Skyfall, 007 Legends, & rehabilitating the Bond canon

007 Legends.jpgASIDE FROM THEIR RATHER UNFORTUNATE resemblance to Austin Powers in Goldmember, one thing that’s puzzling about the two most recent Daniel Craig-starring Bonds – Skyfall and Spectre – is the inconsistent way in which they attempt to revive the canon of the old Bonds.

From 1962’s Dr. No to 2002’s Die Another Day, the twenty James Bond films existed in the same loose, yet mostly consistent, continuity; the understanding was that GoldenEye‘s opening scene took place during Timothy Dalton’s tenure in 1986, and this didn’t cause any conflict since both actors were still portraying the same character. Similarly, each of George Lazenby’s successors had scenes alluding, explicitly or implicitly, to Tracy Bond, the wife he loses at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only, Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill, and Pierce Brosnan in The World is Not Enough (potentially in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies also). However, in 2006, someone at Eon decided to take a cue from Batman Begins and give the series a gritty reboot, modernising certain elements and retelling the character’s origin to keep him in line with the times*; thus, the four-film arc that Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall & Spectre together constitute is to be understood as a standalone timeline, that has no direct story connection with the 1962-2002 series of films.

Or not. While Casino Royale & Quantum have a hard-boiled, mostly humourless approach informed by the Bourne series, Skyfall and especially Spectre evidence a yearning for the grandiosity of the 60s Bond, even suggesting confusingly that the old continuity isn’t completely uncanonical, referencing Goldfinger‘s DB5 and GoldenEye‘s exploding pen. Possibly the world depicted in the old films is canonical to the new ones, i.e. spycraft really was sillier back in the day, but their specific stories clearly are not, since we know that neither Bond, nor Moneypenny, nor Felix Leiter nor Blofeld were around back then. A main thematic strand of Skyfall/Spectre, similarly to GoldenEye, has to do with whether Bond, an old agent with old ideals, is still relevant in the modern world. This is hard to take when Casino & Quantum‘s main thematic strand is that Bond is a hotheaded rookie, not yet made cynical by years of experience. Following The Dark Knight Trilogy (&, coincidentally, the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, in which all but the first & final battles of the Clone Wars take place offscreen between the 2nd & 3rd entries), we seem to have missed out on seeing our hero in his Golden Age of heroism, when he was hampered by neither inexperience nor age.

Those who are dissatisfied with The Dark Knight or Star Wars can rectify the problem with some quite excellent animations (For The Dark Knight, Batman: Gotham Knight; for Star Wars, Star Wars: Clone Wars and the similarly-named Star Wars: The Clone Wars), and Bond fans, if they please, can treat the videogames as canon. Four games have been made during the Daniel Craig era: 007: Quantum of Solace is a mostly straightforward adaptation of that film which also includes flashback levels covering the plot of Casino Royale; James Bond 007: Blood Stone has an original story by Bruce Feirstein, who wrote Tomorrow Never Dies and co-wrote GoldenEye and The World is Not Enough; GoldenEye 007: Reloaded is a remake of the Nintendo 64 classic GoldenEye 007, with its story updated to Craig’s reboot era; finally, 007 Legends presents one adventure each from Craig’s five predecessors, remade to star Daniel Craig and told in the style of his films: Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Licence to Kill, Die Another Day, and Moonraker**.

The gameplay of these four, unlike past classics such as GoldenEye 007 or 007: Everything or Nothing ranges from average (007: Quantum of Solace) to terrible (007 Legends), but they are recommended to truly hardcore fans on the sole basis that they fix the apparent gap between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. James Bond 007: Blood Stone, the best-written one, features a James Bond who is transitioning from the angry young man of Craig’s first two films to a character with more of the smoothness associated with the classical Connery/Moore/Brosnan depictions. After that, with GoldenEye 007: Reloaded, we get to see the modern James Bond living out a properly classic adventure and then, in 007 Legends, five more!

If James Bond lived out seven full-scale adventures between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, then it easily accounts for him being presented as a haggard old warhorse in the latter. Remember, other action heroes have been presented as past-it old men when they’ve had only three on-screen adventures to their name (John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard; John Rambo in Rambo; Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), or in poor old Batman’s case, only two in The Dark Knight Rises. Aside from patching plot holes, treating these games as canon also makes Skyfall ring much truer in a thematic sense. If GoldenEye, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, especially, “happened” to Craig’s Bond then the bombastic feel that Skyfall tries to recapture already has some historical presence in this new universe; it contains, or used to contain, more than just the drab cynicism of Casino/Quantum.

However, while James Bond 007: Blood Stone & GoldenEye 007: Reloaded present no conflict with what’s shown in the actual films, 007 Legends is a little trickier. While it correctly uses the likeness of Daniel Craig’s Bond, Judi Dench’s M, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner in those rôles, someone seems to have forgotten that Jeffrey Wright appeared in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as Felix Leiter, as the Goldfinger missions use a character model based on Cec Linder – this is typical of the laziness with which 007 Legends is put together. Even taking into account that videogame models don’t always capture perfectly the features of the people they’re based on – try to work out who’s meant to be Connery, Lazenby, Moore or Dalton in this screenshot from GoldenEye 007! – and that the Bond series is renowned for changing the actors of almost all its recurring rôles, it’s still hard to square Linder’s whiteness with Wright’s blackness, and clearly the films take precedence here in determining what Felix truly looks like.

