The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XI

The Craig era’s extraordinary ambivalence to the James Bond character manifests itself in the way that it routinely denies Bond the clear victories that his predecessors often enjoyed. The Craig era predominantly offers narratives of loss and failure (indeed, the image of Bond cradling a dying acquaintance, while a witness watches, becomes a dominant visual motif in these films). Consider rusty Craig’s Bond does not earn the the traditional “Bond and his girl” finale until he quits the secret service at the end of Spectre. His only true victory is to escape himself.

In this section of Casino Royale, Bond meets with his first unqualified failure and responds with suicidal petulance. Bond’s underlying pathology is such that failure is unbearable; it shatters his constructed self and forces him to confront the void within. We’ll see similar kinds of death-wish responses in Quantum of Solace, wherein Bond’s loss of Vesper sends Bond careering out of control, as well as Skyfall, where a failed mission sends Bond on a bad bender.

Bond masks his profound psychological instability with calm reserve and impeccable attire, and the morning after his confrontation with Obanno, Bond seems to be his typically collected self as he and Mathis converse on the hotel balcony. Mathis impishly prods Bond about Vesper. Bond gives no quarter.

Giancarlo Giannini again proves that he’s one of the film’s most welcome presences. Here, Giannini’s Mathis once again proves to be a keen improviser. He’s used the bodies Bond hid in the stairwell to strip away some of Le Chiffre’s resources by framing one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen.

It’s a shame that this essential intelligence is nowhere in evidence when Mathis is reduced to a spectator during the card game, dumbly narrating the beats of the game for the audience. Bond’s loss at Le Chiffre’s hands would be so much better if it wasn’t accompanied by heavy signposting about Le Chiffre’s “tell.”

Now, we don’t know this yet, but it’s clear by the end that Vesper set Bond up for failure, enabling Le Chiffre to provoke Bond into an overconfident maneuver that strips him of all of his assets. This lends her confrontation with Bond her an interesting level of dramatic complexity upon a rewatch. It’s a strong scene for Green. It’s a weaker scene for Craig, in part because the “bloody idiot” line feels much too scripted for its own good and Craig is forced to stumble over it.

He’s much better in the moment that follows, where Bond snaps “Do I look like I give a damn?” to a bartender who asks him whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred. It’s a gag about Bond history, but also a significant character statement. Previous Bonds were defined by their unwavering sense of taste, but Craig’s Bond wears all the accoutrements of luxury as an adopted persona that he quickly discards when caught in the grip of an identity crisis (see also his extended bender at the beginning of Skyfall). When this Bond is humiliated and confused, he just wants to get trashed.

Blinded by rage, Bond grabs a steak knife off of a table and rushes to kill Le Chiffre. If he can’t win the poker game, he’ll assuage his ego through defeating Le Chiffre with brute force, even if it costs him his life.

The irresistibly cool CIA agent Felix Leiter stops Bond and offers him a less dangerous road to victory. Jeffrey Wright’s Leiter gets such a promising introduction in Casino Royale, an ally whose cooler head balances out Bond’s hotter temperament. Alas, that potential is never quite fulfilled in these movies, but Wright still makes the most of his material.

Bond returns to the game with renewed confidence, much to Vesper’s surprise and Le Chiffre’s dismay. In a last-ditch move to dispatch Bond, Valenka poisons Bond’s martini, forcing Bond to stumble out of the game.

This sequence serves as a loose analogue to an elegantly suspenseful section of Fleming’s novel involving a gun disguised as a cane. It’s one of the more ridiculous stretches of the movie, even if some grace notes (like Bond inducing vomiting by swallowing a lot of salt) are clever.

Bond has a convenient medical pack in his car, including a self-defibrillator, and establishes a link to MI6’s medical team. M and the MI6 crew watch on via computer monitors as Bond hovers near death, issuing instructions to Bond about how to prevent death. Bond is ultimately saved via Vesper ex machina; he falls unconscious before he can activate the defibrillator, only for Vesper to stumble upon him and (improbably) know exactly what to do to save his life.

It’s a beat clearly meant to balance the Bond/Vesper relationship, but as a result of the sequence’s awkwardness, it doesn’t quite connect on a dramatic level. Bond’s unflabbable resolve to return for the game is good for a chuckle, though, as is Vesper’s flabbergasted response.

Bond’s return to the game gives us a classic Bond one-liner: “that last hand nearly killed me.” It’s a Connery-style line that Craig delivers with Dalton-style intensity. Craig’s Bond so often seems distinct from the previous Bonds, but in this moment he really does seem to exist on a continuum with his predecessors.

