JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The narrative settings in Skyfall do not so much advance the plot as reflect the concerns and fears of its audience. Istanbul and its rooftops portray an urban culture of mixed religion, race and ethnicity for Western audiences

Betrayed by M and left for dead, 007 retreats and nearly retires to a seedy paradise island of sex and alcohol.

Shanghai’s skyline is a fantastical mix of bright lights and glass skyscrapers. It represents the future of Western culture.

Shanghai is also an incomprehensible maze, what with its reflective glass and mirrored surfaces.

Macau, with its gambling casino, is an upscale paradise. It is an amusement park for the wealthy in a global economy that ignores state boundaries.

The island inhabited by the villain, Raoul Silva, shows Western civilization in the process of urban decay. It portrays simultaneously a deteriorating infrastructure, the bombed out remains of a civil war, and an island occupied by the undead.

Under attack, London has gone underground, exemplified both by MI6’s new base and the crowds in the Tube during rush hour.

Daniel Craig as Bond retreats backward in time to Sean Connery’s castle-like home in Scotland. It is a primitive, isolated world and as such a stark contrast to the computer networked crowds of contemporary civilization.

With Bond seemingly triumphant over “evil,” London’s skyline offers a relief from the underground. It is, however, a gray skyline, colorless except for the many flags fluttering in the distance, England’s flag most prominent among them.

Gadgets have consistently played a central role in the Bond mythology, and no gadget— or product placement—has been more prominent than Bond’s Aston Martin. Sean Connery, the first in a line of actors to portray 007, poses next to his Aston Martin.

Daniel Craig, Bond’s current reincarnation, poses next to his Aston Martin. Like Sean Connery’s version in Goldfinger (1964), Craig’s comes equipped with machine guns in the front.

Silva, as villain, instructs his men in a helicopter to destroy Bond’s Aston Martin, pointing at his audience as though to underscore the audacity of his gesture.

Bond watches in disbelief as his Aston Martin is destroyed. In retaliation he prepares a counter-attack by destroying Skyfall, his childhood home.

We watch Silva watching Bond watching the destruction of the Aston Martin.

The Aston Martin explodes. Will there be a “resurrection” of Bond's Aston Martin?

Sex has consistently played a central role in the 007 mythology. In the pre-credit sequence, a fellow agent, “Eve,” takes her shot on instructions from M and seemingly kills Bond.

Having failed in her job, Eve is suspended from field work. Nevertheless, she temporarily assists Bond in Shanghai at the instruction of MI6. “You look the part now,” she tells him, an “old dog with new tricks,” namely kinky sex.

 

Skyfall:
a mother and her twin boys

by Robert Alpert

"NSA and intelligence community…is focused on getting intelligence wherever it can by any means possible. It believes, on the grounds of sort of a self-certification, that they serve the national interest. Originally we saw that focus very narrowly tailored as foreign intelligence gathered overseas. Now increasingly we see that it's happening domestically and to do that they, the NSA specifically, targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default. …

You can't come forward against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk because they're such powerful adversaries. …If they want to get you, they'll get you in time. …

But if you realize that that's the world you helped create and it's gonna get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn't matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that's applied."

 —“Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations”[1][open endnotes in new window]

Skyfall has entertained audiences worldwide, reflected in gross revenues of over $1.1 billion.[2] The movie’s commercial success is, in part, not surprising, considering that its director, British-born Sam Mendes, won six Oscars for his first movie, American Beauty (1999), including both Best Picture and Best Director. He is clearly attuned to Hollywood and the demands of its audience. The movie’s commercial success is also, in part, not surprising, due to the presence of actor Daniel Crain in his third portrayal of secret agent 007. Yet Skyfall’s commercial success is, in part, also surprising, considering its narrative obsession with the aging and death of its characters.

