By Rajko Radovic.
If you have a message, send it by Western Union! That was the legendary answer Hollywood bigwigs would fire at those among suspiciously mortal critics, usually foreign or pinko, who were wondering whether or not the pictures they were making had anything to say. On a certain level the dismissive retort affirmed the obvious: cinema is first and foremost a visual art. It is a mercurial mix of other disciplines; a music of looks, explosion of colors and play on shadows. Psychology, war and theatre. Or, as once upon a time, somewhere, one of the most shamelessly bombastic among the makers of moving images, Samuel Fuller, bravely observed – a bitter battlefield of raw emotions. On another level, however, that same dismissive retort, precisely because of its dismissiveness, pointed further and furtively to a more frivolous bigger picture.
The dream factory has never been involved in anything other or else but fly-by-night dreamscapes. The interest of Hollywood from its very inception invariably resided not just in intense sensations but also in, more or less, intense sensationalism – a barefaced fabrication of foggy realities full of disorienting vistas of life as it can never be. At the peaks of its powers and inspiration, at its Technicolor highs, brilliant imagery, approaching fever pitch intensity, had a quasi-religious quality. One needs look no further than the glorious visual excess of King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1945) full of primitive pathos and erotomaniac kitsch, or the meticulous choreographies of Victor Fleming’s Wizard of Oz (1938) through which a play between color and costumes becomes a coded language for rites of passage between virginal femininity and the magic of womanhood. Ecstasy and fakery, passion and deceit went hand in hand, while te manipulation of impressions led to the miracle of tears in nickelodeon darkness. But, the question that should be asked today, at the end of the film language and at the beginning of the visual cipher-slang of digital emoticons, is precisely the one the masters and the owners of the industry of dreams, the degenerate gamblers and the wise cracking visionary risk-takers loathed to hear. This question ought to be related not just to the ideas behind the moving images, but also to the ideology that moves them. How much the Hollywood principle of shortchanging complex reality of life as it is for one-dimensional adventures in a life-like corporeality that is nowhere to be found, has, in fact, become a contemporary paradigm for all our other interactions? Or even worse, how much our current economic and social problems and our everyday tragedies look like brainless spectacles from the movie land’s back-lots?
Not so long ago, in one of the most dramatic pileups in English history, on Sheppy Crossing in Kent, petrified bystanders were under the collective impression that the burning vehicles and distraught wounded had come straight out of a Hollywood disaster movie. To some others, the passenger planes plowing through New York’s Twin Towers in 2001, appeared as a nightmarish déjà vu, a real life recreation of a heist fantasy from some deliberately mislaid Dream Factory thriller scenario. Or we can set our sights on the curios case of Francis Fukuyama. When, back in distant 1989, he triumphantly announced that the end of history is nigh, to many from the sober sidelines and the weary periphery, his fantastic pronouncements seemed like a semi-scandalous and semi-academic attention-grabbing exercise. Fukuyama offered a sensationally idealistic vision for the relentlessly complex world. Yet, with the spectacular destruction of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent, even more spectacular, collapse of the Soviet Union, this high-minded conceptual mirage, full of grandstanding calculation, overnight, had become an ideological blueprint for Globalization without any legitimate political alternative.
Among other things, in his essay “The End of History?” – based on a lecture presented at the University of Chicago – Fukuyama placed the blame for the appalling threat of nuclear apocalypse that had held the whole world hostage during the cold war years squarely on the shoulders of updated Marxism and The Soviet Union that embodied it. And with that bold statement reducing all of the cold war political, economic and military ambiguities strictly to black and white extremes, he immediately and decisively established a clear distinction between the bad guys and the good ones within his action-packed utopian narrative. One might have brooded over the fact that as a deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, Fukuyama had been afforded ample opportunity to polish to perfection the same arrogant duplicity that one could find in the big budget Hollywood films had there not been additional layers of his intellectual pretentions involved. His academic assiduousness, his ideological earnestness bordering on wilful ignorance and his curious emotional detachment contributed all to making his vision for the future unconsciously both pragmatic and camp, something akin to a science fiction film in which, in spite of the sky high budget, overstated starships and underdeveloped characters transform a serious commercial enterprise into an unintentionally outlandish exercise in unexpected genre deconstruction. With this in mind it comes as little surprise that Fukuyama saw the Western role in the dirty tactics of day-to-day combat for global supremacy in the cold war, as merely contingent parts of “a larger conceptual framework”. Even less surprising is that he chose to interpret what he called “the unabashed victory” of Western liberal values, as a welcome sign of a more fundamental socio-political global shift to come – the end of the ideological struggle between The East and The West as a breathtaking beginning of the world order in which history itself would become history. In this brave new world of Fukuyama’s speculations, that drew its moral strength from the ideological purity of original Hegelian thought and the achievements of the French Bourgeois Revolution, free markets would regulate themselves. The benevolent consumerism of the good guys would give rise to various forms of personal expression. Art would die as well as philosophy. And along with them all irrational thought, all raw emotions underpinning savage imagination, all misfit attitudes would become distinctive marks of the baddies, the Serbs of this world, or the Somali pirates in the underdeveloped, low standards ghetto fairgrounds of desperate improvisation. With unwavering conviction Fukuyama was ready to believe his own propaganda. Once the evil of communism, like an ugly iron mask has been successfully removed from the face of the world, He claimed, a brighter new visage of the unified humanity would shine through. A global Munchkin village would spring to life. An unstoppable peace would break out. And yellow brick roads like luminous loops of utopian happiness would lead somewhere further more fabulous and happier still. Hollywood, would, in other words, rule supreme.
Yet, in spite of the almost irresistible, merchandise-that–sells-itself luster that Fukuyama’s conceptual framework undoubtedly possessed at the time, an off-putting, hidden agenda, could have been discerned, even then, by those who were ready to read between the lines. For the power of Fukuyama’s idealistic discourse resided not so much in finding links between the concrete and the abstract, between the conceptually real and reality as it is, but in a resolute separation of the two. The Hegelian notion that “the contradictions that drive history exist first of all in the realm of human consciousness” became Fukuyama’s mental trap. And with it Hegel willy-nilly went Hollywood. For Fukuyama all our endeavors and our failures, our dark inconsistencies and our brilliant flights of fancy are like a virtual scaffold of sorts. And there is a neat narrative arc to this invisible set piece of historic proportions. Through a noose of time an arrow-like straight line rises above the slaughter and the plunder of the centuries. Music swells. Beethoven meets Chuck Berry. And the progressive path of all of history leads nowhere else but into a kind of heaven, above all made up of pure and simple rational thought – a flabby, prosperous, self-satisfied, weak-willed, inward-looking state of existence in which no larger-than-life issues loom large for all of the large human contradictions have successfully been resolved. In this context, Fukuyama sees slavery and slave trade, the desperate fights of workers, women, blacks and other minorities for their rights as just inevitable stages, sideshow episodes to the main event, to the absolute moment of realization and erection of the wider, liberal superstructure. And here lies a comic catch. Fukuyama deliberately underestimates the corrupting power of human thought as it is and focuses, instead, on the spectacular aspects of abstract thinking as it might be. Yet, in his almost serene indifference towards the concealed subtext of most human undertakings, the brutal and brutally twisted simian logic behind both the pyramids and the spaceships, there is an unspoken bushido element. And an additional layer of irony becomes suddenly comically potent – Dream Factory production values here meet a Toho studio jidaigeki epic. For Fukuyama’s supercilious calm, his inner, almost samurai like fatalism enable him to turn a blind eye to the fact that the very idea of universal progress towards the global status quo of terminal prosperity is, in fact, itself full of morbid exclusivity and furtively tyrannical, almost fascist connotations.
On the film screen nothing so gleefully aped Fukuyama’s worldview pertaining to the end of history as did the action thrillers from James Bond’s globally popular franchise. These films, shot in the wake and in the immediate aftermath of the cold war, in their over-the-top, bloated narrative structures, and through the scarred faces of exotic villains, reflected a wider ideological matrix taking hold of the real world. In Golden Eye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World Is Not Enough (1999), the super-agent, in lethal employ of the Firm and that hard-nosed lady with a twinkle of eternal youth in her savage eye, is played by Pierce Brosnan. More focused on lightness of touch, than the squeeze of the trigger, Bond appears as a reassuringly easygoing mannequin of death. And as such he is a perfect harbinger of the wider global change to come. With a singing yet conspiratorially silent Walther PPK in his steady hand, He sows violence and terror in equal measure, but neither one nor the other belong to the realm of tears. What we, actually, see in this is a secret divorce of emotion from action, through which Hollywood has moved, using spectacular special effects, away from the iconic images of raw sensations of the past towards the more sophisticated realm of a brutally manipulative sensationalism of the future. Physical violence is here not just an inevitable cliché of the thriller genre but also an integral part of the larger conceptual framework. And with that a new ideological matrix emerges through the tongue in cheek visuals of eye popping explosions, car chases that make one dream of highway pileups, orgasmic shootouts that smack of Roman orgies and stolen kisses that make one blissfully misogynous and perfectly happy at the same time. The point of the action in which orchestral music accompanies flying projectiles lies in stripping reality of its realness.
The end of the cold war, in other words, here represented a surreptitious beginning of a new kind of warfare. Enemy is no longer the communist “Evil Empire” but Reality itself, her natural laws, her wayward moodiness and relentless inscrutability. Fukuyama mentions that daunting truth only in passing. For him the material proof of the wider exhaustion of all other viable alternatives to the Western economic and political liberalism is the global phenomena of pop culture. He sees the spread of consumerist values as welcome harbingers of the “Common Marketization” of everyday life. For him “‘peasants’ markets and color television sets now omnipresent throughout China, the cooperative restaurants and clothing stores opened in the past year in Moscow, the Beethoven piped into Japanese department stores and the rock music enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon and Teheran” are all immediate manifestations of the way in which the Western ideal is penetrating the concrete reality and remaking it in its own image. Yet, he never really provides concrete clues as to how that transition could be achieved in case peoples of the world refuse to be “liberated” and “made happy”. Bond films provide in that sense more telling clues. In their gleeful insistence on the spectacle of death they are much more frank. Those who do not join the club in time or toe the line in sync with the dictates of progress are all fair game. Between the lines of their ludicrously pulpy espionage plots all three Bond films shot after the fall of the Iron Curtain and before the September 11, 2001 clearly showcase possible scenarios not just for dealing with scattered and increasingly bizarre ideological opposition, but also with the forces of nature itself. Proxy, local conflicts for monopoly over remnants of uncontrolled natural resources provide colorful, exotic background for foreground action. Golden Eye, for example, connects outer space with financial meltdown. A satellite weapon is used by a powerful arms dealing syndicate to wreak havoc on the global markets. New warfare here clearly requires new surreal technical means, all-seeing science and all-powerful technology that can both explore microcosms and raid the universe.
Yet, after 9/11, this exterior image of the well-worked out ideological scheme that on the film screen did away with political opposition using glamorous gangster methods and in the real world imposed economic sanctions and instigated local wars under the high-minded guise of promoting global democracy, suddenly changes its shape and tone. Darker shades, raw and more explicit, for the first time are piercing through the shiny cool white-polished veneer. The vision is spectacular but devoid of catharsis. And all out of the blue, the selfish Western giant who has carried a big stick for the longest time and always spoke the best through uncomfortable silences, seems ready to scream.