As soon as the line has been delivered, Bond’s victory in the card game is assured. For anyone who knows poker, the final hand seems absurdly overdramatized and I would prefer a less outrageously grandiose win for Bond. That said, the climactic poker hand allegedly replicates an actual poker hand that occurred while the film’s creative team was playing poker to learn the rules, so perhaps my complaint is baseless.

Having won the day, Bond’s first thought is of a celebratory dinner. “You were almost dead an hour ago,” Vesper reminds him. Bond doesn’t acknowledge her remark. Bond’s enduring appeal as a fantasy figure lies in his flippant attitude toward death. Even here, where Bond’s bravado is so directly rooted in a kind of madness, it’s impossible to deny its allure.

The Exorcist III: Legion

The most successful of The Exorcist‘s sequels, 1990’s The Exorcist III: Legion, belongs largely to author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty. Blatty had adapted his own novel into a screenplay for 1973’s The Exorcist and, in 1983, he wrote his own literary follow-up to The Exorcist, a novel titled Legion. Blatty intended for Friedkin to direct the film adaptation, but Friedkin and Blatty ultimately disagreed regarding the vision for the film. Following Friedkin’s departure, Blatty convinced the studio to let him direct. The ensuing production was fraught with some difficulty due to studio concerns that Blatty’s original cut of the film was too disconnected from the original film (an approximation of Blatty’s original cut, cobbled from low-quality sources, is now available as a special feature on Legion‘s recent Blu-ray release). Regardless of some of the structural oddities imposed by the film’s reshoots, Legion still feels like a complete expression of a personal vision, a vision that takes a distinctly different vantage point from that of the original Exorcist.

William Friedkin’s original film was the work of an outsider looking in. It regards the dogmas and accessories of Catholicism with fascination, but also with cool distance. Faith and evil remain abstract forces, tangible but alien. Blatty, a devout Catholic, gives us an insider’s vision, treating the dogmas and iconography of Catholicism with intimacy and conviction. From the beginning of Legion, in which an evil force comes into contact with a crucifix and awakens it (the eyes of the Christ sculpture snap open in response to the intrusion), Legion treats the accoutrements of Catholic faith as portals to the spiritual world, items of vitality and power. This impulse peaks during the film’s climactic exorcism, in which the spiritual world and the real world collide in an effects-driven explosion of religious imagery. Accordingly, the desecration of these objects in Legion feels all the more potent; it’s not just the violation of inert symbols, but of vital, sacred vessels. In this respect, Legion exists on a kind of trajectory with the horror films of Terence Fisher, which similarly regarded the Christian cross as an embodiment of supernatural good in the war with darkness.

Not that Legion has much stylistic kinship with Fisher’s Hammer horror films, which were marked by restrained, deliberate elegance. Legion‘s adventurous tonal dynamism has little precedent in the mannered Hammer films of the 60s and 70s, nor does it feel connected to the detached, chilly Friedkin original. Legion wildly, but keenly, leaps between comedy and grand, Gothic horror, sometimes blending them both, as it does during a nightmare sequence that serves as both an occasion to delight in absurdity and to underline existential anxiety. Blatty stubbornly refuses to let horror overwhelm the emotional complexity of life. Legion depicts its human relationships with warmth and humor, and the divide between goodness and evil becomes sharper as a result.

Legion‘s narrative pivots around Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott), a close friend of the original film’s Damien Karras, who investigates a series of dramatic murders that involve sacrilegious imagery. These murders share the modus operandi the Gemini Killer, who was executed many years prior to these new killings. This investigation leads Kinderman back to the events of the original Exorcist and the dark forces Karras confronted there. The serial killer plot, and a narrative structure relying on lengthy conversations with a menacing foe in an asylum, make Legion a kind of predecessor to 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, with Legion‘s Gemini Killer (played with manic menace by Brad Dourif) functioning as a supernaturally empowered Hannibal Lecter.

Scott’s Kinderman, however, is no Clarice Starling. He’s a veteran, weary of his position as a soldier on the front lines against corruption. What confronts and startles Kinderman isn’t the reality of evil–Kinderman bellows at darkness with defiance and rage–but eternity. In his final actions, Kinderman acknowledges what his close friend, Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) tells him: “We’re going to live forever, Bill. We’re spirits.” It’s a proposition that Legion shades with both hope and anxiety. The end of time may yet bring an end to the humanity’s nightmares, but the end of time is a long way off.

