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An Attempt at a Panegyric to the Mendes Filmography

By Ian Dunross
February 5, 2010
For clarity, all book titles are displayed in small caps (From Russia With Love), and short stories are shown in quotes and capitalized accordingly ("Quantum of Solace"). Film titles, on the other hand, are italicized and shown with the capitalization used by the filmmakers (Quantum Of Solace).

This essay contains spoilers.


When reports surfaced in early January that British director Sam Mendes was in negotiations to direct the 23rd Bond film, many fans wondered if he was suitable for the task. After all, his movies suffer from the plodding introspective anality that's so common to self-important dramas with an underlying political rant. Allow me to lay to rest any prejudices you might have; for Karl Marx predicted the coming of Sam Mendes (and this is confirmed by questionable historians) in Volume 5 of his Capital:

“So long as the present historical moment, such as it is, unfolds on itself by relentless competition of stupid action movies, the owners of a franchise, of that which manufactures a brooding examination of a spy in tiny light-blue swimming trunks, will invest their capital in other methods to increase production. Indeed, a specter will haunt the series, the specter of an overrated director.”

The rest of the chapter concerns the crisis of surplus value and the coming of a classless paradise, depicted metaphorically through obscure Prussian nursery rhymes—which leads us to believe that the saturnine revolutionary was fond of cannabis. Nevertheless, because the Mendes oeuvre is sacrosanct in the sphere of Hollywood kitsch, let us consider its effect: is Bond a dead spy walking?

Well, we're getting there. The appointment of Sam Mendes as director of the next Bond film is disconcerting—unless you applaud the current kitschy direction of the series. The pompous sensibilities of this filmmaker would only compliment the essence of the Daniel Craig tenure.

Journey to perdition and the kitsch beyond

Although not a household name like a Spielberg or a James Cameron, director Samuel Alexander “Sam” Mendes has reached something of a distinguished stature, thanks primarily to American Beauty (1999), which garnered him Oscar and Golden Globe awards, and Revolutionary Road (2008), his most recent acclaimed film. One could even argue that American Beauty established Mendes as a “serious” but commercially viable director, and it looked liked he was intent to march down that path. Unfortunately, he took a detour and offered his most extravagant effort—Road To Perdition (2002), a dramatization of Dante's Inferno with Daniel Craig in tights, gadding about as Medusa against cheap cardboard backdrops that depict the Fifth Circle of Wrath and Sloth.


I kid, of course. R.T.P (as known to its Rap fans) is based on the comic-book novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, a nice source of kitsch for a film packaged as a brilliant masterpiece.* The story has something to do with Depression-era gangsters, I think. It is hard to discern the actual plot because all the characters are veiled by utter blackness—Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, using almost no lights, resort to stylized dark palettes of film-student classicism. Tom Hanks, I believe, is the main character, moving in a shadowy world of fedoras, long dark raincoats, and constant rain and fog much like the atmosphere in those film noirs of Hollywood yore. Why the film is set in the 1930s hardly matters: aside from a couple of fleeting comments and a brief scene with a farmer, the film's primary reference to this turbulent period is through costume and set design.

I did sense, in all those darkly lit scenes, that R.T.P presents gentlemanly crooks with decent sensibilities. There's even an element of blamelessness for their crimes: the quest for wealth through corruption is ultimately out of their hands; these gangsters don't seem to be executing terrible crimes. We find them portrayed with sympathy as men of honor. With the faint backdrop of the Great Depression—and its implicit mood of growing misery for wide segments of society—an argument could be made that Mendes is suggesting that another force dictates crime, sweeping these gangsters in its destruction: it's a capitalistic system gone mad. It's a neat trick from director Mendes—saddled with a story that goes nowhere, he 's free to wax political ideologies that add a layer of glossy intellectual veneer to the film. He must be saluted for that, if for nothing else than having the courage to delve into trite anti-capitalist themes.

The rest of the prominent cast consists of Paul Newman, Stanley Tucci, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and, of course, Daniel Craig. One gathers that such an ensemble is supposed to be a paradigm of dignity. But what Mendes and company have failed to notice is that they've essentially assembled a group from the sub-Eric Roberts caliber of acting. Moreover, one look at Craig glaring his eyes and muttering, “'Cause it's all so fuckin' hysterical” (his response to Peter Sullivan [Liam Aiken] on why he's always smiling), and you'll want to smack him on the back of the head. (Incidentally, after Mendes directed Craig in Perdition, he eventually co-produced The Kite Runner, a film by Marc Forster, who later directed Craig in Quantum Of Solace. We are truly in the decline of the west, as Spengler forewarned.)