In Casino Royale (2006) scripted and shot after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York everything from the plot line and the visual style, to the edgier and more sinewy acting approaches of both the new James Bond interpreted by Daniel Craig and his arch rival Le Chiffre played with charismatic simplemindedness by Mads Mikkelsen appear to suggest a decisive return to the basics – the squeeze of the trigger overrides the smoothness of the execution. History is not on its last legs. It is moving through the jungle and the city with vengeance. Whirlwind-like and in full swing, she appears fanned and stoked, more wanton and elusive than ever, resigned to her baser self and darkly rising over and above the material world full of ravished and poisonous landscapes, like a headless spirit of the primordial forest in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation classic about the fight between nature and injustice, Princess Minonoke (1997).
One of the first scenes in Casino Royale, therefore, fittingly introduces the new Bond in a merciless run, oozing sweat and wearing a torn shirt. The cheapness of his outfit, its unkempt look, seems to hint at workman-like ethics. The no nonsense enforcer of the global order is in spite of his license to kill one of us, a regular guy making do with the hand he has been dealt by fate. And the shots of the jungle-chase somewhere in the murky thickets of Madagascar are in accordance with the overall getting-the-job-done attitude. They are neurotically short. The cuts between them like machete swings in the darkness of the foliage. But in its humorless focus on the real, dirt-under-the-nails esthetics, and burst-capillaries-in-grim-eyes visuals of the world wise players for all or nothing at all, the film perhaps unintentionally goes a step too far. A hard, cynical stare behind the cold face of the new Bond, and his contemptuous, thuggish grin in sync with his killer physique, furtively rekindle memories of a sadistic ex-con just out of prison played by Robert Mitchum in J. Lee Thompson’s psychological horror Cape Fear (1962). The freed rapist is here looking for nothing other or more than street justice. And suddenly through the sinister similarity between the iconic MI6 agent and the common thug on the loose, the global order and primitive retribution merge together. Abstract dread and real emotions not only come to a head, they also find a mutual doomsday beat. Faced with grim surroundings, Bond does not merely overpower and eliminate his opponents, he plows through their reality leaving nothing behind but dust, rubble and mangled corpses. Here one sees the flip side of Fukuyama’s global village of the flabby, prosperous, self-satisfied, weak-willed, inward looking Western or Westernized world of Common Marketization. So it comes as little surprise that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall we have erected in its place new kinds of virtual fences and glass ceilings. What we are really faced with is not so much the consumerist paradise at the end of history as it is the terminal, apocalyptic hypocrisy behind the Western ideal: Hollywood for the rich in the green zones of interminable prosperity and mini, labyrinthine Gulags for those who refuse or cannot fit in; the high security prisons, the refugee camps, or worse, the clandestine torture chambers of the black sights.
This drastic change in the representation of violence in Casino Royale many among the mainstream critics were quick to attribute to the enlightened choice of a character actor, Daniel Craig, for the new 007. His breakthrough performance as a moody lover of the self-loathing modernist painter Francis Bacon in Love is the Devil (1998) is nothing short of brave, his commitment grim and total. And the same grim resolve and total commitment Craig brings to bear on his portrayal of Bond. Yet playing a character and embodying an icon are two different things. A thinly disguised desire to prove himself in front of the global audience as a convincing substitute for previous Bonds compels Craig to reach out for the total display of actorly hardware. His ripped body is in the foreground, like a shield made of muscles covering the cold, hurt look of his pale blue eyes. And here he tries to join the Robert De Niro club of elite character actors. As an instinctive sculptor in the living flesh, he turns himself into a hard-working body artist in search for emotional release through muscle power. But while De Niro in The Raging Bull (1982) finds homoerotic angst at the end of his boxing ring bravado, Craig never reaches the stage of confronting the demons inside 007. In scene after scene, He looks good but expresses very little. And his acting unburdened by imagination, reduces all other actions of the secret agent to a Spartan physique and the fascist spectacle of its use.
