Meditations on the afterglow of 007
Have you been following the progress of the 23rd Bond film?
Whoa, come back, there's no need to stampede for the exits in fear and trembling. Although the spectre of another kitschy Daniel Craig Bond film is about as terrifying as having your eyelids forced open while Brando's The Island of Dr. Moreau is played in an endless loop, the turbulence of the 007 film franchise—especially with last year's bankruptcy debacle—has been a curiosity, even entertaining at times, a veritable unintentional comedy weaved from human folly. Sure, 2010 has been, to borrow a phrase from HM Queen Elizabeth II, an “Annus Horribilis” for the Bondian film empire. As producer Michael G. Wilson stated in the early winter of 2010: “We just don’t know enough about the situation to comment but we know it’s uncertain” (Fitzherbert).
So, for the fans, the end of Bondian days was not inconceivable last year. But, we must admit, there have been much worse circumstances in world history. For example, during the Cambrian Period, trilobites found it difficult to move across wet sands to scavenge food particles on shore. Therefore, can we truly proclaim that we, as Bond fans, had it worse than those creatures did? Of course we can (and I stand corrected) because the trilobites were not expected to endure the upheaval of the series, let alone today's cultural phenomenon such as the music of Justin Bieber, any Daniel Craig movie, or the hit Masterpiece Theatre series Jersey Shore.
And now, a few months into the new year, we find Bond film number 23 in the same situation as before: nobody in charge seems to know what to do. The film is set for a November 9, 2012 release date, as asserted in the most recent press release thrown at the news wires in early January. The as-yet untitled film will again star The Anointed One, Daniel Craig, as Vladimir Putin 007, with Dame Judi Dench to return as his grandmother; but the shuffling of screenwriters, the odd appointment of director Sam Mendes, and rumors of bizarre casting give the impression of an unsettling pre-production phase. The revamp of the screenwriters, in particular, is quite the comedy of errors: tapped to replace Peter Morgan is John Logan, a movement that negates the glorious press release from two years ago. Let us recall: in the summer of 2009, a different orchestration of confidence was played when the producers announced the line up of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and the venerated Morgan. They had comprised, as suggested by the press release of that time, the glorious coming together of virtuosos, a league of extraordinary screenwriters:
Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli of EON Productions Ltd and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures have today announced that Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale) will be the screenwriters of the 23rd James Bond adventure. . . . “Peter, Neal and Robert are extraordinarily talented and we’re looking forward to working with the three of them,” commented Wilson and Broccoli. (“Morgan, Purvis & Wade to Work on Bond, James Bond”)
When I read this press release, I imagined a painting of these characters: Morgan is flanked by his comrades Purvis and Wade, and they are standing on the balcony of a castle somewhere in Britain to address the legions of reporters and photographers packed in the courtyard below. Moreover, the announcement was yet another signal from the producers that the next film would emphasize dramatic sophistication, considering Morgan's reputation for “serious” films. Morgan savored the glorious PR and, by December 2009, he babbled to the Austrian newspaper Kurier that the next Bond film would have a “shocking story” (Miller). Ah, what stagecraft! The sound-bite was enough for the Ministers of Profound Historical Events (i.e., the mainstream media) to gush in excitement. The news wires quoted Morgan, his mug shot was plastered in articles, and speculation was drawn from the statement, generating buzz for an unmade film. Gratified by his theatrics, Morgan sat on the throne of fame and gazed at his kingdom below.
This is where I disagree with Mr. Morgan: although I admire his success as a playwright, I cringe at his impulse to be a courtier of Profound Historical Events—intoxicated by hubris, such courtiers fall into the trap of not realizing that events are only lit on the historical stage for a brief moment, only to be followed by the long deep silence of forgetting. Sad to say, history unfolds like a piano recital where Chopin's 27 Études are performed—but only the first bar of each Étude is played, a blur of notes blending into one another in an unmemorable melody. Fleming's Bond, quite damaged from a gruesome torture near the end of Casino Royale, has a similar observation: “History is moving pretty quickly these days,” he says to René Mathis (his ally at the French secret service), “and the heroes and the villains keep on changing parts” (134). So for our Mr. Bond, the distinction of good and evil fades, and the roles of the hero and the villain become a blur. Nothing is certain when absolutes are collapsing, and Fleming seems to have looked at the existentialist's credo: with everything so transitory, one can't be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself. We sense not only the pain of Bond's suffering but his surrender to the turbulence in the world.
