Guilty pleasures #1: James Bond

Some months ago my dear friend the great critical theorist R. Radhakrishnan suggested I pay some attention in writing to the phenomenon I discussed with him on several occasions whereby we respond emotionally, aesthetically or intellectually to cultural artifacts that we nonetheless do not, at a certain level, respect. In fact, we may know very well that a cultural product is inferior if not fundamentally absurd, and yet it may have a profound impact and even an irresistible draw to us. How and why does that operate? What's going on when we respond so powerfully at all kinds of levels to something we feel, whether on reflection or viscerally, is either completely or in some senses beneath contempt? How do we account for such "guilty pleasures?" Of course, this version of guilty pleasure is a subset of the deeper existential problem of why we want things that we know very well are bad for us: why we cling to, or mourn the loss of, dysfunctional relationships with toxic people; persist with, or pine for, self-destructive behavior of one kind or another; or find ourselves in the grip of a political or religious ideology we know very well, at a certain level at any rate, is indefensible and possibly loathsome. But for the meanwhile, let's stick to the subject of bad art.

I'm going to begin looking at this problem by taking on one of what has been, in my life at any rate, one of its more gruesome manifestations: films featuring the character James Bond and the Ian Fleming novels on which they are based. Let's be clear at the outset: on the whole and in most senses they are without question garbage, and toxic garbage at that. The films are militantly stupid and implausible, often insultingly so, distinctly racist and irredeemably sexist, and the novels even more racist and sexist (more about the dismal ideology at work in them a little later). And yet some of us are drawn to some of them in spite of having no respect for them whatsoever, and even finding them offensive. In particular the early Bond movies starring Sean Connery have a real pull on my imagination and I'd like to begin my exploration of the morphology of guilty pleasures by considering how on earth that could possibly be the case.

The Bond films are useful as a starting point because, for me at any rate, they point directly to one of the most important and powerful forces behind guilty pleasures of this kind: nostalgia. I find a great deal of my fascination with “bad art,” if it even rises to that level in this case, is rooted in a kind of nostalgia for what gripped my attention when I was young, what evokes a bygone era, what reminds me of my childhood or youth, and what seems originary and culturally fundamental. For those of us who were children in the late 60s and early 70s, the early Bond movies were, like Beatles' songs and certain TV shows, supporting pillars of the popular culture with which we were surrounded, including in the Middle East. We grew up with them, so they are in that sense a kind of cultural comfort food, something we wouldn't find particularly appealing on its own merits if it didn't inspire memories of distant and supposedly happier times, the innocence and happy days of childhood and other dubious fantasies.

For instance, one of the toys I remember most clearly really enjoying as a young boy was a Corgi matchbox car version of the legendary gray Aston Martin driven by Bond in Goldfinger (1964), complete with what at the time appeared miraculous, but now seem both clunky and ridiculous, gadgets. The model toy car seemed to capture both the cool elegance and the exciting power of Q's armored and souped-up Aston Martin and with it, in a sense, the very essence of the Bond films themselves. So for me, these memories are deep and powerful, and the imagery and ideology of these films hits at a fairly visceral level.

The early Bond films, particularly From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger and Thunderball (1965) really were enormously influential in not only Western but global culture in establishing and popularizing a pop art aesthetic particular to the 1960s. Particularly the set and costume designs, as well as the frequently psychedelic credits, and to some extent the scores as well, may have appeared staid and conservative but in fact fully embraced and propagated to a very wide audience this aesthetic at an early period in its popularization. So in reconnecting with them, one instantly access one of the more powerful vehicles for popularizing an aesthetic style that literally did define an era. When that process is in operation, it doesn't matter how silly the content of any given message might be. The aesthetic sensibilities being seductively passed around like free samples from a local coke or heroin dealer were always the most important thing being communicated, and if one is nostalgic for an era defined by that style, the vehicle itself by definition and perforce must possess a certain charm, however unearned.