Yet Craig’s grim bodily fanaticism and impassioned emotional reticence would not have been possible without the wider ideological context of the Bush era. Craig’s Bond is, in fact, a furtive and largely inarticulate avenger from the smoking ruins of The World Trade Center. His blood shot, yet vacant eyes against the flaming sky of terrorist subterfuge are the true and final measure of Fukuyama’s theory. They are telltale evidence of the way in which a towering ideal can be reduced to ground zero ashes in a matter of minutes. But behind the new Bond’s simmering desire for instant retribution, hides something more unsettling and warped still. A brutal drive for self-promotion uses the disaster and the chaos as awesome excuses not just for a surreptitious settling of the scores but also for the posterity-obsessed writing of one’s name on the wall of history. And in spite of all the best efforts of director Martin Campbell to fashion out of the outdated cold war spy hero concept a cool, no-nonsense icon for the twenty-first century, something remorselessly atavistic looms large behind 007’s war face. In his legendary tuxedo stitched together in the finest tradition of bespoke tailoring Craig’s Bond curiously resembles an itinerant knight from time immemorial whose shiny armor fits him like a glove. When he steps out of the car, or rushes through the jungle full of antagonistic stares and conspiratorial reflections, he appears like a self-aggrandizing ruffian, the crusader or the conquistador, blindly enforcing his crazed vision of higher justice as though it is his natural right. Nothing else matters and nothing more can further cloud an already dark horizon. Craig’s Bond is, in that sense, a modern day avatar of Charlton Heston’s Christian knight in Anthony Mann’s epic El Cid (1961). Idealistically charging pall-mall black swarms of Muslim invaders, he rides, half-dead and half- alive, a terrified stallion along the gloriously blood-soaked sandbank towards the even more glorious sunshine of total destruction. And here Fukuyama’s Hegelian notion of the purity of the idea that rises above the material world’s casual imperfections matches the savagery of the mind behind the mask of reason. For, in his militant emotional restraint and in his almost robotic rowdiness Craig’s 007 is not just a dead ringer for El Cid, he is also a crucial link between action heroes of the past and the ones already waiting in the future. Agent Smith, an anti-virus program in a shape of a security official patrolling the simulacrum metropolis in the cult sci-fi classic Matrix (1999) carries all the exterior likeness to James Bond. On first glance the anti-virus looks cool. He is driven and remorselessly competitive. He is a team player who does not mind operating in the shadows and in the dark if the duty calls for it. He tortures human prisoners with the same professional detachment with which he adjusts his tie.
Yet behind the dark sunglasses of animated reflections his dead eyes scrutinize the desert of the real, the last remnants of the human world ravished in a nuclear holocaust that now exists only in virtual space as a twisted fallacy of our present day free market democracy. The matrix is where history really ends. It is Fukuyama’s land of liberal values playing as a hypnotic loop in imprisoned minds of armies of slaves whose only purpose is to feed the super computer with their bodily heat.
And this is where James Bond comes back into the picture. He is the present day guardian of the futuristic Metropolis’s gates. He is the cold blooded mercenary for the 1%, that global elite club of 85 or so men who own more of the world riches than the bottom half of the entire humanity but who already dream in Technicolor of profits that could be reaped in outer space. The super-agent works for them with professional stealth, emotionally detached and in conspiratorial silence. And we, the remaining 99% with our heads in the invisible internet clouds and our bodies sunk in the sewers of the real are here to pay admission to admire his brutal antics. Our hangman is our idol. The irony is ripe and Fukuyama is smiling. Hollywood does have a message to wire after all. Only the content is so bleak and so devastating that even Western union would hesitate to put it in legible writing. It is way better to turn it all into a pop song and letting Tom Jones sing it in his Welsh baritone impervious to analysis but eager for adulation:
He always runs while others walk
He acts while other men just talk
He looks at this world and wants it all
So he strikes like Thunderball…
Rajko Radovic is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Canada.