Bonding with history: Skyfall’s postmodern 007

[Warning: spoilers!]

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So recites Judi Dench’s M midway through Skyfall, quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. As Thomas Newman’s soundtrack swells and Daniel Craig’s Bond tears on foot through Whitehall, it’s clear the text points to him as much as post-imperial Britain: like Ulysses, better known by his Greek name Odysseus, this film’s Bond is an aging sea dog come home, world-weary, after being lost in action, his kingdom fallen into disrepair. Skyfall, Bond’s own odyssey, is the franchise’s most strongly intertextual entry, classicist touches woven through its story. Even the famous Walther PPK, now fireable solely by him, is recast in Homeric terms, mirroring the bow only Odysseus is capable of drawing, proving his identity; Bond too is defined by his prowess as a marksman, not what it was since his exile – ‘Is there’, Javier Bardem’s villain asks during a shooting contest, ‘any of the old 007 left?’ – and it’s only in the film’s third act, when finally he regains his expert aim, that we know for sure Bond isn’t dead. (If the antique parallels seem contrived or unlikely, director Sam Mendes read English at Cambridge and co-writer John Logan penned Gladiator twelve years before.)

M’s speech namechecking Tennyson is itself a defence of old-fashioned, clandestine espionage. Earlier, as future successor Mallory worries MI6 are viewed as ‘antiquated idiots’, he admonishes her, ‘For Christ’s sake, listen to yourself. We’re a democracy, and we we’re accountable to the people we’re trying to defend. We can’t keep working in the shadows. There are no more shadows.’

‘You don’t get this, do you?’ M replies. ‘Whoever’s behind this, whoever’s doing it, he knows us. He’s one of us. He comes from the same place as Bond, the place you say doesn’t exist: the shadows.’ When interrogated at a government inquiry, she says this:

Today I’ve repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. Why do we need agents, the double-0 section? Isn’t it all rather quaint? Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map, they’re not nations. They are individuals. And look around you: who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves: how safe do you feel?

That Skyfall should be Dench’s final Bond film seems fitting, since this perfectly inverts the modernist aesthetic of the Pierce Brosnan era, in whose opener GoldenEye she first appeared. (Both films, incidentally, are named for Bond’s infant homes – in the latter case, the Jamaican house were Ian Fleming first conceived of him.) When Casino Royale rejigged the series continuity, depicting 007’s first mission, producers impressed by Dench’s M reportedly kept her on despite this complicating the timeline; to view her in GoldenEye and Skyfall side by side, it’s clear her two Ms are very different characters. On first meeting Brosnan’s Bond in 1995 that M – formerly a finance executive, dubbed ‘evil queen of numbers’ by Michael Kitchen’s Tanner – famously called him ‘a sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War’, while the Craig era’s M has by contrast been a spymaster for decades, even declaring in Casino Royale that she misses the Cold War. By Skyfall M has come full circle from dogged forward progress to nostalgia, and so has the franchise.

Just as the First World War prompted literary modernism, so the USSR’s collapse prompted GoldenEye and films that followed – in a world where things had fallen apart, establishment and status quo crumbling in on themselves, they reached for innovation. Brosnan’s Bond wore a European businessman’s Brioni, wielded gadgetry more colourful than ever at the dawn of the online age and embodied the Blair governments’ fetish for New Britain: this 007 scaled the Millennium Dome, rappelled down the side of the Eden Project and worked at Vauxhall Cross, the new, nineties home of MI6, with Samantha Bond’s more PC Moneypenny, romantically emancipated and (in GoldenEye at least) dating someone else. In Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day, Bond’s love interests (Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry) were fellow agents from China and the U.S., whom he, filmmakers seemed overkeen to show us, was adept at satisfying sexually. As women of colour, in both cases, became his lovers, so MI6 grew interracial, Colin Salmon’s Charles Robinson replacing Tanner as chief aide to M.

