Monday, February 25, 2013

Watching Skyfall

I finally got around to watching the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, with Daniel Craig as Bond. I’ve wanted to see it since it opened at the end of October, but unfortunately there were other more pressing issues that got in the way until now. Skyfall is the best of the Bond films, in my opinion. It is a near-perfect film and a near-perfect film experience, for so many reasons. I’ve watched it twice already, back-to-back viewings, and the second time I found myself trying to find flaws in the plot, in the characters, in the acting, in the cinematography, in the villain, in the Bond women, in Bond himself. I came up short every time. It is the first Bond film where I could follow the plot without question, the first Bond film where I could understand the villain’s motives, the first Bond film that depicts the complexity and the shadowiness of the espionage world. I found myself thinking of John Le Carre’s book (one of my favorites) A Perfect Spy; mostly because both delve into the realm of the psyches of their spies. In A Perfect Spy, we learn why the protagonist Magnus Pym (who works for the British MI6 as a spy and has lived a lie for his entire life) was the perfect spy, and about the role his con-man father played in his life, in his moral development (or lack thereof), and in his ultimate downfall. In Skyfall, we come to understand that the death of Bond’s parents at an early age made him a good recruit for the world of espionage. As M (played by Judi Dench) says to him, ‘orphans make the best recruits’. One set of authority figures are replaced by another set in the form of MI6. The latter are more ruthless, demanding, amoral and untrustworthy than the first. Bond is really a pawn on a chess board; he is moved around at will and accepts his role and his fate (‘hire me or fire me’). Answering the call of duty plays an all-consuming role in how he sees the world. It’s all he knows. He belongs to the old world of loyalty to one’s country, less to oneself. One’s body is merely a tool in the service of one’s country. In that sense, it is completely understandable that the women he meets are tools as well. That message was also quite clear in A Perfect Spy, and made having a normal functioning relationship/marriage with a woman impossible. And yet, Bond did marry once for love, in an earlier film, but his wife was shot and killed. He remains alone, a loner, needing no one, perhaps because the death of his wife affected him permanently. That makes it possible for him to be an instrument in the service of his country. It also explains why he needs to take out the villain in this film, whose sole aim is to kill M because she has betrayed him; M provides Bond with his only stable relationship, albeit a superficial one. M and Bond know what they need to know about each other; the trick is to not become sentimental with and about each other. Deep down however, they are fond of one another, as this film touchingly depicts.

‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways—relying on one’s instinct, intelligence and skill, not on a computer or other technology to solve the problem at hand. Bond’s age and physical limitations in relation to his ability to change and grow and to meet future challenges are in question here. That is one message in the movie. But when Eve says to him ‘old dog, new tricks’, we know that the old dog can learn new tricks, can resurrect himself (his hobby—resurrection), can be fit for fight, and can seduce the ‘new’ women (Eve included). But I also thought about how filmmaking and production have changed during the past half century since the first Bond film. It’s an industry that is constantly reinventing itself, thanks to new camera and digital techniques and effects—new tricks in an old trade. The effects are stylish, eye-catching, and atmospheric. The film works on so many levels; it is seamlessly put together. It is a film you just slip into, almost as though you found an opening in one dimension that allows you to step into that world. It glides along on a noiseless track, and you are pulled onto the monorail that takes you into the world of James Bond. The use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) certainly helps to create that atmosphere, that world, almost one of virtual reality; there must have been a lot of CGI in this film. The intricate and nuanced use of colors and digital effects also creates the different moods that hold one captive—eerie, bold, violent, beautiful, and suggestive. I don’t know what the use of colors and digital effects does to the brain (are they subliminal effects in some way?), but I am sure that a psychologist or psychiatrist could tell me. I would guess that there is a fair amount of research being done in the field of marketing to find just the ‘right’ digital effects that will make us want more, enjoy more, buy more. I find these types of digital effects to be almost addictive; I find myself mesmerized by the use of streaming and gliding colors and shapes, the dim blue lighting, the use of light and shadows, glass buildings, color tones, and so forth. The shots of the digital ads, e.g., the writhing jellyfish, climbing the Shanghai skyscrapers in the darkness are beautiful and confusing; they create a chaos of shapes and colors, so that it’s almost impossible to distinguish a real figure from a shadow. But it all comes together so seamlessly, falling into place in the brain. The choreography of the fight scene on the edge of the room high in the clouds; the figures are dark and move like dancers—a beautiful scene. There are so many of these types of scenes—beautiful, haunting (the long-distance view of the Skyfall estate house), the landscapes of Scotland—wild and stark, almost like a painting, interspersed with the views of Shanghai, Istanbul and London. Skyfall is a typical Bond film in that respect—multiple locations, lunatic villains, over-the-top stunts, but in terms of its visual effects, it’s so much more. 

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