Morgan, on the other hand, turned his eyes away from the turbulence and, as a result, was unaware that his glory was sputtering just as it began to light: in January 2010, just a few weeks after the screenwriter's sound-bite about a shocking plot, the Ministers of Profound Historical Events aimed their cameras at the devastation of the earthquake in Haiti. The Morgan script, which spectators had never seen but were convinced to be brilliant, was suddenly irrelevant. At the time, I wondered if the script's brilliance had an expiration date. And what had become of its author? Did Peter Morgan still exist? Did he and the plans for the 23rd Bond film ever exist? In the spring of 2010, a report, which appeared like a small footnote in a dense textbook, asserted that “Patrick Marber, the acclaimed playwright, is understood to be wanted by Mendes as [Morgan's] replacement” (Eden). To make matters worse, other events crowded the floodlit stage, forcing Bond 23 to plunge deeper into the well of forgetting: the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 into the Mediterranean Sea covered the memory of the Haitian earthquake; the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico drowned out the grand ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics; ethnic riots in Kyrgyzstan erased the memory of the bloody military crackdown on protesters in Bangkok, and so on and so forth, until everyone forgets everything, or at least remembers only the Profound Historical Event of the day. Fortunately, in late October 2010, Morgan managed to surface in the news, complaining about his brief involvement in the Bond film:
[Working on Bond 23] was short lived. I started work on it and then the whole thing went to hell. Now, I'm so happy doing something else, I wouldn't [necessarily go back] even if the whole thing came back. . . . There came a point where we all just had to say, ‘look, I'm just going to step off’. I just wrote a treatment, never a script. . . . I think there was momentum behind my idea for the moment, and I suspect that moment's probably gone. (“Writer Peter Morgan talks at length about his involvement on Bond 23”)
It is, we gather, the frustrations of an individual struggling against insignificance. Yet there is a sort of self-consolation beneath his words—the venting of anger, the attempt to make himself linger a tad longer. Oh, kind Sir, renowned playwright, triumphant BAFTA winner, I cannot bear to listen to you struggle against the transience of things! Revered man of letters! Fellow earthling! I implore you to stop torturing yourself! Get thee off the stage of history with dignity. The next performer—screenwriter John Logan—is ready for his act. Be happy you're fading away. Surely you can see the exit door at stage left. Just outside that door is the soft, warm blanket of the world's amnesia: snuggle into it and stop dwelling on how you were ousted from the league of extraordinary screenwriters—that moment, along with the sternness of the Bond producers, no longer exist. Nevertheless, his frustrations culminate in what seems to be disenchantment with the Bondian concept:
I was thrilled to be involved. . . . But I feel like it's a dated idea now. Having tried to do it, I'm not sure it's possible to do it. But I wish them luck, because I'm first in line [to see it]. I do think that the absence of social reality in the Bond films [is a problem] - and I do hope they manage to get that in a script - that you can believe in him and he's not just a man in a dinner jacket. He's a creature of the Cold War. I personally struggle to believe that a British secret agent is still saving the world.
So was it futile, then, to reboot the series in 2006? Put another way, I thought the whole notion behind the reboot, the casting of Daniel Craig, and the self-conscious effort of the filmmakers to distance Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace from the fantasy of the previous films was to achieve “social reality” and to make the series not “a dated idea now.” So what, then, did Craig and the producers achieve in those two films? The melodramatic nihilism reaches its peak when Morgan insists that it’s no longer “possible to do [a Bond movie].” Of course, he throws in the obligatory professional courtesy about wishing them luck, “because I’m first in line [to see it].” Oh, really? After expressing frustration, after admitting that the project “went to hell,” after admitting that he’s “so happy doing something else,” he wants to see the next Bond film, a gravy train that he was booted off when he couldn’t map the voyage?
His conception of Bond as an obsolete hero does gain hope under the guise of director Sam Mendes. For it is the brilliance of this award-winning director that will bring an ordering principle:
I'm very encouraged if Sam Mendes [directs the film], because I'm sure he wouldn't put his name to a load of nonsense. He's smart and he's British and he would care deeply about the franchise.
An odd phrase: “I’m sure [Sam Mendes] wouldn't put his name to a load of nonsense.” Why is Morgan so sure? Does he possess some sort of omniscient quality? How does Morgan truly know with certainty that director Mendes “wouldn’t put his name to a load of nonsense”? I’ll tell you what the esteemed auteur, Mr. Sam Mendes, will put his name on: big money. And he’ll take on the spectacle of a Bond film, without a flinch, so long as the money is right. Besides, why would he “care deeply about the franchise”? He’s just a “director-for-hire” who, at this stage, hasn't expressed any affinity for the Ian Fleming novels.
So Morgan is out, along with Patrick Marber, who seems never to have joined this comedy troupe; and it's John Logan who has taken the reigns of the script, while Purvis and Wade remain in the shadows, sharpening pencils or loading paper in the laser printer. Let us return to that metaphorical painting: the studio's propaganda section has airbrushed Peter Morgan out of the canvas—and out of history, for that matter. The new painting has Logan, Purvis, and Wade standing on the balcony. Where Morgan once stood, there is only the bare castle wall.