Sleepy Hollow

1999’s Sleepy Hollow marked the beginning of the end for director Tim Burton. While its successor, Burton’s ill-fated Planet of the Apes remake, demonstrated that, without a doubt, a once-promising cinematic voice had been devoured by the Hollywood machine, Sleepy Hollow marked the moment when Burton’s style began to shift from vision to a mere lacquer.

To be fair, it is, at least in the case of Sleepy Hollow, sumptuously beautiful lacquer, thanks in no small part to the tremendous contributions of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs. Burton gives them plenty to work with as he gleefully takes advantage of the narrative’s opportunities for visual conceits, following after the legacy of Hammer and AIP pictures (with explicit nods in the direction of Brides of Dracula and Pit and the Pendulum). But if Sleepy Hollow is a visual feast, its visual antics feel curiously disconnected from the psychology and emotion of the piece.

Andrew Kevin Walker’s densely-plotted screenplay leaves little room for the type of free-wheeling characterization that suits Burton best. Burton’s best films locate witty and brash ways to depict fractured psyches and identity conflicts in visual terms, pursuing emotional throughlines rather than narrative logic. The closest Sleepy Hollow comes to offering a traditional “Burton character” is twitchy, nervous Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp), who has the air of the typical “Burton outsider,” but is really just a thin assembly of pale face-paint, messy hair, and some odd quirks. The attempt to ground the character in a tragic backstory  seems weirdly detached from the rest of the film, as though it was a story change that was imposed on an already-complete narrative. Certainly, it does little to inform the character or the film itself.

Now, Burton’s impish humor delivers some light laughs, and, even if they’re underused, the cast is crowded with remarkable talents (Martin Landau, Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, and Miranda Richardson among them), but they are insufficient to compensate for a film that has no true center. As such, Sleepy Hollow is far less compelling and memorable than the genre classics to which it pays tribute, films that explored their macabre stylizations with conviction and purpose.

Blade Runner 2049

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner stands tall as one of the genuinely fascinating oddities of Hollywood cinema, a film that, though both intention and accident, wrenched Hollywood spectacle away from classic Hollywood storytelling and produced a new cinematic vocabulary. That this vocabulary has been somewhat exhausted by Blade Runner‘s numerous heirs has not diminished Blade Runner‘s place as a singular cinematic experience, in part because Blade Runner–a film that was discovered in the messy and confused process of its own making–allows that cinematic vocabulary to have free reign to determine the film’s shape. In this respect, Blade Runner has always felt like something like a beast that its own creators birthed but could not tame. Its nature is its own.

Director Ridley Scott shepherded the development of the sequel, but ultimately saw fit to hand it over to filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (best known for Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival), who directs the film from a screenplay crafted (in part) by original Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher. Blade Runner 2049 builds a narrative web that expands upon the thematic impulses of the original film in impressive ways, finding new roads into the same dilemmas of memory, identity, and artificiality that ran through Blade Runner‘s veins. But, at its worst, Blade Runner 2049 also feels schematic to the point of becoming canned. Unlike the original, its pieces have all been designed to fit a predetermined whole.

Blade Runner 2049‘s best sequences are those that avoid tracing over the lines of Scott’s original, embedding its existential anxieties in new narrative and visual conceits. Many of these moments involve a holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), a kind of artificially-intelligent app marketed to the lonely citizens of the film’s dystopian Los Angeles. Joi serves as a kind of nexus for all of Blade Runner 2049‘s meditations on desire and authenticity, an embodiment of the gray area that lies between programming and personhood. In one tender scene, Joi’s holographic avatar freezes in mid-embrace on a rainy rooftop, her intangible caresses interrupted by a phone call that arrives through her same application interface. The moment is sad, funny, and a little unsettling, all the anxieties and longings stirred by human technology incarnate in one beautiful image.

Alas, too often Blade Runner 2049 feels intent on chasing after its predecessor. In the 1982 film, its vistas of dystopian Los Angeles and its inhabitants comprised the actual essence of the film, but here, they often seem more like glossy window dressing, filling up time as the film shuffles us from one plot point to the next. Roger Deakins may be one of the genuinely great cinematographers working today, but his cinematography here feels unusually flat, as though his efforts were overwhelmed by Blade Runner 2049‘s effects work and the extensive pre-visualization demanded by it.

Given that Blade Runner follows a protagonist whose sense of self begins to unravel as he finds himself enmeshed in the mysteries of the past, it seems unfortunate that Blade Runner 2049 never quite breaks away from its narrative engine to give voice to the emotional tempest at its center. To its credit, its mystery plot, which involves a replicant named “K” (Ryan Gosling, who was born to play an artificial human) avoids many of the more obvious pitfalls that often befalls Hollywood storytelling, but the third act, in which the drive for action beats and competing character agendas become hopelessly entangled, ends up distracting from and diminishing Blade Runner 2049‘s fundamental concerns.

