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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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era