Gilbey on Film: Happy Birthday, Mr Bond

Why we don't really need a Global James Bond Day.

It may not have escaped your attention that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dr No, the first James Bond film. In fact, it is Global James Bond Day, though it’s worth pointing out that this is only on the say-so of Sony Pictures, the current custodians of the cinematic franchise, rather than the governments of the world. No public holidays for any of us, I’m afraid. And, more positively, no amnesty for anyone found using alligators as stepping stones, driving cars underwater or operating a jetpack without the necessary permits.

Yes, it really is half a century since we (OK, not me, but some of us) saw with virgin eyes a cinematic convention described by Adam Mars-Jones in 1995 as “That hallowed piece of montage in which the viewer is shot by Bond while unwisely attempting to hide in a spiral sea shell.”

To mark the occasion, there is all kinds of hoopla, including the unveiling of Adele’s theme song for the next Bond movie (song and film go by the name Skyfall, a clear back-to-basics message after the complaints raised by Quantum of Solace) and the release of a documentary about the series, Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007. I haven’t seen the documentary so allow me a moment’s recourse to its release, which informs us that it “focuses on three men with a shared dream—Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman and author Ian Fleming” and “draws back the curtain to reveal the battles, threats and real stakes unfolding behind the camera.”

The PR appetite-whetting really began in earnest back in July, when the entire Olympics was revealed to be an expensive pretext for a publicity stunt to promote Skyfall by having the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter and into the Olympic stadium. She fell from the sky: Skyfall—get it? That said, the stunt would have worked equally well had the movie’s producers stuck to the other titles that were in contention, among them Queendrop and Monarchplummet.

Personally I don’t need Global James Bond Day, 007 Hour or even a minute’s silence for Countess Tracy di Vicenzo to feel some Bond-related excitement. The prospect of a new Bond movie (I’ll be reviewing Skyfall in the NS when it opens on 26 October) is enough on its own to do the trick. Bond is part of the cultural heritage and education of anyone who has had any truck with mainstream cinema in the past 50 years; it is the only film franchise which still has about it the status of event. None of which has anything to do with the quality of the individual films—perhaps it makes each one’s particular triumphs that bit more pleasurable, and its disappointments more keenly felt, because most us watch them conscious of the historical precedence. (In other words, we are likely to know our Goldfinger from our Octopussy. As each Bond film comes along, it takes its place on the viewer’s personal Bond inventory.)

David Thomson appeared on Radio 4’s The Film Programme this week to promote his new book The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us and complain that there is no longer any sense of cinemagoing as a mass communal event. Regardless of the details of this argument, I think the Bond series is a phenomenon that runs contrary to his theory. Yes, the films all end up on the small screens that Thomson bemoans, but even once Skyfall has taken its place as another bank holiday Monday schedule-filler in 2020 (by which time there will likely be a new actor in the role), there will still be about it the air of the communal.

It also helps the sense of anticipation that the series is in particularly good health. I’m a fan of the Pierce Brosnan era, particularly GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough, but the special achievement of Daniel Craig’s tenure so far has been to purge the Bond film of its jokiness (even if, in parts of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, fun was also sometimes a little thin on the ground).

I happened to think Quantum of Solace had its impressive moments, though Craig, has expressed publicly some dissatisfaction with it. “We were hamstrung by the writers’ strike,” he told me last year. “We had half a script and lots of pressure. We suffered because of a lack of preparation. That doesn't necessarily mean that Skyfall is going to be better—I don’t want to jinx it—but I can say we’ve worked solidly on this script for two years.”

The appointment of Sam Mendes as director, and a cast that includes Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, is intriguing. “Sam's involvement has brought in people like Ralph and Javier. He’s a very visual director, and I think audiences want something visually beautiful in a Bond movie. Also, we got rid of a lot of the old characters in Casino Royale, the ones that had been set in stone. That’s just the way it happened, and I think now we can start reintroducing them.” Among those is Q, played by Ben Whishaw; though the rumour that Moneypenny will return seems to be without value.

“Before we started, Sam and I sat down together and rubbed our hands and said, ‘Right, what shall we do?’ We watched the films, we read the books again, just to find what makes a great Bond movie. And I think we’ve managed to put in all the wit we love about the series.”

We’ll be the judge of that, Mr Bond. We’ll be the judge of that. [cackles sinisterly, touches conspicuous facial scar and strokes pet tortoise]

Skyfall is released October 26.

Daniel Craig promoting Skyfall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear