Forging the River of Myths in Skyfall

(This piece refers to the film’s end on occasion. Those yet to watch Skyfall: proceed with caution.)

byronic bond

Brave New World.

After a turbulent four-year stretch in production limbo, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall returns Bond to the screen in the character’s own metaphoric limbo. Bond may have returned, but from the post-credit sequence on, make no mistake, he’s not amongst the living. Not that he ever was before in any of the twenty-two other films either (unstoppable, ineffable spirit that he was). Mendes is not the first director to consider the real-world application of Bond, but no filmmaker before has managed to consider Bond as a figure of flesh and blood with such paradoxical deference to symbolism. The film struggles with the ramifications of what a real world would mean for a symbol like Bond. Mendes maneuvers his film through the modern dictate of humanizing our myths while trying to avoid stripping these myths of their everlasting power. The central issue Mendes comes to grapple with in this new film becomes how to make Bond human without reducing his lasting appeal. Just as quickly as the film raises the question with every progression in the plot, however, it sweeps the implications aside with the very manner in which it asks the question. For every deference to a real-world analogue the film falls back on the wry staples of the franchise: supervillainy codes for terrorism, dastardly internet hacking schemes for globalization. This is a Bond film through and through, with all the necessary trimmings. In order to consider Bond’s place in the 21st century then, Mendes is keen to remind us that in these films Bond has never been just a man, nor has his world ever been anything less than surreal.

Mendes nevertheless announces his intent to treat these features as anything but axioms. This Bond, the opening notes, can die, as any true hero must to progress in his journey. Nevermind that he’s also quite adept at being reborn in a world that allows for such potential–as Bond himself states, echoing the words of the film’s producers, his specialty is “resurrection”–for such a cycle of death and rebirth is necessary for any true hero to transform into myth. But what is Bond for Mendes? Man or myth? National emblem or transcendental superhero? Or does he perhaps fulfill and exceed all these functions? Mendes makes this liberating, homologous capacity of Bond all the more apparent through his multi-faceted interpretation of the character as a totemic fétiche of both the real and surreal worlds he inhabits; from our world to the cinematic one, to the World of Bond and even beyond.

Mendes accomplishes this by grappling with the very concept of Bond as figure and legacy. Bond is first and foremost in this film a byronic hero in the tradition of the Romantic Gothic sublime; the eternal wanderer. From Istanbul to London, then China and ending in Scotland, the film presents a metaphorically charged movement between worlds, from old world (Istanbul) to new (London), from emerging (China) to forgotten (the decrepit Skyfall in Scotland), Bond has no home, no office, no life, nothing beyond the shadow realm in which he dwells. It is from this world of secrecy and lies–from the world of espionage during the 40s which Sir Ian Fleming found himself embroiled during his time in the Naval Intelligence Division–that Bond first materialized, and which on multiple occasions Mendes and his film pay homage.

It is in these shadows that we first find Bond, stepping out into a perfectly framed sliver of light which illuminates his sapphire eyes and the direction of his gaze: a view just askew from the viewer. The subtle placement of his gaze just a few degrees off from centre is telling of Bond’s world in general, one just a few shades away from the real world it reflects. The crystal blue of Bond’s eyes pierce through the frame and into our personal space. It breaks the boundary between the contained space of the frame and the metadiegetic space containing our screens. Mendes seems quite aware the world is watching Bond, and as his film demonstrates, he’s been watching them too. Just as Bond looks a little off to the side of centre-frame, the frame itself metaphorically sees a world that’s just a little off-centre to our own. One louder, brighter, more choreographed and yet still capable of total chaos. In order to communicate this world effectively to us, regardless of culture or language, Mendes relies on the common language of cinema, in no small way buoyed by the universal language of myth. Words may be fleeting in this film’s run-time, but statements are not.

The film visually alerts the viewer of the mythic nature of this journey through the opening montage. It functions as a modern prolepsis, an extended abstract summary of the narrative and its themes, where bullets trade shapes with tombstones, dragons bound across the frame, and Bond is confronted with his shadow identity, Silva, the dark figure in the mirror of every man’s soul. And Bond is indeed the everyman, or rather, what every man dreams to be: a Lacanian ideal frozen in the mirror of our subconscious. Thanks to Mendes and those who have come before him, the gestalt is writ large on the silver screen.