But of course that's not the only thing that drew people and continues to draw people, especially young men, to the Bond films, particularly the early ones. Both the films and the Fleming novels are chockablock with Freudian sexual imagery that is either barely or not at all veiled, and the essential subtext of most of the early Bond films is blatantly Oedipal. In particular Goldfinger, which was and remains probably the most iconic, although hardly the best, of the early Bond films is an entirely Oedipal drama in which a younger, more sexually dynamic man confronts and tries to usurp and overwhelm a richer, more powerful and in most ways more formidable older rival. (Ever since Umberto Eco's early and influential essay about narrative structures in Fleming's novels it's been intellectually defensible to discuss Bond in serious company, but it still feels silly to look at the subtext of such frivolous material.) Nonetheless, what Goldfinger and many of the others suggest is that the fundamental Bond Fantasy, so to speak, is essentially an Oedipal one. Contrast Bond's snazzy, hip and youthful Aston Martin with Goldfinger's opulent but staid and indeed antique Rolls-Royce (complete with homicidal Korean manservant), recall the legendary and very blatant aborted castration scene with the laser cutter (“no, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” etc.), and consider their constant struggle over sports contests (golf), control of gold and money, and even more crucially control of women (most notably the unsubtly named “Pussy Galore”). The case makes itself. Part of the film's power comes from its blatant crudeness, its encoding so liminal, so close to the surface, so very un-hidden that it requires almost no interpretation and can be lost on virtually no one who pays the least attention, even at the time.

There are several consequences to this crucial aspect of the Bond films and their appeal. First, they only really “work” the first few times, because the message is so simple and can only be repeated in so many ways before it becomes a self-parody, which it quickly did (if it wasn't always already one from the outset). Second, it requires a youthful Bond, which quickly became a problem for Sean Connery who was already wearing a toupee in Dr. No (1962). By the time of Connery's return to the part in Diamonds are Forever in 1972, he was clearly too old to be an Oedipal hero of any kind whatsoever and this aspect of the films was lost more or less permanently. It is no coincidence that Diamonds are Forever introduces the Bond film as primarily a comedy rather than primarily a thriller or action film for the first time, a pattern to be consistently maintained throughout Roger Moore's tenure during the rest of the 70s.

Moore and the producers rightly understood that when he assumed the character in Live and Let Die (1973) he was already inheriting a self-parody, and both he and the writers made every effort to ensure that Bond became essentially a (rather poor) comedian involved in adventures rather than an action hero with occasional (also very poor) "witticisms" as in the early Connery films. I think it's impossible not to see this transformation as fundamentally rooted in a combination of Connery's past-the-sell-by-date age in Diamonds are Forever and the fact that after Thunderball the Oedipal drama was too well-established to be successfully repeated with any emotional impact and that the formula had been repeated so many times that the only thing left to do was for the Bond movies to embrace their status as a self-parody in a very overt manner. From then on, if not before, Bond movies also became fairly passive recipients of the latest fads, rather than trendsetters themselves: blaxsploitation in Live and Let Die, the kung fu craze in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), videogames in Moonraker (1979) and Never Say Never Again (1983), etc. ad infinitum.

That said, when an Oedipal fantasy is effectively constructed, and several of the early Bond movies do achieve that effect, it's difficult to overstate the potential to appeal to both a wide audience and, especially, a dedicated following of young men and, above all, boys. So for those of us who were, in fact, boys at the time, part of the source of our guilty pleasure in the Bond films is not really very mysterious at all, especially when combined with the power of nostalgia. This is not to say, of course, that absolutely everything about all the Bond films is bad. Dr. No is in many ways a terrible film, but it did have a number of original features and actually defined a major genre, for good or ill, and therefore can't be dismissed lightly. From Russia with Love is often cited as the best of the Bond films, and I think overall that's true. It is well-paced, entertaining, engaging, suitably ridiculous and for the first time assembled all the essential features of the Bond movie as a genre, giving it as much of the charm of the originary as Dr. No possesses (which is a considerable degree). It's not exactly a good movie, but it's certainly not terrible.

