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.


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