There are also other problems: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features an encounter with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, which was absolutely fine and actually quite cool until Spectre came out, confirming that such a meeting was impossible. Until the Blofeld rights mess was disentangled in 2013, this would have been the only way such a meeting could have been possible. In any case the character model used here, a rather pleasing compromise between the Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas portrayals, nicely closes the plot hole of his missing facial scar from You Only Live Twice, while opening a plot hole regarding whether he looks like Telly Pleasance, or Christoph Waltz, and whether or not he’s bald). Also, if Bond lost his wife in the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, you’d think that tragedy would be greater than, or at least equal to, his losing Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, yet it is never mentioned in Spectre. One suspects, in any case, that Madeleine Swann is being set up as a new version of Tracy Bond; her only decent chance of surviving Bond 25 will be if the producers completely ignore the previous story.

Well, it’d be nice to think that 007 Legends added something decent to the Bond canon. Its version of Licence to Kill skips the part where Bond punches M and continues his adventure as a rogue agent; in real life this behaviour would likely have seen Bond spend the rest of his life in Guantanamo Bay, and he certainly wouldn’t have been reinstated as a 00. So in some ways it actually improves on the films on which it’s based. Perhaps there is a place for it in canon; its set-up, borrowed from Hitman: Contracts, sees Bond flashing back to previous adventures while he lingers in the grey area between life and death, at the start of Skyfall when he’s shot and in the water. So maybe his delirious mind for some reason misremembered the real face of Felix, but Blofeld still presents a probably intractable problem. This is a shame as, before the release of Spectre, it really did enrich Skyfall as a viewing experience.

I’m sure many would say that we oughtn’t to be taking something as ephemeral as continuity in Bond, of all places, so seriously. But where’s the fun it not taking things seriously?

*Uncoincidentally, both Batman Begins and Casino Royale follow a film so hideously camp that a complete reboot of the franchise was deemed to be necessary damage control: Batman & Robin and Die Another Day, respectively.

**Skyfall was made available as DLC after its release; Spectre still lacks a videogame adaptation. Unless this situation is rectified ten years down the line, as 007 Legends did for Die Another Day, it will be the first Bond film since 1983’s Octopussy to lack a videogame adaptation.

Goldmember, Spectre, & the occasional redundancy of parody

SPOILER ALERT: if you still haven’t seen Spectre, then get on with it before this article ruins its one, tawdry, little twist. And if you somehow watch the Austin Powers films for plot, then beware of an Austin Powers in Goldmember spoiler, too.goldmember

Austin Powers 4 is forthcoming; what hasn’t exactly been forthcoming is details. Last time around, with 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember, the Bond parodying got to be a little tired once we actually saw that year’s official 007 adventure, Die Another Day; in some ways, it was less absurd*. But given that, since then, we’ve seen a whole new Bond universe, occasioned by a gritty reboot, couldn’t the Austin Powers series get some comedy mileage out of doing its own burlesquing of reboots, touching not just on Bond but also Batman BeginsStar Trek, X-Men: First ClassRise of the Planet of the Apes, Man of Steel, Godzilla, and so on. It’s either that or do the inevitable, which is rehashing the same old jokes, but in the 1980s this time.

That’s all well and good. But last time I watched it I made the troubling discovery that Goldmember is already a forward-looking parody of the new Bond continuity. First of all, as many fans have already pointed out, Spectre‘s little stroke of idiocy – making the reason for Bond & Blofeld’s animosity a brotherly conflict that’s gotten far out of hand – was presaged by Goldmember, which plays a similar twist with its Bond/Blofeld counterparts, Austin & Dr. Evil. In fact, the details stand in exact opposition – Blofeld hates Bond due to being an older adoptive brother who saw Bond as a cuckoo’s egg, whereas Dr. Evil, an orphan, is unaware that he & Austin share biological parentage, and he ceases his combat with him upon the discovery – but it’s still a remarkable thing. In Goldmember, the joke seems mainly to be on how silly including such absurd soap-opera elements in a spy story – even a larger-than-life one – would be. Joke’s on you, Spectre.

Secondly, Goldmember makes no attempt to hide its crass Heineken product placement, which is as expected given how much product placement has been a part of Bond since the start, but the brands are supposed to be aspirational: Aston Martin, Bollinger, British Airways, Walther. If you want to be like Bond then you know the best brands to wear, to drive, to drink, and to shoot. Heineken, about as perfectly middle-of-the-road a lager as you could hope for, isn’t something you’d expect to see passing the lips of the world’s most famous cocktail drinker, but Skyfall upset those expectations with a prominent early scene that looked more like a beer ad than a Bond movie. Admittedly, Bond was only seen swigging the stuff when he was at his lowest point in Skyfall, which is a nice touch, but then Spectre, which is meant to finally represent Bond back at his 1960s best, keeps the endorsement going.