It's harder to praise Goldfinger, Thunderball or You Only Live Twice (1967) in general with a straight face, but On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) is another matter altogether. Many Bond aficionados consider it easily the best of the films, and one can certainly see why. It's well paced and scripted, and some of the Alpine action sequences are genuinely well-done. Scenes involving the cable car are genuinely tense, and the chase on skis is, if not a classic, certainly an expertly constructed chase scene, the only good one in any Bond film, which, of course, contain mediocre chase after mediocre chase. More importantly, On Her Majesty's Secret Service marks the only real, albeit decidedly halfhearted, effort to give Bond an actual personality, and the fact that it was in almost every sense a miserable failure is extremely revealing. George Lazenby, who gives a perfectly creditable performance, was widely reviled largely for not being Connery, but also no doubt took the brunt of the producers' ill-considered decision to follow the lead of the novels in attempting, also without success, to flesh out a little more of a character for Bond in the film. From the outset he seems vulnerable and tenuous rather than icy and coldly effective, and his virtual nervous breakdown at the end when his newlywed wife is murdered is interesting but didn't sit well at all with most audiences, either at the time or now for that matter. Diamonds are Forever, with the return of Connery to the role and radical shift in tone and attitude towards the comic, glib and jocular, its obsession with fakes and doubles, and absolute evasion of any mention of the murder of Bond's wife at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, serves as a thoroughgoing repudiation of the mistake. One reason for this is, of course, that the effort to "humanize" Bond simply didn't work. But there's more to it than that. It was fundamentally inappropriate to the character and the genre built around him.

The Bond character has been described as an “automaton” and Fleming himself saw him as “a blunt instrument” in the service of a government. I'd phrase it differently. Bond is more of a cipher than an automaton, an empty vessel rather than one on autopilot. This surely is part of his wide-ranging appeal: he DOES things, and in a sense he IS things, but he isn't exactly someone since he has no identifiable personality as such (which has helped so many actors to play him more or less interchangeably). If the point is to allow young men to project themselves onto a character and young women to project onto him a sexual or romantic fantasy, the blanker the screen, the better. Bond leaves that space open perfectly, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service threatened to clutter it up with disruptive and intrusive detail, such as actual elements of a character. In the novels he has virtually no personality, and in the films, none whatsoever. And here's where it gets really insidious: Bond is, more than anything else, the archetype of the ideal modern, and even postmodern, capitalist subject: perfectly the company man and commodity fetishizing consumer.

As a company man, Bond is, to all appearances, faithful and loyal to his employers not only to a fault but in an ultimately inexplicable manner. He seems patriotic, but his patriotism is absolutely devoid of any ideas, or even conscious affiliations, whatsoever. He a ruthless agent of the government, particularly of his handler, the noxious M, but, in the films at least, why is entirely unclear. Yet his loyalty to what he frequently calls “the company” is ostentatiously demonstrated on numerous occasions, and not only in terms of the personal risks he is taking for missions he is often not fully briefed about and in pursuit of policies in which he takes no interest whatsoever. When M asks him, in their first ever film conversation in Dr. No, when he ever sleeps, Bond assures him, “never on the firm's time.” Similarly, he is scrupulous about money and other assets belonging to what he describes as “the company” or other elements of “government property” that have to be “fully accounted for.” In other words, however mischievous and defiant he sometimes pretends to be, at heart he's an exemplary employee and, above all else, a fully interpolated company man, and proud of it.

Bond is also among the most passionate commodity fetishizing consumers in all of film and literature. Fleming was an early practitioner of the brand-name dropping genre of faux-elegance, and Bond is very particular about what he deigns to consume. Perhaps above all else, Bond is depicted as a walking set of appetites: for fetishized fine food; fetishized beverages, especially alcohol (though some of his tastes in that regard are decidedly odd); fetishized consumer objects, brand names (especially the ultra-exclusive Q brand) and bling; and, of course, fetishized women, for whom he has a particularly voracious and objectifying appetite. As a vehicle of ideological instruction, Bond is an ideal capitalist subject who exemplifies how to work selflessly for the bosses on the job, and consume everything in sight off the job, with a special enthusiasm for commodity and other forms of highly questionable fetishism. We don't know who he really is in any meaningful sense, but we know who he works for, what he does (mainly kill, for which he is “licensed”), and, most importantly, what he consumes. The lessons being taught here are about the worst you could fear. Fleming's early novels are also anti-Soviet cold war propaganda documents of a quite strident variety, although none of the films fell directly into that trap. If he intended Bond to serve as an instrument of indoctrination in the socio-economic mores of late capitalism, not bogged down by any element of political theory or content whatsoever, his construct was as crude but effective a vehicle of ideology as the character is a crude but effective “blunt instrument” in vapid, empty and unthinking obedience to his government superiors.

