15 November 2012

SKYFALL (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2012, UK/US) - Ruins of an Empire

Silva (Bardem) toys with Bond (Craig).
James Bond exists in his own unreal universe of preposterous dynamism. Such unrealness cannot compete with the recent demands for realness from a spy franchise which for a time looked outdated when going up against its nearest rivals such as The Bourne films. Skyfall is perhaps the Bond film many of us have been anticipating since its the closest that a director has come to elevating formulaic conventions into the realms of capable mainstream cinema. Both Casino Royale and The Quantum of Solace were recognisably bombastic in their over eager attempts to reinvent the Bond formula. What Skyfall does, especially for the first two acts, is replicate the genre tendencies of the thriller and noir film but does so against a prescient socio-political landscape. Whereas previous Bond films have been greatly concerned with sustaining an illusion of Empire and nationhood, Skyfall refuses to repeat such illusionary politics. Instead, we get a more engaged offering and unflattering depiction of the British secret service and James Bond living in what Silva (Bardem) refers to as ‘the ruins of an empire’. The death of Empire is anchored symbolically in the death of M since Judi Dench's stoicism is modelled on a combination of The Queen and Churchill. In the film, the threat to Western power and capitalism comes unsurprisingly from China and technology. Not only is Bond depicted as a fragile, ineffectual and aging spy, but the first hour tears down the mythology of Bond and substitutes immortality with an unglamourous consolidation of a man who is simply a cog in an unforgiving system. Bardem’s Silva who appears superficially as a revenge filled narrative device is metaphorically Bin Laden; trained by Western intelligence only to resent his expendable status and thus transforming into an invisible agent of ideological chaos. Even more fascinating is that Silva can be viewed as a mirror image of Bond; little separates the two of them and this makes their contest altogether more complicated than the traditional conflicts we expect from a Bond film. 

Silva may want revenge but his transfigurement as a result of M’s betrayal is a costly one for the British establishment as the blowback which they encounter is difficult to defend against without blurring certain moral and political boundaries. Some would say it is sacred territory to venture into the history of James Bond as it invalidates his enigmatic personality. Part of me would agree with such an argument of nostalgia yet by foregrounding his past and by locating the final conflict within a familial context humanises Bond so an ordinariness shines through. It is an ordinariness that is paper thin though and thankfully lasts for only the denouement. Skyfall is certainly the best looking Bond film in a long while and the visually noirish cinematography of Roger Deakins is transparent throughout. In many ways, this is Deakins film. What interested me the most was the contradictory politics at play at the heart of the film. Although it is a progressive Bond film since it critiques Empire, the film’s reflexive ending reclaims a regressiveness that characterised many of the classic Bond films. It is a film that contests an open battle between progressive and regressive ideologies yet at the end by reinstating familiarity, Bond recognises that its endurance as a cultural entity remains with being repetitive and different as a genre. Moody, dynamic and ideological - this is a Bond film with a pulsating heartbeat. It will be a hard act to follow for the next director who signs up for Bond as Mendes may have delivered one of the finest outings to date.

10 November 2012

ARGO (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2012, US) - Cowboys and Indians

Ben Affleck as CIA agent Tony Mendez.

Argo opens with a glib lesson in shoddy Hollywood political objectivity, attempting to tell us that the geopolitical situation of Iran during the American Embassy hostage siege had its demonic seeds in the history of American interventionism. It is one of the few moments in the entire film that we witness a fleeting, if not grudging, attempt at political introspection. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture removes him from the geographical comforts of Boston but does political necessarily indicate a growing up in Hollywood cinema? It certainly has been the case with previous liberally inclined film stars turned directors such as Robert Redford and George Clooney. This growing up from traditional Hollywood film genres to more obscure, difficult and problematic material seems to mark some kind of a painfully superficial transition from an isolationist view of American life to broader transnational politics. Yet the sanitised liberal intentions including the serious subject matter, political context, 1970s period, extended conversation sequences and mixing of visual styles merely propagates a view that the ideological construction of such materials is what makes Argo a historically accurate representation of what is a true story. The problem that many of these so-called Hollywood political thrillers face is that by suppressing accurate and fair political content and context, those doing the re-presenting, namely Americans, engineer a historically biased discourse framed against current anti-Iranian sentiments that are regularly propagated by much of the benign mainstream media. No filmmaker has an obligation to be objective but surely every filmmaker has an obligation to be responsible in the way they represent a nation that is already undergoing a steady process of demonization by the western media. 

Argo fails on a number of political accounts, misrepresenting Iran and the Islamic revolution through a distant gaze that refuses to give the Iranian people an authentic or credible voice and instead disembodies them so their rage merges with familiar news imagery of state repression, executions, fanaticism and religious ideology. The Islamic revolution was a populist one and had widespread support amongst ordinary Iranians yet in the film, Khomeini and the new establishment are viewed with suspicion, derision and contempt by the American liberal gaze. Additionally, the refusal to fully explain the context of the Iran hostage crisis and what the Americans were actually doing in the Embassy smacks of selective amnesia. The mere suggestion of the Americans acting as spies in the Embassy is ridiculed and quickly rendered obsolete. However, by having the Iranians adopt this point of view makes them appear doubly paranoid and simply chasing a blood lust. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo’s rescuing of POWs from a communist prison camp not only resurrected the spectre of the Vietnam War but his total annihilation of the landscape and its people saw a fictional re-enactment of having won a war America had lost. Such fantasy wish fulfilment resurfaces in Argo. The covert rescue operation mounted with the approval of Jimmy Carter in 1980 resulted in failure, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans and one Iranian. A film like Argo helps to conceal such political failures of the past, reconstituting American history and its humanist people working for the most morally deplorable of institutions (The CIA) as triumphalist, heroic and somewhat more liberal than those pesky gun totting incomprehensible Iranians. 

Even more worrying are the final titles, juxtaposing real photos of the event against stills taken from the film so that any questions to do with the truth, reality and authenticity are rendered almost invisible to the ordinary spectator. One leaves the cinema with the message that this is an accurate representation of a true story and categorically stating that Americans and the West are the good guys. But are we really?