Liner Notes, Special Edition: The Bond Paradox

By John F. Guido

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Via Alux

 

“I admire your luck, Mister?”

“Bond…James Bond.”

Floating in on a wave of hype surrounding the release of Spectre, I’ve been thinking about James Bond a lot. Apparently, so have a lot of other people.

This is understandable, considering the fact that Bond has been an icon of masculinity for decades. Moreover, he’s, generally speaking, a pop culture icon of legendary proportions. What puzzles me about this fascination though, is the fact that Bond isn’t necessarily a great man; he really isn’t even a good one. Sure, there’s the bit about saving the world every now and then, but by and large, he’s a pretty terrible person: an alcoholic; a misogynist; a womanizer; a killer; nearly everyone that comes into contact with him dies, or gets cast aside like the trash thrown out the window of a 1994 Toyota Civic on the freeway. One could argue that his patriotism, the good deeds he does, redeem him in a sense—and I’d tend to agree—except that this too is tainted. Bond frequently admits that he’s the blunt instrument of a bloated government run by sniveling bureaucrats, a man who takes almost no joy in his job, and feels no connection to it unless spurred on by a personal vendetta. So, what makes Bond so attractive, given the fact that he seems nearly just as bad as the villains he faces, except that he’s on our side?

On some level, the most recent Bond films, starring Daniel Craig as the man behind the tuxedo and Walther, have attempted to answer this question. They’ve even gone so far as to try answering the question of Bond’s usefulness in the modern era. After all, Bond, by all purposes, is a relic of a bygone era: more adept at cracking skulls than cracking code. In the end, I find even the answers these films give somewhat unsatisfying (Every now and then a trigger needs to be pulled…or not pulled). Was that really all there was to it? All that was left was to look inward. What made Bond special to me?

I’ll readily admit to anyone who asks, or cares, that for most of my life, I’ve been a Bond fan, particularly as a kid. The first time I ever saw Bond was when a decrepit Roger Moore threw Max Zorin off of the Golden Gate Bridge in A View to a Kill. From then on, I was hooked, watching every Bond film in order over the period of a couple of weeks on battered VHS tapes pulled from the shelves of a back row in a local Blockbuster. When I turned 12, I traded in the films for Ian Fleming’s original series, burning through those like Bond does 80 of his Turkish blend cigarettes.

Somewhere along the line though, I realized something: My favorite secret agent was not all he was cracked up to be. The gadgets were goofy, the plots impossible, the villains caricatures and the women lobotomy recipients. Bond on the other hand swung between the extremes of being either a cartoonish playboy bordering on self-parody, or a bland and cold paranoiac who’d had the number 007 slapped on him. Yet, the formula for the Bond films was still intact, and had stayed the same since he first appeared onscreen. In theory, they should have been just as good as ever. Except they weren’t.

It wasn’t until I saw Daniel Craig’s Bond films that I really understood what had been missing. His Bond was colder, crueler, and significantly more cynical than any previous interpretation. Yet surprisingly, he was also battered, broken, and vulnerable. Others recognized this. Craig’s Bond recognized this. It was the acknowledgment of these faults, the fact that Bond and his supporting cast acknowledge that he’s only a man, and a badly damaged one at that, that reinvigorated the series and emphasized the most crucial aspect of Bond himself.

Bond is, has been, and—to a certain extent—always will be a symbol of masculinity. However, in trying to sell the greatness of men personified in a singular individual who had reached the pinnacle of male excellence, the previous films had divorced themselves from reality. They had fallen into the rut of trying to convince the viewer that Bond was someone every man should aspire to be. As such, I’d fallen out of touch with the central message of the Bond films, or maybe they’d fallen out of touch with me. Their mystique was played out, left a pale reiteration of a dying sentiment.

Yet, James Bond has the odd characteristic of simultaneously changing over time, and staying the same. Without question, 007 still represents and creates a testosterone fueled male fantasy. But, he also displays this dream’s shortcomings; he points out and exemplifies its faults,  the fallacy of it all. In that way, he provides a subject for one to examine masculinity, specifically the perception of the “alpha male” in the modern world. As I get older, it’s concept I’ve become more and more interested in.

What I’m trying to say, is that yes, Bond is still intriguing because he retains the swagger and bravado of previous films and incarnations. The franchise still glamorizes sex, violence, and a generally hedonistic lifestyle. But looking past the bluster, Bond also shows what not to be, inviting the viewer to recognize that he shouldn’t be idolized. Bond exemplifies the decay of the image of the infallible alpha male, and emphasizes that in its stead, there exists something much closer to reality. As a result, he also emphasizes how such a lifestyle causes a personal decay on the soul of the individual who pursues it. He highlights the dark underbelly of the concept. Craig is essentially a walking hunk of scar tissue filled with doubt and regret, inching ever closer to losing his humanity. As such, one can see the deconstruction of the alpha male archetype on screen, and witness what remains. And that’s why he still matters, at least to me.

At the very least, he taught me how to order a martini.

John F. Guido is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at film@nyunews.com

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