Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Past Becomes Present: Relics & Ruins of Skyfall

"You know the answer. You know the whole story"
"Orphans always make the best recruits"
M and James Bond, Skyfall


The Sky is Falling

Why listen to a medievalist discuss a Bond film?

Few literary critics familiarize themselves with serial mythology like a pre-modernist. What we don't hold to (originality) is exactly what becomes our strength in considering a franchise like James Bond. Setting aside claims of owning or creating a narrative out of nothingness, the tradition of taking up an established mythology of characters and styles, then adding one's own variation on the theme, the movie-makers of films like Skyfall are in conversation with medieval literary practices.

Add to this the Knight-Errant formula of the genre, with an elite order of the British government wandering alone through the world, carrying signature weapons, squires to equip them for battle, and an array of court life with intrigue, powerful ladies and lords, and illicit love affairs to provide enough context to keep the knight on the move. There is a lot in the premise of Bond to entice a medievalist to trade the dim of the archives to the dark of the theater.

Skyfall in particular reads as interested in thinking through the implications of franchise and adaptation. The Daniel Craig films made a strong impression by "rebooting" the narrative by returning to the lost origins of James Bond's career, opening with his first mission and his first kill. We have seen in the last two films the development of his attitude towards romance, his taste for martinis, and the most recent film worked extra hard to tie together even more connections between "the new" and "the old" Bond.

These new films set Bond in the contemporary world, following the ruins of "the Cold War" and within "the War on Terror." It was commented in Casino Royale, that there no longer exist "an enemy" but networks of violence & crime that is ever shifting between different locations, languages, peoples, and times. As a result there is no way to police a single opponent, location, or ideology. If one is to wage this kind of war, one must remain in constant motion, following diverse lines of power.

Skyfall defended the continuation of the "Double-O" secret agent tradition (militarily and narratively) by asserting that because of the increasingly availability of mobility and technology, a single person can more easily become a super-villain. The hacker has become a new arch-type of this. As the villain and the reboot of "Q" in this film gloat: "I can do more damage in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you do all day out in the field." As a result, however, there is more need for anonymous agents, argues the film, "The world is not more transparent" argues Judy Dench's character, M, "it's more Opaque." Since the battles are now ever more in the shadows, the need for dark-knights will only increase.

Beyond the genre and plot specific concerns of the film, the question of "the old world alive in the new" is explored in great depth along with the question of "the new world alive in the old." The former I consider in terms of "Relics" while the latter I regard as a meditation of living in "Ruins." These are the objects of a medievalist's study, indeed we have bound (or Bond-ed) our bodies and our existence with the texts and contexts of bodies out of time. We are mixed up in a mixed up time and place.


Ruins: Homes, Bases & Franchises

The film explicitly presents a array of ruins: the destruction of the home-base in a terrorist attack that forces them to move into the ruins of the old World War barracks under-ground (explaining in its own way, how and why the older Bond films are mostly stationed underground), the assault on the enemy's base in the ruins of an old communist city, and the retreat to and the destruction of Bond's own childhood home which gives him the edge against the new modern enemy.

Left in the background, are all the ruins of the cultural, political, and technological ruins that mobilize as well as contextualize the violent world of the Bond films. The politicians in Skyfall seem convinced that the old wars are over and so the need for the old guard have come to an end, but anyone schooled in even basic political theory will know how rooted current conflicts are in the wars of old. New enemies fight in the literal, ideological, and socio-economic ruins of battles between old enemies.

Considering all these factors, I would defend the films against certain criticisms that they revert the franchise back to some troubling patriarchal systems of power (such as the return of a male director with a female secretary), and maintain this defense of the film by asserting that while that the shift in the gender roles are not deployed in such a way as to claim that they "essential" stations for men or women but as an acknowledgement of a certain traditional casting in the franchise. As stated, the film is dwelling deeper into the ruins of the old Bond's world. The result of this defense is to say not that the gender-question is not relevant but does not go far enough. How do inhabit the bones of an old world or an old mythology without simply making it into new and without simply reverting back to "the sins" of the past?

That is our challenge, which the film presents at several points in written and spoken text: think on the sins of the past. Do we destroy them, like Silver does (the nominal villain of the film)? Or do we resurrect them, body and soul, like Bond does (the nominal hero of the film)? Or is their a way to exist in the middle?