Finally, an early scene in Goldmember shows Dr. Evil in one of those high-tech containment facilities popularised by The Silence of the Lambs. The prophetic production design doesn’t bear a terribly close resemblance to Dr. Lector’s holding cell, but it looks a lot like scenes from two future films: Magneto’s cell in 2003’s X2: X-Men United, & Silva’s cell in Skyfall. Theoretically, it’s no big coincidence that three films all happened to copy an iconic moment from an iconic film, but what’s a Silence of the Lambs reference doing in what is ostensibly a spy-movie parody anyway? You might say it’s a sign that Austin Powers was running out of ideas, like the many non-scary movies parodied in the later Scary Movies. Or maybe they weren’t running out of ideas, it’s just that those they had were ahead of their time. Either way, Goldmember‘s parodies of Bonds yet to come are actually funnier than its parodies of Bonds past.

*Incidentally – Goldmember‘s predecessor, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, stole a march on Die Another Day, snagging Madonna three years earlier, not to mention getting a much better song out of her (the Galvanic psychedelic-soul of “Beautiful Stranger” vs. the robotic disco-rap of “Die Another Day”).

Republicans, Democrats, & the Presidents of fiction

WITH Donald Trump having achieved a surprise victory in last night’s US election, the Republican Party which had partially disowned Trump in anticipation of a historic loss will now face a minor existential crisis as conservatives decide whether or not to embrace the Trump brand of populism. It could even come to be seen as a turning point in the history of the Grand Ole Party.

Meanwhile in fictionland, they never state which party candidates belong to. The British satirical sitcom The New Statesman was elaborate about it in its first episode, in which anti-hero Alan B’stard, wearing a white rosette that doesn’t match up to any real-life British party, beats both his Labour & Conservative rivals for his seat in the House of Commons. It’s obvious to viewers that B’stard is a Tory, much as it’s obvious that the government in The Thick of It is a Labour one. But if you never say it by name, you have reasonable deniability in case of a libel suit. Additionally, as we’ll see below, American fictional Presidents are more likely to crop up in action films than political satires, & it is important that viewers respect the dignity traditionally associated with that high office, regardless of polarising political affiliations. Well, nuts to that! Let’s try to place some fictional Presidents on the political spectrum.

President Thomas J. Whitmore  (Bill Pullman), Independence Day

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President Whitmore’s immediate reaction to alien invasion is nuclear retaliation, a move that backfires spectacularly. If his gung-ho attitude weren’t enough to mark him as a Republican, there is also his celebrated speech, in which he unashamedly equates the USA with the world. Republican.

President James Marshall (Harrison Ford), Air Force One

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Here’s an easy one. James Marshall is a clear Republican, something which becomes only clearer if you remember Harrison Ford playing Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games & Clear and Present Danger. In Clancy’s super-conservative novels, super-conservative Ryan eventually becomes President, & it’s hard not to see Air Force One as an unofficial entry in the Jack Ryan series of films. Republican.

President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman), Deep Impact

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The real-life Freeman is a prominent black conservative, but that might be neither here nor there. President Beck is presumably the first black President, which suggests the Democratic Party; the film was made while Obama was an obscure Senator, but there were other prominent black Democrats, such as Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Sadly for President Beck, his most significant act as President is to gather the best-&-brightest to wait out the impending meteor collision in safety, abandoning the rest of the population without even bothering to alert them of the danger. It’s possible on the one hand to see that as a reflection of laissez-faire Republican attitudes, but equally it could be chalked up to the leftist elitism Democrats are constantly accused of by their opponents. Probable Democrat.

The U.S. President (Billy Bob Thornton), Love Actually

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Love Actually does the irritating dance around the name of a politician (“The President”, “The Prime Minister”, “The Prince of Wales”), so I don’t have the pleasure of typing out of one the astonishingly white-bread names given to almost every other President listed here. Love Actually was released in 2003, a time when anti-American sentiment was high in Britain, & Billy Bob Thornton’s character seems to combine the worst elements of Bill Clinton & George W. Bush. Still, despite the way he leers at a Downing Street intern, the political context makes it clear that what’s really being criticised here are the key doctrines of the Bush era: the War on Terror, & the Special Relationship. Hugh Grant’s Tony Blair stand-in of a PM, David, gives the speech many Brits must have been dying to hear from the real-life Blair. Republican.

President George Sears (John Cygan), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

president-george-sears

George Sears, better known as Solidus Snake, had a busy history, training child sodiers in the Liberian Civil War, being appointed to the Presidency by a shadowy organisation known as the Patriots, sponsoring the development of the super-weapon Metal Gear REX, & masterminding the Shadow Moses terrorist incident before leaving office under a cloud of disgrace, all while covering up the fact of being a clone of the legendary soldier Big Boss. Solidus then goes on to become the head of the rogue anti-terror unit Dead Cell under the guise of his brother Solid Snake, hijacking REX’s successor Arsenal Gear, and finally being killed in a swordfight with his adoptive child soldier son, dying in a prototype power suit before the statue of George Washington outside Federal Hall, wielding two katanas & draped in the US flag, which makes the post-Presidential career of e.g. Jimmy Carter look like underachieving. His position as the 43rd President of the United States, his military background, his appearance, & even his first name are suggestive of George W. Bush. But his hardcore libertarian rhetoric is a far cry from the moderate conservatism of Bush; in fact, with his obsessive invocations of the Founding Fathers  he named his group the Sons of Liberty Sears is the original Tea Partier. Just look at his flag:

sons-of-liberty-flag

Republican.