The original Blade Runner had no true antagonist. Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty, a desperate replicant-on-the-run, was, in truth, a second protagonist whose narrative ran on a parallel track with Deckard’s story until the two tracks converged in its climax. Blade Runner 2049 does not attempt to replicate this structure, instead offering up something of a traditional antagonist, a supervillain character named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Leto cannot make Wallace work, and, admittedly, I am hard-pressed to think of any actors who genuinely could. Wallace is the sort of character who speaks in riddlespeak pronouncements laced with Biblical language, who arbitrarily kills just to let the audience know that he is, in fact, a Bad Guy. He has Big Plans too, plans that require a lot of sinister action on part of his henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, who, to her credit, attacks her part with full conviction). The more prominent Wallace becomes to the story, the more Blade Runner 2049 moves away from the longings that charge its best moments.

Still, even at its worst, this Blade Runner 2049 does no real disrespect to its predecessor, and the new territory it explores is sufficient to justify its existence. At least some of that new territory belongs to Harrison Ford, who reprises his role as Rick Deckard. Even as the film threatens to reduce his character to a mere MacGuffin, Ford delivers his strongest performance in many years, full of palpable regret and resignation. His bittersweet, tearful reaction to an artifact of the past serves as a strong reminder that the greatest spectacle that cinema can ever offer us is the spectacle of a human face.

The End of Twin Peaks

So, the final chapter of Twin Peaks has aired, a defiant rejection of closure and narrative satisfaction that confirms that Twin Peaks has always been, in essence, a horror story. Twin Peaks is a journey into the void left by one girl’s inexplicable murder, a mystery that, like Laura Palmer’s eternal scream, echoes across time and space and imagination.

For all of its disconcerting dread-laced strangeness and temporal shifts, the finale does mostly explain the essential chain of narrative events that resolves Twin Peaks through bursts of exposition delivered by Gordon Cole and the cryptic pronouncements Phillip Jeffries and the Fireman, though these statements are more comprehensible in retrospect that they are upon an initial viewing.

The essence of it all is this: Dale Cooper, acting on a secret plan he worked out with Gordon Cole and Garland Briggs, as well as on the guidance of the mysterious Fireman, wishes to “kill two birds with one stone”–save Laura Palmer and confront and defeat Jowday, a.k.a. “Judy,” an extreme “negative force” that gave birth to BOB and seems to have possessed the Palmer house and its lone inhabitant, Sarah Palmer.

Gordon Cole cautions that he’s uncertain if this plan is working, though Cooper certainly seems confident enough when he returns to Twin Peaks and bears witness to BOB’s destruction. The fabric of time begins to tear as Cooper travels back to the moments before Laura Palmer’s murder and rescues her. Before he can restore Laura to her home (presumably hoping to dispel the darkness from it once and for all), Laura is whisked away from him, her scream echoing throughout the woods.

Cooper seems saddened by this, but was apparently expecting this, or a version of it, given that the direction he received from the Fireman and Jeffries leads him beyond the boundaries of the dimensions we have known so far in the world of Twin Peaks, into an alternate timeline and universe that is apparently the domain of Jowday/Judy. In traveling between these worlds, Cooper seems aware that he might lose something of himself, as he notes to Diane, who accompanies him on this journey, that they will be different when they arrive.

Dislocation and disintegration follows. At a motel waystation between worlds, darkness overtakes Cooper and Diane; their romance dissolves before our eyes. Cooper wakes the next morning to find that she’s no longer with him, reading a note addressed to “Richard” from “Linda” (presumably Cooper and Diane’s identities in this alternate universe), in which Linda tells Richard that he is no longer recognizable (echoing Audrey’s remarks to Charlie earlier in the season; Audrey, too, has apparently lost herself in a false universe). Using Jeffries’ guidance, Cooper (who now seems colder, more ruthless, not unlike his own BOB-inhabited doppelgänger that was destroyed in chapter 17), locates Laura’s doppelgänger, a waitress in Odessa with a rotting corpse in her home, and tries and fails to remind her of her life. Together, they head to the Palmer home in Twin Peaks.