So too does Mendes make it clear that Bond’s hero’s journey will be more than purely literal by the many arches and thresholds (both literal and metaphorical) that he heroically journeys through, often with the steady resolve of Byron’s Childe Harold on his pilgrimage to exotic lands. The arch is a sacred symbol in myth; archways serve as the gateways into mystical lands. Herakles drags Cerberus through Acherusia, for example, the cavernous passage into Hades, and across the river Acheron. This passage is mirrored multiple times through Bond’s journey: from his first steps through the arch of a hazy doorway into the busy city streets of Istanbul at the film’s beginning, to the passage down the dragon’s throat in his entrance to the Macau casino, his journey through the underworld of the London Underground, and finally in his brief pilgrimage from his ancestral home of Skyfall to the abandoned Chapel in Scotland.

skyfall casino scene

Skyfall, it should be noted, serves as this film’s Rosebud, the central nexus that binds all the threads together. And of course these threads must all end in the crumbling church, as Silva himself exclaims, precisely for its function as a memento mori—though I don’t doubt there are other associations to tease out of it. (If M’s going to quote Tennyson at her hearing, then Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is also fair game here.) The chapel, a crumbling structure that reminds its viewer of the inevitable end of all things, brings this modern day epic cycle to a close (with the Cold War standing in for the Trojan—war, not prophylactic—and Bond left to fill multiple tragic roles in this modern Illiad).

M, with her two metaphorical sons, Bond and Silva, fulfills the Medea role in this tragedy, the witch (or as Bond refers to M during his psych evaluation, “the bitch”) who sacrifices her children to her love of Jason (here expressed as Queen and Country). M is also the goddess Hecate, the crossroads of life, made apparent by the dialogue during her public inquiry, for as the Greek poet Hesiod writes “she sits by worshipful kings in judgement, and in the assembly whom she will is distinguished among the people. And when men arm themselves for the battle that destroys men, then the goddess is at hand to give victory and grant glory readily to whom she will”. Like Hecate long before her then, so too is M “a nurse of the young”—the unofficial custodian of the maladjusted orphans the Empire collects and trains as its spies. And like all Gods worth their salt, M is immortal. Though Judi Dench‘s character dies, M goes on, reborn like Tireseas from woman to man.

So perhaps the writers should be excused if they struggle to find engaging and unique scenarios for Bond, if it all has a certain ho-hum throwback to the Connery glory days; forgive them if certain scenes run too long—notably the detour to Macau, where Bond, as both Beowulf and St. George, fights some very literal dragons—and if other scenes are not nearly developed enough. Pardon them their transgressions, they’ve nonetheless given Mendes the blueprint to craft his Adonis. Albeit with celluloid instead of marble.

On that note, Craig is a brooding figure whose sculptured physique chisels him out of any location where he stands the contemplative figure.  Bond is forever vacillating between moments of intense stillness and ferocious action, with rarely anything in-between. Like his invulnerability, Craig’s physique and statuesque mannerisms alert us that perhaps Mendes is sculpting a new demi-god for us; Herakles redressed with but a simple tux. In place of a sling he’s given a Walther PPK.

minotaur

And what good would our hero be without an opponent to match. Here Bardem and Mendes give us one for the ages, if only because it’s a shadowy reflection of that which has come before in the Bond mythos. The disfigured and demented Silva is Bond’s alter ego, his shadow, his own memento mori, a chilling reminder of the fate that awaits him should he continue this life. This last feature of Silva becomes the central point of Bond’s vacillation (and yet another dichotomy of the film): to be or not to be; James Bond or just Bond? A concoction of races and faces with his blond hair, aquiline nose and Spanish accent, Silva’s even multiple myths in one, all vying for supremacy as his plot unfolds. He’s Oedipus pining for Mum-ma M, a seductive Ariadne leading Theseus (Bond) to the heart of the Labyrinth, where he also doubles as the horrible Minotaur lost in a jumble of plots labyrinthine in proportion (Mendes clues us in with the red twine of Silva’s deadly computer code, a tangled web that only Bond can follow to the heart of London, where M awaits both monster and saviour), and with a single denture he becomes the two-faced Janus, the god who presides over all. Not content to leave the allusions strictly in the mythical realm, Silva is the Third Man, a more sadistic and psychologically frayed Harry Lime who seems to have taken a page from the Joker’s handbook. He’s Hannibal Lector in his glass prison gone supervillain.