The urge to modernise was, in the end, what alienated fans and almost tanked the series – particularly via 2002’s CGI-laden, bullet-time-ridden Die Another Day. Bringing Bond and his setting up to date meant bringing it away from Fleming, whose hero was an anachronism even at the time of his invention. Bond is an Eton old boy and naval Commander, pitched in Live and Let Die – written in the prelude to the U.S. civil rights movement – against criminally violent black people, and against cat-eating Koreans in Goldfinger. (‘Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms’, Fleming writes. ‘Those terms included putting Odd-Job or any other Korean firmly in place, which in Bond’s estimation was lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.’) He is the gamekeeper, as Den of Geek’s James Peaty writes, of an Empire whose absence his creator gravely mourned, and which is being fast deserted by the world around him. With his colonial instincts, ‘corrective’ seduction of Pussy Galore – her name originally refers not to what she has, but what she gets – and rage at fifty years of female emancipation, Bond is written as a man out of time, or steadfastly refusing, at least, to move with it.

The same could easily be said of him in Skyfall, which makes a point of its heroes feeling out of date. ‘You know the rules of the game’, M tells Bond. ‘You’ve been playing it long enough.’

‘We both have,’ he replies. ‘Maybe too long.’

It’s not just MI6 here which faces being deemed antiquated. Bond himself is older and slower than when we saw him last, ‘made weak by time and fate’ like Ulysses, struggling to stay in what Mallory calls a young man’s game. He is matched, moreover, against Bardem’s technoterrorist and with Ben Whishaw’s millennial Q, who chides him as a mere triggerman in the age of cyberwarfare. Bond’s argument, M’s, and the film’s as a whole is that triggermen today are needed; that as espionage and global conflict post-9/11 have been individualised (Silva, the film’s villain, rigs national elections from his solitary lair), so shadowy, individual cloak-and-dagger spies have become relevant again. Where keyboard warrior Q is tricked by Silva, after all, it’s Craig’s low-tech, antediluvian 007 who finally undoes him. The Brosnan era argued Bond could be modern, keeping up with a world turned on its head; now that the world has turned again, and late nineties modernity itself seems dated, Skyfall suggests Bond is needed because he’s old-fashioned.

It’s not by accident that this film uproots all its own most contemporary elements. At the outset, M and Tanner (now played by Rory Kinnear) supervise Bond in Turkey from Vauxhall Cross, all flatscreens and gizmos – the same gizmos, it turns out, which allow Silva to access MI6’s computer network and destroy the building, prompting a change of scene to underground Churchillian bunkers of 18th century origin. Bond only gains the upper hand, in the film’s third act, by isolating himself and M on a Scottish moor, no servers or cables in sight: between the restoration era house of the film’s title, the 1964 Aston Martin unearthed to journey there and the family rifle with which Bond finally shoots straight, nothing in Skyfall’s climax belongs to the present. Here, too, Dench – sole remaining cast member from the Brosnan years – is written out, replaced by Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory, whose gender and background return us to Fleming’s M. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, declaring ‘Some work of noble note may yet be done’, Bond returns to adventure at the film’s close, finding himself back in M’s oak-panelled, leather-doored office of old. (HMS Victory even hangs in painting on the wall, touching multivalently both on Bond’s and MI6’s revival – the ‘grand old war ship’, in Q’s words, may not after all be ‘ignominiously hauled away to scrap’ – and the vessel which ‘puffs her sails’, calling to Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem.) Eve, previously a field agent in the vein of Brosnan’s leading women, is revealed to be Miss Moneypenny, seated at the familiar desk to flirt with 007.

Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry. Ironically, I wonder if as a standalone film on its own terms, this stops it working as successfully – if in its reliance on the intertextual, it sacrifices self-sufficient storytelling. Did I, for example, want or need particularly to find out about Bond’s childhood home? Isn’t he, on a certain level, more interesting as a killer with no clear provenance? It’s a wonderfully indulgent moment as a fan, moreover, to rewatch Bond, M, Tanner and Moneypenny in the courtroom sequence, Fleming’s most familiar lineup reunited in a pitched gun battle, but I also have to wonder: what were Eve and Mallory doing in this film, other than awaiting unveilment in more famous roles? Aren’t we, by suspecting this, perhaps distracted on some level from their self-contained characterisation, just as we might have been had Sean Connery, as considered at one point, played groundskeeper Kincade instead of Albert Finney? Just as the elements of classic Bond here – the DB5, say, or M’s office – feel somehow hollow in diegesis, stripped of their meaning in the series’ broader context, these characters never quite seem fully formed and immersive, as did Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and her interplay with Craig’s Bond. Likewise, Silva’s relationship with him never seems quite as real as that of Mads Mikkelsen’s blood-weeping Le Chiffre.

Where some knocked Royale as a great film but unsatisfying Bond film, I wonder if the reverse applies to Skyfall. (I’ve a great deal of time for both, and more regard than most for the much-derided Quantum of Solace in between, but still think Royale edges ahead.) How will the old-school aesthetic re-established by the close of Sam Mendes’ film serve Bond 24 on his directorial return? How will the new-old world of oak panels, secretarial flirting and mission dossiers stamped TOP SECRET serve its plot, when these things’ purpose is no longer just semiotic? I’m not sure. One thing is certain, though: after reflective, thought-provoking Skyfall, I trust that Mendes can deliver.

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Smash the closet! 10 alternative coming out tips for young people

SmashTheClosetAugust’s been a good month for comings-out: Raven-Symoné, Ben Whishaw, Troye Sivan, Darren Young, Wentworth Miller, Chelsea Manning two days ago – am I missing anyone? Sivan, Young and Miller have self-identified as gay, and Manning as a woman; the press, annoyingly, have applied terms like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ to Whishaw and Raven-Symoné, who to my knowledge haven’t specified their identifiers of choice, just as they did to Jodie Foster following her Golden Globes speech early this year.

Most of these announcements were refreshingly cliché-free: in YouTube videos, high-profile media announcements and storylines on primetime drama, comings-out often deploy received, predictable narratives about teary-eyed acceptance, Being Who You Are™ and loving yourself – none of which speak to every queer person’s life, and some of which enforce misleading or damaging ideas. I think it’s time we thought about reteaching gender and sexuality, with more self-criticism and precision, and that’s especially true of our approaches to coming out, and to the closet: shouldn’t we be considering the ways we’ve discussed them, individually and as a culture, and how those might be flawed or insufficient?

Queer theory is bashed as arcane, elitist and irrelevant, but we can’t not theorise what we experience: the closet metaphor, and the popular discourse we’ve built around leaving it, do prompt particular views of identity. I’m convinced exiting the closet isn’t enough: we need to smash it from the outside with new approaches and better ideas. With that in mind, I asked myself – what would I say now to myself nine years ago, on the edge of out? What would I, personally, tell queer teenagers and young people today, in contrast  to popular and predominant tropes?

No single post could satisfy that question, but I came up with a ten-point list of answers.

