Skyfall: When the Man Comes Around

Gen X Review Skyfall
The James Bond of my youth (Roger Moore) fought the feminist onslaught of the 1970s and ’80s by insisting masculinity was effortless, natural, and coyly charming.

You could critique this Bond for being a mere projection of male fantasies – especially if you defined masculinity as inherently violent, destructive and childish, as many did – but he resisted psychoanalysis.

I am what I am, Moore’s version of Bond said, winking at the screen. His performances were immaculate; they left no trace of the boy who would eventually become Bond and offered no origin story.

That Bond accepted all judgment laid at him and still smirked, making no apologies for the trail of tears he left behind. Maybe this was the only way to face the primitive critiques of Bond the misogynist, the killer of women, the psychopath, the Uberman.

There was no defense for being a man during Moore’s reign, no excuse for the male’s world of genocide, war, and destruction. If being a man meant you had to accept all of this cultural destruction, why not do it as a Bond in an exotic sports car with buxom supermodels on both arms?

Bond is a wonderful barometer for masculinity, and it is no coincidence that our Bond today is a highly psychologized, tortured creature, not an unapologetic man’s man. It isn’t that the war of the sexes is over; it’s that the war of the sexes is over and men lost. The stable, mythic figure of masculinity has been destroyed.

Undoubtedly many will become nostalgic that we no longer have the “natural” north pole of man’s brutality to critique. How can we survive without pathologizing masculinity? Without saying that being a man means, basically, being a jerk?

Well, here’s a good start: Skyfall, the newest Bond film by director Sam Mendes.

Here’s a James Bond (Daniel Craig) who bleeds; a bad-ass bond who is still very much a work in progress. Skyfall is by far the best of the last three Bond films. It both epitomizes the long-running franchise and eclipses it, extending well beyond the Bond formula into the ruined heart of darkness of masculinity itself.

The film begins with a death: Bond’s. Our hero pursues a spy in possession of the names of all MI6 operatives working undercover throughout the globe. A typical chase scene ensues and at a crucial moment, M (Judi Dench), the agency’s director, orders Bond’s partner to take a difficult shot at the bad guy. She misses and strikes Bond, and he falls from a trestle and into a rushing river.

M pronounces Bond dead and the world moves on. A mysterious cyber terrorist blows up MI6’s HQ and begins a prolonged psychological attack on M. Silva (Javier Bardem) is a former agent himself and like all bad children, he knows how to hurt his mother (M is called mum throughout the film): He destroys her other children.

But Bond is not quite dead and when he hears of the attacks he returns to service. This is at least the third time Bond has been reborn in the series and each time before he has come back less human, more of the cold superspy hyper-masculine role model we expect from earlier films of the franchise.

This time, however, Bond returns a lesser man, almost an ordinary man, even. In the purgatory before his return he hits the bottle hard, plays dangerous self-destructive games and seems almost for the first time to be the sort of man who can imagine his own real death.

Has the brush with mortality ruined Bond? Made him too human, too frail, to return to service? Can Bond piecemeal his manhood back?

This Bond is also admittedly middle-aged – which Bond hasn’t been middle aged? – and the film questions whether it’s possible for a forty-something to remain vital in the age of Viagra. ‘Why not stay dead?’, M’s new boss Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) asks Bond when they meet. Espionage is a young man’s game and this broken Bond is neither young nor entirely a man.

So how do we build a man? We stitch him back together with scar tissue, muscle and pain. We force him to make difficult decisions and live with the consequences. We bring him back to the adolescent darkness that created him so that he can re-conquer those old, stubborn fears and confront the demon he sees in the mirror.

Silva is Bond’s mirror opposite, a man who has never had the chance to be reborn. He has emerged from near destruction crippled, disfigured and psychotic. Denied the opportunity to grow, he has created rituals around an infantile fantasy of absolute oblivion and unification with the mother figure.

