Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Skyfall Is A Beautiful Mess

As an action movie experience, Skyfall works. It is exciting to watch. It is engaging. It draws you into its world and movements. It is the most visually beautiful Bond movie I have seen, and by far the best-directed of the Craig films.The theme song by Adele is beautiful and sums up the spirit of the film - but which film? Because Skyfall tries to be three different movies; and so it is totally lacking in cohesion and internal logic in both a narrative and thematic sense.

Also, there's a massive helping of misogyny to the point that I felt uncomfortable because my female friend didn't feel uncomfortable. Has she been living with this kind of stuff so long that it no longer registers? Anyway, spoilers (misogyny isn't really a spoiler).

As I said, this is a movie in three parts. There is the traditional Bond movie which holds our attention at the start and appears in brief flashes later: far-flung locations, Bond being charming and deadly, a villain with a plan that threatens the world. There is also a rather more grim movie in there about the challenges that MI-6 faces in a new world as its enemies not only proliferate but splinter, endlessly, into so many different faces that they might as well not have identities. And there is the beating heart of the movie which asserts itself most in the last quarter: the origins of both Bond and his enemy, and the dread machine of human intelligence into which they were both fed. Or into which they fed themselves - the movie is intentionally ambiguous about that point (and I can't really tell if that's a good thing).

The problem is that these three movies, these three plots, have very little to do with each other. The villain's identity as ex-MI6 rather undercuts the idea of MI6 suffering fundamentally new threats. And the intimacy which the villain shares with both Bond and M means the missing list of undercover operatives which ought to drive the plot never gets the space it needs to feel properly threatening. And as for the villain's big evil plot...it turns out to be to shoot M. Marvelous. The same M who was traveling about London in a Jaguar for much of the movie, and Jaguars are not known for their bullet-resistant properties. I understand that it is the mentality of the villain which drives this complicated plan, but the villain himself is a problem.

He's a former agent with a bone to pick with MI-6 and particularly M, who gives a brief justification of her abandonment of him. This issue is never questioned or expanded upon by any of the characters. Skyfall is content to let us know that there might be a moral issue here, but it has no interest in actually dealing with it. The brutal use of people, fed into the machine of human intelligence and gunfights that is the recent Bond movies - that goes unexamined, even though the entire motivation of the villain is to get M to examine herself. Because Rodriguez nee Silva never gets a chance to be right, he is never proved wrong and so his hatred of M lingers with the viewer longer than I think it was intended to. That Javier Bardem makes the character work at all is a testament to his talent and presence on screen.

Let's now talk about the misogyny. First of all, the easy example. Bond meets a henchwoman in Macau. Her name is Severine (though in fact the movie develops her so little I had to look up her name on Wikipedia), and she is magnetic. The self-control covering gnawing fear, the self-possession of her body language, the strange and fragile hope which she places in Bond to free her from slavery. Then she is killed by the villain to mess with Bond. Perhaps the point is that Bond failed her, that agents cannot rescue everyone who needs rescue - but this is never pointed out in any way by the movie, and in fact her quiet, senseless death is overshadowed by the arrival of Bond's backup. What should be a stirring moment was for me a waste. Why couldn't they have arrived ten seconds earlier and saved her? Why is her death so meaningless? Why is she in this movie if she has no purpose? Is she just here to look pretty and vulnerable, sleep with Bond, and then die?

Do not, please, tell me that this is part of the Bond movie milieu. Skyfall is not based on a Fleming novel, and even if it were there is no reason that an adaptation has to carry across misogyny and the linking of female sexuality and death. Nor ought it to contain its other strange message about gender: that women cannot be trusted in fieldwork or authoritative positions. Early in the movie Bond tells Eve that field work is not for everyone, and near the end she accepts his advice and accepts an administrative posting, becoming Moneypenny. This might fly if it was a decision she made herself, but because of Bond's blunt assessment earlier it has nasty undertones of women can't do this manly manly job. Screw you, Skyfall.

Now, I'm a Christian. I get my spiritual truth from the Bible. Let's flick to Judges chapter four, down to verse eighteen. Jael invites this guy in to her tent, gives him a drink to put him at ease, and when he's asleep hammers a tent peg through his skull. Now, this might not have been a moral thing to do. But it was certainly stone cold and I think's it pretty clear evidence - which is borne out in the world around us - that woman are just as capable of violence, and duties which involve violence, as men.

Also M is treated oddly. She tells Eve to take that shot, even though Bond is in the way. Later she gives a perfectly reasonable justification for her decision and Bond says she lost her nerve. Yes - because the heads of intelligence agencies are commonly very nervous people. The whole thing has nasty undertones of oh women are so emotional. And at the end of the movie, after M's death, she is replaced by a man. This would be no problem if it wasn't for all the weird gender roles stuff the movie had spent so much time implying. As it is, it reeks of the idea that women can't control their emotions and so can't be trusted with Important Decisions.

In summary: a beautiful movie as long you don't listen to anything anyone says.

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