive anti-hero, which is ironically referenced by Ian Fleming himself in From Russia With Love.

Bond has always been a symbol for evolving British anxiety, both in terms of loss of status abroad and the erosion of class and gender certainties at home. Over the years, insouciance dissolved into flippancy, stiff upper lip into smirk. One constant has been Bond's instrumental attitude towards women. You know: shagging them before they get topped. Skyfall makes a nod towards redressing this, with the new Moneypenny shooting him in error to balance the main "Bond girl" getting shagged and then topped. To complicate matters, and perhaps engage Freudian analysts in the audience, the death of M is preceded by a lingering shot of the gravestone of Bond's mother, who we learn was named Monique. The Scottish scenes are dreamlike and full of incongruities, not the least of which is Albert Finney's accent. The eponymous house is more Hogwarts than Scottish Baronial, and it's built on low-lying bogland next to a loch, which no one in their right mind would ever do. It's clearly less a place than a state of mind.

Another constant theme has been technology, which gradually moved from a sort of plausible ingenuity that combined Barnes Wallis and Heath Robinson to the pointless high-concept of an invisible Aston Martin. In Skyfall Bond's personal gadgetry has been reduced to the quotidien, but this is because technology is now central to the plot, concerning as it does hacking and cyber-sabotage. The key visual metaphor is a spinning ball of information spaghetti, representing a mass of encrypted data, which Bond just happens to discover the key to as if it were an acrostic. The new geekish Q is commendably generous in his praise. This amusing fluff is matched by the villain's data centre on a deserted island in the tropical South China Sea. It's an old, ruined building, full of dust and debris, in which the baddy has installed banks of servers but no air-con, unless you count the open windows. Good luck with that in the summer. M's speech to a parliamentary committee about threats from "the shadows", the villain being a cyber-terrorist, and the retreat of MI6 to "one of Churchill's bunkers" must have made Theresa May curl up her toes and squeal with delight. How could anyone dare stop her Communications Data Bill now?

The central matter of Bond has always been international relations. He first appeared in 1953, just before Suez and the point of no return for Britain's global pretensions. The bromance with Felix Leiter of the CIA inverts the realities of the special relationship: here the Brit is the muscle and the Yank provides logistical support. In contrast, the French usually only appear as villains or dispensable totty, along with caricature Germans, Russians and orientals. The jetting-off to exotic locations was an obvious compensation for the loss of empire, though in recent decades it has tended to reflect centres of growing power that we need to take an interest in. Alex Salmond is probably pleased that Skyfall climaxes in Scotland, but of more note is that it starts in Turkey, the ambiguous giant at Europe's door, before moving to China, the global behemoth with a penchant for state-sponsored hacking.

This nostalgia for empire, combined with a hard-headed willingness to go where the business is (or at least attract their footloose rich to London), are two sides of the same coin. The claim that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness is the modern ideological successor to the old idea of the white man's burden, in other words an attempt to justify a mercantilist endeavour by appeal to nobler (or at least less ignoble) motives. This attitude heavily coloured Ian Hislop's recent BBC series, Stiff Upper Lip, in which he claimed that the transformation of the emotionally incontinent English of the 16th century (when Italians were the epitome of cool restraint) into a nation typified by the phlegmatic Wellington and the reserved Jane Austen was a reaction to the French revolution and after, as if an entire people had gone through emotional rehab just to spite Boney.

This Burke-inspired narrative skates over a few inconvenient facts. Arthur Wellesley was Anglo-Irish and learnt his trade as a soldier in India. In other words, he was shaped by the imperial experience of living among subject (and thoroughly unreliable) people. Austen did not become well-known till the late 19th century and didn't really achieve popularity until the 1940s. The popular writers of the Napoleonic years were the Romantics, such as Wordsworth and Byron. Neither Wellington nor Austen were representative of early 19th century English sentiment, while Nelson, whom Hislop dismisses as a relic of the older 18th century emotional order, undoubtedly was. The evolution of the stiff upper lip owed more to the development of empire abroad and the social impact of the industrial revolution at home, than it did to a reaction against the French.

Hislop's episode on empire wheeled out the self-serving myth that the whole thing was a massive confidence trick in which a handful of public school-educated district commissoners ruled millions, seducing the idiot native with durbars and displays of pluck. You'd think we'd have moved beyond Sir Sidney and Lady Rough-Diamond in Carry on up the Khyber, but apparently not. The lie to this was famously given by George Orwell in his description of shooting an elephant in Burma in order to maintain face in front of the natives. The point was to prove your willingness to deploy overwhelmingly superior force, whether in the form of gun-boats, advanced rifles or arbitrary justice. The Indian Mutiny and other rebellions proved that given half a chance a subject people will invariably revolt. It's violence that keeps them under control, and its use is not an aberration but systematic policy, as the current Mau Mau torture case has made clear. The latter part of the episode was Hislop's wry but sentimental appreciation of the English public school, the training ground for DCs. This added little beyond a recognition of the damaging delusions that it produced, which led directly to Ypres and Paschendale.

The final episode was an indulgent review of the "long withdrawing roar" of empire and Victorian certainty in the 20th century, i.e. amusing cartoons about blimpish attitudes and reduced circumstances. The Blitz Spirit was called as a witness for the defence, as was our ability to laugh at ourselves. A key trait of the idealised image of the Englishman (more than the Briton) is humour,  particularly in the form of irony and self-deprecation. The empire? That was just a jolly jape that got out of hand. The chief charge against the French has nothing to do with garlic or hairy women and everything to do with pomposity. They take themselves too seriously. This explains why Private Eye has such cultural clout, and why we value whimsy and eccentricity (a pathological denial of reality) so highly.

James Bond is no more conceivable without his quips than his Omega or his Walther PPK, which is why I think the claims of a new seriousness are wrong. What the retro-chic and "honest brutality" introduced with Casino Royale indicate is heavy nostalgia rather than engagement with the world of today. The reintroduction of Moneypenny and a male M looks like a desire for familiar features in a troubled landscape. The reintroduction of the Aston Martin DB5, which is then utterly destroyed, highlights the risk of such longing.

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