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Mr. Arkadin

Spectre (2015)

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NBooth   

NBooth wrote:
: More later, perhaps; I'm intrigued by comparisons Peter has made elsewhere to CAPTAIN AMERICA 2, and I want to give them some thought. 

I was hoping you would!

My first couple of thoughts on the comparison is that SPECTRE is more...humanist?...than CA2. I mean, CA2 is theoretically against drone warfare etc, but it doesn't posit anything opposed to it. SPECTRE does: the idea of the human agent (and I love the line about a license to kill also being a license not to kill). This is reflected in the set design: the sleek modern lines of the antagonist versus the worn, lived-in architecture of the 00-section. It's ultimately less a movie about surveillance vs. liberty and more a movie about tradition versus innovation (in a situation where the tradition is ironically the more liberal/liberating of the two options, since the innovation tends toward conformity and a denial of democracy--a point M makes a couple of times). As someone who's been in the humanities for several years now, the idea has a particular resonance for me. The idea also continues the thematic material of Skyfall in a way that I think is productive.

Other stuff is less successful:

 

The parallel of Captain America and the Winter Soldier is a very dense one. It's tied to the history--both open and secret--of American militarism since World War II. Their relationship reinforces the drone subtext and gives it more depth than it would otherwise have. In contrast, Bond's relationship with Blofeld is so thinly sketched that it could almost literally be excised without doing violence to the text. There's no reason for Blofeld to be Bond's long-lost older brother figure; the relationship tells us nothing about Bond, nothing about Blofeld, and nothing about the security-state anxieties that undergird the plot proper. It's the most baffling decision in the movie, to be honest, because it feels like it should matter, but it doesn't.

Compare this relationship to Bond's affinity with Silva in Skyfall. Or his relationship with 006 in Goldeneye. In both cases, the antagonist parallels Bond in important ways and participates in a symbolic economy that deepens the overall thematics of the plot. Blofeld doesn't. SPECTRE--the organization and symbolic parallel to the "legitimate" intelligence agencies in the film--gains nothing from the personal relationship.

To make it more pointed: the proper parallel for Blofeld isn't Bond; it's M. A version of SPECTRE in which Blofeld offers an alternative authority figure, a dark shadow of M, would go much more in the direction of the sort of dense thematics that we see in CA2. As it is, SPECTRE is very weaksauce in its engagement with the thematic material.

I should point out that I think SPECTRE is a better movie than CA2. That is, it's a movie I'm more likely to pick up once it hits blu-ray, and one I'll probably rewatch with some degree of enjoyment. But thematically it's a much poorer work. 

EDIT: On the humanism-vs-technocracy thing, I did think of a line from Chesterton while watching the movie. In his essay on detective fiction, Chesterton calls criminals "cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves." I also thought of Confucius, partly because I'm reading this book. It's not quite the same thing, since the villains here are typified by technology and control, in contrast to Chesterton's burglars and footpads, but the paradox--that people who maintain order and tradition are the real guardians of radicalism--holds true in SPECTRE, I think. And it's a fun little paradox. Unfortunately, it's not one that's serviced too well by the plot.

EDIT EDIT: Ok, one more thing: the security state stuff isn't developed enough, in part, because it has to share space with the other major thematic strand--the idea of spectres [har har] of the past rising up to haunt Bond. Again, this was handled much better in Skyfall. But ghosts are all over this movie--first, the dead faces from previous movies in the credits; then the electronic [highlight to read] ghost of M, which brings vaguely Hamlet-esque vibes with it; then, of course, SPECTRE itself.... The personal storyline is--as Peter pointed out elsewhere--about Bond getting his soul back (at least, in part). The explicit ties to Casino Royale (including one scene that is pretty directly lifted from that movie) suggest something of this sort. In that storyline, the antagonist makes perfect sense. But that storyline isn't connected at all with the other one; in CA2, at least the personal stuff--which was fine on its own--interacted with the less-personal stuff. Here they sit side by side like two potentially good movies forced to share a room.

Edited by NBooth

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Some great thoughts there, NBooth.

: To make it more pointed: the proper parallel for [highlight=black]Blofeld[/highlight] isn't Bond; it's M.

Yeah, it seemed to me that Bond's personal opposite/parallel was Mr White. Which makes the fact that Bond gets it on with Mr White's daughter... interesting.

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NBooth   

Some great thoughts there, NBooth.

: To make it more pointed: the proper parallel for [highlight=black]Blofeld[/highlight] isn't Bond; it's M.

Yeah, it seemed to me that Bond's personal opposite/parallel was Mr White. Which makes the fact that Bond gets it on with Mr White's daughter... interesting.

You know, as much as I'm riffing on your comments elsewhere, I should probably link 'em.

The Bond-White parallel is a good one, and one that's supported in the movie itself by the way Madeline reacts to Bond. (Oh, and there again with the memory thing--Madeline Swann has to be a Proust reference. It's too on-the-nose not to be). And that makes the new backstory even more maddening because it doesn't make sense within the symbolic world already at play in the movie

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NBooth   

That would explain why C is such an afterthought here. 

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Question for you music/opera buffs: Is that Andreas Scholl coming through on the soundtrack when Bond enters Lucia's house? I inadvertently trained myself to recognize Scholl's voice after listening to the Merchant of Venice soundtrack several dozen times.

That moment--maybe even that scene--was the only one with any genuine gravitas.