Relics: Drugs, Guns & Rats

The war underway in Skyfall appears to extend beyond "the two rats" of Bond and Silver, but they seem to be playing out a fight between the gun and the computer, the actual and the virtual body to determine the survival of the old among the new. The "weaknesses" of the relics are embodied in the "disabilities" of the injured and aging agents.

When Bond has been bound to a chair in the heart of Silver's base, he is lectured by the former 00-Agent on the new mode of the world. One doesn't need to "run and jump around" anymore, explains Silver, which are simply "exhausting," instead one can depend on the instant and seemingly infinite resources of cyber terrorism to alter the stock-market, rig an election, or cause a building to blow up by tapping into the invisible mechanisms that cause these systems to function.

"Pop, pop, pop" Silver chimes, mimicking the sounds of computers instantly exercising his will across the world. Indeed, the internet seems to offer an avenue to becoming pure will, free from the limits of embodiment. "You can chose your missions now" he says caressing the laptop. To underline this point, he walks over between Bond's tied up legs and begins feeling up his thighs. "Oh. This is unexpected. What is the training for this? I guess there is a first time for every thing" suggests the queer villain, presenting himself as the representative of a sexuality and mind free from the past.

"Who says your my first?" responds Bond. The beaten and aged body of the agent breaks free from the clutches of Silver via the outmoded technology of a radio, a gun, and his bare flesh over bone. These relics take the captors by surprise, having been expected to have been lost to nothingness in the past. Their resiliency goes beyond mere persistence, however, demonstrating a loyalty which Silver also characterizes as outmoded.

Bond himself appears to be the button-down, tied-down servant of King and Country, whereas Silver is free and perfectly inter-changeable. Bond's gun too shows its devotion to its wielder, having been coded to his palm-print, effectively made a part of him and no longer "a random killing machine." The gun, presented at the start of the first act, fires by the start of the second, or rather refuses to fire, in the hands of the enemy.

Relics remember. Whether agent, gun, or drug, no two are exactly the same and their stubborn materiality allow them to persist and even resurrect across time; however broken, mere and embaressing they may appear.


The Crippled Body Rises

Returning victorious, Bond vindicates himself to Q who had earlier reduced him to a mere and embarrassing tool to be deployed only "every so often, when a bullet needs to be fired." Bond and his gun, however speak to the power of bodies to preserve and how "to not fire the shot. It's hard to tell the difference [with a computer] in your pajamas." This of course references the shot ordered by M at the beginning of the film, given blindly from headquarters with only audio contact to the scene, a mistake which results in Bond's fall and near death.

A similar failure of M and her new digital, infinitely inter-changeable world comes to be reckoned in Silver's body. Physically dominating Silver, Bond binds him and brings him back to England where he is held in a very particular place of a cage. Here he is brought back into contact with M, who had once offered him to Chinese torturers in exchange for other agents when he no longer served her uses. It is later revealed that he had intended to become captured, so as to arrange this meeting, so as to evidence to M the embodied failures of her virtual methodology.

Reaching into his mouth, he removes a prosthetic that allows his face to appear "normal," baring his broken teeth, jaw, and features which appear with great agony to sink into the hallows of a broken skull. Putting it back in to speak, he admits how one cannot so easily forget bodies or ones alliances to them. In presenting his crippled and prosthetic body, he again echoes with Bond's, that is revealed to be maintained through its numerous injuries via a regiment of "pills and alcohol." Both via these technologies engineer their resurrection from seeming (and digitally observed) fall into oblivion.

The persisting materiality of bodies and other relics come to a head in the film's finale. Following Silver's escape, Bond kidnaps M to keep her safe by changing the site and method of engagement. Switching cars from one of his new computerized, GPS tracked vehicle for a classic Bond car (with signature ejector seats and machine gun headlights) Bond drives M back to his ancient family home in Scotland. With the help of an old family game-keeper, the three aged bodies equip the historic house with a variety of out-dated weapons, including dynamite, powder-bombs, a shot-gun and a hunting rifle; all for one last stand against the technology savvy Silver.

