Why I Didn’t Love Skyfall

[N.B. This isn’t really a review so much as an analysis, so it’s chock full of spoilage. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to wait to read this. Or not! But just so you know what you’re in for –]

This is not timely: as much as I love Daniel Craig as Bond, I actually saw the last Twilight film before it because Bertie insisted we go (and it ended up being a lot of fun because there was big werewolf/vampire carnage with heads rolling). The day after I finally saw Skyfall I heard the news about the death of 832F, the alpha wolf of Yellowstone. Described by some as the “rock star” of wolves, this grey lady’s importance lay in her clear demonstration of the fact that the alpha female led the pack, not the alpha male as so many scientists had assumed. Apart from all the issues her shooting raises about the hunting program in place now that’s once more eroding the endangered wolf packs, it also marks the end of her providing information about the daily lives of these creatures from her electronic tag.

Her death also resonated because that’s what really irritated me about Skyfall: let’s kill off the alpha female. In fact, let’s kill off any chance of an alpha female. One of the delights of the most recent Bond films has been the tough leadership of M as embodied by Judy Dench. I don’t know if she wanted to leave the series, but her exit from it is so irritating I still scowl thinking of it. And it’s so unbelievably Freudian that I can’t help seeing it as the product of someone who’s had some therapy (but not enough). I don’t know which of the ‘&’ and ‘and’ screenwriters who might have had the greatest effect, but with those designations, it could be anyone or meddling from above — it’s difficult to know how the process works.

But the theme of belligerent masculinity seeking to destroy the feminine (especially mother) is pervasive: it’s not even subtext in parts. The oozing abjection of Bardem’s Silva! He spells it out: mother did this to us, so she must die. In the opening sequence, Bond has seen this is true, because the prize is more important than him, so M tells the dithering Moneypenny to shoot. Mommy doesn’t love me best! And of course it highlights the incompetence (and even more, the lack of confidence) of his female colleague who eventually and presumably rightly ends up behind a desk (and probably back to the fawning Moneypenny of old in future films) because ‘field work’ is for boys.

Silva seems to offer the example of what happens if you love Mommy too much; his feminised monstrosity is the real danger; Bardem’s over the top homoerotic shenanigans contrast with Craig’s confidence. He can play along without it affecting him, as in the nude torture scene in Casino Royale. It’s like the Pegg-Frost dynamic: we’re so cool and hip and masculine that ‘we can pretend to act gay because you will never believe that we’re gay’ ever.

But the message comes across: there’s been too many women around this place! This is why we need Daddy Fiennes to come in and set things right again. He’s suspect at first because they’ve been living in the feminised world too long. He ‘used to’ do field work, but is he up to it any more? Of course he proves himself sufficiently manly in action, although with a slight wounding to make sure he’s not really a threat to the son’s masculinity.

There’s an anxiety about field work that seems curious coming from the cosseted world of big budget Hollywood. These perpetual adolescents who imagine they’re doing hard work that’s somehow comparable to, you know, hard work have a skewed sense of their own importance. Just the same is their glamourising of a narrow sort of masculinity in the endless explosions of all the big budget thrillers; the trailers before the Bond film were an endless parade of brainless gun fests from yet another Die Hard (all about father-son bonding) to some Arnie film that seems to make  heroes of wacko trigger-happy gun nuts and like most films, seems completely devoid of women.

The most telling moment of gender politics: when M receives her dressing down in the Parliamentary hearings, they make sure to have an Iron Lady (Helen McCrory) attacking her. You can practically hear the meetings: “We have to have a woman attack her, because if a man does it, it will seem misogynistic.” Gaah! It’s the same reductionist thinking that goes into equating a “strong female character” with “give her a big gun”! It shows a complete inability to see women as people. Instead they’re all not-men.

This is the main issue: the Hollywood problem in a nutshell.

The film is also über-American: British gets reduced to the kitschy tat of the little bulldog statue and the ‘estate’ which has to be destroyed because, you know, it’s re-enacting the national teenage rebellion (I guess — whatever!). And the film is suffused with the same outraged alarm that also permeated the Republican elite this past and seemingly endless election cycle: Who are these people who question our privilege?! And how do we stop them?

“In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Sayre’s Law

As the differences between the status of men and women narrow, Hollywood seems determined to make the most of exploiting the tiny gap. As Sayre observed, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” The stakes are very high in Hollywood: the politics may not be the most bitter, but they have the most guns and explosions. It’s an awful lot of sound and fury — does it signify anything but a fading type of masculinity?

Judging by its astronomical success, it’s one a lot of people are clinging to —

Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: The Hitch-Hiker

Ida Lupino’s film noir debut, available free thanks to the Open Culture site. If you don’t know about them — well, there goes your productivity for the day. Books, audio and films galore. The RADA-trained English daughter of a stage comedian became best known for her increasingly dark films, no less than when she turned her own hand to directing. In a genre (still!) typically stereotyped as masculine, Lupino made her own assured way.