President James Johnson (Paul Lukather), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

president-james-johnsonPresident James Johnson resembles Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in looks, accent, demeanour (note the crotch-grabbing incident), & name. He also pledged in 2008 to close down Guantanamo Bay, a pledge also made by real-life Democrat Obama. Yet something’s fishy here: George Sears is stated to have been removed from office after the Shadow Moses fiasco. In real life, such a removal would have led to Sears’ replacement by his VP, which might mean Johnson is a Republican (there’s no way Sears is a Democrat), except Johnson mentions that his path to the Presidency was being the insignificant son of a Senator before being selected by the Patriots. So chalk this one up to ignorance of the American system on the part of the writers. Democrat.

President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), Olympus Has Fallen

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Asher’s all-American square jaw plus his handy approach to ass-kicking suggests a Republican, and his tough approach to North Korea inspires the dastardly plot that results in him being held hostage in the White House. Also, it’s difficult to get Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent out of your mind; unlike President Sawyer, we’re privy to very little of Asher’s key policies, but Dent’s tough-on-crime, lax-on-civil-rights approach had him widely compared to a Bush-era conservative. Probable Republican.

President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), White House Down

president-james-sawyerThis one’s even easier. Young, black, hip, & full of promise, James Sawyer is clearly intended to evoke Barack Obama. The film evidences the hopeful mood that abounded at the start of Obama’s presidency see the Doctor Who serial The End of Time for a particularly quaint example although, peculiarly, Sawyer is said to be the 46th POTUS, suggesting that he succeeded Obama, rather than being his fictional equivalent. It also leaves space for another President to have preceded him Benjamin Asher, perhaps? Regardless, Sawyer is said to have pursued dove-like policies in the Middle East after a failed Bush-like incursion into Iran, & his inexperience with firearms which he soon gets over suggests gun control is on his agenda, also. Democrat.

President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), Idiocracy

president-dwayne-camacho

President Camacho is black, like the Democrats Tom Beck & James Sawyer, & his Hispanic name suggests a continuation of ongoing demographic trends Hillary Clinton’s Presidential hopes hinged on getting out the Latino vote. His vision of a united America isn’t dissimilar from those of Obama or Hillary Clinton, albeit heavily watered-down to the point of meaninglessness. But his brand of gun-toting super-patriotism smacks of the Republicans, & entertainers from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Donald Trump have flocked to the party (Camacho is an ex-porn star). Of course, he’s the President of the future, & both parties have current issues in defining their voter base. Who knows what changed between then & now? A perfect compromise of Republican & Democrat.

Hideo Nakata, Takashi Shimizu, & the Golden Age of J-Horror

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I might not have mentioned, but I was recently at FrightFest, which is always the highlight of the year for me. We’d been promised a mysterious new Adam Wingard picture entitled The Woods, which was set to be the very latest thing in scaring audiences’ pants off. Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t really The Woods at all, but rather a new sequel to The Blair Witch Project. At the same time, it turned out we weren’t really getting to see it at all, but THEN it turned out that instead we were getting Sadako vs. Kayako, i.e. The Ring vs. The Grudge. For me, that was a good result I’d been eagerly awaiting Sadako vs. Kayako since its announcement, & nothing could dampen that enthusiasm.

As it turned out, the picture was only OK, offering a few interesting ideas but undermining itself with tongue-in-cheek humour & never really reaching the nightmare pitch achieved in the best of its predecessors (Ringu, Ju-On: The Curse, Ju-On: The Grudge, The Ring). Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. Those films all came out within a remarkably short period of time a Golden Age for what was called J-Horror.

J-Horror is not simply any horror that comes out of Japan, but in order to qualify it does have to be Japanese. The films from J-Horror’s Golden Age favoured vengeful spirits, usually girls in white dresses with stringy black hair. The approach to horror, while often incorporating a hefty dose of surrealism, was subtle too, usually avoiding gore, or even any specific depictions of harm, in favour of maddeningly relentless pursuits. They were also heavily reliant on intelligent use of the frame, hiding characters in background shadows or just out of shot. Naturally, this meant the films required talented directors making them work, which is exactly what they got: Hideo Nakata helmed Ringu, Ringu 2 & The Ring Two, leaving other, less talented directors to follow him on pictures such as Ringu‘s discredited sequel Rasen, the surprisingly effective prequel film Ringu 0: Birthday, & the tacky, CGI-filled later revivals Sadako 3D & Sadako 2 3D. Hideo Nakata’s relationship to Ju-On is similar; the series had its origins in the shorts “Katasumi” & “4444444444” released in the anthology Gakkô no kaidan G. Nakata expanded around them with Ju-On: The Curse & Ju-On: The Curse 2, before giving the series its first reboot with Ju-On: The Grudge, which earned its own sequel in Ju-On: The Grudge 2. Following the success of Ringu‘s even better US remake The Ring, lavishly staged by later Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, Ju-On: The Grudge received a similar US treatment, yet again directed by Shimizu, who would also stay on for The Grudge 2 before abandoning both the Japanese & American iterations of his franchise. The Grudge 3 went straight to home video, but the American series continues to hold out hope, with a reboot reportedly in the works. In Japan, the series never quite fell out of fashion, & the spin-off films Ju-On: White Ghost, which was pretty good, & Ju-On: Black Ghost, which was less so, marked the series’ tenth anniversary before yet another reboot in Ju-On: The Beginning of the End, whose sequel was Ju-On: The Final Curse. Sadako vs. Kayako, for those who are interested, reboots both series yet again in order to incorporate some minor changes to the mythos.