During the classic suit-up of the knight, Bond is handed the hunting knife by the game-keeper, told "if all else fails, sometimes the old way is best." In the final moments of the film, indeed that is exactly what happens. Having destroyed the house and escaped via a Reformation era "Priest-Hole" to the chapel, M waits for Bond but finds herself injured and at the mercy of Silver who arrives first. Taking her into his arms, Silver presses his head beside hers and puts a gun into her hands begging her to kill them both with the same bullet. This scene is interrupted before it can continue by the sudden interjection of a knife in Silver's back. The ex-agent stumbles a few feet towards Bond before his severed nervous system shuts him down.

Bond finishes this scene by again referencing the metaphor of Silver and him being the last "two rats" on an island, each surviving recruitment into cannibalism and now with a taste for each other. He is now perhaps the final relic of their kind, but one that is a part of a world that is at the same time old and new. Returning to M, he holds her as she dies and sees she is returned back to London.

Back at their new (and classic) underground base, Bond meets with her new successor Malory, now the new "M," and is reintroduced to his assistant "Moneypenny." The new director, with his arm in a sling that will never heal, reveals that the franchise has brought him in to be the distinctive old "M" that served as Bond's commander in films prior to Judy Dench. In this way it affirms this film and this reboot as new (contemporary, digital, and full of all the fresh innovations in film) as well as old (set before the events of the other films, despite the dissonance in time-period).

Thus, as stated earlier, the switch in gendered bodies offer troubles, but do so by troubling a whole range of temporal assumptions about the linearity, progressive-telos, and the distinct separation of the "now" and "then." Bond, as a film and a person, exists today as a ruin and a relic causing times and bodies to cross in ways which I cannot help but read as beautifully medieval.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Better than We Intend

"Home is where your heart is but...
everyone's heart doesn't beat the same"
Green Day, Jesus of Suburbia


A strange and a precious Christmas for many: for those that need the intimacy of presence and the possibility of a different way of being; for those in search of affirmation that a life, no matter how small, senseless, or brief it might turn out to be, can work some glory into our existence; for those that need a reason or just an excuse for joy, courage, and togetherness during cold and difficult times; for those that receive it, because they somehow need it; and for those that just want to.

Be merry or however you need to be today; I often find happiness is not the most valuable or appropriate way to feel about something. Today, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian calendar, it is proper to affirm the power of simply being.

And if this is all just a dream, may we dream better than we intend and of much more than we deserve.


Christmas as Artificial

For those that despise Christmas and perhaps wish a real war on it, I can respect your frustration and if we were a world without such a holy day or holiday, I'm sure we would find some surrogate way of producing what we get from this day in some other way. 

It is notable that Christmas is hardly the most significant day in the Christian calendar, according to Catholic tradition. Theologically, its an affirmation that at some point, something started or changed, when a certain child was born somewhere in the middle-east. Only two of the Gospels give nativity scenes and they conflict. Most Catholics worth their knowledge of ritual, acknowledge that December is hardly a historically accurate date to even celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. As much as it is about that, it's really not.

It is also notable that most of the ritual and timing of Christmas comes to us from winter solstice celebrations and other such rituals of seasonal births and deaths. Personally, I always thought that was one of the more forgivable if not commendable aspects of Christianity: either because of an internal development in the cult called "the Way" of Christ or because of an integration of Rome's policies of appropriation of things from other cultures, this demonstrates that a world-view can be valuable but also open to integrating other ways of being and seeing.

And if Christmas has simply become a time for us to engage in or pretend to be happy and nice to one another, as well as dump some serious money into the economy, then I can't say that is such a terrible thing. I cannot imagine all my Chicago winters, much less my winters now (in Chicago or not) without some respite from the surface level cynicism we maintain through the rest of the year. For whatever cause and effect, we generally seem to agree that we need that cheer (however forced) and expense (however unaffordable), even if it is for its own sake.

Right now, I think enough of us agree that we need Christmas, whatever it is and why ever we do it. If the day came that we needed it no longer or we need it to be something else, I'm sure Christmas would somehow oblige.


