Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Two Halves of Skyfall: Technocracy and One's Own

One could divide the action of latest James Bond movie Skyfall in half. There is the first part where Bond, MI6, and the cause of England conscientiously follow their strict regulations—and as a consequence they lose several battles. Then there is second part where Bond and the best that is England return to their ancestral roots—roots combining judgment, fortitude, and daring in order to overcome a ruthless enemy in the here and now. By presenting a return to roots, the movie asks us to ponder the question concerning how much change there must be in order to return to what is always considered to be right, and furthermore the question concerning whether such a return now is possible—let alone necessary or desirable. Does Skyfall present an innovation that truly returns to what is best, or does it tread on thin ice in a way that suggests that one must be open to whatever fortune always already confronts one in an unforeseeable manner regardless of alleged timeless principles? In order to say something intelligible in this post, I’ll leave that question unanswered.

The first half of Skyfall is all about rational control. There are the policies, procedures, and protocols of MI6 which govern the activities of the spies and the spies who spy on them, and all this control is on behalf of a secure and peaceable U.K.* All must follow the rules, and they will all be held accountable. With satellite audio and video communications, let alone the internet and CCTV—the assistance of the latter, to which, a nameless bureaucrat desperately implores during an emergency he witnesses live onscreen—it seems to be the case that the abstract, general, settled, and standing rules are best preserved when they are recorded, assessed, and analyzed in their minutiae. The new data driven culture of evidence at MI6 will run all of this material through various sophisticated statistical models in a way that is accountable to the rationale governing the whole thing. That is to say, nothing—not even the shadows—will be outside the rule of rational control.

There seems to be a hope that the rule of law can be realized in its completion when everything is brought to light under the complete rational control of modern technologies of communication and surveillance (even if that completion is somewhat inconducive to the aims of ordered liberty). The bureaucratic technologists will record billions of pages of text and thousands of hours of audio and video, and this database will apparently allow for rational on the spot scientific decision-making in the future. Probably no one will actually ever read, listen to, or see this information. That is, it will not be noticed until someone with a large amount of time and a partisan axe to grind decides to look into the details in the first place. In other words, when it comes to issues like the rational control of the intelligence, politics will continue to exist despite the predominant authority of statistical science.

When “mistakes are made,” as inevitably they must, public hearings will use this scientifically gathered information to bring those “responsible” to answer to the public world of daylight. In this way, it is hoped that giving strict scrutiny to what remains of the ever-dwindling shadow world will ferret out the truth of things in and through an open process of constructive criticism. Such critical procedures will hopefully make the world in the future that much more immune to the asymptotic goal of preventing error. Security and peaceableness for all will be made that much more guaranteed.

If this techno-bureaucratic order is evidence of a lack of trust in those, who like Bond, are deputized to carry out their various missions in situations of extreme danger and risk of life, it still has the justification of being an orderly and controllable way to carry out policy with an eye toward ever-increasing rational and technological precision. If light can be projected into each and every crevice and interstice where shadows may remain, then one can ponder the hope of making real the superfluity of MI6 (or at least the James Bonds of this world) in the name of a fully transparent society of perpetual peace.

Nevertheless, the world of Skyfall is not there yet. James Bond remains a secret agent, even a 007 agent with a license to kill, all the while working in the midst of this technological and administrative regime with its anomalous politics.

So these rational rules must control James Bond and his cohorts, even if it means the probable death of Bond. Under such surveillance, noble deeds done in the name of serving one’s own country get translated into Benthamite calculations of the greatest good dictated according to the latest regulations by the panoptic observers at a distance. In this way James Bond as an agent becomes easily replaceable by any other agent, and his service and sacrifice is understood as a mere calculation in the service to the good of the greatest number. Even M succumbs to this logic when she orders Eve to shoot despite the fact that there is obviously no clear shot. Could Bond have retrieved the secret list of agents had Eve not taken that shot? The audience is left to wonder, but one must do what is required under orders.

Besides, there would have been no movie—or at least not this one.

If Bond is to survive as an MI6 agent, he must undergo thorough physical and psychological analysis upon his return to duty, no matter how personally humiliating it may be to his sense of pride. Every agent, regardless of experience, must pass these tests. In these tests, there is no question of unquantifiable innate virtues and dedication to country. In Skyfall, M realizes her earlier error of judgment when she fudges the data to allow Bond to pass the tests, or at least that is what Silva would have him believe.

Silva offers Bond a kind of freedom, but it is a freedom that accepts the general regime of rational control which is apparently indicative of MI6’s current modus operandi—even if Silva uses such freedom of action for evil ends. Perhaps Silva lied to Bond about M’s disregard for the scientific evidence of his rehabililatory tests. It does not matter. Perhaps MI6 is not as bureaucratically restrained as it appears to be, but that insight requires Bond and the audience to believe that Silva represents a total lie. Silva, the techno-bureaucratic ruler par excellence, has to be denied. Eventually Bond is able to come to such a denial. M, in her data fudging may have rejected it too, but at that point, data fudging or not doesn’t matter because other unquantifiable virtues must come to the forefront in order to do what is right.