The US pictures coming out at this time that weren’t remakes of Japanese pictures ended up looking like they might as well be, while the cinemas of China & Korea both responded to the horror waves coming from Japan. A neighbouring, yet different, genre enjoying a little Golden Age of its own at the same time was Asian extreme, best represented by Korean Park Chan-Wook & Japanese Takashi Miike, while the tactics of J-horror fed into, & from, other media, such as the horror manga of Junji Ito, the novels of Kōji Suzuki, or the many survival horror videogames released in the same period.

Nakata & Shimizu made some other excellent horrors; Nakata delivered his masterpiece in Dark Water, which also had a US remake, while Nakata delivered the Junji Ito adaptation Tomie: Rebirth, the Lovecraftian Marebito, The Shock Labyrinth, & Tormented. But other directors were active, too; if you want to easily keep track of them, why not try the J-Horror Theater imprint? It gathered six of J-Horror’s leading talents to deliver one picture each; Nakata & Shimizu pitched in with Kaidan & Reincarnation respectively, while the other pictures were Infection (from Masayuki Ochiai of Parasite Eve, Saimin, Shutter, & Kotodama – Spiritual Curse before taking over for Shimizu on the Ju-On franchise); Premonition (from Tsuruta Norio of Ringu 0: Birthday & Kakashi, which was based on a Junji Ito manga); Retribution (from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best-known for Pulse); & finally Kyōfu (from Ringu screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi). The J-Horror Theater series had mostly died off by its later entries, however, as had the brief, incredibly terrifying success of the genre. Sometimes all it takes to create a Golden Age is one or two great talents. Or maybe there was just something in the water in the late-90s.

The Matrix, the late-90s, & the peak of human civilisation

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WHEN Morpheus is explaining The Matrix to Neo, he mentions that when the machines were building their virtual reality, they chose to recreate the late 1990s, the peak of human civilisation. I can recall being young in the early-00s & hearing people mocking that line, I think only because it dates the movie. But so? The more time has passed, the more obvious it becomes that Morpheus was exactly right: the Berlin Wall had fallen; 9/11 had yet to occur, Tony Blair & Bill Clinton were world leaders beloved in their own countries & abroad. The Gulf War was over, & the War on Terror had yet to replace the relatively death-free War on Drugs*. The crack epidemic of the 1980s was dying out, & crime was way down. The economy was booming, and liberal democracy represented the end of history; Brexit, & the rise of anti-establishment politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, & Donald Trump show a mass resistance to that very global stability, but at the time it looked like it was going to be nothing but peace, stability & prosperity forever on out.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s Senator Barack Obama in the 2004 preface to his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father: I began writing against a backdrop of Silicon Valley and a booming stock market; the collapse of the Berlin Wall; Mandelain slow, sturdy stepsemerging from prison to lead a country; the signing of peace accords in Oslo. Domestically, our cultural debatesaround guns and abortion and rap lyricsseemed so fierce precisely because Bill Clinton’s Third Way, a scaled-back welfare state without grand ambition but without sharp edges, seemed to describe a broad, underlying consensus to which even George W. Bush’s first campaign, with its compassionate conservatism, would have to give a nod. Internationally, writers announced the end of history, the ascendance of free markets and liberal democracy, the replacement of old hatreds and wars between nations with virtual communities and battles for market share. (Three Rivers Press, 2004 edition, pp. ix-x)

There were some more specific pleasures, too: the 90s was an unusually good decade for film, including The Matrix, but we had yet to see the wave of terrible post-Matrix action films (including the sequels. Har!). The ludicrous fashions of the 80s & early-90s were dead, and everyone looked relatively normal in their Levi’s. There wasn’t a whole load of great music around, but hip-hop fans experienced a Golden Age that is unlikely ever to be equalled (Wu-Tang Clan, 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Eminem, NaS), we had some great pop-punk & no-one had had to put up with a new Guns N’ Roses record in years. Between Tomb RaiderDoom, Duke Nukem, Crash Bandicoot, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Legend of ZeldaFinal FantasySilent Hill, Resident Evil & Metal Gear Solid videogames had a level of public exposure they’ve never matched since. Between the three 90s Bond films (GoldenEyeTomorrow Never DiesThe World is Not Enough) the series was in its best health since the 1960s. Everyone was so happy & prosperous that TV was full of shows about happy, prosperous people: the friendcom.

There are plausible objections to the theory that the 1990s was the peak of human civilisation so far. A friend mentioned that African starvation was at much, much higher levels then than today; one might also mention the ongoing wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Rwanda, Liberia, Yugoslavia, the Congo, Somalia, & elsewhere. But a fact that’s often missed about The Matrix is that it isn’t a recreation of Earth in the late-90s. It’s actually a single, enormous city, Matrix City, which bears a suspicious resemblance to Sidney. So those regional conflicts presumably don’t even exist, & everyone we see in The Matrix appears to be affluent, if a little dronish. It’s the end of history indeed, & it is sweet.