Christmas as Material

Personally, as a lay-Franciscan and someone far more comfortable in theology around ontology than other varieties, Christmas is one of my favorite holidays, because it is "simply" about a birth. I find it far easier and necessary to recognize the goodness of something in relation to its mere existence than its context or outcomes; perhaps because when I look at the context or outcomes of most things, I find plenty of reason to despair. The smallness and the helplessness of a child far is easier to receive than grand designs, if only because I have long had the disposition to regard such things as inherently worthy of joy.

And because for me, it is about the fundamental affirmation that we find meaning, value, and hope in community. A child can bring people together, give them purpose and hope. A child, in many ways, can really only "be" with us, if not for us. If a god is or was nothing more than a human child that would one day gather people together, say a few things, share a few meals, and die, than I see plenty of reason in celebrating that birth. If that is all that we can get out of life, then I feel all the more reason to find it valuable. If it is the affirmation that something that was once separate from our universe suddenly became a part of our existence, then again, I find value is saying "welcome" and "thank you" for somehow tying your destiny with ours.

The very nature of a birth bringing our attention to the aliveness of the world, that something comes out of the mud and ash that form out bodies, draws us to recognize the dignity of those materials. That a child is not so different than many other animals, that it blurs the line, especially (as some of the stories say) when it is placed in a manger beside the donkeys, sheep, hay, and dirt. Again, if only because of proximity, a sense of significance is suggested in bringing things together. Things erupt at this part of the story into a heavily human-dominated narrative. Even if the things only get added subsequent to the text, the nativity and Christmas force us to engage with the materiality of human bodies. I cannot understand how one can profess a birthday as so incredibly important and then not affirm the importance of the ecological body. In terms of the human, a child is so much more body than mind, so much more mere thingness than spirit, indeed it just crossed that cusp not long ago. 

There are many things I cannot understand about mind-body dualists and their ironic fascination with Christmas is one of them. Then I hear from many of them how Christmas has become all about "materialism" and I just want to shout back with joy "Yes" and "It has always been!" Of course, they probably mean it is about capitalism, not materialism, but if I could get us to understand terms in the same way, I'd probably get along with a lot more of them.


Christmas as Particular

On a basic level, part of why I appreciate Christmas (although not always enjoy it), is because of all the little ways it brings things into my life.

Christmas is when I get to go back to Chicago, see people that have been my friends for over 15 years, and people that have been family for even longer. Even a week or so with them reminds me that most of what I want out of life is not for my own sake (although I often treat it as though it is). If I can make these people proud, if I can do something worthy of their gifts to me, if I can bring dignity to them by demonstrating to the world that such things and people produce lives of some significance, then I am willing do work incredibly hard to do that. If I can bring home money, and knowledge, and stories, and myself every year to share with them as a way of saying thank you for gifts that I can never repay, than I will travel far and wide the rest of the year. If that is simply what Christmas is, then it is incredibly important to me.

In the last few days I have been inundated with calls, messages, e-mails, cards, letters, run-ins, and presents from people I hardly ever get to see and who I am often surprised even would think to stop and recognize me. I hear where their lives have been and are going. I get to rejoice with them, sit with them for a moment, even grieve with them. If that is simply what Christmas is, then it is incredibly important to me.

Most of Christmas ends up being filled with a lot of eating, sleeping, and watching movies. Between periods of intense stress, emotional, physical, mental and financial difficulty (right after term paper season and before the start of another year/semester), I get to collapse in a secure and comfortable place surrounded by people that expect little from me (good or bad). If that is simply what Christmas is, then it is incredibly important to me.

Bright colors, festive music, spicy and sweet food, warm sweaters, bodies pulled close together, my mom's house and cooking, the dog sitting on my lap, my sister on her laptop across the room, putting together a Lego-set with my siblings, seeing my father's family the one time I see them a year, a movie with my mother's family, a parade, people that I often feel are very suspicious or confused by my Catholicism freely wishing me a merry Christmas, a chance to write blog-posts like this, a chance to look at a day in the year and feel it wrap around me like an island in time, a chance to touch many of the things that have made me who I was and am becoming, and getting to bring some of this back to DC with me... If that simply what Christmas is, then it is incredibly, incredibly, impossibly important to me.


Thank You

Christmas is very artificial, material and particular to me 
and thank you to everyone that share it with me.

Thank you to everyone that can no longer share it with me, 
I miss many of you very very much.