The Hitch-Hiker reflects this norm: it’s tightly focused on the three male characters. As the Wikipedia page tells us,

The movie was written by Robert L. Joseph, Lupino, and her husband Collier Young, based on a story by Out of the Past screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who was blacklisted at the time and did not receive screen credit. The film is based on the true story of Billy Cook, a psychopathic murderer.

The plot is simple: two pals Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) go off on a fishing trip and out of the affable goodness in their hearts, pick up a hitchhiker named Emmett Myers (William Talman), who turns out to be a psychopath who has committed multiple murders, which the audience has seen unfurl at the start of the film. The rest is a taut game of cat and mouse between the two men and the sneering killer.

This is your classic MWW (Movie Without Women). There are a few in the background and in conversation: Bowen has left his wife and children behind, but they provide an anchor to his character. He wistfully lays his hand on a small girl in a shop, obviously worried he won’t be able to see his own again. It shapes the overall tension in a way that many might see as influenced by the choices of the female director (i.e. emotions = girly) but what Lupino brings out is an essential human desire for connection.

It’s a great metaphor for the current political polarity in the States: Myers has nothing but scorn for Collins and Bowen, both their desire not to hurt other people and their friendship for each other, which he sees as a weakness. As far as he’s concerned it’s every man for himself (remind you of Republican rhetoric?). His contempt when Bowen stops to help the injured Collins can hardly be contained. Collins rightly snaps back at him that the only security he has is the gun and when he doesn’t have that, he won’t have anything at all. He’s all alone.

For a film noir, there’s an awful lot of sunlight in this picture. Much of the fugitives’ time is spent on blindingly bright deserts. The visual juxtapositions show Lupino’s fascination with the power of the image frame to frame. Good stuff. Well worth your time.

See the roundup of gems over at Todd’s blog.

RIP, the legendary comedy goddess Phyllis Diller

There’s Got to be a Word for It

Here’s a thing: from one of those ongoing discussions, most recently on Facebook, but other places too. There’s a phenomenon that crops up all the time, yet has eluded naming so far. As I mentioned when sharing Peg’s post (right) about director Brenda Chapman on Facebook, the usefulness of the term “gaslighting” has been amply demonstrated in the recent bout of video game misogyny. So it would be terrific to find a word for this:

It’s an experience many women have had repeatedly. I know in my professional life especially it’s been the cause of much teeth gnashing. Less assertive men know the experience, as well.  As Young Louisa noted, too, “It happens with jokes too. You give a witty response; nobody hears it. Two minutes later a man/more glamorous person cracks the same response, gets a big laugh from all present. Should we just talk louder?”

I don’t know if talking louder helps, because of course then we’re dismissed as “shrill” you know, or some other variety of ‘straw feminist’ clichés. The idea that someone like Chapman can be removed from her position while millions continue to be sunk into the completely negligible talent of M. Night Shyamalan boggles the mind.

How’s that Year of the Woman going?

So there’s got to be a word for it — but what? Maura McHugh suggested with a wink, “Manpproval? Manappropriation?” While I like an analogue to mansplaining, I had a thought we needed something more metaphorical that gets at the unfairness we instantly feel at having our thunder stolen as well as instantly recognisable. I’m trying to think of a film that captures this in an instantly recognisable way like Gaslight, but I can’t think of one that has a single word that will work.

I had in the back of my mind the parable of the Prodigal Son (you didn’t expect that, did you? guess what, medievalists have to know a thing or two about the bible). The Boarshead Theatre in my home town did a fantastic version of Godspell years ago, that was a hoot. They reimagined the Prodigal Son parable as an episode of Leave it To Beaver. The lesson is supposed to be about the infinite grace of the lord, but for most people there’s a sense of “Hey! He didn’t deserve to get the fattened calf!” Yet it doesn’t lend itself to catch phrasing: Hey, don’t you take my fattened calf! Hmmm.

More thought needed: what would make a good term for this?

No, I did not have to make this meme.

If you need a unicorn chaser, here’s my poem for Miss Sophie’s favourite toy, the flying seal.

Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: 22 Bullets

In the crime zone lately (I have so much to catch up on!) although last night we watched Resident Evil: Afterlife which might as well be called Resident Evil: We Don’t Even Bother with Narrative, as they just string along a bunch of things that happen and shoot a lot of zombies and edit poorly and leave huge gaps of logic for you to fill in on your own time.

Ahem.

L’Immortel, released to English speaking audiences as 22 Bullets has a few gaps of logic and/or huge plot holes and dubious scenes of varying believability, but it also has Jean Reno. And as the target audience of ResEvil doubtless thinks about Milla Jovovich in tight-fitting trousers, that can be enough to keep one interested for the length of a fast-paced film.

The plot, as capsulised by Wikipedia: “For three years [retired gangster Charlie Mattei] has led a peaceful life and devoted himself to his wife and two children. His past catches up with him when he is ambushed in a parking lot and left for dead with 22 bullets in his body. Against all odds, he survives to take revenge on his killers.”