The films never get into it, but Fleming did open his series of novels with an effort to explicate the origins of Bond's conduct. Casino Royale (1952) is a genuinely interesting and mercifully short read, and is the only one really worth picking up for a couple of hours. It's certainly Bond at his most ruthless and brutal, and is probably worth the two hours or so it will take to make one's way through it on that basis alone. But Fleming unusually spares a little bit of time in the novel on what passes for Bond's psychology, or at least the architecture of his motivations. At the book's outset, he already possesses most of the qualities described above. He's a company man, a fetishizing consumer, and an unquestioning, ruthless “blunt instrument” of his employers' instructions. After some pretty dreadful spy thriller drivel, a genuinely interesting and skillful explication of the mechanics of baccarat and a reasonably suspenseful gambling scene, Bond is subjected to a brutal and clinically described torture session in which his testicles are beaten to a pulp by his first nemesis, the Soviet agent Le Chiffre, with a carpet beater (the first of the virtually endless castration-oriented primal scenes that litter both the novels and the films). He barely survives the abuse, and during his extended hospital recovery enters into an uncharacteristic bout of self-reflection and self-doubt.

This is where things really get interesting. Bond seriously questions his role as a government agent and gets sucked into some equally emasculating moral and perspectival relativism (shock, horror). He muses, “the hero [referring to himself] kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn't a villain at all, you see the other side of the medal. The villains and heroes get all mixed up.” He continues, “patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I'd been alive 50 years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep changing parts.” This crippling flash of insight, we are meant to understand as the nadir of his career and almost the permanent and irrevocable downfall of Bond the character, a mental emasculation that mimics his (also temporary) physical one. But it's actually a set up for his rededication to his role at the novel's conclusion. His French colleague Mathis tells Bond it's not about principles, it's about defending against people who, for whatever reason, want to kill you and your loved ones: “Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.”

Bond actually tries to follow this advice, and allows himself to fall in love with the ridiculous and ridiculously named Vesper Lynd, his putative assistant. He determines to resign from the service and marry her. During a romantic trip after his recovery from the nearly fatal testicle torture, in which all of Bond implausibly returns to perfect working order, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic and her stories increasingly contradictory. It becomes clear all is not what it seems. She commits suicide, leaving behind a note in which she confesses to have been a double agent working for the other side (the testicle torturers, among other things), claiming to have been blackmailed because a man she loves is being held hostage in Poland. All thoughts of moral and political relativism in Bond die with Vesper and her betrayal – upon learning of her perfidy he swears reflexively, weeps briefly and immediately seeks refuge in his “professionalism”: “He saw her now only as a spy. Their love and his grief were relegated to the boxroom of his mind… Now he could only think of her treachery to the Service and her country and of the damage it had done. His professional mind was completely absorbed with the consequences…” Bond becomes Bond as we "know" him, or at least recommits to being Bond, because of this betrayal and an animating thirst for vengeance. He concludes: “Be faithful, spy well, or you die… Advance against the enemy and the bullet might miss you. Retreat, evade, betray, and the bullet would never miss.” He calls to report her death to his organization with the famous and chilling final lines: “The bitch is dead now.”

Almost all of this relative complexity is lost in the appalling 2006 film remake of Casino Royale. Bond's flirtation with moral relativism is excised. The shallowness and dubious nature of Vesper's confession/excuse is papered over by an assurance that IM6 knows it's all true about the boyfriend being held hostage (in the book we have only her flimsy, unreliable word for it). And Bond, rather than being almost killed and deeply traumatized by the testicle torture, literally laughs it off, telling the 2006 version of Le Chiffre at the height of the torment, “the world is going to know that you died scratching my balls.” Whatever tidbits of interest can be gleaned from the novel are scrubbed clean in this absolutely terrible film. In fact Casino Royale has been filmed three times: first for American television in 1954 with Barry Nelson as an American version of “card sense” Jimmy Bond, a gambling American agent. It bears little resemblance to either the book or any of the subsequent Bond films and is probably most notable for a surprisingly weak performance by Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. Second was an early and unamusing Bond film parody in 1967 starring David Niven and Woody Allen. And third, the 2006 fiasco that was widely touted as “gritty” and some kind of return to a tougher, cruder Bond when it's nothing of the kind. It's hard to know which of the three is the worst.