*The War on Christmas had yet to begin in earnest.

Green Day, The Offspring, & the politics of pop-punk

HERE’S the brand-new song from Green Day, “Bang Bang”, an almost-timely exploration of the death-&-fame cult of mass shootings. Its unannounced release, coupled with the news that a new album is due in October, is explosive news for those who were only tided over by the new blink-182 album. They needn’t worry; with a new Sum 41 album due on the same release date as Green Day’s, pop-punk Christmas will assuredly come early.

&, in case you’re wondering, it’s definitely pop-punk we’re talking about. “Bang Bang” occupies a No Man’s Land between triumphant & routine, but what it is not is a continuation of the emo-friendly direction the band took from American Idiot onwards. Punk, of course, has moved in waves through its life like any other genre, & it’s only natural that, 20 years on from the heyday of pop-punk, pop-punk should once again be the dominant punk subgenre. The whole movement began, as any music fan knows*, with artsy New Yorkers like The Patti Smith Group, The New York Dolls, Blondie, Television, the Talking Heads, & the Ramones, only the last of which are really identifiably punk; it took subsequent waves in London & Manchester to produce the classic punk sound of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned & The Buzzcocks. That scene, like a punk rock tune, burned out almost as soon as it had begun, & was replaced within two years by artier sounds such as post-punk, new wave, synthpop, & ska. But almost as quickly as the white rage of punk was dying in the UK, US hardcore bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys & Minor Threat were arriving to carry the (now-burning-even-insanely-more-incandescently) torch, & while the UK never really bothered keeping the scene alive, hardcore (including subgenres, such as straight edge & the first wave of emo) ruled Stateside for close to 15 years. In that context, Green Day’s Dookie album not their début, though it might as well have been – represented something truly unique, in that it went back to the British sound that no-one had bothered copying in ages, poppified it by about 20-30%, & added relatable lyrics that moved deftly from fratboy gross-out humour to suburban malaise for maximum appeal. Purists may have, & still may, turn up their noses, but in terms of influence Dookie makes it into any punk Top Ten of albums, & within a few years of its release, every US punk group that mattered had either formed in Dookie‘s wake, or had switched sound to capitalise.

This analysis finds me as objective as it’s possible to be when discussing something as inherently subjective as cultural trends. I’m not biased by nostalgia because, in truth, I’m a relatively new Green Day fan. I was aware of “Basket Case” & “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, though few others, through MTV2 growing up in the early 00s, bought the American Idiot album & quickly tired of it after heavy rotation, then for ten years almost never thought about them. It wasn’t until, as an anniversary present, I got my girlfriend tickets to the American Idiot stage musical last year, that I was forced to re-evaluate the band, finding fragments of the entire album sticking in my head weeks & months after the performance. I’m an admirer of any composer who knows their way around a pop hook, & Green Day might pip The Beatles for the top spot of catchiest band of all time. So I found myself re-purchasing American Idiot, which I’d misplaced in the intervening decade, & while I was at it buying Insomniac, Nimrod (their best, tune-for-tune), & Warning, the three post-Dookie albums which, put together, form a relatively rare string of records which find a band at their peak in terms of musicianship, songwriting ability, & commercial appeal at once.

I’d missed all this because, during the eight heady years when pop-punk bands ruled the earth, I was an Offspring fan. I was a huge fan, looking back on it: I had all their albums; knew all the words to every song; read their sleevenotes; could name each band member (I no longer can!); I called them my favourite band; & I sincerely believed that they would always be my favourite band. In retrospect, they’re not even my favourite of the 90s pop-punk bands. Green Day beat them in terms of tunesmanship, lyrics, vocals, musicianship, punk attitude, & rad album covers**. Additionally, having switched to a pop-punk sound following the success of Dookie makes The Offspring seem like followers rather than setters of trends, the .5 in a 1.5-horse race. After Green Day’s second time around changing the mainstream face of punk with American Idiot, The Offspring belatedly followed with Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace. Even when playing in Green Day’s shadow, however, The Offspring’s sound was reliant on a thick, quasi-metal guitar crunch courtesy of various indifferent (over)producers, which I tend to find less appealing than Green Day’s authentically thin, wiry, fuzzy punk sound courtesy of Rob Cavallo.

It stands to reason, though, that the two dominant bands of the 90s scene should differ in this way. While Green Day’s biggest influences, from their riffs to their subject matter to Billie Joe Armstrong’s almost mockney whine, were British groups like The Damned & Sex Pistols (& as of American Idiot, The Who), The Offspring played in a characteristically American, characteristically Californian sound that they owed to Black Flag, Dead Kennedys & Bad Religion. The obviousness of these influences is diluted a little on The Offspring’s later albums due to a timely, Dookie-informed switch to pop-punk, but on their first two releases (with songs like “Kill The President” & “L.A.P.D.” respectively), it can be seen plainly, & the metallic guitars about which I complained in the paragraph above are all part of that. Similarly, when words fail Green Day lyricist Armstrong, his fallbacks are Beatlesy “yeah”s and “hey”s, whereas Holland prefers the “woah-ohs” of the Ramones.