  1. It’s all right to get pissed off. This might not seem an obvious start, but think about it: coming out, most of the time, is hard. Potential consequences – harassment, violence, rejection, denialism – make it hard, but so does having to do it in the first place. Your parents most likely taught you from birth that you’re straight, telling you that when you grew up, you’d marry someone of the opposite sex and procreate together, explaining sex as something mummies and daddies do, talking about ‘gay people’ as a them, not a facet of us: chances are, you just assumed you were straight by default, and realising you weren’t was a headfuck. However your loved ones react to your leaving the closet, they’re the reason you were in it to begin with, and the much of what makes leaving it difficult. I’m angry about that. Contrary to depictions of coming out in popular culture – dominated by tears, passivity and self-directed angst – you can be too. It doesn’t mean you hate them.
  2. Instead of ‘coming out’, you can just be outYou know that assumption any given person is straight – even people whose sexual or gender identities aren’t knowable, like babies or strangers? That assumption makes things harder for us. It’s why we have to announce we aren’t cishets to every new person we meet, why we get excluded from social discussions, why we sometimes feel like guests in our own homes. Once we know we aren’t, I sometimes think announcing so in dramatic, deliberate ways shores up the problem: the more shocking not being straight is made to seem, the more straightness gets reified as the default. Consider that, instead of sitting people down to give them the talk or making stressful, emotional speeches, you have the option of just getting on with things – of not formally declaring yourself queer, but not hiding it either. Jodie Foster did just that.
  3. There’s no set narrative you have to follow if you choose a deliberate ‘coming out’, of course – and for some people, that certainly is the best choice. It doesn’t need to be via a phone call, a letter or a sobbing sit-down confession: why not a blog post, a newspaper article, a piece of art? The story you tell might not fit popular patterns: it may not be true you’ve never had any interest in, or positive experiences with, the ‘opposite sex’; that if you’re trans*, you feel you were born in the wrong body; that you always knew you were different somehow. You may not feel different at all, which is fine. Anything you feel, in fact, is fine. If you don’t feel vulnerable or upset when you come out, you don’t need to be – you can be happy, confident, indifferent or angry and confrontational. There are reasons you might be any of these. All emotions here are valid.
  4. Identities needn’t be something you areWe’re constantly told being gay or straight (not to mention anything between or beyond) is just the way we are – that we’re ‘born this way’, that’s it’s ‘who we are’ or connects somehow to our finger length or number of older brothers. Identifiers like ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’ are, in the end, just identifiers – words like ‘Whovian’ or ‘Directioner’ that we use as social emblems when we feel they best describe us, and very much the products of specific cultures. (There weren’t gay men or lesbians in Victorian London, but there were Uranians and sapphists; there weren’t gay and straight people in the 1600s, just some people who practised sodomy and some who didn’t.) Identities can therefore change – I’ve identified at various points as straight, bisexual, gay and (currently) queer – which can get interesting. Don’t let people tell you you’re really anything but what you say you are: you get to articulate your sexual or gender identity however works for you, and plenty of room exists for flexibility and creativity. If there aren’t words that express how you feel, make new ones up – we’ve done it with sapiosexual and protosexual and gynosexual - or, if you’d prefer, discard labels altogether. They are, after all, only labels.
  5. You don’t need anyone else’s approval. The ‘born this way’ argument, that we entered the world with predetermined sexual identities and have no choice in any aspect of our sexuality or gender, is pitched to apologise for us – to suggest that since we’ve no control over it, we can’t be judged morally or psychologically for not being cisgender and straight. Like plenty of popular coming out narratives, this doesn’t speak to everyone: personally, for example, I fit perfectly the image deployed by homophobes of someone who could engage solely in straight relationships but chooses not to. The argument we should be making is that in sexual and gender-based terms, people have autonomy, and no aspect of their sexuality or gender – include whatever choices might be involved – needs anyone’s approval or permission. The only consent I’ll ever need is my partners’, and you don’t need to defend your identity from the judgement of family, friends or authorities. Their judgement isn’t valid anyway.