At any rate, in Fleming's first novel it's pretty clear by the end that Bond is going to be motivated primarily not by patriotism, which he has largely seen through, or by affiliation and love for family because he doesn't have any and has been betrayed by Vesper who he was intending to marry, or by political ideas because he doesn't understand or care about them at all. Instead, he's largely going to be motivated, at least from then on if not before, by psychosexual rage prompted by the betrayal of a woman and the machinations of the organization that was ultimately responsible. In other words, Fleming makes it clear that Bond is fundamentally driven by some pretty base motivations, to say the least. At least his misogyny in all subsequent novels is well sourced here, although he already has a solid dose before discovering Vesper's betrayal. Before her suicide he decides to marry her when he concludes that, “she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have this sweet tang of rape.” These attitudes are intensified after his discovery of her betrayal and projected not only onto the entire female gender but internalized as a primary motivation in resuming his career as a “licensed killer” and projected onto the Soviet enemy as a whole.

It is no doubt this combination of Bond as an arch-consumer driven by un-, or at least barely-, controlled appetites and as an ostensible company man actually driven by psychosexual demons of a particularly grim variety that led John le Carré to dismiss Bond as a potential traitor. He noted that Bond had no political or ideological affiliation to the system for which he was fighting and that his appetites made him potentially very easy to “turn.” I'd add that his profoundly neurotic sexual attitudes only add to the conclusion that, as an operative, from the little that we know about this character, he seems particularly unsound. Although le Carré is almost certainly right in this assessment, the irony is that in literary terms Fleming served as an essential bridge between the earlier “British hero” genre of spy fiction, of the John Buchan variety for example, and le Carré's own antihero genre. In Bond, Fleming created an outsized heroic veneer with no interior, or at least no interior that isn't deeply tainted, and without most of the chivalrous, mannered and principled “heroic” qualities of the earlier spy thriller heroes, setting the stage for le Carré's bureaucratic antiheroes. So even if one were to champion le Carré, as most serious readers would, against Fleming, one would have to acknowledge the role the latter played in preparing the genre and the public for the former to emerge.

Which brings us back to the fundamental question: why do some of us enjoy or emotionally respond to these perfectly dreadful films and novels? Obviously it's not enough to say, I like action films or I like spy novels. There are plenty of both that are good if not excellent, but these are not. The perfect example of how something reasonably close in genre, style and time to the earliest Bond movies can be not only excellent, but a transcendent work of art is the Hitchcock masterpiece North by Northwest (1959), which clearly was a major influence on the Bond genre and on several of the earlier Bond films individually. In truth, for the most part even the best of Bond are really shoddy action films and spy novels, and citing a taste for the genre is completely insufficient as an explanation. I suggested that nostalgia, aesthetic sensibility and style, and the crude, raw Oedipal sexual fantasy at work in the early Bond films at least partly account for their enduring ability to command some of our attention. But I'm going to end by suggesting there may be something deeper and more insidious at work as well.

When my nephew was a small child he used to demand of my sister, “give me something bad for me that I yike.” Most of my relatives were taken with the baby talk mispronunciation of like as "yike," but my father and I appreciated the sentiment in and of itself. Sometimes, for reasons we shall investigate further in future guilty pleasures Ibishblog postings, we turn to the cultural landscape, throw open our arms and demand that it gives us something bad for us that we yike.

The question is, especially in the case of something as toxic as Bond, do we like it, or at least respond to it, in spite, or at some level because, of the ways in which they clearly are bad for us? Its probably a little of both. As a fully interpolated and perfectly functioning company man, a perfected fetishizing consumer, and a finely honed machine that serves his socioeconomic, political and biological functions in an exemplary manner, Bond really is an idealized late capitalist fantasy. He doesn't ask too many questions, he just does what's expected of him to perfection. No wonder we respond. If only it were so easy.

When such a fantasy sugarcoats not only its own ideological contents but gratuitous racism and sexism as well, perhaps its very toxicity is part of its appeal. All guilty pleasures involve the sense that one is indulging in something unworthy in one way or another, but Bond films and novels are a guilty pleasure that we can, and should, really feel guilty about. It feels transgressive, if not downright naughty, to enjoy or in any way pay close attention to such moronic, toxic rubbish, complete with foul ideology, racism, sexism and continuous insults to the intelligence. So maybe, in such a case at any rate, the frisson of guilt is an inextricable part of the pleasure.