Perhaps related to their British vs. American key influences is a distinctly different philosophical approach. While the scatological humour of Green Day would provide blink-182 & Sum 41 with their sole raison d’être, the band were never apolitical in the way that their imitators were. But there’s a touch of unconventiality of topic to songs like “King for a Day” (transvestism), “Welcome to Paradise” (slum living & missing one’s mother) or “Having a Blast” (being a suicide bomber; perhaps a dry-run for “Bang Bang”) that, coupled with their leavening moments of humour, can make them easy to overlook as political songs. By the time the band performed “Warning” (a warning against, well, warnings) it was hard to tell what they meant & what was classic, British-style sarcasm, & it was sad to see that, by the time of the otherwise accomplished American Idiot, the band’s message had degenerated into standard punk insurrection against a barely-understood but assuredly no-good political machine made up of Bush, 7-Eleven, the military-industrial complex, rednecks, mass media, & one’s parents. It was left-wing music, something Billie Joe Armstrong, an endorser of Bernie Sanders for President, would, I assume, happily affirm.

The Offspring, meanwhile, forged their own path with what is recognisably, though never explicitly, that most unheard-of-in-punk of all political philosophies: libertarianism. Educated, good-natured frontman Dexter Holland never once exhorts us to smash the system, extolling instead a philosophy of privacy, decency &, above all, self-determination. Alright, I earlier cited songs such as “Kill the President” &”L.A.P.D.” as proof of their hardcore lineage. But strip away the fashionable rage, & the key lyric of “Kill The President” is not “Kill the president”, but “A leader’s not the center of democracy”; “L.A.P.D.”, meanwhile, opens with, “When cops are taking care of business, I can understand/But the L.A. story’s gone way out of hand”, functioning like a disclaimer to inform unwary listeners that, even with the early, edgy Offspring, it’s not really an anti-police anthem in the tradition of “Police & Thieves” (Junior Murvin/The Clash), “Hate the Police” (The Dicks) or “Fascist Pig” (Suicidal Tendencies).

Elsewhere self-determination comes up again & again; “Staring at the Sun” is defiant in the face of a lousy world; “All I Want”‘s classic chorus is “Leave me alone, I’m not asking a lot/I just don’t want to be controlled/That’s all I want”. “The Meaning of Life” features the lines “Open wide and they’ll shove in their meaning of life/Not for me, I’ll do it on my own”. “I Choose”, in spite of its absurdity, is nevertheless a song about choice in life, & even wackier songs such as “Don’t Pick It Up” or “Way Down the Line” advocate personal responsibility in their own way; even the pseudo-mystical “Pay the Man” gets in some anti-government paranoia, “The Man is making little bets/Playing with our lives”. The incoherency of left-wing punk rage is repeatedly skewered in Offspring tracks like “Change the World”, “Cool to Hate”, & “One Fine Day”. Meanwhile, “Walla Walla”, “Come Out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated)”, “Genocide” & “Jennifer Lost the War” are accounts of incorrigible criminality. The concerns of a song like “Neocon” could easily be Green Day’s, but the objection is still against a centralisation of power. “Why Don’t You Get A Job?” ought, at this point, to speak for itself.

You might also notice that both bands’ love songs tend to be addressed to a similar sort of selfish, fucked-up woman; where, however, a liberal would feel compassionate about her problems might, in fact, go as far as to romanticise them, as in Green Day songs such as “She”, “Extraordinary Girl”, “She’s a Rebel”, “Whatsername”, et cetera The Offspring’s back catalogue bulges with songs of disdain for women who are irresponsible in their private lives: “Self Esteem”, “Feelings”, “She’s Got Issues”, “Want You Bad”, “Spare Me the Details”, “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” (again!).

So then is the personal political? Not quite, but it’s long been held that there is a left/right split that is purely philosophical***; leftwing individuals tend to emphasise collective responsibilities, even in apolitical scenarios, hence the collective politics of anarchism, communism, socialism & liberalism. Rightwingers on the other hand believe in personal responsibility, hence classic conservative ideas such as the limited state & the free market which, undiluted, make up some form or other of libertarianism. Given that, Johnny Ramone aside, punk rock’s only dalliance with any form of right-wing politics consists of Nazi punks of the sort the Dead Kennedys memorably told to “Fuck Off”, you can understand why The Offspring’s libertarianism is mostly buried within lyrics that recognisably fit with punk-rock rebellion, at least until examined together. Or perhaps these dancable, fashionable, popular songs were intended mostly as apolitical &, as it is for most people, personal values create entirely unconscious biases in ways of perceiving, feeling, & expression.

O, & by the way, neither band managed to write the perfect pop-punk song. That feat was accomplished by the otherwise unremarkable Jimmy Eat World, here.

pop-punk

*Yes, yes, down in front, put down your hand, I see you. Of course the previous decade gave us The Sonics, The Monks, The Seeds, The Velvet Underground, the MC5, & The Stooges, but all of these groups were (with the noble exception of general weirdoes the VU) parts of regional garage-rock scenes, & that their Beatles/Stones/Dylan/Kinks knock-offs were faster, nastier & snottier than those of their contemporaries does not mean that they, together, constitute a punk scene, only that they were stepping stones. In any case The Stooges & their scion Iggy Pop seemed to mean more to the Brits than they did to the Yanks, while The Velvet Underground’s main legacy is art-rock from Bowie through R.E.M. to Belle & Sebastian. However, it may be instructive to note that, just as pop-punk was dying in the early-00s, the garage-rock revival was reaching its peak, led by The White Stripes, The Hives, & The Vines. Feel free to visualise these briefly-overlapping periods of subgenre dominance as a series of sine waves.

