The Name's Bond. Jane Bond.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the recent casting of a woman in the role of Dr. Who was a welcome victory for diversity - a minor victory perhaps but these things all add up. However, I feel more ambivalent about the subsequent calls for a female 007 AKA ‘Jane Bond’. Why would you even want that? Merely for the sake of subverting a traditionally male archetype? If so we may as well demand a James Eyre for parity. Maybe it's just that I have a closer affinity to Bond as a character. I’ve enjoyed Dr. Who at various points in the past - the Tom Baker era and the often ignored Peter Cushing films in particular - but it’s not something I have a strong attachment to. Bond, on the other hand, is slightly different. I’m not wildly attached to the series but it’s definitely had a greater presence in my life, partly I suspect because my dad's a fan.

 Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No (1962)

As a child of the late 70s/80s I was inevitably drawn to Roger Moore - the gadgets and the goofy charm suited my childish imagination. Then in later years I grew to appreciate that Sean Connery was of course the superior Bond. Goldfinger was seminal but I think Dr. No is my personal favourite; less camp and mannered than subsequent instalments, it's essentially a Boy's Own adventure yarn that strikes a nice balance between grounded espionage and escapist fantasy. The series eventually became a parody of itself, until the Daniel Craig era when Casino Royale and Skyfall recaptured former glories - the climax of the latter curiously signalling a nostalgic regression to the patriarchal milieu of the pre-Judi Dench era, with a male M once again ensconced at MI6 and Miss Monnypenny dutifully back behind her desk.

Apparently we’re due one more installment with Daniel Craig and then they’ll recast the role. I think it’s much more likely that they’ll cast a non-white male than a female, and I'm sure that’s entirely appropriate. Idris Elba would be a fine choice in theory but he’s clearly too old. He’ll be touching 50 years of age by then (Craig was 38 when he did Casino Royale) and they’ll want someone who can commit to what is a very physically demanding role for at least a decade. Oddly, given there’s more to ethnic diversity than black or white you rarely hear calls for a Bond of Asian descent. Popular culture is already blessed with a growing number of iconic black men, but an Asian 007 could be just the hero we need for these times - "The name’s Bond. Jamal Bond."

 Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters (2016)

So why not a female Bond? Why not indeed. I actually find myself increasingly drawn to female-led stories. My favourite films of recent years include Lost in Translation, Mulholland Dr., BirthFrances Ha, and Gravity; and it's been a good year or so for women on television with Girls, The Girlfriend Experience, Glow and I Love Dick, not to mention the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. Inevitably, there are exceptions. The recent Ghostbusters reboot, while it had its moments, was not a good film but that's not because of the female cast, who did a fine job. If anyone is to blame it’s the director, Paul Feig. Likewise with The Force Awakens and Rogue One - both mediocre films in my opinion but not because they had female protagonists, but because they had mediocre (male) directors.

A few days before they announced Jodie Whittaker's casting in Dr. Who, though to far less fanfare, the producers of the Bond franchise announced that Blake Lively is set to star in a new espionage thriller. The premise sounds more like Jane Bourne to me but either way it seems that the Bond producers are looking to satisfy an apparent demand for a female super spy by creating a brand new franchise, rather than meddle with the current one and thus risk killing the golden goose. At least this way they don't have to worry about making her a sexist pig, I suppose.

The Boy in the Bubble

“The essence of life isn't comic, it's tragic. There's nothing intrinsically funny about the terrible facts of human existence.” “l disagree. Philosophers call it absurd because, in the end, all you can do is laugh." ~ Melinda and Melinda (Woody Allen; 2004)

 

I’ve been watching a lot of John Travolta films lately. It began with Urban Cowboy (1980), which I’d never even heard of until it was reviewed on the excellent '80s All Over podcast. I’m currently writing a neo-western so I’ve been researching the genre, but while Urban Cowboy is a fascinating snapshot of blue collar Southern culture, with some fine performances, I think I prefer the not dissimiliar Hard Country (1981), which I likewise discovered via '80s All Over. It’s less slick but feels more authentic than ‘Saturday Night Cowboy’, as co-host Scott Weinberg put it in the podcast.

 Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

This led me inevitably to Saturday Night Fever (1977), which I’d long been meaning to watch since I was too young to see it at the time it was initially popular. It then fell off my radar in the intervening years, despite my penchant for disco music when I was in my twenties. I enjoyed the film, it’s occasionally gripping and poignant and of course the soundtrack is sensational. The gender politics are dubious to say the least but arguably reflective of the era it was made and the milieu in which it was set. Ideally, there would be an alternate version of that story told from the point of view of the women. But then you could say that about a lot of classic films.