Of course, previous Bond films had various writers coming and going during script development, as if they were plopped on a carousel revolving to the rhythm of battling egos and sheer apprehension. The Spy Who Loved Me, for example, went through many revisions and screenwriters; and, according to director John Glen, who helmed five 007 films, the first draft of the Octopussy screenplay, by George MacDonald Fraser, was cast aside quickly and easily:
George's script was all his own work. . . . I had been back in London for only three days when [the producers] called from Hollywood and told me that George's screenplay would have to give way. Richard Maibaum was brought in and he and [Michael G. Wilson, the co-producer] collaborated on a new script that retained only a few elements of George's work. (Glen)
But what makes the script development of Bond 23 laughable is the sonorous tone of that first press release—a confident announcement of great writers that, in a few short months, went away quickly and quietly, as if the studio wanted the world to forget it. Now a different approach has been taken with the latest press release: subtle, especially with its announcement of the new writing team, it was essentially paraphrased in the news wires as a production confirmation, asserting the late 2012 release date. Moreover, in a piece from the Hollywood Reporter, the new league of extraordinary screenwriters are barely mentioned (emphasis mine): “The script was written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan” (Kit). It's unclear if this is an assumption by the reporter or the true production status—is the script truly complete?
Not at all. On March 31, Logan broke his silence in an interview for The Adelaide Magazine. “‘I'm deeply, deeply embedded in the world of 007,’” he says from his Soho loft in New York where he is “writing the first draft of what will be the 23rd Bond film” (Tirrell). Ah, so the first draft is in the works! Logan, however, is mum over how much of Morgan's treatment he's using, or whether he's working from any previous drafts concocted by Purvis and Wade. But now that acclaimed screenwriter number one has been pushed aside for acclaimed screenwriter number two, a laughable unspoken admission from all parties involved has surfaced: the script development is just beginning. We are back where we started.
As for Logan, his involvement raises questions: is he an aficionado of the Bond films? Or, like Morgan, does he view the Bond character as absurd, even obsolete? His repertoire reveals both traces of good news and ominous signs: a successful playwright with stints in “renowned” Hollywood films, he has a distinguished career for somebody relatively young. Still, as a co-writer on Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, The Last Samurai, and Star Trek Nemesis, it’s unclear how much of his material was actually used. For Scorsese's The Aviator, he received solo credit, which augments his solitary works: let's remember that he's served as sole writer for questionable made-for-TV movies such as Tornado! (1996) and Bats (a 1999 horror film). A checkered history, then, with shades of the sublime and the ridiculous. But another question at the heart of his involvement—maybe the question—is: does Logan revere the classic Bond narrative?
By “classic Bond narrative,” I refer to the Richard Maibaum-Terrence Young style of storytelling, a smooth mix of humor and action, taking the narrative from suspense to humor to teasing sexiness and back again. I’ve been sensing for some time, or at least with the Daniel Craig movies, that the Bond makers have made a deliberate effort to stray from that structure. Is Madam Barbara Broccoli, the czarina of the franchise, even interested in that type of Bond movie? The motley writers she's introduced of late, such as Paul Haggis and Joshua Zetumer, haven’t exactly revealed any reverence for the Maibaum-Young legacy, and the outcome has been disastrous. Consider the last entry, Quantum Of Solace, a bizarre churn of explosions and action scenes tacked to an unfocused plot that no one can take seriously and a narrative that relies on exposition delivered by M, who pops in and out of the story as she trails the Craig-Bond to various countries. The overall result is a film that's laughable while it attempts to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of kitsch as there is, and Solace is indeed a profound, pretentious misfire of kitsch.
“I know what it's like to sit there and type the word ‘Bond’,” says Bruce Feirstein, who tackled the scripts for GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies. In an interview for the latter film, it was refreshing to learn that the former journalist admired the almost mythic legacy of the Bond films: “You write this and you think Ian Fleming and screenwriter Richard Maibaum are looking over your shoulder.” The key to a Bond script is an almost elusive element, perfected by Maibaum, whose shadow was a source of inspiration: “Every time I get stuck, I wonder what would Maibaum do? I think I came close two or three times, but Maibaum was in a league of his own” (Nazzaro). Whether Logan reveres this legacy remains to be seen.
Then again, he’s got Sam Mendes looking over his shoulders, ultimately dictating the style of Bond 23. Meanwhile, the 2012 release marks the 50th anniversary of the series. It's an old franchise, and we can be virtually certain that its appeal, especially to younger audiences, is under scrutiny by the studio. But does Mendes, Logan, and the Bond producers truly know what to do? With Quantum Of Solace, screenwriter Paul Haggis and director Marc Forster certainly didn't, and they just ended up emulating the Bourne films.
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