**Proof: The Offspring took the CD reissue of their first LP as an opportunity to replace this badassery with this…thing.

***This footnote probably requires more citations, but a friend recommended Joe Feagin, “Subordinating the Poor: Welfare and American Beliefs”, 1975, available here, & Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, available here.

Directors, parodies, & auteur theory again

Spielberg Directing Jurassic Park

I’VE POSTED BEFORE ABOUT auteur theory; in that essay I’m dismissive of it as it promotes a misconception of the truly collaborative process of filmmaking. It is, however, undeniable that certain directors are not skilled craftsmen pursuing a trade, but rather creatives with a unique voice embarking on a series of artistic statements; in short, auteurs. Further, it occured to me in conversation with a friend that an indisputable way of testing positive for auteurism might be the following: could you produce a short film incorporating all the hallmarks of that director’s style, & have it be recognisable to a mainstream audience? I think the following list includes every one of the surprisingly few directors who would pass that test although it can, of course, be added to as necessary:

Alfred Hitchcock (hallmarks: black-&-white cinematography; thriller plots; innocent blonde women being put through Hell; Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant; brutal, tongue-in-cheek violence; mistaken identity; protagonists on the run, often from an insidious conspiracy; murder; a subtle self-cameo in each film)

Quentin Tarantino (hallmarks: easy, conversational dialogue frequently incorporating pop-cultural references; borrowings from older, often obscure, genre pictures; sudden outbursts of bloody violence, often played for dark comedy; repurposed pop hits of the 60s & 70s; (over)use of the word “nigger”; larger-than-life characters; men in dark suits; use of anachronic order; selfconscious selfreferentiality; a grating self-cameo)

David Lynch (hallmarks: corny Americana; strange, cold, but likeable protagonists; the mundane treated as surreal & vice versa; this pattern; cryptic encounters with visitors from spirit worlds; coffee; neo-noir; the 1950s; the idea of doubles; strange-looking old men; beautiful young women; the existence of absolute evil; slow-motion shots of electricity or fire; ethereal, jazzy scores, usually by Angelo Badalamenti; a scene in which the protagonist watches someone sing, or lip-sync to, a haunting tune in front of red velvet curtains)

David Cronenberg (hallmarks: body horror; weird sexuality; quack psychiatry; stories in which protagonists find themselves transformed, to their own delight & the horror of the audience; clinical, objectively-shot violence; a sense of sympathy for viruses, parasites or infections)

John Woo (hallmarks: “slow-motion wirework, flocks of doves, dual handguns with infinite ammo, villains as near-identical Shadow Archetypes“)

Christopher Nolan (hallmarks: mysterious stories, often in which some element key to viewers’ understanding is only  revealed towards the end; women in refrigerators; cinematography so dark & glossy it looks like black-&-white; single-minded, obsessed heroes; a cold, staccato Hans Zimmer score)

M. Night Shyamalan (hallmarks: mystery-style films, often with a supernatural element; enormous, sometimes illogical twist endings; gorgeous colour photography; increasingly obnoxious self-cameos)

Tim Burton (hallmarks: big, black-&-white stripes; perky Goths; Johnny Depp; Helena Bonham Carter; ham acting; stories in which misunderstood outsiders are goodies & normal folk are baddies; the comedic grotesque; an obsession with trash culture; an elaborate yet repetitive Danny Elfman score)

Wes Anderson (hallmarks: sensitive, yet damaged American men; Owen & Luke Wilson; super hip folk-pop soundtracks; a style that makes a virtue of its cheapness; dips into jerky stop-motion; anything that might be described as “quirky”)

Woody Allen (hallmarks: Woody Allen as protagonist; New York as setting; charming women improbably wooed by neurotic nebbishes; witty discussions of sex, death, & Jewish identity; jazz music; Russian literature & world cinema)

Sergio Leone (hallmarks: the Western; uninterrupted long takes, especially of breathtaking American landscapes; unwashed, unshaven, morally grey characters; intense Ennio Morricone scores; musical editing with operatic cuts, including close-ups of eyes & hands reaching toward holsters; physical comedy of an often cruel kind; meaningless violence, either senselessly protracted or occuring as quick outbursts)

Martin Scorsese (hallmarks: voiceover narration; long tracking shots; epic, character-driven stories, often of crime or corruption; frequent use of montage; frequent use of montage edited to “Gimme Shelter”; Robert De Niro as star (1973-1995); Leonardo DiCaprio as star (2002-present))

Steven Spielberg (hallmarks: family-friendly films, often centred on families; frequent suburban settings; absent or inadequate fathers; unexpectedly scary scenes in non-horror films; bathing scenes in light, especially to create a sense of eeriness; a love of spectacle & wonder; a sometimes cloying sentimentality; uplifting John Williams scores)