A Unified Theory of the Daniel Craig Bond Films

Due to other commitments, my ongoing “Facts of Death” series, in which I laboriously examine the four existing James Bond films that feature Daniel Craig as the deadly spy, is on hold for the foreseeable future. However, seeing as production on Bond 25 (its official title is yet to be determined) is underway with a planned release in April 2020, I wanted to share with you my reading of the overarching trajectory of the Daniel Craig era to date.

For all of its fluctuations in tone and aesthetics, the Daniel Craig films have a fairly consistent sense of its protagonist’s psychological crises and construct a relatively consistent dramatic and thematic arc around it. The fundamental concern at the heart of the Daniel Craig Bond films is the notion of family, or, rather, the lack of it. In these films, “James Bond” is not a stable identity but a kind of constructed persona adopted by a man in a state of psychological and emotional turmoil, and the films dramatize its protagonist’s attempts to reconcile himself to himself.

In Casino Royale, we meet James Bond, one of the many “maladjusted young men” with a death wish swept up into the secret service to give his life on behalf of his country. An orphan with great ambivalence about authority and mistrust of personal relationship, Bond relies on MI6 as a surrogate family. Judi Dench’s M serves as the pivotal mother figure that he both rebels against and whom he seeks to impress. In the course of Casino Royale, Bond meets Vesper Lynd and contemplates abandoning his surrogate family to establish a life with her, and then recoils when that possibility is taken from him.

Quantum of Solace deals with the aftershocks of that loss, and over the course of that adventure, Bond meets his double, Camille. She, too, has lost her family. Together, they wander a family-less wilderness of grief and violence, and neither is able to wholly reconcile themselves to it or to each other. At the climax of Quantum of Solace, they find that the pain is too great to allow them to build a connection (family) with one another, and so Bond reintegrates himself with his surrogate MI6 family and once again submits to his “mother,” M.

Skyfall finds Bond questioning his submission to that surrogate family as, following a perceived betrayal at the hands of his “mother,” he becomes entangled in a battle with one of M’s previous surrogate sons. The course of the battle forces him to revisit the formative trauma of his youth, the death of his parents, which bleeds over into the battle of the present. He defeats his “sibling” and proves himself to be the “true” son, but the battle still costs him his mother.

Not unlike how Quantum of Solace traced the shockwaves of trauma from Bond’s loss of Vesper, Spectre follows where Skyfall left off, depicting Bond as grappling with the loss of M and the subsequent corruption of the secret service in her absence. Bond pursues her last wish as he hunts down the mysterious organization that orchestrated her demise. That quest for answers brings Bond into contact with another person in need of a family (“orphan” Madeleine Swann falls in love with Bond in part because he is a representation of her father) and brings him face to face with his archnemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Here, Blofeld is quite literally made into a sibling for Bond, a kind of onetime brother for the young, traumatized Bond, who, perceiving Bond as a rival, effectively orphaned himself and attempted to create himself anew. Having reconstructed his own origin story, this Blofeld overtly relishes the opportunity to rob Bond of any possibility of establishing a new family with Madeleine. At the end of Spectre, Bond triumphs over Blofeld by abandoning the role of state-sponsored assassin, leaving his surrogate MI6 family to build a new life with Madeleine.

Where Bond 25 proceeds from here, who knows? What little we know about Bond 25 suggests that his tranquil retirement with Madeleine will be short-lived. But, given the trajectory so far, I have a suggestion: if Bond 25 is to continue this arc, might it not make sense to see Bond become a parent? This has some level of precedent in the source material; Bond fathered a child in Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, although Bond was unaware that his child existed.

Party Girl

Filmmaker Nicholas Ray had a singular talent for distilling desperation into bravura cinema, and his 1958 feature, Party Girl, warps the structures of Hollywood spectacle into a searing portrait of anxious romance. A companion piece to Johnny Guitar that trades the trappings of the Western for 1930s gangster narrativeParty Girl depicts the fragile romance between a showgirl and a mob lawyer, each desperate to escape the dead-end lives they’ve built for themselves.

Party Girl shares some of the DNA of the Cinemascope movie musical, but its core impulses come from the sweaty anxieties of film noir. Party Girl‘s introductory chapter, which shifts from a luminous showgirl number to a menacing mob party to a brutal suicide, anchors all that follows in a state of existential panic and dread. Cyd Charisse’s dance numbers recur throughout the picture are as vividly staged as any to emerge from classic Hollywood, but Ray and his collaborators twist them from crowd-pleasing spectacle to depictions of dangerous desire and entrapment. Charisse’s Vicki Gaye survives by dangling herself before tigers.

For all of its many luminously photographed sequences, the scene that left me reeling is an exterior scene set at a Chicago drawbridge sheathed in darkness, its blue steel beams towering over the film’s lovers, its moving machinery looking like it could crush them at any moment. Speaking with Cyd Charisse’s  Robert Taylor, playing mob lawyer Thomas Farrell, talks mournfully of the foolish machismo of youth and the agonies of aging. Together, they are two people lost in an inhuman city, dreaming of being two different people in some different place.

Our Cultural Babel

Globalization has not made (nor can it ever make) a uniform, universal culture, but, in 2019, is it truly possible to conceive of a city or town or neighborhood functioning as a thriving cultural space with a relatively firm cultural boundary?

I’m not sure that it is, at least not in the technologically developed world. In this, the Internet Age, culture is more complicated and ephemeral than ever. As we now have the luxury of building communities beyond those in our physical vicinity, we now belong to overlapping communities, many of them virtual. Even when culture now has some kind of physical, localized manifestation, it is the expression not of a singular, geographical culture, but functions as a shared reference point between overlapping, decentralized cultures.

Celebrity

Celebrity is an inherently toxic phenomenon, but YouTube celebrity is one of its worst manifestations.

It’s a form of celebrity for which “selling out” is effectively impossible, because it is a kind of celebrity that can only come into being through the mechanics of “selling out.”

Christmas

I become very sentimental when Christmas arrives, and I say that without shame. There is so much else in the world that invites me to embrace cynicism and it’s a relief to be pulled away from that.

Christmas is a holiday that extends from the hope that transcendence might enter the human sphere, that our existence might not be defined by entropy.

I wish you all a very merry Christmas.