The second half of Skyfall portrays both Bond and M rejecting the technocratic view of the current MI6, as well as Silva’s own shadow version of it.

When Bond—with an earpiece directing him from headquarters—fails to prevent Silva’s raid on the public hearings investigating the death of several MI6 agents, he realizes that he must use other modes. Against all procedure, he commandeers M away from her MI6 handlers, and together they drive his pristine 1960s Aston Martin to the dilapidated ancestral Bond estate called Skyfall in Scotland. As he drives away, M asks, with a semi-serious deadpan voice, if Bond is going to disregard policy. The answer is an unspoken but definite yes. With their mutual locking of eyes in a rearview mirror, they both agree that such radical, but not unprecedented, action is required to defeat Silva.

So the audience is meant to wonder what Skyfall may mean. Well, when the technological advances fall through the sky and disappear in efficacy—the advantages to which some appeal as if they were gods—what else can one do but return to one’s own? This own is particular, but to properly fight an enemy one needs to know one’s terrain, and where else does one know one’s own than with one’s own as it were. So Bond returns to Skyfall. This is not psychobabble, nor is it Glenn Beck, dig your own well, get lots of guns and gold, and have five years worth of Campbell’s soup and MREs. It is simply a place that one needs to know in the most extreme of circumstances to fight against an enemy like Silva—even if that place implies something more general like one’s own nation or country. While a Silva-like character may always be there, one need not arrange one’s whole life around such a contingency, but one must be able to go to one's own when necessary.

To quote a poem other than Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” at the end of the day, Bond returns to the bare ruined choirs of the local church. True, M sadly cannot survive despite Bond’s best efforts, but his efforts perceive a love more strong that even he must eventually give up. Fighting for M and himself--and his country--is worth fighting for despite the world of rational control. Bond’s efforts and M’s death are shown as events of noble sacrifice beyond the Benthamite greatest good for the greatest number. Something important remains despite such calculation.

James Bond’s estate Skyfall suffers from neglect, but this character was one who historically, from Connery to Craig, never was shown to have a past anyway. Of course his estate is in disarray.

The latest Bond movies, i.e., the Daniel Craig movies, have revealed aspects of Bond’s past, and suggested that that past is somehow important. Does this personal history diminish his importance as a hero who appears out of nowhere as the Bonds were in the past? Perhaps. But it doesn’t diminish his heroism in general. James Bond (as Daniel Craig) may be an orphan, but out of the past he still knows how to defeat the enemy in the changing circumstances of today, and he does it as Bond always did, with better style and taste—panache—than anyone else ever could.

I’ll try to connect Skyfall to the several movies it references in a later post, but I’m getting tired of talking about this movie. So maybe not.

*One of Skyfall’s many ambivalences regards the status of the real entities and names for the country or nation that Bond serves. Is it England, Scotland (currently resonant of the idea of independence), Wales, the U.K., Great Britain? As Paul Seaton (in the comments) notes, M’s battered Union Jack bulldog tchotchke suggests the remaining importance of the U.K.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

More Short Thoughts on Skyfall (But This Time With Spoliers)

Skyfall is bookended with two (what turn out to be) near drowning scenes. We see James Bond at beginning and at end of the movie struggling for air underwater and under circumstances of great duress. In both cases, the sense is that Bond is literally in over his head at the limit of life and death.

In the first scene, after being shot by his MI6 cohort, Bond finds himself underwater after a great fall from a bridge outside of Istanbul. In this sequence, it seems that he is saved by the silhouette of long and slender feminine fingers as the scene transforms itself into the usual, but in this case atypical, opening credit montage found in all the Broccoli produced Bond films. In this case, the credits are atypical because of their emphasis on blood and death—especially the death of James Bond himself. We see tombstones emblazoned with the name James Bond.

In the very next scene, we see Bond alive, and assume he has survived near drowning through his own self-determination, because we have no other information. Perhaps a woman saved him, but we don’t know where he is or how he got there after his previous ordeal. We simply find him meandering through a low budget tropical island paradise—a paradise that hints at the pleasures of a barely seen beautiful naked woman, and nights apparently spent drinking whisky on the beach with drum circle hippie drop-outs.  Almost as if it were an afterworld appropriate for the lassitude of those who experience the burdens of responsibility to be ultimately unbearable, Bond seems to have found a place off the grid, where nobody knows his name, and where he can be free from the troubles of personal risk taking in the name of queen and country. Is this what Bond looks like in the underworld? Perhaps it is better to be a slave than dead.