Like the liminal state the hero and villain seem eternally locked within (Bardem’s Silva is any Bond villain refined for the modern age), the film inhabits an uneasy realm between verisimilitude and pop-culture confectionery. Is the film intended as allegorical or escapist cinema? With each nod to the state of the world, the film struggles to break free from these conflicting impulses, between showing a flight of fancy and the very real cost of flying too close to the sun. As to the first claim: of course Bond can survive what would otherwise be a fatal gunshot wound and plummet over a hundred feet into a surging river; of course Bond can linger in a self-imposed limbo without real-world problems like hospital care, food or the need to get a job to cover the expense of his alcoholism; and of course Silva can get anywhere and do anything up to and including derailing a speeding train atop our hero simply because he has a computer and enough dynamite to power it. Never question the power of a warrior aided by the power of a god, in this case a digital rendition of Hephaestus (even Bond has his equivalent: Q). But the film juxtaposes this frivolity with sobering reality by stressing that there are consequences to such unaccountability, even in the shadow world. Think on your sins, Silva warns M for a lifetime spent without having to account for the countless lives she’s thrown away. (Bond’s life was worth sacrificing for reasons even M can’t make seem plausible in the brief line she’s given to explain herself.) Betrayal will be met with revenge, Silva threatens, and revenged in kind.

Similarly, characters are at last in Mendes’ vision of Bond’s world given the words to question the durability of not only the franchise, but the world of espionage itself. A modern world made seemingly transparent by technology like Silva’s—which maps London like an endocrine system beating with a pulse—calls for modern means, not the rigid opacity necessarily cultivated for espionage by its very agents.

Is Bond anything more than pop-culture trademark at this point? Is the figure a throwaway wrapper (maybe that Trojan reference was more apt than initially believed) or is Bond a legitimate vehicle for discussing cultural and historico-political issues? Ultimately, and unfortunately, the film seems as empty as that aforementioned runaway train. Where are the passengers–the necessary casualties to validate the 7/7 allusion? Does Mendes use Bond as a sort of cinematic condom for safely penetrating contemporary issues? Or does Mendes anesthetize the violence and the real-world political applications to keep Bond from suffering the same fate as a prophylactic? Is his intent to keep Bond fresh with each new adventure without the figure becoming just another flick we slip on to enjoy the ride at the expense of the issue and toss off once the moment’s over? Is the point that these issues never really die, just reincarnate in ever new and inventive forms like the myths underpinning this film?

Like the House of Usher before it, Skyfall is not just a place then, it’s a state of mind, and the grander threat that the film only tangentially implies before the themes (and to a certain extent the film’s narrative) collapse in a third act barrage of gunfire may be that there’s just no stopping its downfall. Sic transit gloria mundi.

James Bond Will Return

(to the pages of this blog)

Skyfall-Janus

Janus the two-headed god incarnate

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4 thoughts on “Forging the River of Myths in Skyfall

  1. I loved watching James Bond films as a kid, but everything after Sean Connerry for me just felt so plastic. They felt so anachronistic, so out of step with their times, that I just couldn’t take them seriously. All that changed when Daniel Craig took over as Bond. I love the new 007 movies, and this was probably my favorite of the recent ones. I loved the attempt to find ways to make Bond more real, more modern, without detracting from those qualities that are his defining characteristics.

    Although it wasn’t Bond who spoke the line, I thought a great example of this was when Silva says, “Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting!” It’s so real. I mean . . . when I become an arch villian someday (a boy can dream), it’s exactly the type of thing I would say at a moment like that. It imbues the whole interaction with something that rings true to the modern ear, the modern world, but does so in a way that doesn’t diminish the characacter’s sense of power or menace.