Edited by Nathaniel

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Andrew   

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie.  It's light entertainment, for sure, but it was the most fun I've had at a Bond film since GoldenEye.  No wowzer cinematography akin to the Shanghai fight scene of Skyfall, but I did like how Waltz's villain was shrouded in darkness for Bond's first real encounter with him.  Here's my review:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/2015/11/something-old-something-new-something-recycled-in-spectre/

I give a shout out in my review to the writing by Anders and his brothers on their blog, because it's the best writing I've seen on the Bond series - highly deserving of a wider readership.

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Anders   

Thanks Andrew! We've really enjoyed doing this Bond retrospective, so happy to have more folks read it.

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Anders   

Speaking of which, my brothers and I each saw the film this past weekend and put together a roundtable discussion of our initial impressions of the film. All that's left in this retrospective we've been doing is our Daniel Craig roundtable and our individual rankings of the series. It's been a lot of words on 007.

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That moment--maybe even that scene--was the only one with any genuine gravitas.

On this we completely agree. It's one of the film’s rare grace notes, a brief moment of relief from the overplotted onslaught of the film’s two hours and thirty minutes. Bond soon saves her, and the plot machinery once again kicks into high-gear, but it’s the only moment in SPECTRE that has any humanity. This comes as a great disappointment, given that Mendes’ previous Bond outing, Skyfall, had a few more keenly-observed, human moments. But Skyfall was, plotwise, a much slighter picture, and it allowed for such breathing room. SPECTRE is much more over-burdened.

The trajectory of the Daniel Crai era of Bond has painted Bond as a fundamentally tragic figure. Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall sees Bond as the product of a series of tragedies—the death of his parents, the death of Vesper, the death of M—all of which have hardened him into a killer and denied him a potentially more fulfilling life. SPECTRE attempts to offer Bond a happy ending of sorts, and in the story arc that Mendes sketched out with SPECTRE’s various screenwriters, Bond reckons with the ghosts of his childhood, of his great failed romance, and of the death of his mentor.

Each of those ideas gets a subplot. Bond’s childhood is evoked in his conflict with Blofeld, here reimagined as Bond’s foster brother. Bond’s romance with Vesper finds an echo in his romance with Madeleine Swann. Bond further faces the ramifications of M’s death both by responding to her orders—delivered from beyond the grave—and by overcoming the sinister forces that seek to lay ruin to MI6 (the ruined façade of the old MI6 headquarters looms over many of the film’s sequences, a metaphorical reminder of M’s departure). That’s a lot of plot for any film, and the unfortunate thing is that the three strands each seem to choke the other out for attention.

The Blofeld storyline has been structured around Bond’s recognition of his own past, but is carelessly written. Bond never expresses any genuine interest or concern about the connection (in fact, all the important beats of the mystery are indifferently tossed out as interludes between larger set-pieces). The opening title card boasts that “the dead are alive,” indicating that we might read SPECTRE as a ghost story, but there's little of that ethereal mood in the film itself. Additionally, in characterization, Blofeld feels confused: he’s every bit the traditional villain (Waltz feels like a combination of all the screen actors who have previously inhabited the role), but with a wholly extraneous origin story and motivation attached.

The core romance with Madeleine Swann is little more than bullet points. Where previous Bond films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, took their romances seriously and attempted (at least in part) to structure the story around them, the romance here is relegated to a handful of too-brief scenes that cannot possibly carry the weight. It doesn’t help that Lea Seydoux and Daniel Craig do not have instantly-perceptible chemistry, so they are unable to fill in the gaps.

The worst of the three storylines, involving the impending demise of old MI6 and the rise of a new surveillance state, lacks any tension or surprise, and largely plays out through very rote scenes involving the MI6 “home team” (M, Moneypenny, and Q). Bond somewhat comes into play during the film’s limp climax at the old MI6 headquarters, but he never feels intimately involved in the fight, even after Blofeld is revealed to be behind it all.

Sam Mendes, working with editor Lee Smith, moves through all of this material relentlessly, to the point where none of it carries any weight. Even the action setpieces, with all their glorious stuntwork, fall flat (excluding the opening sequence, which is admittedly fun, even if it, too, is too-tightly edited). Given that Smith's other films--particularly his collaborations with Nolan--lack variety of editing rhythm and display a near-indifference to the dramatic undercurrents of scenes, I'm inclined to mostly blame him for this. Mendes' collaboration with Stuart Baird on Skyfall displayed a much keener attention to the performances and characters' internal tensions.

The one element that remains absolutely impeccable is Craig himself. For the first time since the early sections of Casino Royale, SPECTRE allows Bond the freedom to enjoy himself, and Craig relishes the opportunity. If Craig does not return for Bond 25, SPECTRE has given us just enough of Craig to be satisfied.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Thanks Andrew! We've really enjoyed doing this Bond retrospective, so happy to have more folks read it.

It's been a real delight to read through the series.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Andrew   

Anders, it was interesting to read through your roundtable discussion and see that you and your sibs also made the Star Wars and Batman comparisons.  Both of those issues - everyone's connected to everyone else in the Bond world; the recycled action movie tropes - definitely detracted from Spectre's gravity.  But man, I loved that opening sequence - the mix of festive percussion with the Bond theme music was a nice touch, too.

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NBooth   

Radiohead's SPECTRE theme:

"Last year we were asked to write a tune for Bond movie Spectre. Yes we were," Yorke tweeted. "It didn't work out ... but became something of our own which we love very much. As the year closes we thought you might like to hear it. Merry Christmas. May the force be with you."

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I wasn't sure where to post this.

I've started writing a series of blog posts exploring the Daniel Craig Bond films entitled "The Facts of Death" over at my new blog, Caves of Altamira. I'm not at Spectre quite yet, but I'll be getting there.

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