Skyfall adheres to the classic formula of James Bond movies, Hollywood’s longest running franchise. Thus, it begins with a pre-credit action sequence in an “exotic” locale, Istanbul, and ends with Bond triumphant over the villain. It also announces the continuation of the franchise with Bond confirming his return to “fieldwork” and the introduction of a new “M” (Gareth Mallory as played by Ralph Fiennes) and a new “Eve” Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Yet the movie darkens that formula. The pre-credit sequence opens with the Bond character approaching the audience from the shadows of a long hallway, initially observing, “Ronson’s down,” and shortly thereafter leaving that agent to die. The movie ends with the death of the old M played for 17 years by Judi Dench. While the movie reaffirms the franchise formula, it also exposes exposes through a darkening of that formula its audience’s craving for a cathartic mythology in a contemporary, global environment no longer understood by that audience. In a post-9/11 world in which technology has overtaken privacy and nation states have increasingly merged with global, corporate interests, Skyfall self-consciously subverts its audience’s expectations about the triumph of good over evil even as it simultaneously caters emotionally to those expectations.

Skyfall is a fantasy reflecting the zeitgeist of its historical moment rather than a documentary about its time. Thus, the settings for Bond’s exploits in defeating his latest villain function not to advance the plot but rather to mirror the contemporary concerns of its Western audience.

  • Istanbul is the setting for the pre-credit action sequence. It is a mix of modern architecture, small marketplaces, an over-congestion of peoples and vehicles and a geographical bridge that connects Europe, Asia and the Middle East, in short, the West’s perception of and unease with a global culture increasingly of mixed race, ethnicity and religion.
  • A tropical, unidentified paradise is the setting for Bond’s disappearance after a fellow agent on instructions from MI6 seemingly kills him. Here in this unspecified paradise both natives and guests have sex, lie on beaches, and drink alcohol late into the night. If Bond had stayed “dead,” as Mallory later suggests he might have done, then this is surely the fantasy playground to which Bond, the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male, would have retreated under the guise of retirement.
  • Shanghai, the city to which Bond effortlessly travels upon returning to service, consists of startlingly ultra-modern skyscrapers, artificially bright lights and a sharply reflective maze of mirrors and glass. Evoking the “crazy house” hall of mirrors scene from the film noir Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles 1948), the sequence in Shanghai represents the West’s perceived future in the form of China, that is, both the increasingly dominant power in the world and the modernist, urban environment that is increasingly dominating the world, regardless of geographical boundaries.
  • The island of Macau, where a casino chip leads Bond, is the contemporary playground for the wealthy, a contrast to the seedy, tropical paradise to which Bond had retreated. An amusement park for such adults, it consists of a gambling casino decorated with paper and Komodo dragons and where its guests seem wholly unconcerned with the demands of daily living and as such stateless.
  • Hashima Island, an island close to Nagasaki, is where Bond follows a lead found at the gambling casino in Macau. This island, including its skyline, consists of abandoned buildings in ruin as a result of the deception played upon its inhabitants by the villain of the movie, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), namely that there was a chemical leak on the island. As a consequence, its inhabitants quickly fled, leaving behind nearly all of their material possessions. Hashima Island resembles both a city deserted by the living and inhabited now only by the undead and the remains of a city bombed out and destroyed by civil war. In either event, the island evokes modern, Western civilization in the process of self-destructing, its thin veil of architectural remains barely masking a deteriorating infrastructure and an approaching, apocalyptic ending.[3]
  • London, the city to which Bond returns with the villain Silva seemingly his prisoner, is a city under attack—on a war footing, as Tanner (Rory Kinnear), M’s assistant, observes—and literally underground. MI6 is located in the bunker used by Churchill during World War II. Much of this sequence takes place in the underground tunnels beneath the city, where the civilian population had once sought protection from aerial bombings and where Bond now pursues Silva during rush hour traffic in the Tube.
  • Leaving a trail of “bread crumbs” for Silva to follow and retreating back in time, Bond confronts and destroys the fairy tale, monstrous villain at Bond's family estate in Scotland, "Skyfall." That estate consists of an isolated, castle-like home, an uninhabited moor, a graveyard in which Bond’s parents are buried and a nearby chapel. This is the movie’s most nostalgic setting, a retreat to a past far more simple and understandable than the contemporary, urban world.
  • Triumphant in defeating Silva, Bond returns in the movie’s final sequence to London. His rooftop view of the cityscape is a visual relief from the earlier sequence of London underground and from the isolated Scottish countryside in which the villain has been defeated. That the movie’s final shots take place in M’s office, where Bond ritualistically flirts with Moneypenny and then accepts “with pleasure” M’s new assignment in the field, underscores the re-birth of the franchise.