I never fully appreciated what a unique and charismatic screen presence John Travolta was in his heyday. I couldn't relate to him the way I could to more conventional symbols of heroic masculinity like Christopher Reeve or Harrison Ford. Although Grease (1978) was sort of a big deal - I liked the songs and it reminded me of Happy Days which I was fond of. But as a late bloomer growing up in an ultra-conservative environment, I was simultaneously piqued and intimidated by its heady atmosphere of adolescent horniness (I'm convinced I wouldn't have lasted two minutes in an American high school). Looking at it now, it’s less compelling than SNF, but the final scene at the fairground remains for me the most joyous celebration of sexual attraction in cinema, rivalled only by the balcony scene in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), but way more sassy. It's impossible not to get swept up by its charm.

Grease was directed by Randal Kleiser, who just a couple of years earlier had directed Travolta in a TV movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble - based on the true story of a boy born with an extremely weak immune system who's forced to live in a sterilised plastic room in order to survive. It's a tale which later inspired a Paul Simon song and an episode of Seinfeld. Upon learning of this film, I had a flashback to something with a similar plot which I vaguely recalled seeing as a child. The idea of a boy having to spend his life in an plastic tent to prevent exposure to germs was genuinely disturbing. One scene in particular always stayed with me: somebody passes some money into his tent which in turn leads to him contracting an infection and eventually dying. Tragic stuff. Out of curiosity I acquired The Boy in the Plastic Bubble on DVD and, sure enough, it turned out to be the same film I had remembered. I hadn’t registered at the time that it was John Travolta, but then it was made just before he became famous. He's hugely engaging in the film and you can see why he became a star.

 The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976)

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976)

Except... his character didn’t die. Yes, some money was passed into the tent, after he wins a bet with another boy, but then nothing comes of it. It’s a narrative loose end. Instead, the film ends with him choosing, against medical advice, to leave his bubble and take his chances in the outside world. He meets up with his childhood sweetheart and they ride off into the sunset.

Now, my mother has on several occasions bemoaned my allegedly selective memory, claiming I only recall the negative aspects of my childhood at the expense of the positive, but this was a step beyond that and it perturbed me somewhat. How could I have remembered something so vividly yet inaccurately? As it happens, I've just re-read John Higgs’ seminal book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, which features a short section dealing with the unreliability of memory. In it Higgs describes how people “slowly absorb events into their own narrative, losing the loose ends and unexplained incidents and making sense of what they can with respect to their own lives and prejudices.” Apparently this drift of memory into error is “so precise and predictable that it can be plotted on a graph, known as the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting.” According to Higgs, the role of the ego is like a "spin doctor explaining the action afterwards in the best possible light" - or in my case, worst.

 Ebbinghaus curve

Ebbinghaus curve

Evidently I'm prone to pessimism. For me optimism is an act of will, something I've learned to cultivate out of a sense of pragmatic self-awareness, as opposed to an inherent character trait. I’m neither a psychologist nor a philosopher but I’ve long suspected that we each inhabit our own bubbles - mental not plastic - in which subjective perception distorts objective reality. These bubbles are like private cinemas projecting our lives in real time. We're both the audience and the director, drawing from the same common source material but interpreting it in a way that's unique to us. For some people life is a gritty melodrama, for others a romantic comedy. Some of us, through luck or force of will, may get to choose which.

It Doesn't Suck

"Ordinary riches can be stolen; real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you." ~ Oscar Wilde

 

Sometimes I find myself idly scrolling through old text message conversations. Not regularly, I must add. In fact very rarely. More often than not it's due to a key word I’ve searched for on my phone turning up in an old text message and curiosity getting the better of me. The weird thing is I barely recognise myself in the texts - where’s the punctuation? or the passive aggression? The sheer fact that I texted in the first place is somewhat discombobulating since these days I barely text at all, as a result of the enforced solitude that comes with being in a writing phase. But I recently came across this brief conversation from a few years back and despite the inconsistent punctuation it seemed less dated than usual.

The film in question was Ridley Scott’s Legend, a film I do think about from time to time but not as often as Showgirls - a subversive neo-western/neon glitterfest featuring a wilfully defiant heroine, filmed on undigitised celluloid back when there was still a viable arthouse film industry. Contrary to popular opinion, it doesn't suck. In fact, there's a lot to admire about it. I see it as a flamboyant parable about the perils of being creative and ambitious, of trying your luck in a highly competitive, commercial environment and being torn between self-expression and giving the punters what they want ("Sooner or later you're gonna have to sell it").