In the other near drowning scene toward the end of the movie, we find Bond holed up in his ancestral estate in the Scottish Highlands named “Skyfall.” In an attempt to save M's and his own life, he waits there for the villain Silva's inevitable attack with a booby trapped to plan to foil it. During the attack, Bond finds himself under the necessity to shoot his gun through some ice that drops him deep into the dark waters of a loch. We again see him struggle for life underwater, and this time fighting one of his adversaries. Bond then shoots a gun through the ice from below in order to reach the surface and escape his death. This time we actually see him save his life on his own with his typical skill and daring. In terms of the movie, his actions allow him to save the day—or almost save the day—at the end of the movie.

In Skyfall the resurrection theme is pervasive. James Bond comes back from the dead, and so does the franchise. Older movies and their various tropes (visual and verbal) also make a comeback. The old school ways return—whether it is in terms of the toys of espionage, a return to traditional gender roles, or a return to the ancestral estate. Also, there is a return to the idea of the importance of the nation, serving it honorably and without tongue in cheek.

I’ll have more to say on Skyfall later.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Think On Your Sins: On Skyfall

Would it be too much to suggest a deeper meaning to the message that the latest Bond villain, Silva (Javier Bardem), repeatedly sends to MI6’s M (Judi Dench) in the latest installment of the James Bond franchise, Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes)? Perhaps, but I’ll venture such a claim nonetheless. “Think on your sins” not only alerts the viewer to the personal revenge motive that guides the villain in his destructive pursuits, but it also points toward an acrostic code—“toys.” As such, this message points to the importance of “toys” throughout the history of Bond movies.

In these movies, the good guys and bad guys alike develop and deploy the most ingenious and deadly toys, as they play cat and mouse in their attempts to thwart the other’s designs. The toys have included all sundry of clever weapons, cameras, recording devices, tracking devices, underwater breathing apparatus—and all contained in the size of an actual ball point pen or wristwatch. Of course, there have also been the cars—the Aston Martins and Jaguars and Lotuses and BMWs decked out with bullet proof windows, machine guns, submarine capability, remote control, and the obligatory ejector seats. And this list only describes the toys supplied by Q at the intelligence headquarters, i.e., the toys for the good guys.

So it seems that the idea of toys provides some sort of thematic motif in Skyfall. In fact, at one point, Silva boasts that Bond (Daniel Craig) need admire (and beware) his “toys.” However, despite the emphasis on toys, Q (Ben Whishaw) provisions 007 with a mere palm recognition handgun and a simple radio transmitter. Bond retorts, “It’s not exactly Christmas, is it?” In this 21st century Bond film, the toys and gizmos and gadgets remain relatively lo-fi and DIY—muskets, sawed off shotguns, various improvised explosive devices, and even daggers.

To be sure, in this movie computers and high-tech knowhow are pervasive, but even that has a ring of the familiar to it. Bond catches up with news at a beachside bar with the help of a flat screen and Wolf Blitzer. A bit more like you and me, he reads text messages received on his smart phone. Silva is a genius computer hacker (reminiscent of Julian Assange), and the youthful Q is only one of “six people in the world” who knows how to encrypt software in order to make “obscurity” useful for the sake of “security.” But the audience has seen all of this before in the Mission Impossible and Die Hard movies, and it has even seen it as early as Sandra Bullock in The Net (or was it Whoopie Goldberg in Jumping Jack Flash?).

It turns out that in Skyfall, in order to save the day, the old school know how needs to reassert itself. And reassert itself it does.

Must one wonder which sins need to be thought on other than those alleged to M's culpability?

Skyfall alludes to earlier Bond flicks and its various toys in part to comment on its own dearth of toys. For fifty years, James Bond has morphed from Connery to Lazenby to Moore to Dalton to Brosnan to Craig, and perhaps Skyfall suggests that the franchise had become too enamored of the toys at the expense of character and story. Perhaps that emphasis had been detrimental to what Armond White calls the serious moral and political intent that once characterized popular entertainment. This newest Bond movie admirably and successfully attempts to restore some of that seriousness.

Skyfall alludes to many other movies as well—like Mission Impossible (dir. Brian De Palma), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (dir. Brad Bird), The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme), the Dark Knight movies (dir. Christopher Nolan), Carlito’s Way (dir. Brian De Palma), and Straw Dogs (dir. Sam Peckinpah).

Skyfall also has an extended quotation from Alfred Lord, Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

In future posts, I plan to speak to all this intertextuality, and infer perhaps what Skyfall has to say about important themes regarding technology, globalization, nationalism, tradition, politics, bureaucracy, the relation between the sexes, war, enemies, espionage, secrecy, intelligence, and several others. Of course, I really can’t speak to all of this, but as a popular movie with immense cultural resonance, Skyfall is surely a commentary on how these themes manifest themselves in the current era.