Perdition in the desert

Sam Mendes on the set of Jarhead. The
desert scenes were filmed in the Imperial
Valley in Southern California.

In 2005, Mendes explored the Gulf War in Jarhead (based on U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford's 1993 memoir). Surprisingly, the film played in theaters for about 42 minutes, despite an aggressive marketing campaign that centered on an enticing tag line: “Welcome to the suck.” Jake Gyllenhaal, fresh from his machismo cowboy role in Brokeback Mountain (2005), plays Swofford, a marine who questions his decision to join the service when his drill instructor smashes his head into a chalkboard. It's a touching homage to the camaraderie in The Three Stooges wherein Moe Howard typically shoves brother Curly's head into the spinning blade of a table saw.

The first part of the film concerns life in the boot camp, and it all starts to look like warmed-over Full Metal Jacket (1987). Fortunately, our hero completes the rigorous drilling, and soon his entire unit is sent to Saudi Arabia as part of the first wave of Operation Desert Storm. Stuck in the desert, tortured by endless heat, boredom, and the thought that his girlfriend back home is unfaithful, Swofford's sanity begins to crumble. All the while, the boredom in the desert intensifies. Oh, what to do, what to do? Well, the soldiers manage to keep their hands busy, if you catch my meaning. Also, they place bets on dueling scorpions, engage in drill routines, keep their hands busy, appear in censored TV interviews, dance in the shower like giggling sorority girls, and keep their hands busy. The marines, as portrayed in this film, are a collective geist of erection, ready to thrust into battle (“Aw boys, I just got a hard on!,” colonel Kazinski [Chris Cooper] proclaims to the troops), but entirely restrained by the bombing missions of the airforce.

It all gives Mendes a chance to assert some sort of anti-war stance. But his story-telling is questionable: Jarhead is unclear on whether to be a meditation on the madness of war, a study of human boredom, or a bizarre homo-erotic view of the military.

American suburbia: perdition, once more


Despite that misstep, Mendes managed to stay employed by the Hollywood clique. His most recent film is Away We Go (2009), but hardly anyone in this over-populated world of 6 billion people has seen it. Some patrons at the local pub, during a recent game of snookers, did admit to me that they'd heard of the film; but when pressed, they realized they were mistaking it for the song “Up, Up and Away (My beautiful, My Beautiful Balloon)” by The 5th Dimension. Once again, a botched approach from Mendes—overlooking a title that sounds similar to a '60s pop hit and certainly misleading to drunken snooker players.

Away We Go is, supposedly, a comedy-drama. The essence of the film is difficult to explain: not because it has a complex plot and intricate characterizations; perhaps it has all those attributes. I just don't have a deep recollection of the film because I became cataleptic at the sight of the opening scene wherein the two main characters are locked, ahem, in cunnilingus and discussing how one of them “tastes.” I suddenly spit a spray of my drink (sadly, a superb Willamette Valley pinot noir) and lost my hearing, my orientation in time and space, my entire cognitive skills, and became immobile. Fortunately, the neighbor's cat appeared in my home theater and kindly fast-forwarded the blu-ray disc to the next scene and placed the machine on pause until I slowly ascertained my surroundings and had enough muscle control to open another bottle of the fine pinot noir.

I did discern that Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski are the wacky couple faced with impending parenthood (she is pregnant, and they embark on a road trip, in search of something lacking in their lives, presumably common sense). Through it all, there's a sense of disdain for the conventional life—an anti-suburban sentiment toward American culture. Hence, the aimless road trip of the couple, a search for something other than the hallmark of bourgeois living (home ownership outside the grime of the city, access to good public education and services, and a decent salary to pay for it all). This disdain also appears many years earlier in American Beauty, a film that subverts the structure of suburban life: the previously marginalized individuals—a gay couple, a strange angst-ridden kid—become the dominant elements in the hierarchy, so to speak, when the suburban father (Kevin Spacey) and his neighbor, a marine colonel (Chris Cooper), are portrayed as sufferers of sexual and homosexual repression, respectively—with the latter snapping into homicidal rage. In this approach, Mendes essentially attacks the orthodox in suburbia, which suggests he's joined the choir of voices of the Hollywood Leftist Elite basking in the sport of condemning American culture.

Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet discuss a plot point
between takes for Revolutionary Road.

To this end, Mendes embraced the literary source of Revolutionary Road to express his polemical heart: the 1961 novel of the same title, written by Richard Yates—a tormented outcast who drunkenly set fire to his beard—expresses nothing but disdain for American suburbia (a tacit admission, in my view, that Yates was a communist sympathizer, enabling me to place him on my list of kitschy Marxists “artists”). The disdain, however, was enough to excite Mendes; for here was a novel that attacks the suburbs because, well, it represented the kingdom of the bourgeoisie, or, rather, the self-reliant homeowner—in other words, those blasted advocates of private property, of autonomy beyond the confines of collectivism imposed by socialist thought.

True to Yates's vision, Mendes depicts this region as a dystopia: the grating Kate Winslet and the overrated Leo DiCrapio play a married couple who despises everything—their suburban lives, their marriage, their neighbors, their jobs, even the front lawn and the sprinkler system. Here, then, is a study of frustration in modern life, and the epiphany that haunts this young couple is entrapment: the submission to conventions and the inability to break them; the liberation that is sought but difficult to attain. They yearn for Paris, believing that happiness is there, although the desire is undoubtedly ironic, considering that any city with this annoying couple would have its citizenry battling severe depression and the urge to stampede for the hills.

As the backdrop to the marital bliss, Mendes presents a bizarre, decadent community: a meddling realtor, envious neighbors, aggressive co-workers climbing the corporate ladder, an outpatient psycho who blatantly represents a demented state of mind. For Mendes, look no further than the suburbs, sprawling with materialism, to find darkness in America. Although I personally find other terrifying things in this country, such as pythons proliferating in the Everglades or earthquakes in California, apparently there is nothing more dreadful, so the film implies, than the malevolent force of a guy in a Land Rover driving out of the Home Depot parking lot and heading straight to Starbucks to order, oh I don't know, a Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino.

Mendes, on the set of Revolutionary Road, seizes
a quiet moment to examine the script.

Of course, the Kate Winslet character (whatever her name) and Mr. Dicrapio keep the marriage going by constantly arguing and screaming at each other. Unfortunately, all the plate-throwing and screaming leave them little time to deal with anything else, and when they're not paying attention to the chaos, they find themselves locked in coitus with other people. In the midst of all the adultery, the couple do share vague recollections of children, and sure enough, it turns out there are two of them, though it's unclear if the kids dislike the suburbs.

The plot thickens when Kate's character gets pregnant and Mr. Dicrapio inadvertently shows up at the office, does something productive in his cubicle, and scores a promotion and a raise. Just as the scheming Mr. Roper in Three's Company, he seeks to undermine the move to Paris. Indeed, would life be better in a different part of the world? Is relocating to Paris the solution? And what if the couple doesn't react well to the city of Sartrean existentialism and dog poop? These are the questions that Mendes raises after two hours of plodding narrative.

Bottom line: Revolutionary Road is not good. It starts off strong, with hilarious attempts from Kate Winslet and one-expression Leo to portray a bickering couple. But the whole thing bogs down under the weight of slick, calculated artificiality. The suburbia depicted is too surreal in its lush and quaint and expensive veneer; the emotions in the marital discord are too self-conscious, showy, and lack sincerity. It's a long, sonorous drama you typically find on the Hallmark channel, only without the commercials.