This Bond has an origin. He was created by trauma (like Silva) and survived finding a socially-acceptable outlet for psychotic drives. The value of this second (or third) re-birth is it allows Bond to consciously re-form himself, to choose this new man he wants to become.

Like Dark Knight Rises, this Bond has to confront and overcome this destructive side of mal-adjusted masculinity. In doing so he shows us some positive attributes of manhood: loyalty, capacity to endure and sacrifice for a higher goal, acceptance. Bond becomes not the middle-aged Balboa defeating some younger version of himself, but a man who understands that he, too, will die. There is no other alternative, especially for a man such as Bond.

The trick is to find the proper way to live.


Cloud Atlas: The Smear of Liberal Guilt

Gen x Review of Cloud AtlasIt has been a year of bloated, self-important movies that are almost universally applauded though very rarely understood, but no amount of shoveling bullshit up a hill can prepare you for Cloud Atlas.

This elaborate mess explores six separate narratives divided by space and time. Actors reappear in each story as different characters – sometimes different genders or sexes; even occasionally as other species – to hammer home the point that we’re all, like, the same under our skin.

Yes, it really is that trite and silly.

The movie is secular liberal humanism explained through identity politics. It tells a bunch of stories about how different classes of people have been prejudiced against. The filmmakers use reoccurring actors and a few physical signs attached to characters (a birthmark in the shape of a comet) to tell us that spirits have been reincarnated into different bodies.

So the Halle Berry that is a hot ’70s reporter in one narrative becomes a less hot extra from Logan’s Run in another, but remains essentially just eye candy and the spirit flickers away from incarnation to incarnation. The process of reincarnation itself – and the possible religious underpinnings of the idea of a gigantic celestial bureaucracy keeping track of where our spirit lands – is unimportant stuff compared to our lust for love and acceptance.

But what might otherwise be a giddy PoMo celebration of the fluidity of identity becomes an anxiety over bodies. We scrutinize these selves who reappear here with buck teeth, there with a nasty scar, elsewhere as a terrible middle-aged actor playing a cartoon version of a Guy Ritchie character. In every scene we’re looking for the offensively stupid birthmark that shows us who our hero really is.

This has the paradoxical result of making us care more about race and gender than we might otherwise. This wouldn’t be bad if the film didn’t approach these topics with the subtlety of a hammer to the head. Every slave trader is, of course, irredeemably evil, but how stupid do we have to be to congratulate ourselves in being offended at a society misogynistic enough to treat their women like cows at the slaughter?

No, people who make a lot out of race or sex in the film are buffoons, monsters and unmitigated villains. They jail the old, blackmail the queer, poison the just and literally kill and dismember women. These are not people you would want to share a drink with and yet we are among them as we chuckle at the inordinate and obvious efforts to erase gender and race.

We’re punished for noticing that the filmmakers have decided to make Halle Berry a white debutant or South Korean actress Doona Bae a Mexican for absolutely no reason at all. By the time Hugo Weaving appears as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest we are literally paying attention to nothing but bodies.

These details may not be important to writer Lana Wachowski (formerly a dude with the same last name), but they do matter to us so we must be shallow. (Because, we assume, sex and race are so unimportant to Ms. W. that she underwent a complex, dangerous and expensive gender re-assignment surgery). We should follow the bouncing ball of spiritual reincarnation and pay attention to the liberal themes of universality and love, says the movie, not fixating on the race/gender card Wachowski plays in every scene.

Instead of the existential discontinuity of, say, Being John Malkovich, where bodies and identities are in uncomfortable flux, Cloud Atlas is liberal utopianism at its worst. Evolutionarily, the final expression is a Hanks literally blinded into a proper vision of life, a man who has lost his ability to see difference, a sort of priest of multiculturalism and diversity.

He is the new first man, sitting in his eco-village among scores of multiracial children, having finally escaped the poisoned Earth. “Can’t we all just get along,” he craws to his progenies as though this is an obvious option that we have chosen to reject.

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