  6. Telling religion to go fuck itself is okay. I’ve seen strong urges in LGBT discourse to reclaim religion: Lady Gaga singing God made us queer, LGB organisations working keenly with faith groups, suggestions Jesus was gay (no, really); I saw ‘encouragement’ at university for LGBT students to find churches that accommodated them, or pursue readings of scripture that got round its homophobic and transphobic aspects. While, being an atheist, I don’t find a nice God any less silly than a nasty one, I’m glad if personally this helps you through the night. On the hand, if you find yourself leaving your faith on top of coming out, you’re entitled to support, not pressure. I see LGBT people pushed toward liberal religion, in particular, in the U.S., where churches can bear huge social and community power, and religiosity is treated as a sign of sexual morality. It’s a reasonable conclusion their power isn’t deserved or legitimate; that an essentially random set of sexual and gendered taboos, based on unknowable ideas about theoretical beings’ whims, isn’t a good basis for ethics or social structure. If you decide religious bodies have no place dictating your sex life or gender, however nicely, you don’t need to feel bad about that.
  7. It isn’t your job to educate people. Straight people are going to get stuff wrong, and say things that piss you off. They’re especially likely to do this if you live outside the gay-straight binary – identifying for example as bi- or pansexual, asexual, queer or questioning – and cis people are almost certain to if you’re trans*. Much of the time, they’ll get defensive when you’re pissed off and insist you explain where they went wrong, but it isn’t your duty to school them, leading them by the hand through everything they need to understand but don’t, when you don’t want to. Schooling people takes patience, and can be emotionally demanding. We live in the age of Wikipedia and Google: not knowing about things has ceased to be an excuse, and if people aren’t aware of things they need to be, they don’t get to demand your time and effort helping them to understand. If you’d rather not deal with that, tell them to go and look up the Genderbread Person, Queeriodic Table or the Gender Wiki.
  8. You don’t have to wait till ‘it gets better’. You know all those YouTube videos, the ones Dan Savage started, with happy, successful LGBT people saying how nice their lives are to support and encourage queer youth? If I’d seen those when I was a teenager, stuck on a cycle of violence, harassment and self-harm, it would have done nothing at all for me, except perhaps make me feel worse still. When education is institutionally queerphobic, it’s an empty promise in false solidarity for someone to say that, since their personal life is now wonderful, you should assume yours will be too someday, sitting through further years of misery and torture while you wait. Someday be damned: you deserve safety and justice here and now. You are allowed to demand them from people tasked with your care, even if it means being angry, confrontational and aggressive.
  9. It’s not just you, even if it seems like that. Remember those points in (1) and (4) about our teaching people they’re straight, and identifiers just being identifiers? I’ve got a feeling most people are less straight than they see themselves as being, and those who identify as LGBTQ much rarer than those who’ve had, or could have, some queer experience. It’s easy to feel you’re the only one in your family, school or town who isn’t a cishet (trust me, I’ve been there), but the odds are, it isn’t so – and moreover, your being out might prompt other people to leave their own closets behind. Even though you might not see that happening, bear it in mind if isolation or loneliness are getting to you; openness and liberation about gender and sexuality are self-perpetuating, and once you’re out, you might start changing people’s thinking.
  10. You get to be part of something awe-inspiring. Being queer or trans*, especially once out, has its share of downsides – things can get difficult. At the same time, there’s a huge community of people who’ll be on your side, and that community, much of the time, is amazing. Collectively, we’re fucking with world’s preconceived assumptions about sexuality and gender, and that’s pretty exciting. We’re positive about sex in all its wild and wonderful forms, beyond mainstream sex education’s procreation-centric, cisheteronormative scripts; we’re home to incredibly varied relationship forms, beyond the heteromonogamous nuclear family; we’re traditionally relaxed about gender roles and open to warping, twisting and reinterpreting them – even doing this to gender itself. We have our own forms of language, literary genres and whole art forms, our own contributions to political and social thought . Much of this was born out of oppression and marginalisation, of course, but that doesn’t stop it being valuable or beautiful – in fact, isn’t generating ideas that disrupt and challenge social conventions, and building communities that do that, a pretty great response to getting stepped on by them? Our culture’s far from perfect much of the time, but it’s still an amazing one to have at your fingertips.

You don’t have to spend your life in the closet, no – but nor do you have to leave it a certain way, in line with expectations or stereotypes. You might even find that, as you emerge, it creaks and buckles till the door hangs smashed and swinging limply from its hinges, never again to shut.

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