Based on the book L’Immortel by Franz-Olivier Giesbert, the film retells incidents from the life story of real gangster Jacky Imbert, whose ‘nickname “Jacky Le Mat” means “Jacky the madman” in Provençal.[1] He is also known as “Pacha” and “Matou”.’ I can only guess that either the novel or Imbert himself came up with those fanciful scenes of high speed chases on a motorcycle, as it’s a difficult thing to do with one arm paralysed. It’s a good bit of mayhem and double crossing, as you know will happen once you have three young men in a flashback swear to be friends even into death.

It’s kind of nice to see the casual diversity of the French crime world; whereas the American or British crime films tend to represent different ethnic groups as traditional opponents, there’s an interesting mix of cultures without any grandstanding or exoticism.

It’s kept from being a Movie With 1 Woman by the (for this film) nuanced portrayal of the dogged investigating officer, Marie Goldman (Marina Foïs) who battles her own despair and thirst for revenge for her husband’s death against the practicalities of working for a corrupt boss and penetrating an intricate criminal network.

Worth a look; see Todd’s blog for the round up of over looked films.

The Claddagh Icon

Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: London Boulevard

You know I’m a sucker for Ken Bruen, so why has it taken so long to catch up with this 2010 neo-noir film? Not spectacularly successful, I’m not even sure it made it to American shores, my home at the time. I can see why it did not make a splash; people who were impressed with the PKD-lite shenanigans of Inception and the Loadsamoney obsessions of The Social Network would have no truck with this dark slice of crime along the Thames despite its all-star cast and a Bruen novel scripted by director William Monahan.

Short explanation: London Boulevard is neo-noir.

What do we know about noir: people are going to die. Things are not going to turn out cheery for everyone. Triumphing against the odds in a Hollywood finish? Not going to happen.

Colin Farrell’s Mitchel gets out of Pentonville at the start, picked up by his childhood friend Billy (Chaplin), who’s responsible for his being there, naturally. Mitchel turns out to be the sort of rough character with an idiosyncratic sense of honour that Bruen loves so well. When a couple of thugs kill his homeless friend, he pursues them doggedly, slightly distracted by becoming security for the reclusive star played by Knightly and being pursued for recruitment by Ray Winstone’s gangster Gant (channeling Michael Caine). The ham-handed heavy tries to get on Mitchel’s good side by grabbing one of the black gang who beat him up, but he’s so callously racist he doesn’t realise he’s made a mistake and doesn’t care. Add into the mix Mitchel’s increasingly erratic sister who refuses to take her meds (Friel), a kind-hearted doctor (Bhaskar) and David Thewlis’ bizarrely singular actor/addict/producer Jordan who’s too unpredictable to trust.

There’s a wonderful little monologue from Knightly’s character about women in films that’s sharply accurate of the state of mainstream films (even this one: Knightly is little more than a dream of what might be, present or absent when needed by the male lead). Of course there’s the Bruen touches you expect: black humour, Rilke and some obsession with Francis Bacon paintings (not your usual crime fare).

Well worth checking out; be sure to see the round up of overlooked gems at Todd’s.

Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: Wise Blood

Flannery O’Connor’s masterpiece of Southern gothic, Wise Blood, received an unusually effective film treatment. It probably had a lot to do with the cantankerous John Huston helming it, someone with enough weight to throw around to keep it cleaving to the same dark vision that inspired it. For those who sneer at “literary” it might be good to remind you that the first chapter initially came to life as her master’s thesis and other portions of it drew on stories first published in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review.

That said, I doubt her work would get through a modern writers workshop.

Huston’s 1979 film scores with a fantastic cast: no one could capture the strangeness of Hazel Motes like Brad Dourif. I can’t find the name of the actress who played Leora Watts, but she fearlessly capture the role. Of course Harry Dean Stanton and Amy Wright as the preacher and his Sabbath Lily shine. Ned Beatty and William Hickey — and of course Huston as the fire-and-brimstone grandfather who messes up Hazel in the first place.

I caught this just before leaving Ireland; I hadn’t seen it many years but it was just as good as I remembered and even more chilling. The strangeness of Dan Schor’s Enoch Emory has a wistfulness that my younger self overlooked, a terrible heartbreak and loneliness.

The finale of the film can’t quite catch the uncanniness of the novel, but it does an amazing job with adapting a complex and strange book. “No man with a good car needs to be justified.” Coming from Michigan, that phrase had even more resonance for me. It speaks to the dream of mobility and freedom that the car industry sold in the lush times of consumer dreams in the post-war era — while papering over those atrocities. They came out in strange ways sometimes, as they did for Hazel Motes. Look it up, and enjoy a little trip with “the Church of Christ Without Christ. Where the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way.”

Check out the round up of worthies over at Todd‘s.

TOA/V: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Tuesday’s Overlook Audio/Visuals: Over at A Knife & A Quill I take a look at Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Be sure to drop by Todd’s for the round up of overlooked A/V.