And so, after a batch of Sam Mendes films, I retire. This overview, however, is by no means complete: our genius-auteur happens to be quite prolific, having dabbled with commercials for Ridley Scott Associates (RSA) and plays for the English stage. Perhaps a benevolent Orc has captured them all on video, both the plays and commercials, but someone with a high tolerance for nausea will need to watch and critique them. Nevertheless, one question still remains: alas, is Mendes truly the right choice to helm a Bond film? Hard to say. As we've gleaned, the films of director Mendes, though amusing, are but expressions of glorious sentimental theatrics, radiant in the bullshit of their political polemics. On the other hand, with the current emphasis on kitsch in the Daniel Craig Bond films, Mendes might be suitable for the job. I can personally foresee the following outcome,complete with leftist propaganda and Hollywood-style political correctness, from his involvement:

The Craig-Bond, still sporting a bowl haircut, now lives in the suburbs of Connecticut but completely discontent with the neatly trimmed lawns and garage sales in his neighborhood. Something profound is missing in his metrosexual life, and he passes the time getting pampered with bronzer makeup, eye cream, and moisturizer at the local salon. Fortunately, his best friend, a gay Felix Leiter (played by Joe Jonas), tells him that Vesper's daughter truly exists and is somewhere in Germany. This is, of course, a nod to an unused idea from Quantum Of Solace (concocted by another maestro of kitsch, Paul Haggis).
Ah, fatherhood! The Craig-Bond is excited to become a single dad, and the one thing meaningful is to search for this little girl. Unfortunately, geography was never his strong suite—for him, the world divided into American suburbia and non-American suburbia, with its intricate cities in different countries; so he steps off the plane in Copenhagen where, in a gripping plot twist, he encounters the villain, weather reporter Gaia Greene (the psychotic twin of the late Dominic Greene of Solace infamy).
Played by Joy Behar (who truly is insane), Gaia is organizing an environmental conference where she intends to kidnap world leaders unless something is done to prop up Al Gore's credibility. In an innovative approach to action-film narrative, Mendes discards the fight scene between the Craig-Bond and the villain; instead, he and screenwriter Peter Morgan stage a lengthy dialogue scene wherein the Craig-Bond interviews Gaia in a format reminiscent of Frost/Nixon. The movie concludes with Gaia alone on a floating iceberg—an arty, intellectual bit of imagery that symbolizes human alienation and is sure to wow idiotic critics. Meanwhile, the Craig-Bond eventually finds Vesper's daughter in Trier (the birthplace of Marx), feeling he is one with nature, especially after abandoning the decadence of suburbia, and dreaming of the forced equality in the communist world to come.

Note to the producers: You have my permission to use any and all of these story elements. I'd consider it an honor.


* Every year, the ministers of the Hollywood tribunal humbly proclaim certain films as masterpieces. And there are, of course, the genius-auteurs who make these films, also humbly proclaimed by said ministers. After all, a masterpiece cannot exist without a glorious auteur. Such proclamations enthrall the masses, a seductive force that enters the collective unconscious and becomes a veil of accepted notions that cover the present moment, hiding the real. That force is quite magical, poetic, lifting us into joyful blindness, so much so that it's difficult to see what we are actually living. Meanwhile, it's a hard life for Sammy Boy Mendes CBE—to think that, as one of the current proclaimed auteurs, his life has been reduced to coronations at gala event after gala event, all for the sake of commemorating his dedication to exposing the ills of American culture as defined by the Hollywood tribunal.

List of Illustrations

“Director.” Online Image. Magic Pictures.   27 Jan. 2010
“Scene from Road To Perdition.” Online Photograph. IndependentCritics.com.
25 Jan. 2010   <http://www.independentcritics.com/reviews/roadtoperdition.htm>.
“On the set of Jarhead.” Online Photograph. IMDB.   3 Feb. 2010
“Suburbia.” Online Image. Una ragazza americana.   24 Jan. 2010
“Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet on the set of Revolutonary Road.”
Online Photograph. TheSpill.com.   4 Feb. 2010
“Mendes on the set of Revolutionary Road.” Online Photograph.
indieWire.   28 Jan. 2010
“Director's Chair.” Online Image. Film Analysis 2008-2009.   3 Feb. 2010

Works Cited

American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch,
Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Sam Robards. Dreamworks, 1999. DVD.
Away We Go. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels,
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney. Focus Features, 2009. Blu-Ray Disc.
Jarhead. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black, Scott MacDonald, Peter Sarsgaard.
Universal, 2005. Blu-ray Disc.
Revolutionary Road. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon,
Richard Easton, Jay O. Sanders, Kathy Bates. Paramount, 2008. Blu-Ray Disc.
Road To Perdition. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Stanley Tucci,
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tyler Hoechin, Daniel Craig. Dreamworks, 2002. DVD.
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