Nothing, however, could be further from the meaning of the narrative than this retreat backwards into time and Bond’s supposed triumph as the result of his recapturing of such times past. Globetrotting has been a consistent element of the Bond movie franchise. The exoticism, at least to Western eyes, of different places around the world is what early on attracted an audience to the franchise. It entertained by enabling its audience to travel conveniently, that is, to enjoy the visual pleasures of different cities and countrysides without the unpleasantness of travel itself, let alone the need to experience cultural differences inconsistent with and sometimes hostile to the Hollywood-created experience.

The passage of time has, however, necessarily changed what is considered exotic. For example, in From Russia with Love (Terrence Young 1963) Bond also traveled to Istanbul as well as Venice, and these locales acted at attractive backdrops for his Cold War exploits when the primary market for the franchise consisted of a U.S. audience. Fifty years later the audience for Hollywood’s movies, such as Skyfall, is far more global, with profits dependent upon international markets. With the advent of technology, especially the Internet, that international audience is already familiar with what decades ago would have been considered exotic. Indeed, much of that audience now resides in what for U.S. audiences in the 1960s was an exotic locale. China, for example, is now the largest theatrical market for U.S. produced films outside of the U.S./Canadian market.[4] Its audience surely does not view the Shanghai sequence in the same manner as a U.S. audience, and the reaction of a viewer to this sequence depends, too, on his or her social and economic class. Thus, Bond’s globetrotting functions today less as visual entertainment than as a cultural trope for the varied concerns of a far more global audience in a world strikingly different from the one in which the Bond franchise originated. In a more global economy geography plays less of a role in perception than the viewer’s place in that economy.

Cartoons, fairy tales and a good story are more readily enjoyed and passively absorbed by a global audience than realistic, complex or ambiguous enactments of stories about viewers’ fears, hopes, aspirations, difficulties and other concerns. Escapist entertainment, a cultural product no different than a Big Mac, sells. Globetrotting alone does not. Thus, a movie such as Syriana (Stephen Gaghan 2005) jumps with seeming incoherence from Geneva to Tehran to Lebanon to Washington, DC. It also develops several storylines simultaneously to demonstrate the interconnectedness of global corporations and their employment of government bureaucracies and technologies that advance corporate commercial interests. Likewise, Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow 2012) intercuts its narrative about torture and the CIA’s efforts to find Osama bin Laden with scenes of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Saudi Arabia, London, Islamabad, Kuwait City, NYC’s Times Square, Nevada and Afghanistan. It thereby encourages its audience to draw the narrative connections between the obsessiveness of its lead character, the CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), and the commitment of Osama bin Laden to his anti-Western cause. The film’s audience is expected to draw its own conclusions, as, for example, when the killing of Bin Laden is confirmed with the verbal transmission, “Geronimo. For god and country.” Both movies either failed or were far less successful financially than Skyfall, because both insisted that their audiences work at and consciously unravel the pieces of each film’s global puzzle. Entertainment, however, drives box office returns, not political statements. Skyfall entertains in that it requires little of its audience other than that viewers passively “enjoy the show.” Nevertheless, its success in creating a pleasurable show is also dependent upon evoking the contemporary, emotional concerns of its global audience, letting its politics wash passively over viewers. Skyfall’s politics is embedded in its narrative’s DNA.