Is it a satire, as some have claimed? I'm not entirely sure. While Paul Verhoeven has proven masterful with satirical material, chiefly Robocop and Starship Troopers, it's hardly Joe Eszterhas' specialism. His screenplay treads a fine line between earnestness and irony, clumsily at times, but I think that's part of its charm. It's certainly a lot of fun, with its shiny costumes and outrageously vulgar humour, and I'll admit to feeling nostalgic for that era of cinema when films with an independent spirit could be produced with A-list talent and craftsmanship. Showgirls playfully merges the big-budget (lip)gloss of late 20th century mainstream Hollywood with the camp, underground wit of John Waters. But I think the main takeaway for me is its liberating repudiation of an earlier Joe Eszterhas scripted fairy-tale.

 Flashdance (1983)

Flashdance (1983)

The central message of Flashdance, enshrined in the lyrics to its theme song, is that 'if you take your passion and make it happen, you can really have it all' - a typically banal Reagan-era aspirational conceit. Alex Owens manages to have her cake and eat it, namely independence and a knight in shining armour. Whereas, at the end of Showgirls, Nomi Malone has sacrificed everything - fame, success, intimacy - for the sake of her sense of identity, her conscience even. In other words, she forfeits the world to gain her soul. This is the culmination of the film's Christian subtext - a recurring motif in Verhoeven's oeuvre of which I've written about before.

More superficially, within the context of the film's neo-western tropes, the finale places her in the tradition of lone gunslingers (Malone/lone - geddit?) who ride into town at the beginning of the movie, administer justice, then ride off into the sunset. So while Showgirls has, with some justification, been described as 'All About Eve in a G-string', it's also Shane (not that I care to imagine Alan Ladd in a G), and in that sense is fundamentally a paean to individualism, with the caveat that this comes at a price. I guess the moral of the story is: you can't have it all, but you can at least own yourself.

 Showgirls (1995)

Showgirls (1995)

In Memory of Michael Parks

 From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

As I write it is the day after the announcement that Michael Parks had died. In a curious instance of synchronicity, today in the post I received a Blu-ray of John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning... in which a young Parks played Adam, while this evening I reached episode 10 of Twin Peaks - a series I’m in the process of re-watching - in which Parks makes his first appearance as Jean Renault.

If you don’t know the name it’s likely you will have seen some of Michael Parks' work. My first exposure to him was in the aforementioned The Bible, which I first saw as a child and is that rare thing: a biblical film that isn’t moronic. It’s more faithful to Scripture than most and visually spectacular. Parks makes a dramatic entrance as a nude Adam emerging out of the red clay earth at the edge of Eden, while his reaction the morning after his first experience of 'being fruitful' with Eve is rather charming.

 The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966)

The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966)

However, I only really became aware of Parks as a performer via his roles for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino: he had a memorable cameo in From Dusk Till Dawn as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, a role he would reprise in Kill Bill (which I happened to watch at the weekend) and Death Proof. I consider him the equal of Samuel L. Jackson in terms of his ability of elevate Tarantino's dialogue beyond good to great. Parks was one of those character actors who rarely played the lead but would improve every film he appeared in, no matter how small the part. He could chew scenery or be understated but was never less than compelling. He will be missed.

 Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

Sentimental Narratives

There’s been much said in recent times about the rise of 'binge-watching', a by-product of streaming and the Netflixisation of viewing habits. Lately the debate has been dominated by the inevitable backlash against the phenomenon. Damon Lindelof, never shy to express his opinions, recently came out against the habit, imploring viewers to watch his current show in the traditional manner, one episode per week, in order to savour it. While the convenience of having hit TV shows practically on tap has certainly had an impact on my own viewing habits, I do try to savour the experience by restricting myself to one episode of a series per weeknight, which technically isn't binge-watching, it's more of a happy medium. Let’s call it binge-savouring.

Curiously, I’ve found that watching shows in this compressed manner really forces me to be more objective about the overall direction of a show, to see the macro as well as the micro. For instance, I recently discovered Parks and Recreation. (I’m unfashionably late, I know. But thanks to Amazon Prime, I’m over halfway through the fourth season and increasingly of the opinion that it may be the best sitcom ever.) Season 1 was a short season - only six episodes - and was noticeably edgier than subsequent seasons and almost uncomfortable to watch with the benefit of hindsight. It seemed to capture the average American's antipathy towards government whilst naively failing to anticipate how this would soon lead to the rise of Trumpism. I experience similar discomfort rewatching pre-9/11 movies.

 Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate

Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate

Season 2 onwards is a much more palatable affair, a clear product of its time - the Obama years - and it’s obvious the intention was to make the characters more tolerant and likeable. Fortunately, the quality of the writing and casting is so good that it works. At least until lately when I’ve begun to notice an unwelcome softening of the two edgiest and arguably best characters. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) are the latest in a fine tradition of diabolical double-acts, from Lord Henry & Dorian Gray to the Underwoods. You root for them because they're smart and don't suffer fools - there's vicarious thrills to be had in their aloof refusal to conform to social norms. This brought to mind other shows I’d recently ‘binge-savoured’ that also imposed a sentimental softening on ball-breaking characters: Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager and Kara Thrace in Battlestar Galactica.

Of course, American entertainment is awash with sentimentality. Indeed, it’s been said that sentimentality is a major aspect of the American temperament (that and ruthlessness - a potent mix). In contrast, the best British shows are much less likely to make this mistake. Fawlty Towers, Peep Show and The Thick of It didn't and Blackadder merely hinted at a hitherto unseen sensitive side in the final scene of the final episode but given the supreme pathos of the situation it felt pitch perfect. Unfortunately, the later episodes of The Office succumbed to mawkishness and perhaps that’s part of the reason the Americans went for it. Generally, we Brits are suspicious of sentimentality, although to be fair British shows typically have far fewer episodes than their American counterparts and this is probably significant.

 Blackadder Goes Forth

Blackadder Goes Forth

Ultimately, watching shows like Star Trek and Parks and Rec has really thrown into sharp relief what may be a key disadvantage to the traditional US television format in which long seasons are broadcast weekly whilst still in their development and production stages, unlike the new model of 'dumping' shorter seasons in one go, which spawned the binge-watching culture. The old school method is a gruelling treadmill for the staff; barrels get scraped, continuity is compromised and the line between actor and character becomes blurred. For something like Parks and Rec, where the dramatic stakes are relatively low, some narrative looseness is acceptable, even advantageous. But although popular characters can certainly grow, their essential integrity mustn’t be compromised. While it may not be quite on the same scale of creative entropy as jumping the shark, a product of desperation as opposed to success, it's effectively a bit like jumping the shark by stealth.

This year sees the welcome return of two iconic TV shows. The first season of Star Trek: Discovery will consist of one block of 13 episodes with a serialised arc, rather than the typical 26 episodic format. I’ve just completed a two year stint of watching every series of Star Trek to date (bar Enterprise), comprising 24 long seasons in total, and the quality is plainly inconsistent. Granted, it’s a notoriously tough show to write for. But a major reason for its enduring success is the strength of the characters.

Now, a major character who is odd-looking and emotionally stoic is practically inviting pressure to be softened, to make him or her more ‘likeable’. Yet Spock was popular precisely because he was odd-looking and emotionally stoic. Suddenly the nerds had a hero. That wasn't the original intention, it was Captain Kirk who was the hero. At first, Spock's cold logic was used for exposition and as a dramatic device by which to illustrate the superiority of Kirk's more 'human' approach to problem solving. Gradually, over the course of the original series his character was enriched without ever being compromised - even during the campy third season - which is a credit to the integrity of the writers and the late Leonard Nimoy. By the time Star Trek reached the big screen, Spock's character arc reached its zenith when he saved the day as a result of his stoic commitment to logic in the face of certain death. The devastated reaction of his grieving friend provided all the sentiment the moment called for.

 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Twin Peaks, on the other hand, despite its paradigm shifting impact on television, was always watchable but only truly great when David Lynch was in the director's chair. Its second season suffered greatly in his absence after he absconded to make Wild at Heart. He did eventually return to salvage the final episode but it was too late to save the series; entropy and sentimentality had set in - Major Briggs being a particularly egregious example of character softening - the ratings declined and the show was cancelled. Thankfully, this time around, Lynch has co-written (with Mark Frost) and directed all 18 episodes, so we can likely expect a more coherent vision (or at least as coherent as Lynch can be). Although, personally, I'll probably be happy just to hang out in the red room again and luxuriate in Angelo Badalamenti's music. 

 Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

It's natural to be nostalgic for the TV rituals of our youth, back when we had to wait a whole week until the next episode of our favourite shows, in an endless cycle of anticipation, savouring, and dissecting. But maybe binge-watching has its advantages too. The small screen has a bigger picture now; it's more likely that sentiment is earned and great characters never lose their edge.