The drive from Odessa to Twin Peaks proceeds slowly, rooted in growing dread. Cooper and Carrie/Laura arrive at the Palmer home. The Palmer homestead no longer seems to actually be the Palmer homestead; Cooper responds with puzzlement as he hears from its current inhabitants that the house previously belonged to an Alice Tremond, and before her, a Mrs. Chalfont (a note that suggests the house is still in thrall to evil, given that Mrs. Tremond/Chalfont has appeared previously in Twin Peaks as a mysterious figure with with links to the Black Lodge).

A defeated, confused Cooper proceeds back into the street with Carrie/Laura. Cooper’s chilling final utterance–“What year is this?”–gives voice to Cooper’s awareness that he has lost the thread. Carrie/Laura suddenly seems to recall her traumatic memories. Her face contorts in horror as she utters, once again, that universe-shattering scream. The Palmer house seems to come to life: all its lights blink out, just seconds before an electric crackle sends the entire world into darkness.

It’s hard to imagine a bleaker conclusion for Twin Peaks: in bringing Laura to the Palmer homestead, Cooper has not conquered Laura’s trauma, but forced her to relive it. Cooper has lost himself, and Laura with him, presumably forever. Cooper and Laura are orphaned from a world, no longer belonging anywhere in space or time, trapped in the grasp of unspeakable evil. Laura’s scream echoes in the void, now forever displaced in darkness.

The final shot of Twin Peaks–Laura Palmer, whispering an inaudible secret to a visibly distressed Dale Cooper in the “Red Room”–speaks to the way in which they share in–and have been enveloped by–the unspeakable mystery of evil.

Notes on the passing of Walter Becker

My father’s two favorite bands were the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. He listened to their records with obsessive devotion, so growing up I was inundated with their tunes. I didn’t share my father’s passion for the Doobie Brothers, but I was quickly hooked on Steely Dan. As early as age five, I was laughing along to “Monkey In Your Soul,” the final track from 1974’s Pretzel Logic.

That same album served as my gateway into Steely Dan fandom and Steely Dan became one of the few things my father and I shared. My father took me to see them in Camden just after the release of Two Against Nature. It was my first concert. I would see them six more times after that.

Walter Becker was the less visible half of the Steely Dan equation. Lead singer Donald Fagen had the spotlight and the more prolific solo career, but Becker was every bit Fagen’s partner. Their songwriting career was really just a series of in-jokes between two weirdo soulmates who saw the world through with same skewed humor.

Love or hate Steely Dan, they were utterly and defiantly unique. Their funky, literate, hilarious lyrics and rigorous musical perfectionism resulted in textures that belong only to Becker and Fagen. Their prophetic vision of American life bridged Watergate to the rise of the digital era, a black comedy nightmare with an irresistible groove.

The last time I saw Steely Dan was during a miserably wet and chilly evening at the Mann Center. My wife and I wore ponchos and froze to death as the band rocked on. During “Hey Nineteen,” Becker delivered a rambling monologue that had become a kind of Steely Dan tradition. Bootleg recordings of it exist, but they fail to capture its good-hearted feeling, the way it existed in a feedback loop with the audience’s own enthusiasm. You just had to be there.

Walter Becker will never be there again. As with the death of any beloved artist, his passing carries an awful finality. That’s all there is, folks. I still hoped that we might get another Steely Dan album. But a good run is a good run, and it was a very good run indeed.

Here’s to you, Walter.

Inherent Vice

There’s nothing novel or clever in noting that Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film, Inherent Vice, owes a great deal to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, but you also can’t ignore their relationship. They’re variations on the same theme, fragmented detective stories that see the noir trailing off into the ill-defined haze of 1970s America. They share visual motifs, too, such as their fascination with the inscrutable, overwhelming ocean, filmed in wide shots where human beings appear extraordinarily fragile.

Anderson’s attentiveness to that fragility has been his great strength as a filmmaker, but his films have struggled to build discrete moments of human observation into works of dramatic and thematic momentum. In Pynchon’s novel, Anderson finds a structure that makes sense of his appetite for controlled chaos, allowing him to chase the emotional and psychological undercurrents that have always been his primary fascination within a functional narrative structure. 

Inherent Vice offers an epic portrait of political and personal confusion, a story powered by the energies of human irrationality. Its vision of American history is all too recognizable: a random collision of desires and agendas that forms a comprehensible chain of events but denies us the comfortable coherence of unified conspiracy.

In the midst of the madness, desperate people try to survive and maybe even find peace of mind. That Inherent Vice suggests that there might be a way to get past the darkness stands in contrast with Altman’s bitter Long Goodbye. This also has the effect of making Inherent Vice the more melancholy, moving film; tragedy hurts more when it doesn’t feel inevitable.