MGM, the Hollywood studio that produced the movie, and Sony, its distribution partner, celebrated in their marketing campaign for Skyfall that this film represented the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise. Unsurprisingly the movie is filled with references to earlier Bond movies. Those references, however, consistently highlight the effect of the passage of time on the Bond mythology and thereby evoke a nostalgia for a time when moral clarity seemed to accompany the events enacted onscreen. Ian Fleming began writing the Bond novels in the early 1950s and Sean Connery first enacted the role of 007 ten years later at a time when global conflict could be understood as a Cold War between two nation states—the United States and the Soviet Union—and in which commercial globalization was only in its early stage. As such, the references in Skyfall to those earlier enactments are on their surface emotionally comforting to or resonant with its audience.

Take, for example, the reference to Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton 1964). When Bond touts to M his ownership of an Aston Martin, the musical theme from the 1960s movie plays and we overhear knowing banter between Bond and M about the car’s passenger-side ejection seat. The in-joke speaks to an audience knowledgeable about the most celebrated, ritualistic moments in the Bond franchise. In contrast to “company cars,” one of the perks of contemporary business, the Aston Martin has no “tracking device.” In a later sequence, following several shots in Scotland that spatially establish the car’s role as character, the car’s built-in machine guns perform their anticipated role in readily killing many of the disposable “bad guys.” Yet what are we to make of the fact that Silva, the movie’s villain, in a gesture both deliberate and seemingly gratuitous instructs that his men in a helicopter destroy the car? Silva momentarily stares at Bond at the moment of the car’s destruction, as though acknowledging the Aston Martin was not simply a car. Silva, too, is aware of the in-joke, and Bond’s subsequent destruction of Silva’s helicopter is appropriately framed by shots of the Aston Martin.

If the Aston Martin, a fetishistic object of the Bond mythology[5], today is ripe for destruction, then are Bond, the character, and his mythology, both gadgets and supporting characters, no less so? Bond identifies his “hobby” as “resurrection.” And for the studio, the incentive to “resurrect” his franchise and its mythology is commercially compelling.[6] Nevertheless, as Silva, the supposed villain, observes, Bond’s activities as a “field agent” are outmoded in a world of “point and click” computers—a world now also described as “flat.”[7] The Bond movie formula was born in the 1950s and 1960s when country mattered far more than one’s economic place in a global economy, and Bond, in particular, exemplified British “fortitude,” the term M uses for Bond’s obituary when she believes him dead. Culture has gone global. From that perspective, if popular culture consists of a working out of myths only unconsciously absorbed, let alone understood, then Skyfall evidences an anxious Western culture, implicitly rejecting its past and questioning both its present and future.

The movie seems to tout the continued viability of, or at least evoke nostalgia for, a culture in which the “old ways,” that is, the myth of the white, heterosexual male, remains intact and in which that character remains both invincible and fully cable of solving his audience’s problems. Indeed, a number of critics have responded positively to the movie’s seeming endorsement of the “old ways.”[8] From that perspective Skyfall is consistent with the many, commercially successful blockbuster movies in which the cartoon-like hero prevails against what seem initially like overwhelming odds. As M says upon Bond’s return to service after his near death experience —“enjoying death,” as he puts it—Bond came back “because we’re under attack” and “we need you.” There is both clarity and an emotional attraction to these “old ways.” At the government hearing investigating MI6’s security breaches, M opines that the world has become more, not less, opaque and hence the greater need for the British intelligence branch, MI6, including its 00 agents. Nevertheless, her 00 agent of choice, Bond, ironically employs the opaqueness of gas from fire extinguishers to save M when she is under attack at that hearing by Silva and his men, and they, in turn, are disguised as police officers.

Sex with a “bad girl” is standard procedure for 007. It is also standard procedure that the “bad girl,” in this case Silva’s frightened mistress, Séverine, dies after she has had steamy sex with 007. Sex with an anonymous woman is also standard. Craig as Bond displays his well proportioned body together with a product placement – a Heineken beer.
In a scene wholly extraneous to the narrative, Craig’s body is shown bathed in the blue light of his Shanghai hotel’s pool. Craig takes a knife to his nicely muscled body – a form of kinky sex for the pleasure of his audience.

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