    From the few things I read about the movie beforehand (combined with the fact that this was a James Bond movie after all), I knew that there was going to be a big shootout action sequence at the end of the film. But, from what I’d read, I expected to be disappointed as the movie wound down. However, I had the completely opposite experience. The blending of external and internal cataclysm at the end of Skyfall was an ambitious commitment to modernize Bond, and it couldn’t have been more perfect for me. Bond retreats to the safety of his childhood . . . in mind and in place, but there he discovers that the notions we have of childhood and safety are myths. At the first intrusion of the outside world, these walls crumble, or more accurately are completely obliterated in a hail of ammunition. Then the whole place goes up in flames! It’s a great analogy about the necessity to go back to that childhood place within us all that exists as a false harbor, and destory it in order to move on, to grow. We all have these places within ourselves we believe give us strength, but in reality are fetters that keep us chained to old notions of ourselves, of our society, etc. The James Bond one-liners can be awful sometimes, but in a modern update of the idea, Bond acknowledges his own realization of these fetters with the comment, “I never liked the place anyway.”

    When all is said and done, the thing about the estate of Skyfall that is important is not the house itself, but the transformation that happened there to Bond when he moved beyond the traditional living spaces and went underground in order to have a transformation. So many great analogies here . . . the journey to the underworld, psychoanalysis, etc. It seems to be the invocation of this idea in the movie, of this journey underground, that becomes the source of strenght Bond needs to win the fight, not the protection offered by the traditional house itself. We see there is none.

    Then, to have Bond undergo a baptism by way of the lake (what a surprisingly deep lake that was, by the way) completes the transformation. Bond has completely his journey into and out of the underworld. He has been born again.

  2. I loved watching James Bond films as a kid, but everything after Sean Connery for me just felt so plastic. They felt so anachronistic, so out of step with their times, that I just couldn’t take them seriously. All that changed when Daniel Craig took over as Bond. I love the new 007 movies, and this was probably my favorite of the recent ones. I loved the attempt to find ways to make Bond more real, more modern, without detracting from those qualities that are his defining characteristics.

    Although it wasn’t Bond who spoke the line, I thought a great example of this was when Silva says, “Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting!” It’s so real. I mean . . . when I become an arch villian someday (a boy can dream), it’s exactly the type of thing I would say at a moment like that. It imbues the whole interaction with something that rings true to the modern ear, the modern world, but does so in a way that doesn’t diminish the characacter’s sense of power or menace.

    From the few things I read about the movie beforehand (combined with the fact that this was a James Bond movie after all), I knew that there was going to be a big shootout action sequence at the end of the film. But, from what I’d read, I expected to be disappointed as the movie wound down. However, I had the completely opposite experience. The blending of external and internal cataclysm at the end of Skyfall was an ambitious commitment to modernize Bond, and it couldn’t have been more perfect for me. Bond retreats to the safety of his childhood . . . in mind and in place, but there he discovers that the notions we have of childhood and safety are myths. At the first intrusion of the outside world, these walls crumble, or more accurately are completely obliterated in a hail of ammunition. Then the whole place goes up in flames! It’s a great analogy about the necessity to go back to that childhood place within us all that exists as a false harbor, and destory it in order to move on, to grow. We all have these places within ourselves we believe give us strength, but in reality are fetters that keep us chained to old notions of ourselves, of our society, etc. The James Bond one-liners can be awful sometimes, but in a modern update of the idea, Bond acknowledges his own realization of these fetters with the comment, “I never liked the place anyway.”

    When all is said and done, the thing about the estate of Skyfall that is important is not the house itself, but the transformation that happened there to Bond when he moved beyond the traditional living spaces and went underground in order to have a transformation. So many great analogies here . . . the journey to the underworld, psychoanalysis, etc. It seems to be the invocation of this idea in the movie, of this journey underground, that becomes the source of strenght Bond needs to win the fight, not the protection offered by the traditional house itself. We see there is none.

    Then, to have Bond undergo a baptism by way of the lake (what a surprisingly deep lake that was, by the way) completes the transformation. Bond has completely his journey into and out of the underworld. He has been born again.

    • Your thoughts on the meaning of the house have helped me to appreciate its inclusion in the film more. While I initially wrote the finale off as Die Hard meets Home Alone, I may have, in my haste to disabuse myself of childish notions, overlooked the capacity for childhood to affect our contemporary reality. Perhaps that explains a bit more Mendes’ retreat to Bond’s cinematic infancy, those homages that threaten to undermine the verisimilitude of the film at so many turns.

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