Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Three lessons from 007

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Yep, Skyfall is pretty great. It doesn’t quite rise to the same level as Casino Royale, which combines grittiness with sheer escapism in a way that few movies, before or since, have ever managed. (I loved the first Daniel Craig installment when I first saw it, but it’s gradually risen even further in my estimation, thanks largely to the greatest Blu-ray ever, until it’s become one of my five or six favorite movies of the last ten years.) Yet the new film, which finally completes what must be the most protracted reboot in cinematic history, is by a long ways the handsomest Bond movie ever made, and Sam Mendes, a very intelligent director whose projects haven’t always lived up to his craftsmanship, has clearly put a great deal of thought into how a film like this should look, move, and feel. From the opening credits, with their subtle nods to Vertigo—the camera zooms into Bond’s eye, and later moves directly into his open grave—we can tell that we’re in good hands. And the difference between Skyfall and the wretched Quantum of Solace only highlights some of the lessons that Bond, and his best interpreters, have to teach the rest of us.

1. Skip the backstory. Yes, we’ve been over this ground before. But Skyfall provides a fascinating test case, in that it comes right to the edge of revealing too much about Bond’s background, only to dance nimbly away. We learn more here about Bond’s past, especially his childhood, than we’ve ever discovered before, but the movie wisely couches it in vague—and predominantly visual—terms. When M asks Bond how old he was when his parents died, he replies: “You know the answer. You know the whole story.” Which is the only answer he could possibly give. Like Hannibal Lecter, Bond becomes less plausible, and less interesting, the more we learn about him, and it’s nice to see a movie that understands this. (It isn’t quite as graceful when it comes to its primary antagonist, played by Javier Bardem: he’s a fine, sinister presence, but he’s also allowed to talk for about thirty seconds too long about his past grievances, when this information would best have been put into the mouth of another character. True villains never complain and never explain.)

2. Keep it simple. The Bond movies aren’t generally known for their restraint, but some of their most unforgettable effects have arisen from the simplest possible means, like Ken Adam’s brilliant set for the tarantula room in Dr. No: it was cobbled together at the last minute from a table, a chair, and a grille in the ceiling, but it’s far more memorable than the massive volcano lair in You Only Live Twice. The most grueling scene in Casino Royale centers on its utter simplicity, as the villain helpfully explains: “You know, I never understood all these elaborate tortures. It’s the simplest thing to cause more pain than a man can possibly endure.” And it’s no accident that the most suspenseful sequence in Skyfall involves nothing more than a pair of dueling pistols and a glass of scotch. (That said, it’s possible that the villain’s plan, when finally revealed, is a little too simple: it involves a complicated scheme to infiltrate MI6, but in the end, it’s nothing he couldn’t done merely by visiting a costume shop and taking a cab to the Ministry of Defence.)

3. Clarity is key. It’s a rare movie that causes you to breathe a sigh of relief in its first few minutes, but after the awful opening chase in Quantum of Solace, in which every shot was sliced up into tiny fragments that made the action impossible to follow, it’s a pleasure to watch a set piece like the one that opens Skyfall, which is intricate, breathtaking, and totally absurd, but never anything less than spatially and geographically grounded. Much of this is due to the return of genius editor Stuart Baird, who follows up his fine work on Casino Royale with another master class in the art of editing. Mendes and Baird even indulge in what must be the single longest static shot in all of the Bond movies, Bardem’s delicious opening monologue, in which he advances from a tiny figure in the background to a tight closeup, like a sinister Omar Sharif. And the plot, too, follows a nice, clear line, focusing entirely on the threat to M, which is a narrative masterstroke: we know our hero will survive, but it’s quite possible that he might lose someone he loves. The result is a movie that generates a surprising amount of tension for a series with an invulnerable leading man. Because Bond, as Skyfall makes abundantly clear, will never die.

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2012 at 9:56 am

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