Spoilers for Skyfall. If you haven’t seen it–and you want to–don’t read this.
I’m a great fan of James Bond pictures, from Goldfinger to Goldeneye. I grew up watching them cut and compressed on TBS: Bond marathons at Christmas, then endless videotape reruns of From Russia With Love to get me through the rest of the year.
I was in high school when the franchise rebooted in 1995, bringing Bond face-to-face with the end of the Cold War and me nose-to-nose with Pierce Brosnan.
My brother could tell you totally spurious stories of my reaction to the swimming scene in Goldeneye when we saw it in the theatre. Spurious, yes. But also true.
What can I say? I’ve got good taste in spies.
Now loving Bond as I do–that misogynist dinosaur, as nu!M called him once–may seem odd for a feminist. And it is, perhaps. But even as a kid, I never identified with Bond’s girls, even with kick-ass chicks like Pussy Galore. And damn, could Honor Blackman get it done.
No. I identified with Bond. Hell, I wanted to be Bond.
I don’t remember when I realized that–made that split between me and the man with the Walther PPK–but once I did, there was no doubt why I kept coming back.
The material pleasures of Bond? No doubt. George Lazenby in a kilt? Hell yes.
Connery in a tux? Yes, please.
And Daniel Craig in anything–
Sign me up, stat.
But there was also–there still is–part of me that identifies with him, with the one with a one-liner or a backhand or a royal flush. With the kairotic know-how to win, no matter what the game.
With the one who’s a little broken, who’s not right in more ways than one, but who feeds on that darkness when he needs to. Whose access to that part of himself makes him stronger.
He’s a fucking cool dude, Bond. And I still want to be him.
So I came to Skyfall with an embarrassingly long knowledge of the genre, of the narrative elements that traditionally make up a Bond picture.
And here’s what struck me, in this more than any other in the Craig series: the foregrounding of tradition.
It’s a notion that’s diagetic in the story, beginning with the back-to-basics title sequence–dare I say elemental?–complete with shimming naked women, fire, water, and blood.
Over the course of the film, the new ways of making Bond’s world–“new” since the arrival of Judi Dench’s M in Tomorrow Never Dies and since Craig picked up the mantle–are systematically destroyed and replaced by knowing repetitions of the past.
For example, the baddie blows up the fancy riverfront digs that MI6’s occupied since the The World Is Not Enough, forcing the spy branch underground, into Churchill’s bunker from WWII. Later, Bond takes M on the run in her sleek company car–a gorgeous if anonymous Jaguar–but, in order to avoid detection, he dumps the Jag in favor of Connery’s Astin Martin from Goldfinger: yup, the one with the ejector seat. Even Bond’s gadgets don’t escape the blast from the past: the new adorable Quartermaster outfits him solely with a PPK and a radio transmitter and mocks Bond for his disappointment: “What, did you expect an exploding pen?” Q chides. “We don’t really go for that sort of thing these days.”
By the end of the film, the new, male M is comfortably ensconced in his old digs from the ancient days have been restored, complete with leather door, hatstand, and–you guessed it–a Miss Moneypenny for the 21st century.
This interweaving of tradition and innovation lies at the heart of the film and proves central to the narrative. nu!M’s past comes back to bite her (and the agency) in the ass; Bond stages a final stand against Silva at Skyfall, the Bond family estate; and even the necessity of the old-school humint ways of MI6 itself are called into question by the Opposition–at least until James has to bust into an intelligence committee meeting and save the day. Sort of.
And I can’t tell you how many times various characters repeat the mantra: “Sometimes the old ways are better.”
Now part of this new-old interplay is present, I think, in every Bond film, especially those in the reboot era: 1995 and forward. The fundamentals of a Bond story are pretty deeply ingrained into the popular consciousness: his quips, his cars, his women. His baddies and their elaborate lairs. His back-and-forth with Q. The good girl who lives and the bad girl who dies. The martini. The call and response of “Bond. James Bond.”
Yeah, you know the one.
And I do wonder if the thematic emphasis on this idea in Skyfall is due in part to this year being the 50th anniversary of Bond on film, if it’s this sense of history, of Bond’s history and ours with him as an audience, that made this notion particularly resonant for the writers and producers of this installment in the franchise.
But it’s like John Muckelbauer says in his book, The Future of Invention: it’s the changes to the Bond narrative, the new ways of doing Bond that’ve been fashioned in the past ~20 years, that keep the tradition alive:
“The movement of tradition itself, a movement that orders the past and dictates a demand for repetition is not only unchanged by alterations to any particular content of a tradition, but actually reproduced an even stabilized through such changes.” (148)
“tradition only functions through change, that it requires change in order to repeat itself.” (148)
In coming back to tradition, then, so overtly, so consciously, in Skyfall–confronting and then destroying some of the more recent changes to the Bond narrative–doesn’t negate those alterations. Rather, those changes–a female M, a resistance to some of the old Bond tropes–have now been reabsorbed into the Bond Tradition. Newer viewers to the series, those who began with the later Brosnan films or with Craig, will bring the tradition of a female M with them to the next Bond film; for them, having a male M will be a sign of difference; a move that, for older viewers, will feel more like a “return” to tradition, to the old ways of doing Bond.
This is a long and wanky way of saying that I enjoyed this film. For all of its beautiful location shoots and set pieces, it’s dark and claustrophobic, personal and political. Ultimately, it’s a little incestuous: the film hinges on Silva getting at MI6 from the inside, destroying them with his knowledge of their traditions, of the way they operate. We learn a bit about Bond’s own past and begin to understand his desire to ignore it, and about his relationship with nu!M, who, for all of her snappy retorts–perhaps because of them–really loves James, and we start to see how and why that feeling goes both ways.
It’s a bit Foucaultian, for all that; Skyfall embodies Muckelbauer’s notion that tradition and innovation rely on each other for their existence, that one cannot exist without the other.
Bond is the embodiment of that idea. All of his innovations–moving from actor to actor, for instance–ultimately serve to reinforce and strengthen the traditional way of doing Bond.
Ah, dear reader. If only.
And so I’ll stay on Team Bond, yes.
Like the man says in the last line of the film: “With pleasure.”